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An ancient brain in modern times – Part 1: Food

    In this article we’re going to take a short peek at how our diet today, our cravings and other eating habits could be traced as far back as deep ancient times, since the early days of homo sapiens and even further back.

    It is a common misconception among many that we are people of our own time. That is, we are more than capable of handling all the stuff in our daily lives, like for example, technology in all its forms, just because we were born in those times of quick technological development. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however. You’d be surprised at how many areas of our lives, we are governed by the same archaic principles as our pre-agriculture ancestors. We are in a way, an 80,000-year-old brain who is put in the modern world of smartphones, computers, fast internet connection, porn and supermarkets overflooding with delicious, high-calorie food just a few minutes or screen taps away.

    Dieting is such a hot topic in our modern society. Everywhere we turn on social media, there are people promoting certain eating styles, be it ketogenic diet, low-carb, paleo, vegan, vegetarian and many more, each claiming it is better than the other. We see our local shops and restaurants coming up with newer and newer types of food to monetize on those trends and offer something for everyone. Diets have truly powerful effects especially when you stop looking at short-term effects like weight loss or gains and start looking in terms of centuries and millennia and how it, together with other factors such as climate and environment have shaped entire ethnicities and races of people. For example, the people of the north, the Germanic nations of Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark have had a profoundly different diet for hundreds of generations from that of Mediterranean peoples such as modern Italians, Greeks and Spaniards who had their own distinguishing diet.

    Regardless of the diet, however, it all boils down to a few core principles. The human brain loves high-calorie foods. Have you ever been to your local supermarket and felt that subtle scent of freshly baked French croissants with a chocolate filling or the timeless, mouth-watering smell of bread that is straight out of the oven? One could hardly resist it, especially if they’re hungry at that moment. A little bonus – don’t go shopping on an empty stomach, your wallet will thank you. How about that time when you’ve just had dinner and you feel morbidly full and content after a delicious steak but so it happens that there is a whole unopened Kinder chocolate bar in the fridge. When you recall about the Kinder as if an entire new compartment opens up in your stomach and you’re more than eager for a dessert.

    This natural attraction towards a high-carb meal is very old and we can do little to repress it. It can be traced back to the times when our ancestors were just hunter-gatherers. Think about for a minute, what kind of life they had. They dwelled in small packs, roaming the woodlands for a game and gathering edible fruits, berries, roots or mushrooms. It was a life filled with much uncertainty and ambiguity. One couldn’t be certain about anything. Would that small tribe be able to find a herd of deer today? And if they do, how successful would they be in killing a deer or two? If they do, that could give the tribe or group the set of nutrients and fats for a couple of days, sometimes weeks, depending on the catch. But as we said, these events such as catching a nutritious game like deer or boar were far from a regular occurrence. Most of the times, people had to rely on smaller things that would get them by, like berries, fish, or rodents. When those early people did catch a bigger animal, then comes the problem of making the most out of it. In some climates like the more northern ones and close to salt water, people could not only feast on the meat but also preserve it in one form or another to reduce the risk of future famines.

    In short, high calory food is considered by our brains as valuable and scarce. That’s why we have evolved to crave it and once we find it to make the most out of it. This made perfect sense in ancient times, however, in the 21st century, this instinct isn’t that useful. Most of the time, it’s detrimental to our health, appearance, confidence, and well-being. Our brain hasn’t yet grown accustomed that much to have so many high-calorie foods in an arm’s length away from us. Some people are equipped to control those cravings better than others, though. But a huge chunk of the population in Western societies have eating-induced health problems, like obesity or clogged arteries just to name a few. Regardless of what kind of a stoic we are, chocolate, pizza and butter biscuits will always taste better than a salad. Our brains simply cannot resist those delicious, rich in carbs meals.

    As depressing as that may sound to those of us who struggle to get in shape, this doesn’t mean that we’re forever bound to be slaves to our bodies’ cravings and whims. We are smart, rational beings after all and the best we can do is to first acknowledge where the problem is, study the science behind it (like you’re doing reading this article) and make the appropriate steps to try to counter your urges and primal instincts.

    Continues in part 2