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Why Is It So Hard to Be Healthy?

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What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Did you have a bagel or maybe one of those creamy cheese danishes to help you start your day? Did you take the elevator to get to your cube or office? And did you know that this is evolution hard at work?? Today I want to take you on a brief journey through the ages to understand where those pesky sugar cravings come from and what to do about them.

As many of you may know, we haven't always lived a life of luxury with air conditioning and indoor plumbing. We once had to hunt and gather to get food, which was certainly not as easy as running to your local grocery store. Men and women had to travel many miles per day in order to find enough food to sustain them and their families. In his book, The Story of the Human Body, Daniel Lieberman estimates that hunter gatherer women had to travel an average of 5-6 miles per day, while men had to go 9-10! The objective during this time was simple: make more hunter-gatherers. The ones who were best at this were those who didn't waste more energy than necessary and could find energy rich foods to help them stock up for the inevitable lean times. We literally evolved to pack on pounds and be sedentary. Our bodies were not at all prepared for the era of fast and processed foods.

Let's take a look at the current state of the food industry in America. Beginning in the 1980s, supermarkets saw a dramatic rise in the presence of processed, artificial foods on their shelves. Where did they come from? According to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, the shift in how we think about food can be pinned to a report published in January 1977. Leading up to this report, there was a growing idea that fat and cholesterol were bad for us and should be eliminated from our diets. So a fairly straightforward warning was issued, urging people to consume less red meat and dairy. As you can imagine, the red meat and dairy industries were furious! A senator from South Dakota, many of whose constituents were cattle ranchers I might add, forced a retreat of this report. The guide was rewritten to encourage people to choose meats, poultry, and fish so as to "reduce their intake of saturated fat." From here on out, you never see guidelines that explicitly urge people to eat less of any particular food, and we learned to speak only of nutrients. When the nutritionism movement began, scientists realized they could manufacture vitamins and nutrients in their lab, and could even create food-like products that they could claim were better and healthier than their natural counterparts because they had been engineered to be that way! Ever heard of margarine? Case in point. We all intuitively know that fruits and vegetables that came from the ground are better for our bodies than the low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-fiber foods that could survive a nuclear holocaust, but they are sadly missing the attractive and catchy labels we have been taught to look for when we do our grocery shopping.

The most interesting part of this whole ordeal is not that we eat foods that were made in a lab and have never seen the light of day. It's not even the fact that we are constantly overeating and consuming more than we need to despite abundant research to the contrary (after all, it's evolution!). The most incredible part to me is how different your body can feel after making a few simple changes. Several years ago, I was at a time in my life where I was eating out at restaurants constantly, snacking on treats from the convenience store during late night study sessions, and convincing myself it would all be okay if I just went out and ran a few miles a day. Sure, I gained a few pounds, but it was after months of stomach problems and visits to the doctor's office and dermatologist for chronic problems that I finally had a wakeup call. When I made changes to my diet, my skin cleared up, I stopped taking my prescription strength Metamucil, and I had so much ENERGY! It was an amazing transition, and I have since incorporated healthy eating into my everyday lifestyle. I've read books such as Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson that details how to get the most nutrition from the foods we have available to us today. We've all heard the phrase, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" right? Well that may not be the case, depending on the variety of apple you choose. Robinson cites a 2009 study conducted on overweight men, where eating a golden delicious apple, one of our most common varieties, actually INCREASED already present risks for heart attack and stroke. If you want an apple high in phytonutrients that actually stands a chance at helping you avoid a visit to the doctor's office, go for one of the Discovery or Fuji variety.

Admittedly, I still indulge in sugary desserts or processed foods some of the time (which is okay to do!), but I am much more aware of what I put into my body and the effect it has on my outlook and energy levels. If you take anything with you from this post, I sincerely hope it's a desire to pay more attention to the foods you consume and resist that evolutionary urge to sit on the couch and eat an entire box of doughnuts.