What is the cause of obesity epidemic? The majority of people think about weight loss because of the sex appeal. Health considerations are not always the primary reason for dieting. However, in cases of morbid obesity when the doctor tells patients to lose weight or die, health considerations come into play patients will try to lose weight. Most of the entire population will in their lifetimes on some point be on a diet for one reason or the other. In most cases, dieting would not give any long term and lasting results.
But why? What is the cause of obesity ?
An evolutionary adaptation is any heritable phenotypic character whose frequency of appearance in a population is the result of increased reproductive success. Adaptation is the development that the organism goes through in order to become accustomed to an environment. It is linked to evolution because it is a long process. One that occurs over many generations. Genetic change is what occurs.
Habitats do often change. Consequently, the process of adaptation is never finally complete. With time, it may result that the habitat changes to some extent and that species adapt to fit its surroundings better and better.
It may also happen that the environment changes very little and that species do not need to adapt at all. Examples of this can be seen in so-called living fossils like jellyfish that evolved 550 million years ago. Also, variations in the habitat may happen almost immediately, resulting in species to grow less and less well adapted and eventually to go extinct.
What evolutionary adaptation have to do with our diet and why is this important?
We have to understand how abrupt shifts in our environment caused by technological progress and our modern way of living can affect our biology that is not adapted to it and how it might affect our health. Another solution would be to act impulsively, emotionally, and instinctively like most other animals. That is precisely what we can see when we visit hospitals and give most of our income on the good service of modern medicine.
Animals eat impulsively because they are conditioned to do it for survival. For all life on the planet Earth, food is not a choice. The hardest thing for an animal in the wilderness is to gain weight. The hardest thing for us is to lose it. And this is only because of technological progress in the last couple of centuries. That progress has enabled our current generation to eat as much as we want and whenever we want. We have a shift in our understanding of food and we have started to treat food as a source of gratification. The problem is that If we do start to treat food as a source of gratification and make dietary choices that are based on feelings and satisfaction, like it or not it will have health consequences.
For most of our evolution, we were slim in the state of constant hunger and constant physical activity, naked, and were eating mostly vegan food. The only reasonable assumption is that hominins eat like any other animal. This means only in situations when they did found food. This was the case for all of our ancestor species and that means the time period of 50 million years. Hunger like exercise is something that our physiology is adapted to and expects it. We will not die if we don’t eat. Homo erectus did not have a fridge to go to in the middle of the night when he felt like eating. Hunger is a normal feeling for every animal. This includes humans as well. The feeling that is so strong that has the ability to condition our behavior and override any other instinct. It has to be so that it would be able to force the animal to search for it or it will die. On the other side, a feeling of constant fullness is not natural.
Even when we are on a restrictive diet modern people will like to have a feeling of fullness. So here comes caffeine, hunger suppressors of different kinds, and so on. If we can just find magical, all you can eat, weight loss diet. Evolutional conditioning is so strong that in many cases after dieting people can develop a fear of starvation and will be in constant struggle not to overeat even if they are not hungry. We are surrounded by food everywhere and plus on top of that, we can eat sugar and fat in an isolated refined form that we were never able to find in nature giving ourselves something known as supernormal stimuli or in other words, food dopamine high. So on one side, there is starvation and on another unnatural release of dopamine triggered by unnatural food that we have never been exposed to in our evolution. This is what causes a binge eating disorder and obesity, 50 million years of scarcity and starvation.
Where is the malfunction? The obesity dilemma and epidemic remain shrouded in complexity and mystery. There were a range of clinical trials that have somewhat confirmed this and this is my personal opinion also that obesity conditions are `mal-adaptations’ of actual current modern lifestyle to our genome (Fernandez-Real & Ricart 1999). In other words, maladaptation is something that occurs in an abrupt shift of habitat that physiology is not adapted to cope with.
In the case of obesity, the standard regulatory system will tell the brain that we have fat deposits stored for an extended period and that we can endure little hunger. However, hominins could never become fat due to scarcity, so they never developed an adaptation to the abundance of food. Our mind still thinks that if we do not eat all that we can we will starve to death in the upcoming drought.
Even our concept of beauty changed. I do not mean what we were thinking is pretty in ancient Egypt or Persia. That is a form of modern agricultural civilization with societal structures. Before civilization and agriculture in the Paleo period and beyond, hunter-gathers idealized morbid obesity. We can see a physical example of this in morbid obesity Venus figurines that were found in different locations from the Paleo period.
1.Venus of Gagarino, Russia 20,000 BC; 2. Figurine féminine dite manche de poignard de Brassempouy, 23,000 BC; 3. Venus de Losange Italy 25,000 BC; 4. Venus of Tepe Sarab Iran 6500 BC; 5. Neolithic Hassuna Princess „Idol,” 6500-5700 BC Mesopotamia; 6. Malta Venus 4500 BC; 7. Venus of Willendorf Austria 24000 BC; 8. Venus of Moravany Slovakia 23000 BC; 9. Ceramic Figurine of a Woman 5300 BC, The British Museum; 10. Venus from Hohle Fels, Germany 38,000 BC; 11. Cave Ghar Dalam, Malta 5400 BC; 12. Catalhohuk 6000 BC; 13. Venus of Monruz 10,000 BC, Switzerland; 14. Venus of Dolní Vestonice, Czech Republic 29,000 BC; 15. Venus of Anatolia, Turkey 6000 BC; 16. Inanna (Ishtar) Mother Goddess, Mesopotamia 2000 BC.
Because there was never an abundance of food and for their entire life during the Paleo period and before and for our entire evolution there was scarcity, the concept of morbid obesity was nothing more than idolized fiction. A fairytale of life without starvation. We have to understand the difference between foraging and hunter-gathering and agriculture, and then agricultural societies and our modern industrial ones are significant. They are enormous regarding evolutional biology. It was all about survival.
The skinny, malnourished female was in danger if became pregnant. Living in nature might seem romantic today but for our ancestors, it was a constant nightmare with an average lifespan of 25 years. In Ice Age in Europe during winter (last glacial period from 110,000 – 11,700 years ago), a malnourished pregnant woman would have many problems. Morbid obesity is a symbol of fertility or a symbol of successful pregnancy and a symbol of life itself. Our paleo grandparents did not understand the full range of functioning of biological principles, but they for sure understand the role of adipose tissue for survival. It was the way of life ever since our ancestors moved out of Africa and entered colder climates, and even in Africa actually, there was no overabundance of sources of food around also. In snow and ice and caves with constant hunger and other hominins around competing for food, it was the worst-case scenario. That is why we can see morbid obesity Venuses figurines.
After the Neolithic Revolution, it all shifted rapidly. There were the first larger cities and societal hierarchies. Also, the concept of fertility shifted everywhere. Goddesses became slimmer, stories grew into religion and morphed into the culture.
Eating healthy still does not mean that we will override our hunger drive. There is no magic cure for survival signaling except for strong medications. Eating healthy can still make us obese. The healthy diet is just the one we had evolved and have adapted to eating. That is it. It is not a restrictive diet.
It is not the tastiest diet also. In nature, there is scarcity, so taste exists as a reward, not as a common theme for every meal. For every animal in existence in nature, hunger is the normal state of being. Alternatively, a constant struggle for food would be more precise. For every animal that lives on this planet, food obsession is a daytime job. Most of the time during their lives animals spend searching for food. There are no supermarkets and cans of ready to eat meals. It is a struggle. Moreover, that was a normal condition for humans even today. Well, at least the body physiology part.
Our desire and pleasure-seeking behavior are what make us sick. Evolution did not predict electricity and microchips and cars. We are maladapted to our habitat. We have underlined mechanisms that force us to act in an evolutionary protective manner such as overeating on food. The not so unique obstacle now is that there is no scarcity anymore.
Passages selected from a book: “Go Vegan? Review of Science: Part 1” [Milos Pokimica]