The evolutionary theory of eating disorders and obesity took a step into the spotlight last week with the preview of a large study into humans’ innate response to the shift in available food in recent decades. Although the research focused on obesity as a public health concern, the steep rise in all eating disorders stems from the same cause. The abundance of food available on every corner, beckoning around the clock to our insatiable appetites for sugar, salt and fat, renders ineffective our traditional, biological checks and balances on hunger, fullness and weight maintenance.
Our bodies developed ingenious systems to respond to and store sugar, salt and fat during the eons when these valuable food resources were in limited supply. Foods with large quantities of these ingredients deactivate the system that triggers our sense of fullness. Thus, during all too brief moments of plenty, earlier humans gorged on treats, never knowing when their next rare opportunity might arise. The human metabolism adapted to store these precious substances quickly, with the evolutionary edge conferred on those who did so most efficiently.
It's abundantly clear that this adaptation is no longer useful in today's world; it may, in fact, be the root cause of our biggest problems with food. Those who can suppress fullness most successfully are now labeled with “binge eating disorder.” Those who store this bounty most effectively are obese. On the other end of the spectrum, our culture of constant dieting triggers the onset of chronic food obsession, or--in people whose biology evolved to use limited resources most efficiently--anorexia or bulimia. The result of this endless smorgasbord, the largest of its kind in human history, is obvious to clinicians treating eating disorders and obesity: Our modern food world of overabundance has created a whole new set of illnesses, not just physical but mental.
While the food and diet industries exploit this evolutionary weakness, current attempts to control the pandemic are ineffective. Clinicians suggest a variety of meal plans that remain within the guidelines created by the food industry itself, re-juggling calories and nutrients to little effect. Concerned reporters try to slay the agribusiness Goliath as if it were the cigarette industry, but forget that eating, unlike smoking, is a daily necessity. Emphasizing whole foods, fruits and vegetables is a worthy goal but has done little to stem the rise in obesity and eating disorders. Government, as always several steps behind, touts individual-based initiatives like “Move Your Body!” while obliged to remain in the good graces of powerful food industry lobbyists.
Meanwhile, the media cynically exploits our powerful attraction to food and weight-related stories. In just the last few weeks, Vogue published an article on a mother putting her seven-year-old on a brutal diet, and The New York Times ran a piece on sanctioned medical starvation for a bride-to-be, via a naso-gastric feeding tube (in the Sunday Styles section, moreover). Articles like these, published by respectable, mainstream media sources, merely emphasize how steeply the odds are stacked against those who are battling to normalize their weight and eating habits.
In order to lead ourselves out of this crisis, we must tear our gaze from the abyss of surgical interventions, cosmetic solutions, extreme diets and the binge-starve cycle. The only real answer is a grassroots one. Just as our genetic lineage is encoded for survival, the most effective advice for successful eating and weight management lies in history and tradition. Families carry their pasts through stories and food for one clear reason: nothing is more critical to human survival than knowing how to eat. We have come increasingly to revalue heirloom foods, but let’s also give new value to past eating traditions, which used available products to create hearty and nutritious fare. Eating with family or loved ones, moreover, blends pleasure with healthfulness, something clearly lost in today's world of convenience foods gobbled on the go.
While it's unrealistic to exhort the masses to recreate Grandma's kitchen, we can create new food communities, loosely based on the past and strong enough to confront industry. The farmers’ market and Slow Food movements are a good beginning. When communities organize around traditions of how to eat, people have a philosophy of eating to cling to that isn’t funded by a diet company or the conglomerates manufacturing the processed foods that are sickening us. Equating obesity or eating disorders with a simple lack of willpower, as so many do, merely divides the population and ignores the larger causes of the problem.
Harnessing the energies of people interested in and concerned about food--artisanal food makers, a new generation of farmers, parents and young people--can put traditional food values back on the map. Those espousing these new/old food values need to organize into a public and political entity, focused not on portraying industry as evil but on recognizing that true public interest lies with the public. If we continue to let the arbiters of fashion and opinion tout the latest fad diet or wonder nutrient, we allow ourselves to be herded down an evolutionary sinkhole. Let’s put our heads--and stomachs--together in the service of returning to a tried-and-true kind of eating, one that combines tradition and community and returns food to its rightful, valuable place as food.