It’s amazing when you think about it. A culture that once perished in the face of famine, is now ailing amidst overindulgence. Thousands of years ago, humans endured through a strong connection between food procurement and physical exertion. Today, physical activity is often an optional part of daily living. Modern medicine and technology has helped prolong mortality despite growing health concerns and metabolic disorders – but at what cost? Two basic variables have been neglected: balanced energy consumption and frequent physical exertion. We have become too lazy, too over-fed and frequently malnourished.
Obesity and public health
Evaluations of populations continue to establish a major concern about our civilization’s current weight management protocols. Magical diets with empty promises try to survive the consumer’s ultimate request: to over eat and remain inactive – yet still lose weight. Regardless of the fad diets and hyped-up hopes, humans all over the planet are becoming overweight and eventually obese. A global network was established by the International Association for the Study of Obesity, called the International Obesity Task Force, to work closely with the World Health Organization. According to the IOTF worldwide estimates, around 1.1 billion adults are overweight and 320 million are obese. These numbers continue to climb, placing increasing pressure on public health.
Human obesity’s complexity makes it hard to advise mass populations about proper weight management. According to archeologists, thousands years ago we were in good physical shape. Over 10,000 years ago, clans during the Paleolithic Age of man were hunting and gathering to survive. Since then, epidemics have been routinely counter-attacked with medicine and public health care guidance. Our successes in controlling disease led to an increase in world mortality rates. But even with new-found technology and modern medicine, a present epidemic continues to elude us and continues to spread like wildfire: we are getting too fat. Our history as a species can help explain why this is. To learn more about our genetic origins, researchers have performed painstaking evaluations of human skeletal remains. As well as methodical studies to examine current civilizations still leading lives similar to universal habits thousands of years ago.
The thrifty-gene hypothesis, proposed in 1962 by geneticist James Neel, explains how mass populations evolved to maximize metabolic efficiency, fat storage and food searching behaviors. These genes protected us from an unpredictable lifestyle. Natural selection weeded out the genetically weak and molded our present human genome. Today, these same genes are interacting with heavily processed foods and excessive nutritional intake.
“We are all heirs of inherited characteristics accrued over millions of years,” stated S. Boyd Eaton, a medical anthropologist and “evolutionary nutrition” expert from Emory University. “The vast majority of our biochemistry and physiology are tuned to life conditions that existed prior to the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. No adaptation to the introduction of new dietary pressures has been possible in such a short time span. Thus, an inevitable discordance exists between our dietary intake and that which our genes are suited to.”
DNA evidence has shown that humans have changed very little since the hunter-gatherer Paleolithic era 50,000 years ago. To be more specific, geneticists have demonstrated that the human genome has changed less than .02 percent in 40,000 years. This means we are modern-day Stone Agers. People become overweight through interactions between genetic, environmental and behavioral factors. Rapidly increasing rates of obesity, in spite of an unchanged gene pool, puts focus on responsible environmental and behavioral factors.
Proper nutrition based on genetics
For our Paleolithic ancestors, life was not always predictable. During their existence as hunters and gatherers, phases of famine were eventually contrasted and rebounded by periods of plenty. A cyclic energy rotation was a way of life. Recent years have replaced this balance with frequent feedings and minimal exercise. The brain-reward relationship may have benefited early man during heavy re-feeds, since they were preparing themselves for inevitable famines. But today, constant calorie consumption – especially loaded in sugar and fat with little fiber – combined with the lack of sufficient energy exertion causes widespread problems within today’s modern Paleolithic system.
The human body continues to seek food, even after it has been replenished, due to non-homeostatic systems. These same systems participate in drug-seeking behavior. Certain foods drive people to eat far beyond their body’s requirements. Sometimes over-eating is the result of social connections; such as eating with family and friends. Husband and wife relationships strongly influence each others food choices. The over consumption of highly-palatable foods compounds health risks. Processed foods – loaded with fat, sugar and salt – were never added to the Stone Ager’s diet. Naturally sweet foods were also highly nutritious and low in fat; such as fruits and honey – no donuts, ice cream or pastries. Starchy foods were not also salty; there were no potato chips. A diet full of natural and unprocessed foods makes it difficult to overeat while providing an abundance of nutrition and properly manages metabolic processes.
The Paleolithic family ate whole foods. They survived off meat, eggs, fish, fowl and the leaves, roots and fruits of many plants. Their diet was typically nutrient dense and low in naturally occurring sugars. They generally survived off undomesticated animals. Dietary fats were healthy monounsaturated, polyunsaturated – low in saturated fat. Dairy farming was still far out from existence. They hardly ate cereal-based items and nobody had alcohol. Nearly all carbohydrate consumption was from fibrous, non-starchy, organic fruits and vegetables. Most recently, advances in farming technology introduced rice, grains, beans and potatoes to generate mass produce to world populations. Packed full of calories, these items require cooking and were never cultivated by our ancestors.