The other day I celebrated another year on this planet (shout out to fellow Aries!). And of course when birthdays roll around, it’s fairly common for one’s thoughts to turn to CAKE. Or is it just me?
We humans have evolved into a species that is pre-programmed to adore sugar. This particular trait, the pleasure-inducing taste of sweet is actually a result of evolution. When primal humans foraged for their food, the ones who were able to find the sweet foods had a better chance of survival. I’m no biologist, but let me break it down…
The fruit’s natural sugar means it contains more calories which means more energy. If you were a primal girl hunting in the forest, you quickly learned you’d get more energy out of the fruit versus a whole lot of greens. You were also guaranteed you wouldn’t die. Why? The sweet taste signaled the food was safe to eat. And, since that piece of fruit gave you more energy , your foraging became much more efficient. Less time and less energy was burned to get your nutrients. In turn, if you scored more fruit than your primal neighbors, you flourished and passed that strong taste for sweet onto your offspring (survival of the fittest) while those with less of an acute sweet tooth didn’t fare as well.
It’s doubtful our primal ancestors had a weight problem. First off, fruit was harder to come by, often requiring some climbing up trees, with a limited supply. But as we humans got smarter and learned agriculture, we learned to cultivate the foods we liked. We also learned to refine some of them, which is where the obesity story begins.
We now know the human body wasn’t really set up to handle highly refined foods, those super concentrated items like sugar, flour, or fruit juices. These foods break down much faster in a refined state than eating them whole, which spikes a rise in insulin, and also floods the gates of dopamine receptors (the pleasure center).
Eventually, this yearning for sugar may decrease since evolution is still occurring. We don’t need a strong sweet tooth to survive anymore. In fact, some might argue the opposite is true. Our heightened sense of taste for sweet can lead to some very unhealthy, life-shortening behaviors. So wouldn’t it be logical to think this evolutionary cycle might then lead us to a less heightened taste for sweet? Perhaps, but evolution is a slow moving train, and it’s doubtful it will happen for hundreds of years.
Knowing that we are pre-ordained to enjoy sweet isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. If you’re rocking The Luminous plan, you still get some sweet things, just a limited amount per day and it’s in the form of whole fruit which the body breaks down slowly, which means no insulin spike. In other words, it’s taking us back to a more basic way of eating which helps us bring our bodies back to a lower weight. Instead of living to eat, we get back to eating to live.
There is another component to this sugar thing, which is how for some of us, it is a huge trigger, a gateway to wanting more and more, because of what happens in our brain. This is where the issue of refined sugar and flour really gets nasty, because just like heroin, cocaine, tobacco or alcohol, some of us are more easily hooked than others. We all know the skinny girl who can eat what she wants, and doesn’t go down the rabbit hole of eating an entire cake or endless binging. This girl might even look at a cupcake with the same level of interest as celery. Or for many of us, we can have one glass of wine and stop there, while others can’t ever go near a drop. One person can be the occasional smoker, while another quickly ramps up to a pack or more a day. Some of us are just wired for this refined stuff, and quite easily hooked.
There is also a big psychological & social component when it comes to addictive foods. We are raised in a culture that is infused with it. Cake is a must-have for birthdays, the kids trick or treat, we see confections plastered all over tv, the holidays mean lots of sugar and colorful cookies and the food industry knows the secret to getting people to buy more…add sugar, and wait. It’s not as clear cut as tobacco, alcohol or drug addiction because of course you don’t quit food. But I do think for some of us, we may have to permanently quit sugar and flour or at the very least be very watchful over it for life. That’s been a hard pill to swallow for me, until I really start to look at the “why” and stay mindful of how much better I feel without the stuff. But it’s challenging to reset those long-engrained habits, beliefs and behaviors without a solid plan and support.
With more awareness of the dangers of refined sugar and flour, there has been a resurgence of diets that hearken back to what we believed our ancestors ate. Paleo is one, plant-based another. Personally, I think it’s OK to have variety, so I put myself in the category of Omnivore – I eat some meat, poultry, and fish as well as whole grains, fruits and legumes. My thoughts about extreme low carb diets like Keto or Atkins? I’m not a fan, for one big reason: Keto is not recommended long term (some experts say it could result in kidney damage), and anyone I knew who did keto, started gaining the weight back rapidly once they stopped eating that way.
Of course, if you go off ANY eating plan and head right back to your old habits, you’re bound to put the weight back on, which is why I think adopting more sustainable eating habits are better for the long run.
The good news is your tastebuds really DO change. The taste of an apple with peanut butter now is heavenly. Those sugar and flour free banana pancakes I’ve been raving about are a delight. I rarely have cravings when I’m eating this way. When I do, it’s much easier to just stay the course. And if I slip, I get right back to it, reminding myself of the million and one reasons why this feels so much better.
Bringing it back to our primal ancestors for a minute, maybe you can help with this one: I recently did the 23 and Me DNA test. It came back with over 200 Neanderthal markers, meaning my DNA is REALLY freakin’ old. There’s not a lot of data yet on what this means, but I wonder whether one’s taste for sweet and the addictive properties of sweets is somehow connected. In order to test this theory, I’m gonna have to search for some others who have some really old DNA and have battled with weight loss and sugar addiction. If you happened to have done the test and have Neanderthal markers, let me know! In the meantime, remember to eat food that remembers where it came from and be grateful you don’t have to climb a tree for lunch!
Photo Credit: The Fruit Company