Lifestyles have changed but our biology has not

By the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought many changes in the relation between humans and nature, and between humans and their nature. The changes continued and amplified after World War II with the rise of the so-called consumption society in developed countries. I say so-called because the economic model is not so much about consumption as it is about buying more goods all the time, while consuming them is secondary. In my opinion, the consumption society should be called the shopping society, as the latter term would describe its purpose more accurately.

The change of economic model has been accompanied with changes of lifestyle, both at home as at work. The level of physical activity has dropped in many jobs and now a lot of workers spend hours daily sitting. With TV and computers, the same trend has happened at home, especially with more and more housing units in urban centers without yards. Even though, many people try to practice some physical activity, there is a sharp contrast with life as it used to be. Nothing is perfect and progress also has its shortcomings.

If our societies have evolved amazingly quickly over the past several decades, our biology has not. Our metabolism, our physiology and our biochemistry are very much the same as they were tens of thousands of years ago, even as before agriculture appeared in human societies. The contrasts with today are many.

By then, food was scarce and humans had to travel long distances and put a lot of physical activity to find something to eat. Today, food is plentiful and all it takes is to sit in your car to drive to the supermarket, which involved little physical exercise, and with online deliveries, the physical activity is even reduced to zero. The former hunter will now turn into a larva.

By then, there would be days without food and if the human organism could survive, it is because it has the ability to store reserves in the body from times of abundance to be used when the hunters and gatherers would come back empty-handed. Today, many people do not even know hunger at all. The easy availability of food exceeds the nutritional needs and what is eaten but not burnt ends up being metabolised into body fat. The old biology does what it is supposed to do, as one of its key roles is to deal with periods of food shortages. In the developed world, people consume on average about twice as many calories, twice as much protein and fats as they actually need. Since that is on average, you can imagine the multiple for some people! The excess portion does not disappear. It is transformed into fat reserves. I like to say that if you eat twice as much as you should, it should not be a surprise to end up twice as big as you should be. Joke aside, it is actually a good thing that animals store food reserves as fat and not as starch as plants do. Reason for that is the calorie density of starch versus fat: 4 calories per gram for starch versus 9 calories per gram of fat. In other words, if you have an excess weight of 10 pounds, it would be 22.5 pounds of starch, so more than twice the burden. Plants do not move, so it is not much of an impediment, but if you need to run away from a predator, an additional 12.5 pounds would make you an even easier prey.

Another difference between modern foods and the old biology is that our bodies have evolved to eat what I would call primary foods; some might want to call them primitive foods even. My point is that our biology is actually rather effective in extracting nutrients from rough foods. A side effect of processing foods is that it makes nutrients more easily accessible, because the processing often breaks physical barriers to the nutrients. As the nutrients are easier to access and our biology is eager to get them, it is only logical that processed foods are metabolised differently and faster than primary foods, thus in fact increasing their nutritional density, which results in more excess nutrients ready to be sent to the fat tissue.

A lot of the issues about the skyrocketing statistics of obesity, overweight, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other food-related ailments find their origin in the fact that our lifestyles have changed while our biology has not. Food availability has changed. Foods have changed. Agricultural methods have changed. Economic models have changed. Diets have changed. Level of physical activity has changed. They all contribute to an imbalance between consumption and needs, which results to food-related problems. This is why, it is more important than ever to make education about food, agriculture and nutrition mandatory in schools. If we consider that education is the basis for better lives, then there is no argument why these topics should not be life basics for all children and adults alike!

Also considering the cost of health issues related to food, I bet you that education about food, agriculture and nutrition would pay off for individuals, insurance companies and governments alike.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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