Natural Health Journals

Evolutionary Fitness

There’s a lazy caveman inside your head telling you to keep packing down that fat and to skip that workout. Here’s how to outsmart him.

Nature is unfair. According to evolutionary psychologists- scientists who study how natural selection has turned us into the people we are-our basic desires aren’t made for healthful living in the modem world. You may want to eat better and exercise more, but your deepest instincts are pushing you toward fat-eating and butt-sitting. In the new book Mean Genes, UCLA biology professor Jay Phelan, Ph.D., and Harvard economist Terry Burnham, Ph.D., discuss modern-day strategies you can employ for overcoming these baser-let’s face it, slovenly-human desires. On behalf of 21st- century guys everywhere, we asked Phelan to provide us with some pointers.

Q: So if I feel like eating Big Macs and fazing around the house all day, I should blame my genes?

A: That’s right. Humans probably first appeared on the scene two million years ago. And For two million years, almost up to the present we lived as hunter-gatherers. We didn’t know where the next meal was coming from; we might go for days without food; energy was scarce. It wasn’t until about 7,000 years ago that people invented agriculture-they discovered that they could raise their own animals and plants and changed it dl. In terms of evolution, that 7,000 years is just the blink of an eye. So we’ve got these brains that still think that famine is around the next corner, and they influence our eating and exercise behavior to huge extent.

Which means our least healthful behaviors actually came about through natural selection of people who were best qualified to survive. Imagine you had variations in thinking among the hunter-gatherers. Some of them were thinking, “Okay, I’ve been hunting and gathering for 10 hours today; now So I’m going to throw on a pair of running shoes and go run five miles.” Guess who were the first to die when the famine came? On the other hand, you had people whom we would term lazy today but back then were simply efficient, who said “I’m not going to burn any calories that don’t have to” And who also had the insatiable appetites who would eat food whenever they could find it. Those fatties are our ancestors, because they’re the ones who survived long enough to reproduce. And that’s the root of a lot of our problems: What was a successful strategy way back then leads us to be lazy and overweight in modern America.

It would seem logical that since our ancestors were running all day, working hard all day, moving all day, that we would have developed something in our heads that would tell us to be active, But you’re saying that the lesson we actually learned is that you only want to move as much as you’re required to. That’s right. It isn’t that we’re just slothful people who have evolved to sit on our butts all the time, if you look at the hunter-gatherers, they did a huge amount of exercise and work. It’s just that the ones who survived didn’t do any more than they had to and today, we don’t have to do very much at all. You’ve got a remote control for everything, and virtually no exercise is required of a human on a daily basis.

One of the points you make in the book is that people want to make healthier choices they practically need to force themselves.

I know I’ll rely on my willpower to do something, many times I’ll decide I’m too tired or its just too hard. So if you’re interested in combating laziness and being more active, you should make it a requirement. For instance, when I renew my parking permit at UCLA, I get one that only allows me to park at a lot that’s three- quarters of a mile away from my office. So I have no choice but to park and walk. And all of a sudden, I’m approaching 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day.

By the same token, many people will exercise more if they have a workout partner or play a team sport-anything that makes activity a requirement to reach a worthy goal I have a dream about outfitting my house in such a way that the refrigerator would work only if my wife and I had accumulated an hour of pedaling on the hike every thy. Because I’m built to put in the effort, but I’ll only do it if I know I have to.

Along the same hues, you’d think that evolution would have led us to crave the healthiest possible food. But somehow it didn’t work out that way. Again, you have to go back and think, what was the world like where we spent most of our evolutionary history? It was a world where food was really limited, the only problem people had to deal with was, Am I getting enough calories?” That this means is that evolution favored those who not only wanted to eat as much as possible, but who preferred fat, because that has the must concentrated form of energy. Cross-culturally, throughout the world, if you give people taste tests, they have a preference for fat. Nowadays, this gets you into trouble; it leads to heart disease, over- weight and a lot of other problems.

So if you know you’re going to have food impulses that aren’t in your best interest what can you do?

If you’re aware of what your natural impulses will be, you can simply remove the choice. Don’t buy the fatty foods hat you know are going to tempt you. If you have willpower in the grocery store, you aren’t going to need it at home. If I go somewhere where I know there’s going to be unhealthy food, I know my brain is going to say, “Fat, fat, fat.” So I fill up on better food before I go. When I get there, I realize I’m full, so it’s easy to turn down the doughnut or cheeseburger or whatever.

Since sugar has the same calories by weight as any carbohydrates or protein, why do we crave sweet foods so much?

It’s less clear than our preference for fat. Anthropologists have hypothesized that it’s because sugars are so readily available in our bloodstream they require so few metabolic steps to convert them into energy that your muscles can use. By keying into the sugars, you can get a quicker boost.

So if you have to run 20 miles to catch your dinner, that’s a good thing.

Yes, that’s exactly what you would have wanted to do- Of course, today we don’t have to run 20 miles for anything, but we still crave sweet foods. One way to deal with this is artificial sweeteners-but studies show that you may end up eating more anyway to snake up for the calories you’re not getting

What do you think about the popular theories that eating what cavemen ate will help you lose weight and be healthy?

The jury’s still out on this; I haven’t seen really good controlled studies to show that this is a better way to control your weight and your health. But it’s a smart approach in the sense that your body was built in a particular way, and if you can re-create that environment a little bit, you tend to be better off.

Still, the cavemen who ate this way lived to be 20 or 30 years old, whereas we’re hoping to reach 80, 90 or 100. That’s a very good point. We tend to romanticize the life of a hunter-gatherer you get your exercise, you’re outdoors and all of that but there are a lot of aspects of their life that none of us wants to return to. For one thing, we have medicine today that allows us to stay healthy a lot longer- As a result, we’re finding out that life- long deficiencies in one vitamin or mineral may have an effect on your health, and that you should be getting foods rich in antioxidants to help present diseases that don’t get manifested until you’re 60 years old. Here we don’t have any hunter-gatherer instincts; we just have to use our heads.

Do you think we’re becoming more skillful at overcoming our genetic tendencies?

None of these trends will go away-we’re snick with the genes we were dealt at birth. Still, I think we’re getting better and better, through culture, technology, aid our ability to use our cerebral cortex. More than ever, we have an intellectual control over who we are, even though we may feel our genes pushing us in another direction. We can create foods that satisfy our cravings while still being healthy. We can make it more convenient for ourselves to exercise in the gym. So we can avoid being driven by our genes to act like the fatter, lazier, more selfish people we don’t want to be.