Our ancestors lived in a world where food was scarce and they relied on hunting and gathering to survive. The human body developed mechanisms that were shaped by natural selection over long periods of time to solve the recurrent problems they faced. Now, with the abundance of food, these instincts no longer serve a purpose, yet contribute to the counter-productive process of obesity.
In our ancestors’ time, obtaining sufficient food and nutrition was a daily trial because life was physically rigorous. The human body evolved so to become highly efficient at storing excess energy from excess food intake. This excess food could be used at later intervals when food was not available such as during droughts or harsh winter weather. Nowadays, life is no longer the same and has dramatically changed, faster than any biological adaptive behavior. With copious amounts of food readily available, it has made physical daily demands very low for people in the Western culture.
Another lifestyle change that has evolved and affects eating behavior is the context in which a person eats. Originally, humans were solitary eaters and would eat upon finding prey or food such as berries or nuts. As humans evolved and civilizations developed, they no longer ate on the run without companions. Think about all the eating rituals and traditions that exist today that are associated with eating. Eating with utensils, organizing foods on the plate, mixing foods on the plate and conversations are just a few of these rituals. All of these distract the eater from their main purpose of eating. Due to these distractions, a person is less sensitive to the cues that the brain and stomach send for satiation. When you miss those signals, overeating can occur. Research indicates that the longer the meal, the more people tend to eat at that meal. Food consumption was found to increase by 28% when one other person is present at the meal and increases steadily to 71% when the number of companions is six or more.
From the same perspective, obesity can also be explained with regard to evolved taste preferences. There is a strong preference among many people for sweet-tasting foods. These foods were in short supply in our ancestral habitats, thus causing our ancestors to develop a predisposition to eat foods with these qualities whenever they were present to maximize their fitness. Researchers believe that we have inherited these predispositions to eat these foods when they are available and that is why we are easy prey for restaurants that offer sweet-tasting foods on their menus.
One way to counteract these evolutionary biological behaviors is to increase physical activity of course. My recommendation would be to purchase and wear a pedometer. Track how many steps you take on average over a 1-week frame. Take that number and multiply it by 1.2. This would then be the goal number of steps that you would want to work on achieving over that same time frame. Studies have shown that to maintain a healthy body weight, 10,000 steps per day should be your goal. To lose weight, 12,000-15,000 steps per day are recommended.
The other strategy is to minimize all potential distractions at the eating table so to not miss satiety signals that the brain and stomach emit. Of course, eliminating family members and friends from the eating table is not advisable, but ensure that the conversation stays light and does not become emotionally charged. Turn off the television and dine at the table. Serve your dining companions’ meals directly from the stove and not family style from the table. When plates of food are left on the table, it is easy to mindlessly serve second and third portions. With the extra food remaining on the stove, one is less likely to get up during the meal, at least without a great deal of conscious thought, for another serving. Practice eating slowly and putting your utensils down in between bites.
Understanding the origins of these instincts is the key to combating them and adhering to a balanced nutritional eating plan. Taking control of your environment and not letting your environment control you is of the utmost importance.