Let’s start at the beginning.
Because we know the statistics.
We know that obesity has quadrupled since the 1950s.
We know that diabetes has increased from around 1.5 million people in the 1950s to over 34 million today, 90% or more of whom have type 2 diabetes, which is preventable.
We know that roughly 50% of American adults have cardiovascular disease and 70% of American adults are on some kind of prescription medication.
We know that we get 1.5 to 2 hours less sleep per night than a hundred years ago.
We know all of this stuff, because we are constantly bombarded with these statistics, hammered over the head with them until they lose their meaning.
But what we don’t talk much about, from a research-based perspective, is WHY these statistics exist.
Take a look at the timelines. All of this has happened in the last 100 years or less, yet the human species has been around for over two million years.
What the hell has happened in the last 100 years?
There are a lot of reasons why we struggle to manage our health and wellness in modern times. So many reasons, in fact, that my position is that there is literally NOTHING in our current environment that promotes healthy behaviors, and that in order to be healthy in modern times we have to be continually swimming against the pressures of modernity and industrialization.
Here are just a few reasons why we struggle, and NONE of them have to do with us lacking willpower, being weak and lazy, or any of that.
I’m going to cover them quickly, just to give you an overview…
Reason #1: Evolutionary science
I’ll keep this really simple because I love this topic and tend to say WAY too much about it. Then I see people’s eyes roll back in their heads and I know I lost them.
Here it is in a nutshell…
As humans, we evolved under conditions of calorie-scarcity for roughly two million years until the agricultural revolution began to change our environment, and then the industrial revolution radically changed it.
The change from calorie-scarcity to calorie-abundance happened so quickly (in an evolutionary context) that our biology hasn’t had time to change with it.
The traits we adapted over those millions of years that enabled us to cope with conditions of scarcity do not serve us well under conditions of modern calorie-abundance.
I’m going to leave it at that. If you want a more thorough explanation, research evolutionary mismatch hypothesis.
Basically, our bodies still operate under the assumption we live 50,000 years ago.
We overeat to store calories. We favor calorie-dense foods. We skip workouts to conserve burning calories.
These behaviors that kept us alive for millions of years when scarcity was the norm are now hurting us when abundant, processed calories are the norm.
We can’t sleep, and we’re chronically stressed.
Too many stimuli, artificial light, technology, the modern lifestyle, and anticipatory anxiety impede the production of sleep hormones and create a constant, low-grade stress-response.
All of this adds up to poor nutrition, lack of exercise and sleep, and lots of stress. In short, a recipe for disease.
None of this is due to lack of willpower or laziness. This is simply the result of our biology responding to the environment in the way it was taught to for millions of years, but the environment has changed, and our biology hasn’t recognized that yet (and won’t for a loooooooooooong time).
Reason #2: Industrialized food system
Okay, if you’re clear on Reason #1, then Reason #2 will make sense.
Our food system favors highly processed, calorie-dense, industrialized food. More than ⅔ of today’s nutrition comes from from four crops; corn, wheat, rice, and potatoes. These foods are CALORIE-DENSE, and NUTRIENT-POOR.
And most of the meat we eat comes from CAFOs; which are basically factories that pump out sick, unhealthy animal products.
Cheap, abundant, nutrient-poor, calorie-laden food is always within steps of the kitchen, or a short drive away.
The consequences of this are:
- We overeat because we’re hard-wired to do that when food is available. And it’s always available.
- We eat the processed foods more than we should because it’s more accessible and affordable than produce and quality animal products, and our brains favor getting the biggest return (most calories) for the least effort (without having to work for it). See optimal foraging theory.
- We no longer have to expend any effort to obtain food. Before modern times, we had to forage for food for up to several hours a day. This required significant, natural physical activity EVERY DAY, which produced biologically healthy and robust bodies. We didn’t exercise. We did it to survive. But now we don’t have to, so we don’t.
- Modern monocropping has killed food diversity. Where in the past we used to forage and hunt for up to a hundred or more different kinds of plants, roots, nuts, honey and wild animals, we now base our food around a handful of low-nutrient crops and factory-farmed animals. The result is that we expose our bodies to too many calories and not enough nutrients. This makes us sick and fat
There are more reasons why the industrialized food system is basically just packaged obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, but we’ll set them aside for now and move on to……
Reason #3: Food science
Processed food companies produce the majority of the food we consume in the United States.
Processed food companies have shareholders.
Shareholders like to make money.
Money is made when MORE food is sold at a larger margin.
A larger margin is created when cheaper materials are used (see subsidies).
MORE food is sold when manufacturers come up with ways to ENTICE us to eat more.
Enter “food science.”
We have ancient reward pathways in our brains that evolved to attract us to doing things that would promote survival and, above all, reproduction.
See food in the distance? Your brain activates chemicals that inspire you to go get it!
Taste something sugary and fatty? Your brain instinctively recognizes these foods as calorie-dense, and releases chemicals to reward you in a way that teaches you to seek out and prioritize these foods in the future.
Food processing companies, many of which were bought by cigarette companies when the government was cracking down on them (and later sold), have figured out how to tap into our brain’s reward pathways.
They hire food scientists to formulate foods with the ideal balance of salt, sugar, and fat that trigger our reward centers, or what they call the “bliss point.”
In short, they’ve figured out ways to make our brains crave MORE of their foods in ways that circumvent conscious thought.
That’s why we crave cookies, Doritos, ice cream, and other delicious foods.
These foods are FINE in small quantities, but they’re intentionally engineered to entice us to consume them in large quantities.
Like nicotine, booze, drugs, porn, and gambling, all of which also activate brain reward pathways.
We overeat salty, sugary, fatty foods because our brains reward us when we do, and they reward us when we do out of an ancient biological assumption that those foods would promote survival during lean times.
If eating an entire box of Cracker Jack because your unconscious reward pathways are ignited when you do so, and you figure, well, all I have to do is be more conscious of my decisions, you’re right, but then there’s….
Reason #4: Hyperbolic Discounting
One of the interesting things that some anthropologists have discovered when researching indigenous, hunter-gatherer tribes is that many of them have a hazy notion of the future.
In an environment where, for thousands of generations, you and your tribe members have had to get up every day, find enough calories to survive to tomorrow, and avoid getting eaten by something bigger, faster, and stronger than you, TODAY becomes your focus.
Three months from now isn’t really a concern if you don’t have a surplus of supplies to get you through tomorrow. The future isn’t a thing. Today is what matters.
That’s what survival necessitates; a focus on the NOW.
As a result of that reality, our brains evolved to favor rewards NOW instead of sacrificing NOW for a future reward. That would have made sense in a world where day to day survival was the norm.
This is what is known as hyperbolic discounting, and it applies strongly to self-control.
It breaks down to, “I would rather have this donut NOW, than healthy weight in the future.”
“I would rather lounge on the couch NOW than to have clear arteries and a strong heart in the future.”
And this thought process may not even happen consciously.
If the future is a murky concept, then what pertains to now is what matters.
There are other ways in which humans play with the concept of time in their minds, but this one powerfully impacts the short-term rewards we choose over potential long-term gains.
Reason #5: The Modern Lifestyle
We’ve already discussed ways in which the contemporary environment impacts our health, but let’s take a look at how the way in which we live our lives impacts it.
We get up before dawn, jump into the shower, grab something quick but unhealthy to throw down our throats, and get into the car to suffer through a commute.
We get to work where we’re forced into intergroup interactions, work long hours, either work through our lunch break or grab something unhealthy to eat, sit most of the day, then get into the car and commute home.
We get home and have to deal with the responsibilities that exist there (bills, feeding pets, kids, partners), have to cook or, more likely, grab something quick and unhealthy to eat, pour a glass of wine (then another), try to enjoy a little TV to relax, get into bed too late, scroll social media before turning off the lights, then get 5 to 6 hours of fitful sleep before starting it all over again.
Now, your particular situation might be a variation of this that involves less work but more family duties, or school, or taking care of a relative, but the general framework is valid. This may seem normal, but most of us live lives that consume too much energy, are really fast-paced, involve a lot of stressors, and don’t allow for time to recover and regenerate.
We’re left with only a few hours a day to do what we really WANT to do, and when that time comes, most people don’t WANT to spend it exercising, preparing nourishing, home-cooked meals, sleeping, and meditating.
Our willpower is depleted. Our stress hormones are elevated. Weight begins to pile up, our blood sugar rises, blood pressure builds.
Here’s the deal:
I’m not sharing this with you because I want to provide convenient excuses for being unhealthy. And I’m definitely not sharing this with you so that you feel justified in throwing in the towel and giving up any semblance of health.
I’m sharing this with you for two reasons.
First, so you will stop beating yourself up for not being an A+ student in eating well, being physically active, getting enough sleep, managing your stress, practicing a purposeful life, and cultivating strong social bonds. This shit is hard to do in an environment in which almost everything works in opposition to being healthy.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you struggle with healthy habits. It’s normal.
I’ve said this before; if you want to be healthy in this modern age, it’s like going UP the down escalator. You can absolutely do it, but everything’s working against you.
Beating yourself up will not help, and will actively impede your progress.
The second reason is that once you know what forces oppose you, you can prepare for them. Until you know that, you have no way of game-planning.
I’m a boxing fan. I’ve seen a lot of fighters beat superior opponents because they had a better plan, a plan that was specific to the opponent.
When it comes to being healthy in today’s landscape, you’re outmatched. But with the right gameplan, you can still win the fight.
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