Human beings evolved over millenia to seek the most nutrient-dense, calorific and satiating foods. Food was much harder to come by then and it was in this harsh environment that the instincts we possess today were honed. They are also the reason why humans have endured and thrived as a species thus far. In a world of abundant and easily obtained food – and food-like substances – these same instincts now scupper our seemingly puny attempts at mindfulness and restraint. In this article, I will explain how this can happen, why it is not your fault and what you can do about it.
Sex, community, food, water and shelter are – and always have been – of paramount importance to the human race. This is because we are each intrinsically motivated by anything that ensures not only our survival, but that of future generations. From the moment we are born, we begin to explore the best ways to achieve this. One might – quite rightly – assume that over a lifetime the average person would become more adept at doing so the older (and the more practice) they get. There is a catch, however.
Each time you engage in behaviour that is – or appears to be – dependent on your survival, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released from a range of structures in the brain. Once released in this way, dopamine embeds a memory of the behaviour along with the context in which it occurs. This includes all sensory inputs at the time (where you were, how you felt and associated tastes, smells and sounds). Whenever the same configuration of sensory inputs presents itself in relation to a particular behaviour, your brain offers a helpful reminder of how well this served your desire for survival in the past, thus prompting you to repeat it once more. Dopamine is again squirted into the brain, setting a self-perpetuating mechanism in motion.
The greater the surge of dopamine in the brain – and the more frequently it is released – the greater the motivation to engage in the behaviour that triggered its release.
This elegant system worked perfectly for centuries – until the rapid evolution of our environment far outpaced the evolution of our biology causing what is now known as an evolutionary mismatch.
For most of human history, only that which could be hunted and gathered was consumed. Food took a great deal of time and effort to prepare and was much more subtly flavoured than most of what we eat today. Fresh fruits and honey were the only sources of dietary sweetness. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have regular access to these foods but they were prized for their nutritive value nonetheless. This is in sharp contrast to the readily available – and relatively cheap – food-like substances that are deliberately crafted to be hyper-palatable and, therefore, infinitely more enticing than whole, naturally sweet foods.
Fat is another food that has been highly-prized by humans for centuries due to its nutrient density – moreso than fruits and honey. It is perceived as very rewarding by our brains and is satiating in small amounts. Responses vary, however, depending on the type of fat consumed and the manner in which it has been processed. Industrially processed and refined seed oils are high in fat but devoid of nutrients. Those who ingest them are left heavily-laden with calories, malnourished and, therefore, continually hungry for more of what their well-meaning brains are telling them will meet their needs.
Processed fats and refined sugars wreak enough havoc on our minds – and bodies – individually. Together, their combined effects on the reinforcement of dysfunctional eating behaviour is unprecedented. The combination of fat and sugar is one that is both absent in nature and widely used by the food industry. Faced with this double-whammy, our brains are quite literally like kids in a candy store.
Sensors in the mouth and small intestine are able to detect the presence of nutrients in the foods we eat and to assess the levels of concentration of these nutrients. This valuable information is relayed to the brain which also triggers the release of dopamine. Food-like substances contain far greater – and far more unnatural – concentrations of fat, sugar, salt and starch per meal or snack than our appetite signalling systems have been historically accustomed to. Repeatedly eating in this way repeatedly provokes larger surges of dopamine in the brain than would otherwise occur. The more this happens, the deeper the act of choosing (and gorging on) such substances becomes embedded as a mindless and addiction-like trait.
It goes without saying, then, that one cannot possibly eat mindfully without having first exercised a certain level of discernment where food choices are concerned. Below are a few ways you may choose to accomplish this:
- Purge your pantry. Highly refined and hyper-palatable food-like substances send confusing messages to the brain. This makes the survivalist, non-conscious brain step into the fray, leaving all good – and mindful – intentions behind.
- Make satiating choices. Stock up on healthy fats and animal proteins (particularly offal and cheaper, gelatinous cuts of meat) and consider buying the very best quality you can afford. These are worth their weight in gold as they are such nutrient powerhouses that a little goes a long way. Accompany these with lots of whole (and, ideally, organic) fresh produce and fermented vegetables.
- Tend to your emotions. Eating – or drinking – to assuage unpleasant emotions (or indulge heady ones) often ends in unmet needs, sub-optimal health and regret. Consider looking for non-food related means of processing your feelings.
It is important to note that the above are more likely to achieve the best possible results when paired with the suggestions I offered in this article.
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