Despite the title, this isn’t yet another article telling us all about the benefits of a paleolithic diet! It’s also just as applicable to women as it is to men. This is one of a series of articles I wrote a while ago now designed to shed some light on why we do some of the things we do in a variety of settings. I thought it would be a good idea to re-visit it now.
In this article we focus on some of the reasons why we seem to have so much difficulty with eating healthily, maintaining a healthy body fat percentage, and making the best food choices; because it’s easy, isn’t it? Just eat less and do more. That’s what we all need to do to lose weight and keep it off. Well, if it really WERE that simple, we’d all be doing it, wouldn’t we?
And we sure as heck wouldn’t be binge eating.
Why do we refer to the caveman? Well, we use the caveman as an historic representative of early man, when we lived in small communities and survived as hunter gatherers. Farming arrived about ten thousand years ago and as a consequence communities got larger which necessitated new social systems, which included laws and religions.
In the world of the hunter gatherer the daily focus was on survival. So, for something like 99.98% of the evolutionary time since ‘modern’ man appeared (some four million years ago) we were used to living in small hunter gatherer communities, using our instincts and only travelling within a fairly small radius of our cave. Despite the passage of time and the huge changes to our living and working environments our brains have changed very little. This is especially relevant when it comes to the food we eat and why we eat it. Why? Because there are many connections between our origins as a species and the way we ate then- and WHY we ate then- to our modern-day, fast-food, fast-eat, high-pressure environment courtesy of the massive changes within our society within a pretty short space of time.
Not that long ago (in evolutionary terms anyway- 333 generations ago) – and for the 2 and a half million years or so before that, every human being ate the same way- we were true hunter-gatherers. This consisted of a pretty limited diet and we ate what we could, when we could. Meats and fruits would require quite a bit of effort to hunt and forage for so when we got it, we ate it- because we didn’t know when the next time would we would be able to access it. That, plus the energy requirement to get the food in the first place, meant that we would eat in excess of our needs so that some of the food eaten would be stored as fat to protect us against starvation when food was hard to come by. Therefore, this ability to overeat – overriding that signal that says you are full- has been preserved in our primitive minds for a long, long time- as a basic survival mechanism.
Anyone who comes to see me knows that we talk about our having an “intellectual brain” and a “primitive brain”; it’s interesting to understand what these are, and what they do for us. It is our intellectual brain that enables us to do all the fantastic things that animals can’t – like invent and innovate and impact the world we inherited and increasingly adapt, but against all of this –this fundamental restructuring of the world in which modern man lives- the brain has changed very little. It is a brain that evolved in a world where ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ were appropriate behaviours for survival; a world where speed of response would make the difference between eating and being eaten. These response mechanisms come from what we call the primitive part of the brain, which has much in common with brains of rats and cats.
So, while we remain in intellectual control of our thoughts and actions and don’t allow our primitive brains to take over, we can operate very effectively in today’s global, high – speed, rapidly changing world. It’s when our primitive brains step in that things can go awry.
What’s this got to do with our eating patterns? Quite a lot! The primitive mind, with its ability to respond to things quickly to enable our survival, is unfortunately not able to innovate, and hasn’t been able to adapt to change in the same way that our intellectual brains have. It picks up on patterns of behaviour and imprints them so it becomes a habit, so in today’s modern world, the wires can get crossed, and what it THINKS is a reasonable reaction to ensure survival, it twill do again, and again, and again……why is this?
Back in the days when we lived in small communities and left the protective safety of our caves to hunt for food, we would have instantly been on alert for anything in our surroundings that had changed. The last time we left the cave and returned safely, our brains had taken an imprint of many of the micro details of the territory – because we had returned safely it naturally assumed that next time when we went out, if nothing has changed, we will return safely this time as well. So over time, our brains have become particularly adept at registering even the slightest change in the surroundings – if there is a change, the natural and instant thing to do is to assume that it is a threat – or an error. So the human brain likes familiarity – familiarity is safe (how many of us will try and sit in the same seat on the train every day, or always look for the same seat in the restaurant?).
So in our primitive brain is an area called the hippocampus, where we have stored all our instinctive responses; some will be genetically inherited (new born babies have two fears, loud noises and falling) and some we will learn throughout our early development. As adults it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between those behaviours we have had imprinted and those that we ideally would choose if given a blank canvas.
Stress and anxiety are now common terms we encounter in the today’s ‘concrete jungles’; both these conditions have very specific effects on brain chemistry, some of which are easy to recognise because they have a physical effect – sweating, blushing, muscle tension and so on – and of course we are all aware these days how these have a direct effect upon our life expectancy and more importantly quality of life as we get older.
With millions of years of evolution where fear and anger have been the emotional precursors to flight or fight, survival in the modern jungle ‘the office’ means that we need to be extremely adept at intercepting our instinctive brain responses to modern day ‘threat’ situations
The first step is to gain a better understanding of how the brain works, to be more mindful of what we are thinking (and doing), where those thoughts (and actions) come from and to recognise that through control of the intellectual resources we can make deliberate choices about how to respond, both mentally and physically to what the brain is perceives as threatening situations.
The good news is that the human brain is not hard wired – it shows high levels of ‘plasticity’ which allows us all to learn new tricks and through the use of solution focused techniques we can all learn new ways of thinking and establish new habits that will bring balance and control back into our mental and physical health.