Published on November 12th, 2013 | by Becky Striepe1
Obesity: Did we evolve to be unhealthy?
Are we doomed to struggle with obesity? One expert suggests that evolution may be part of the puzzle.
Evolutionary Biologist Daniel Lieberman recently appeared on The Colbert Report, where he talked about how evolution plays into the obesity epidemic. He recently wrote a book – Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, and what he had to say was incredibly eye-opening. The segment was excellent, and you can watch it below:
It makes sense, right? Thousands of years ago when we ran all day and food was scarce, the ability to store fat and to eat beyond satiety was a good thing. It helped our ancestors survive. It’s no wonder that we have a hard time losing weight and keeping it off. We’ve only lived in this era of abundance for a short time – our bodies haven’t caught up.
Of course, there is more at play here. We can’t just blame evolution, because we need to deal with this problem. We need to exercise more, and we need to stop eating addictive processed food that’s full of unhealthy sugars and fats. But knowing how we got here can help us, can’t it?
Obesity and the Hunter-Gatherer Question
Lieberman also spoke with The Guardian recently about his new book, and he addressed the hunter-gatherer idea in a little bit more detail there, especially the paleo diet:
The old paleo diet. There’s some truth to it. I think the problem with the paleo diet is that there is an optimal diet that if only we were adapted to it we’d be healthier. It’s based on the following argument – we’re adapted to live like hunter-gatherers – if we live like hunter-gatherers we’d be healthier. But remember, hunter-gatherers were not always healthy, their bodies went through adaptations not to be healthy but to have lots of children!
He does concede that many people lose weight on this diet, but I think he brings up a compelling point about eating this way that’s important to think about:
…there is some benefit to understanding what we’re adapted for. But some paleo diet folk won’t eat dairy, or legumes, or cereal. I think it’s a bit extreme because a) we can’t feed the whole world on grass-fed beef, it’s just not going to happen, sorry. b) there are still a lot of question marks around eating as much meat as you possibly can.
We may have evolved as hunter-gatherers, but we are not hunter-gatherers, right? We don’t run all day, and food isn’t scarce.
Obesity: Now what?
I think that the take-away from these interviews is that our obesity problem is complex, and there’s no silver bullet solution. It’s going to take a cultural change, where we bring our culture more in synch with where our bodies are.
Eating a diet of mostly meat, as Lieberman points out, is not a sustainable solution.