Evolutionary Habits & Modern Health

“In unambiguous terms, we are genetically wired to eat simple, unprocessed foods, and to expend a fair amount of energy in that process (walk, run, lift, carry, dance!).”
Robb Wolf

 

BUT before you switch off this is not an email about how we should all go completely ‘primal’, but rather a look at some points which are worth considering. 

With social media marketing bombarding us, smaller attention spans and a health & fitness industry worth an estimated $30 billion it is no wonder we are constantly exposed to the ‘new best thing’.

This fierce competition for our attention means that everybody is shouting about what is best and what is old news.

The ‘Primal’ movement, and I include ‘Paleo’ under this umbrella term, started to gain popularity around the mid 2000’s and hit the mainstream in 2009 when Mark Sisson released “The Primal Blueprint”.

If you are not familiar with the movement its aim can be summed up as thriving in the modern world with Primal strategies. Which is what Robb Wolf is essentially saying in the quote above:…”eat simple, unprocessed foods, and to expend a fair amount of energy in that process (walk, run, lift, carry, dance!).”

In the last 10 years it has become a huge industry in itself with some very good leaders and products and also some very bad ones.

And it seems now that when the word ‘primal’ is mentioned in relation to health it can often be dismissed out of hand as another fad. In fact this seems to be more and more common these days. Things are seen in black and white and choices are made without doing any real research or thinking on the matter to make an informed decision.

When it comes to ‘primal’ I feel like this often means “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, in other words, rejecting the favorable along with the unfavorable.

I say this because of the following fact: The earliest remains of modern humans – known as Homo sapiens – are approximately 200,000 years old. These were the first humans to have a brain relatively similar to yours. In particular, the neocortex – the newest part of the brain and the part responsible for higher functions like language – was roughly the same size 200,000 years ago as it is today.

The point here is that compared to the age of the brain, modern society is incredibly new. The pace of change has increased exponentially compared to prehistoric times. In the last 100 years we have seen the rise of the car, the aeroplane, the television, the personal computer and the Internet. Nearly everything that makes up your daily life has been created in a very small window of time.

A lot can happen in 100 years. From the perspective of evolution, however, 100 years is nothing. The modern human brain spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for one type of environment and in the blink of an eye the entire environment changed. 

As the infographic above illustrates, when compared to how long we’ve been on the planet we have spent a tiny amount of time in the post-industrial revolution modern society. And yet the vast majority of us, particularly in the Western world, live in a way that jars with our natural instincts.

We:

  • Spend 8 – 10 hours sat down at a desk staring at a computer screen at work.
  • Have another 2 – 3 hours slumped on the sofa watching TV screens at home.
  • Eat a diet high in processed foods.
  • Get little natural light outdoors.
  • Have lost our connection with nature.
  • Spend more time ‘socialising’ remotely via social media than in person.
  • Move and exercise very little.
  • Live consumerist lifestyles, equating happiness with amassing stuff.

The human body did not evolve to be a junk food eating desk jockey, instead we should have a diverse diet, move regularly and have well rounded capabilities.

Now I am in no way an advocate for returning to dwelling in caves but I do believe there is a lot to said for rebalancing our way of life with some practices we are programmed to thrive on.

The modern world provides us with a huge array of advantages, but understanding and applying certain lessons from our past can increase our quality of life even further. 

In general we are built to:

  • Follow the natural rhythm of the day by sleeping in the dark, and waking with light.
  • Eat a wide range of unprocessed whole foods from plants and animals (foraging, gathering and hunting).
  • Move regularly (mix longer based endurance, with short high intensity bursts and the lifting of heavy things).
  • Be outside as much as possible (in natural light).
  • Have strong social bonds (community).

BUT we all have busy lives and trying to live 100% in this way is not practical for most of us. When was the last time you chased down your Sunday Roast in the local farmers field? 

However, there are simple changes which can be made day to day that can help return you to the habits that make us strong, fit, and healthy.

  1. Sleep in the dark: Use blackout curtains to ensure your room is as dark as possible and remove any sources of light e.g. LED lights from clocks.
  2. Wake with the light: Invest in a sunlight alarm clock which will draw you gently out of sleep. As opposed to a regular alarm which will jar you awake no matter what sleep phase you are in.
  3. Eat more plant based foods: Adding in a diverse range of plant based whole foods is excellent for gut health and will provide an array of nutrients.
  4. Choose organic/free range meat: Supporting smaller sustainable farming practices is better for us, the animals and the planet.
  5. Move more: At the very least take regular breaks from your desk during the day, even if it is for a 2 minute circuit of the building. Find a sport or exercise regime you enjoy and aim for at least 3 sessions per week.
  6. Get outside: Being outside in natural light, and if possible a green environment has been shown to convey numerous health benefits.
  7. Build social bonds: Whether it is with family, friends, or a community of like minded people found through a hobby, having people around you for support is incredibly important for mental health.

We have progressed a long way since roaming the plains in tribes, but we still have a biological hangover from that period. Enjoying the benefits of modern society, while also reconnecting with aspects of our evolutionary template, enables us to have the best of both worlds.