Eating Way Back

Stylewise, where on the timeline of human existence are you eating? I came across this diagram and think it’s great distillation of what lots of people are trying to figure out about their health.

Conventional wisdom, more and more, is finding fault with industrial, modern foods like Twinkies, 20 ounce servings of sodas, and trans fats and so conventional wisdom advocates eating in ways similar to our great-grandparents’ style, featuring whole grains, beans, etc. That’s a big improvement and you’ll probably get healthier because you’ll be avoiding industrial and processed foods. In the diagram above that’s going from the red area backwards into the yellow area.

But, the diagram isn’t to scale. The green area representing most of mankind’s existence should be 200 times(!) longer than the yellow. Most of our genetic make up has evolved accommodating the foods we encountered for a couple of million years. During that time as hunter-gatherers, before agriculture, we wouldn’t have been eating much in the way of grains, legumes, and sweets. And there’d have been zero processed foods.

Like most Americans, I drank the low-fat Kool-aid. After a while though, cracks started appearing. There’s the growing obesity problem that started taking off in the 80’s. And people seem to be getting unhealthier every year.

Several years ago I noticed the a low-carb resurgence. Then I read some of the early Paleo literature from Loren Cordain,Ph.D. which was intriguing but I wasn’t convinced.  And then a few years ago I heard an NPR interview with Gary Taubes about what his investigations indicated. But It wasn’t until I read Taubes’  “Good Calories Bad Calories” a couple of years ago, that I really came around to re-evaluate the standard American diet.

Gary Taubes is a top science writer at the New York Times. The book isn’t a breezy read. It’s the nature of the material combined with the thoroughness needed to challenge the accepted wisdom. But it’s worth the read if you want to dig deep. Fortunately, Taubes has just come out with the more accessible “Why We Get Fat.” One of the main ideas is that easily digested sugars drive insulin secretion in our bodies. Insulin then signals our bodies to store excess sugar as fat. Taubes says obesity is not a disease of overeating but a disease of fat storage, insightful but hard to wrap your head around.

For a couple of million years we usually didn’t have easy access to simple sugars and grains. Our bodies and big brains are fueled by sugar (glucose), so we crave it. But it wasn’t until the past few generations that easily digestible sugars became such a dominant part of our diet. We should be following the “smart money” arrow above all the way back to the green, hunter-gatherer area of the diagram. I’m not saying to re-enact the way we once lived as hunter-gatherers. Instead we need to learn what it is we’ve evolved to eat. Because you’re not what you eat; you’re what your DNA does with what you eat (to paraphrase Art DeVany).

It can’t be worse than current situation. If you go to a public space, it’s easier to see unhealthy folks than to spot healthy ones, which seems to be the opposite of the way it should be.