Food is fundamental to life. Yet our food preferences are often driven by many choices beyond our body’s nutritional needs. Some may say our love of sugars, fats, and salts are just a byproduct of a fast food nation, but this is not the whole truth. Our seemingly irresistible cravings for these dangerous ingredients are deeply embedded in our genes and were once used as an adaptation tactic to stay healthy and survive adversity. During the prehistoric hunter-gatherer age, humans developed a natural liking for foods high in sugar, fats, and salt because it kept them alive.
During the time when humans were constantly battling nature, each other, and wild beasts, sugar and high calorie foods helped meet the nutritional requirements of our body and provided a constant supply of glucose to a growing brain. It was instinctual to consume things like fruit and honey for a quick boost during intense times. This innate preference for sugar foods is evident in babies who are naturally inclined towards sweet foods rather than bitter ones.
This is likely related to the fact that our ability to detect sweets occurs much quicker than most of other kinds of tastes. Still, it is natural sugars that are more easily detected by our tastebuds than artificial sweeteners. Suggesting we're hardwired to respond more readily to what is found in nature - an orange rather than a can of Sunkist.
Our natural inclination towards fatty foods can also be linked to a prehistoric need for high-energy food sources. A gram of fat generates 9 calories of energy, which is more than twice the amount released by the same quantity of carbohydrate or protein. Fats also provide storage reserves, which work as a useful supply of energy in times of hardship and scarcity. Piling on pounds was an evolutionary strategy for survival and reproduction back in the day. Over the centuries, however, we have maintained that taste for calorie-dense foods, though there is no longer a need for it in order to survive.
The historical connection with food doesn’t stop at fats and sugars. Salt is essential for maintaining blood pressure, nerve cells, and muscular contractions. It is essential to maintain balance of fluids in our systems. Salt is right up there with sugar as one of our most intense inherent cravings, and a trigger for our tastebuds' most aggressive response mechanisms. Whats more, salt was a scarcity during these times - only available through natural sources like carrots, beets, and meats. So the presence of salt in our diet was a big deal. Now, however, it's a danger.
Genetics and Taste
Our cravings are also dictated by individual variations in genes which can regulate the metabolic rates and enzymatic activity. The sequence of DNA in our cells can play a role in influencing food preferences by modifying brain chemistry and sensitivity towards taste receptors, affecting the brain’s pleasure and reward pathways and altering the response to sensory cues. Beyond the genetic reasons, our fluctuating blood sugar levels and emotional states can also trigger food cravings.
How to Tame Natural Cravings
Despite being stuck with these seemingly evolutionary disadvantages, it would be wrong to exclusively blame our compulsive indulgence in sweet, salty, and fried foods on our DNA or our past. It would be equally juvenile to hold moral failure and lack of willpower as solely responsible for our struggles with kicking the craving habit. It is the lethal combination of our genes, personal weakness, AND environment that sets off the uncontrollable cravings.
“The naive view has always been that cravings represent wisdom of the body," says Marcia Pelchat, PhD, a food researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. But it's not so. Some of Pelchat's work has shown that people have cravings even when they're fed a diet that's completely adequate in calories and nutrients. Our evolutionary heritage of food preferences and eating habits leaves us mismatched with the food environments we have created - namely readily available junk food.
This is leading to problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. We can, though, tame our genetic predisposition to cravings by being mindful about eating. Eat small and frequent meals to maintain stable blood sugar levels. “If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a low-fat, low-calorie snack such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, or unbuttered popcorn,” suggests Mayo Clinic. Keep a food diary and note the foods that you eat along with emotional observations. This will help to recognize a pattern for moods, food preferences, and craving triggers.
The Bottom Line
We may have started as hunter gatherers, needing certain foods to survive, but we are now part of a society of plenty- burdened with environmental pressures, media influences, and sedentary lifestyles. The evolutionary biology which was adapted to preserve mankind is putting us at a great risk today.
The good news, however, is that we can reduce and reverse this genetic hold by adopting a combination of nutritious eating, limited exposure to novelty foods (things we don't really "need" to eat), and exercise. Giving in to sweet treats, steaks, and fatty snacks is acceptable, once in a while. But don’t allow the cravings to hold reins of your moods, health, and lives. Outsmart them and regain control.
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