Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Let's Blame Evolution for our Obesity Epidemic

As the 10th Internation Congress on Obesity opened in Sydney, Australia, experts from around the world gathered to collaborate to understand the global rise in obesity and explore potential solutions. In an article this week in Reuters, Evolution led to obesity pandemic, it's speculated that Evolution and the environment, not just gluttony, has led to a global obesity pandemic, with an estimated 1.5 billion people overweight -- more than the number of undernourished people.

Health experts at the week-long congress said calls for the past 30 years for people to eat less fatty foods and exercise more had failed to combat global obesity.

Obesity had become an "insidious killer and the major contributing cause of preventable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease," said conference co-chair Paul Zimmet. "It is a disease with disastrous health, social and economic consequences."

Kate Steinbeck, also co-chair of the conference said, "We know this is not about gluttony -- it is the interaction of heredity and environment."

Based on research studies and the growing incidence of obesity around the world, the experts gathered at the conference believe that too little sleep and too much fatty fast food are altering human biology. They also contend that weight loss diets, supplements and treatments promising weight loss have "no effect because they cannot match evolutionary influences that cause the body to conserve energy in times of famine."

So, let's blame evolution.

Dr Anne-Thea McGill told the conference "Early humans sought energy-dense food with high levels of fats, starches and sugars. We are genetically programmed to find foods with these qualities appealing. However, highly energy-dense Western diets have had many of the flavour and micronutrients processed out of them. The artificial replacements in starchy, fatty and sugary foods make them over-palatable and easy to eat quickly."

Long story short, McGill sees this as too much processed food that provides excess energy while deficient in essential nutrients - chronic malnutrition which causes the body to perceive a state of famine and store energy. Dieting to lose the excess weight doesn't work because it does not address the nutrient imbalance created by a poor diet.

Hmm...that sounds familiar! Ah, yes, I've written about this before....
For years I've been saying much of our weight problems are intricately linked to chronic nutrient deficiency. I also contend that within the framework of the current dietary guidelines, it is impossible to meet essential nutrient requirements from food. The current guidelines are designed in a way that reinforces an eating pattern that dooms our health and well-being.

So, it's not evolution that is causing our obesity epidemic, we've created this all on our own.

Unfortunately, it might just be evolution that stops the obesity epidemic for us as we continue our folly with low-fat, fortified, carbohydrate-rich diet recommendations.

That's a pretty scary thought, isn't it?

But it's not much of a leap when we consider the health of our children today - type II diabetes, atheroclerosis, dyslipidemia, hypertention and cardiovascular disease already present in an alarming number of our youth. Add to that the rising trend of "precocious puberty" where children are maturing much earlier than previous generations.

As Dr. Steinbeck said in the Reuters article, "This is the first generation in history where children may die before their parents."

The reason they may have a shorter life expectancy is because they're in poor health and they're in poor health because they're not eating a nutrient-rich diet that provides for all their essential nutrients! They're chronically malnourished!

Let's be clear, malnutrition isn't just not having enough food or calories each day. It's much more than that - consuming excess calories from food with inadequate essential nutrients is also malnutrition. Nutritional surveys show that we're chronically malnourished in the United States.

When we consider evolution - in particular natural selection - it's important to remember that "survival of the fittest" isn't the necessarily the strongest, fastest or most weight stable among us. Survival of the species happens through those endowed with characteristics which improve chances of survival and reproduction, through those who do reproduce and propagate off-spring with heritable characteristics that affect their survival and reproductive success. After millions of years and thousands of generations, today we have inherited a set of characteristics that require, among other things, specific nutrients if we are to reproduce and survive. In a very short time span, we've modified our diet radically from that of our ancestors. If evolution is playing here, it's not playing very nicely in the sandbox of our genes. But, evolution isn't making us fat, we're doing that because we are not "playing within the bounds" of our genetic requirements, especially the requirements for nutrients that optimize reproduction and survival.

Consider the alarming number of children today that are already showing signs of chronic disease and characteristics of infertility. The stark and painful reality is that this may be evolution exerting influence to limit reproduction potential of those unable to consume a nutritionally complete diet. Without an appropriate and adequate diet, the youngest among us are being afflicted earlier and earlier with chronic disease, characteristics of infertility and a potentially shorter life-span to be lived battling chronic illness.

Some contend that recent adaptions exhibited in finches of the Galapogos Islands highlight that adaption to foods like grains is likely due to the 10,000-year inclusion in our diet. As Kevin Dill said " are we to believe that human beings are incapable as a species of successfully incorporating into our diet, the most abundant food source available on the planet today? What exactly does that say about our future as a species?"

What this view fails to appreciate is that the finches were undergoing what is called "characteristic displacement" which happens when change is driven by competition among species for a limited resource like food. As an article at Fox News in July quotes Dr. Peter Grant (who published findings from observations of the finches) "The recent immigrant species had almost eaten the supply of food themselves, so they almost went extinct. The resident species, the species that was there before the new species arrived, underwent a large shift toward small size in beaks."

The reason - smaller beaked birds were better able to meet their nutritional requirements from smaller seeds, thus that characteristic - a smaller beak - was passed to the next generation because those birds with smaller beaks could reproduce.

Why? Those finches with smaller beaks were able to meet their nutritional requirements where those with larger beaks couldn't as large seed availability dwindled. Those with the smaller beaks didn't radically alter their diet to consume a different set of nutrients - in fact, they adapted to the food source available, smaller seeds, within the same context of nutrients as their previous diet contained with larger seeds. Those finches who were at a disadvantage with smaller beaks unable to extract nutrients from larger seeds were now at an advantage when the larger seeds were limited, and their characteristics prevailed as they reproduced with off-spring having smaller beaks.

Such a character displacement isn't expected in a species that fails to consume a diet that is nutritionally adequate.

As Dr. Grant stated, "It's a very important one in studies of evolution, because it shows that species interact for food and undergo evolutionary change, which minimizes further evolution."

Humans, as a species, are forcing the hand of evolution these days - we're consuming a diet that is nutritionally bankrupt. Are we to expect evolution to step in and favor a diet that sets up disease, disrupts our metabolism, and does not provide for our essential nutrients?

I think not.

What evolution is going to do is step in and stop our madness - those who are unable to secure and consume a nutrient-dense diet will continue to develop chronic diseases and infertility issues earlier and earlier in their life. As a species, we cannot expect to be able to reproduce and survive long with a less than optimal diet.

It's futile to blame evolution for our woes - we're working against our genetic requirements and we're seeing the results of our folly.

Fortunately it's not too late - if we're to reverse obesity, optimize our health and survival, we must - absolutely must - abandon this thinking that a "healthful diet" is based on these insane, man-made macronutrient ratios and get back to the important and critical aspects of dietary requirements at the micronutrient level.

Only when we finally go back to the drawing board and take a long hard look at meeting essential nutrient requirements and reverse the chronic state of nutrient deficiency we are in, can we expect to see a reversal in the current trends that promise to be our undoing as a species.


  1. Ok, you caught me playing fast and lose. Even so the whole we didn't evolve eating grains so we can't eat them now thing is a load of crap. There is a very large difference between food we evolved to eat, and food we ate while evolving. Physiologically we are omnivores.

  2. “Health experts at the week-long congress said calls for the past 30 years for people to eat less fatty foods and exercise more had failed to combat global obesity”.

    Unfortunately, there are two ways to understand this comment. Have the calls been unsuccessful, or has the advice to eat less fatty foods been unsuccessful? The experts at the conference undoubtedly believe that their advice has gone unheeded, but that’s demonstrably untrue, at least in the US, where the proportion of fat in the diet has decreased in the last thirty years while obesity has skyrocketed. Naturally, they don’t swee the evidence before their eyes.

    “Dr Anne-Thea McGill told the conference "Early humans sought energy-dense food with high levels of fats, starches and sugars.”

    Wow! We cannot let statements like this go unchallenged. Early humans had no sources of high starch, high sugar foods. There’s a lot of evidence that the paleolithic diet was a high protein, high fat diet. How can she get away with making this statement in a room full of scientists?

    Your note on evolution is very well taken: those who can get a nutrionally rich diet survive. It’s not a question of adapting to a nutrionally poor diet. You reminded me of my own comments about survival strategy in the essay I sent to you:

    Human beings, as a species, have one strategy when resources are plentiful and another strategy when they are not. We know that the preferred macronutrients for the human body are protein and fat. So resource-rich conditions means lots of available protein and fat. When protein and fat were less available, the proportion of carbohydrates in the diet would rise, so resource-poor conditions would mean less protein and fat and more carbohydrates. The evidence suggests that Paleolithic people had, for the most part, a resource rich environment. But all that changed with the advent of agriculture, some scant ten thousand years ago. A diet based on processed grains meant that carbohydrates were now the largest portion of the diet. Despite having abundant food, agriculturists created, in essence, an artificial resource poor environment.

    Strategy #1

    The important thing from the point of view of species’ survival is to defend the strength and diversity of the gene pool. Under resource-rich conditions, the species can defend the gene pool with fewer, long-lived, larger individuals with high metabolism rates. Bodies have little need for long-term fat storage, since fat is plentiful. There is less survival pressure for individuals to reach reproductive maturity early and less pressure for these same individuals to expire soon after reproduction.

    Strategy #2

    Under resource poor conditions, this strategy makes no sense. Defending the gene pool under resource poor conditions would require a larger number of smaller individuals with lower metabolism rates so that more people could get to the age sexual maturity using fewer resources. Our bodies would need to create and store fat since dietary fat is less available. People would reach sexual maturity earlier and die sooner to conserve resources for those who have not yet passed on their genes.

    Insulin is the toggle switch between these two strategies. We know that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers had a low carbohydrate diet and low insulin levels, while agriculturists dramatically increased their insulin levels with their grain-based diet. Everything that happens to us in strategy #2 is spurred by insulin resistance and the accompanying hyperinsulinemia. Metabolic syndrome caused by hyperinsulinemia is an efficient way of culling those of us who have already passed on our genes and so are no longer necessary to the survival of the species. So after ten thousand years of resource poor conditions, we have massive overpopulation and massive misery. The idea is not to recreate the Paleolithic diet; that would be impossible. Rather, the Paleolithic diet tells us what a resource rich nutritional environment looks like. It’s up to us to use politics, economics, and technology to assure a resource rich environment for the world’s population.

    Is this related to what you’re saying in your post?

    By the way, thanks for all your responses to the Low Carber’s Forum on the ADA. I learned from your responses, but some people are simply controversialists and shouldn’t be gratified.

  3. Is this related to what you’re saying in your post?


    By the way, thanks for all your responses to the Low Carber’s Forum on the ADA. I learned from your responses, but some people are simply controversialists and shouldn’t be gratified.

    It's a time killer....thanks though!