For much of recent history, society has been reaching for ultra-processed, highly caloric fast/junk foods instead of natural and unprocessed whole-foods.
We are now paying for these choices as over 2/3 of the western world is overweight or obese.
We know these unhealthy choices are often driven by unrelenting marketing campaigns. But what else is playing in the background here? What else draws us to junk foods and drives us to make unhealthy decisions when healthy foods are equally accessible to us in abundance?
Why do we light up for donuts, cookies or muffins instead of bananas, apples or strawberries?
The answer is more instinctive than you might think.
The Hunter-Gatherer Efficiency
Pre-historically, in the hunting-gathering periods of human life, we needed to be able to differentiate calorie densities of foods in order to maximise the efficiency of our hunting time.
For example, if we spent our hunting-gathering time collecting bananas (~90 calories per banana) instead of cucumbers (~15 calories per cucumber), we would have needed to collect SIX times less bananas than cucumbers to reach the same amount of calories. This drastically reduced our hunting-gathering time and our efforts could then be directed elsewhere, i.e. learning how to build or start a fire!
Additionally, there would have been no point in spending an entire day’s worth of time and effort only to bring home foods that do not even meet the energy spent on the hunt itself. In fact, it would have been detrimental. Let’s not forget we had to feed our families too.
Thus, in order to maximise the efficiency of our hunting efforts, we developed the ability to determine the energy density of foods and to innately crave foods of the highest density.
This innate ability is actually shown in a study of 4-year-old children using fruits and vegetables. The study showed that children generally preferred high density over lower density foods. They preferred bananas over berries and carrots over cucumbers. This was found to be true even regardless of sweetness. The children in the study actually preferred potatoes and green beans over sweet fruits!
While previously absolutely essential for survival and evolution, our innate preference for calorie dense foods proves to be a problem in the modern world. It is a significant contributing factor to the current obesity epidemic.
While fruits, vegetables, nut and legumes are generally readily available in all supermarkets, our natural instincts directs us to purchase meats, cheese, sugar-filled, oily or highly-processed foods. This is to the unfortunate detriment of our health.
The food industry is very aware of this natural tendency and it is reflected in the marketing, abundance and dominance of calorie-rich foods for our consumption. Just have a thoughtful stroll around your local supermarket and it becomes very obvious what food industries are wanting to sell to you.
What Can We Do
The next time we are confronted with the urge of purchasing or consuming unhealthy and calorie-dense foods, take a mental step back and think about why we feel compelled to do so.
Instinctively, we are driven to obtain as many calories as possible with absolutely minimal energy expenditure.
So, we should acknowledge this instinct and then look beyond it. Do we really need to do this in our modern world where food is abundant? How will this decision impact our health goals short and long-term? What are healthier alternatives that we can choose instead?
Hopefully after a brief ponder we will make healthier choices and continue to do so until healthier choices becomes instinct.
- Gibson EL, Wardle J. Energy density predicts preferences for fruit and vegetables in 4-year-old children. Appetite. 2003;41(1):97-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12880626
- Swinburn BA. Obesity prevention: the role of policies, laws and regulations. Aust New Zealand Health Policy. 2008;5(12):1-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18534000