Friday, September 30, 2011

Expecting to be natural in an unnatural world

I've been told that modern dogs were bred from wolves, though I'm actually too lazy to research whether or not that is a fact. Whether or not they actually came from wolves is not really important, but I'm sure that domesticated animals, and the varieties of purebred dogs that people possess in particular, trace a genetic heritage to some wild species that was far more capable of looking after its interests than the current crop of creatures that have their poop scooped up by diligent and lawful owners.

Many things in modern life have been altered through time and technology while still retaining vestiges of their original biology. Many breeds of dogs would be incapable of survival if released into the wild, but they still respond in ways that their original nature dictates. We do our best to train the more unacceptable impulses out of them, and understand that we must overlay an artificial behavioral template on top of their desire to mark their territory, bite, or eat another dog's poop. We know that basic nature does not serve the modern domesticated dog (or its owner).

When it comes to humans, we seem to have a far less logical structure to our thinking. We live in a world that is very far-removed from nature then we talk about relying on our natural impulses to help us navigate it. The confusion is very pronounced when it comes to how we deal with food.

There are people who advocate eating by nature, as opposed to doing so in accord with artificial constructs such as planned meal times, calorie counts, or diet plans (and I use "diet" here as a  noun to mean - "what we eat", not as a verb referring to weight loss). They talk about how we should listen to our bodies and eat by intuition. I think if you're going to make such a recommendation, then you should be responsible enough to deeply reflect on what the nature of our bodies truly is as a result of our genetic heritage.

I'm no expert on evolution, nor on history, but I do know that humans spent a lot more time with insecure food supplies than secure ones. Even after agrarian lifestyles were implemented, it wasn't until food preservation techniques became refined and mass production common that the food supply was such that most people had food readily available at any given time. That means that the history of our biology as a species which is literally surrounded by food all of the time and capable of eating anytime anywhere is extremely brief from an evolutionary standpoint.

Most of the formative years of humanity were built around spending copious amounts of time and energy securing sustenance.  In order to ensure that we felt compelled to go find food, hunger had to evolve as a potently uncomfortable force. If we didn't feel hunger pain, we would just starve because it wouldn't hurt enough to push us to go out and gather or hunt for grub.

Our "nature" in regards to food developed in accord with dramatically different circumstances than those we currently live in. Bodies respond to food and hunger as if we were living in a situation in which food was hard to get and we needed to be strongly motivated to get it. Our impulses are in complete disharmony with our circumstances at present. Hunger pains scream, "find food, now," but the severity of those feelings came from a need to motivate activity or anticipate staving off those pains and to push us to action. They didn't evolve to drive us to wander into the kitchen and open a cabinet door and eat a snack.

So, talking about our "nature" or being "natural" about food only works if you are in a natural environment. We are not. We are in a highly unnatural situation based on technology and culture. Like the domesticated dog that can't fight for it's food to survive, we no longer have to expend energy to obtain energy. Like the dogs that we train to suppress their no longer appropriate nature in light of their residence in our homes and lives as pets, we also must be "trained" to deal with food in a manner which is no longer in accord with our basic biological impulses. Simply put, it is our nature to eat when hungry, but it is not natural to be able to do so.

The first step in dealing with the poor relationship people have with food, and this applies to everyone, not just fat folks, is to stop talking about what is natural and accept that we live in an artificial world with challenges to our nature. Just as we learned to hold our bladders until a toilet is available, we need to learn to hold our hunger at bay until we really need to eat. This is a task that should be performed by cultural norms, but the time period during which food has been a casual thing which is readily at hand, cheap, and of dubious nutritional value has been extremely short. In fact, it wasn't even a challenge my grandparents would have faced. Culture hasn't had time to catch up with this development.

Unfortunately, the way in which we deal with this particular challenge has been muddled greatly by various special interests fighting to further their agendas. Everyone has a viewpoint and they are interested only in defending or advocating whatever it is. Rather than deal with the issue, they simply want to be agreed with and we exist in a state of angry chaos when it comes to food. Additionally, the focus on behavioral extremes (excessive consumption or deprivation) and the insertion of value judgments into the equation serve to polarize and politicize the situation. Unless such emotionally-charged notions are set aside in favor of an rational and objective solution, culture will never find a way to balance our nature with the artificial environment that we will almost certainly continue to exist in.

The question of what is to be done is therefore up to the individual to build a life with this highly unnatural situation which creates a healthy relationship with food. And when I say "healthy", I don't mean merely to promote a healthy body. I mean "healthy" in an inclusive sense including that which promotes joy and mental well-being. Such a balance is possible, but you're not going to land on it "naturally", nor if your notions about food are focused on joyless and punitive ideas and idealized body concepts (such as thinness) or self-deception about the consequences of life at a high weight (such as claiming the development of Type 2 diabetes is unrelated to weight when it certainly is). If individuals, one-by-one, slowly and surely moved toward such a rational and balanced mentality, culture would catch on and catch up and there would be a critical mass that might result in an overall healthy, happy, and, yes, utterly unnatural relationship with food. It would be an artificial food culture for an artificial world. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But, I'm not holding my breath.


oh_mg said...

Understanding what hunger actually feels like was so crucial to my weight loss; same with choosing natural foods over processed ones, even if the calories are the same.

This was a brilliant read, thank you so much.

karen said...

Excellent post!