The Perverse Modern Diet and Lifestyle

We have created and aggressively maintain an environment that makes it almost impossible for a typical person to resist the various social and cultural defaults that produce chronic non-infectious disease.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted June 27, 2017 in Human Things (Last Updated June 27, 2017)


1Adapted for Nomadic Lifestyle
2Start of Agriculture
3Industrial Era
4Exploit Evolutionary Adaptations
5Deranged Modern Lifestyle
6Staggeringly Unprepared
7Setting Ourselves Up for Failure

There is no question that western civilization - and increasingly the entire planet, as the western economy and culture is exported and promulgated worldwide - is experiencing a slow-motion catastrophe of non-infectious, preventable diseases.

1 Adapted for Nomadic Lifestyle

Human bodies evolved over millions of years to adapt to an environment in which we had to work moderately hard (but not excessively hard) to obtain enough calories and nutrition. Essential nutrients like glucose, fructose, amino acids and fatty acids were bound up in complete, naturally-occurring foods with lots of fibre and a dense concentration of nutrients.

Humans are strongly adapted to seek out and crave sweet, salty, fatty and savoury (umami) flavours because they are relatively scarce in nature and serve as a good proxy for the kind of nutrient-dense food that we need.

From the beginning, human diets were highly diverse and varied by the seasons, comprised of a broad mix of whatever edible foods could be foraged, dug up or hunted: leaves, flowers, seeds, fruits, nuts, legumes, grasses, roots, tubers, mushrooms, lean game, fish, insects, and so on.

At the same time, we also evolved to avoid unnecessary work. Calories are hard to obtain, food is not always available, and it's better to rest and conserve your energy when you can. When there is a surplus of food, we're highly adapted to store that extra energy in fat cells so that we can live on our reserves during times when food becomes scarce.

Humans have been processing food in various ways - cooking, grinding, soaking, etc. - to increase nutritional yield for tens of thousands of years, but for the most part we just ate whatever nature provided.

2 Start of Agriculture

The human diet underwent a dramatic change when people first began to adopt agriculture around 12-10,000 years ago, switching from nomadic foraging and hunting to cultivating a relatively small number of farmed crops.

Early farmers traded variety and diversity for the relative stability, yield and caloric density of starchy cereal grains. (Sidenote: growing cereal grains to ferment into alcohol was probably also a significant factor in the introduction of farming.)

At first, farming likely provided an advantage in consistent access to food. However, the resulting benefits to those new farmers peaked early and then turned negative after a few generations.

The longer-term result was a significant shortening of the average human lifespan, combined with a dramatic increase in the rate and severity of infectious disease outbreaks (caused by pathogens evolving rapidly in the tight circuit between people and farm animals), malnutrition (from lack of dietary diversity), dental disease (bacteria feed on bits of sugary food left in the mouth and release lactic acid that eats the tooth enamel), cardiovascular disease, stress injuries (from hard repetitive farm work), and other illnesses related to a diet based primarily on carbohydrates - and all coupled with a life of relentless physical toil and suffering.

On the other hand, agricultural communities had higher reproductive rates than nomadic communities and arguably did a better job of producing and accumulating knowledge and innovation in a durable culture that could be passed down across generations. As a result, farming gradually displaced hunting and gathering almost everywhere on earth.

Yet for the next 500 generations or so, humans who had adopted agriculture were still living short, unpleasant lives of relentless labour, horrific diseases and frequent hunger and malnutrition.

3 Industrial Era

The human diet underwent a second massive transition over course of the industrial revolution, which drove rapid increases in innovation and change to every aspect of food production: drastic increases in crop yields, improved transportation and storage, industrial processing of food into consumer products, labour-saving machinery at every step in the process from tilling soil to plating meals.

Some of the changes that accompanied the industrial revolution vastly improved public health, particularly via the dramatic reduction in infectious disease infection due to improved sanitation and hygiene. By the mid-20th century, average life expectancy in most industrialized countries had finally caught back up to and increased beyond the average life expectancy of pre-agriculture nomads (around 60-70 years).

We now have industrial methods for extracting the starch, glucose and fructose from plants and mass-producing refined sugar and simple carbohydrates. Likewise, we mass-produce vegetable oils that are shelf-stable but have wildly unbalanced levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. We can mine and evaporate massive quantities of salt (once so rare and valuable that Roman soldiers were paid in salt allowances, called "salaries").

We have bred livestock and established huge operations that produce massive quantities of cheap, fatty meat, in part by force-feeding them processed carbohydrates (i.e. corn) and routinely administering low doses of antibiotics, which prevent infectious disease outbreaks but cause animals to grow faster (likely by inhibiting the gut flora's ability to extract nutrients from the food) and also contribute to antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

The result of all these industrial changes in our food system is that for most of the world, a) there is more than enough food to meet people's dietary needs and b) the food has been refined and processed such that the sugar, fat and salt are abundant and extremely easy to digest.

4 Exploit Evolutionary Adaptations

In modernizing the food system, the food-industrial complex has also discovered several ingenious ways to exploit our evolutionary adaptations in order to maximize their profits at the expense of our long-term health.

They aggressively exploit how our bodies are adapted by manufacturing irresistible products specifically designed to trigger fundamental cravings that were laid down over millions of years: sugar, salt, fat and umami.

Our bodies were adapted to crave these flavours because natural foods that have the tastes we crave - sweet, salty, fatty and savoury - are complete, complex, nutritionally substances that contain literally thousands of different chemicals and have carbohydrates bound up in complex chains inside cell walls with abundant fibre that slows their absorption into the bloodstream.

Industrial food is nothing like the food we find in nature. The complex carbohydrate chains have been broken down into simple starches and sugars - and high concentrations of additional refined sugar and salt are added to nearly every product to make them more appealing.

Some foods are also manufactured with high amounts of fat - especially vegetable oils with dangerously high levels of omega-6 fatty acids - to make them tastier. Meanwhile, a recent moral panic against fat of all kinds has resulted in a boom of "low fat" foods that have even more sugar added to make up for the removed fat, rendering them even more unhealthy.

(And it's not just how we process foods that has changed. 12,000 years of selective breeding has produced a pantheon of fruits and vegetables that are vastly larger, sweeter, more tender and less fibrous than anything found in the wild. Think of the difference between a small, bitter wild crabapple and a soft, juicy ambrosia apple; or between a tough, fibrous Queen Anne's lace root and a big, sweet fleshy orange carrot. Or consider for a moment that broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi and gai lan are all just cultivars of the exact same species of Brassica oleracea.)

5 Deranged Modern Lifestyle

So modern industrial food has way too much sugar, way too much starch, way too much salt, way too much of a few very specific kinds of fat that are convenient for the food industry but aren't healthy for us, way too much fatty, corn-fed meat, not nearly enough of the various kinds of fat our bodies actually need, not nearly enough fibre to slow the absorption of sugar, and not nearly enough trace minerals and other nutrients.

(And that's without even touching the fact that our entire food system is built and runs on vast inputs of non-renewable fossil fuel energy.)

On top of our deranged diet, we are now also less physically active than typical people living in any culture at any time in human history. Almost everyone now lives in a way that was once reserved for kings and queens, albeit with machines to do our work for us instead of servants.

By structuring our entire society around the understandable human instinct to avoid unnecessary effort, we have succeeded at eliminating every kind of routine physical work - walking, running, climbing, swimming, digging, lifting and carrying, chasing, and so on.

The only time we are required to make any effort at all is to walk from one chair to another - say, from your office chair to the chair in your car, and from there to the couch to eat a microwaved frozen dinner (made with lots of added sugar, salt and fat, of course).

6 Staggeringly Unprepared

Our essentially paleolithic hunter-gatherer bodies are staggeringly unprepared to deal with the novel - indeed, historically unique - environment we have created for ourselves.

When we don't engage in enough physical activity, our muscles atrophy and our bones grow thin and porous. Without regular physical exercise, our bodies begin to experience chronic low-grade stress, which damages the cardiovascular system and increases the risk of heart disease.

When we continually ingest more simple calories than we need to operate our metabolism, we store excess fat but never get a chance to dip into those reserves. Our fat cells themselves are not dormant: they function as part of the endocrine system, releasing additional inflammatory factors that also encourage the formation of arterial plaque.

When we consume large quantities of refined sugar with no fibre to mitigate it, our blood sugar spikes dangerously and our pancreas produces a huge insulin response, which quickly causes the blood sugar to crash again and leads to feelings of fatigue and misery and the craving for more sugar. Decades of this render our cells numb to the effects of insulin, forcing the pancreas to produce more and more insulin to get the same response. That, in turn, gradually exhausts the capacity of the pancreas to produce insulin at all.

And these processes all introduce and reinforce pernicious feedback loops that keep people trapped in poor health and illness.

Of course, people living in poverty are the hardest hit, since the economics of industrial food mean the unhealthiest foods are the most available and affordable, and the fact of poverty, through various mechanisms, is itself a major stressor that aggravates and reinforces all the feedback loops in effect.

The inevitable result is a steadily advancing tsunami of widespread chronic stress and inflammation, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, various cancers, osteoporosis, chronic musculoskeletal pain, auto-immune disease, anxiety and depression, dementia, and so on.

7 Setting Ourselves Up for Failure

Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that this epidemic of non-infectious diseases is almost entirely preventable. However, we have created and aggressively maintain an environment that makes it almost impossible for a typical person to resist the various social and cultural defaults that produce disease.

Humans are made for walking, but most cities and towns are designed in such a way that it is difficult or even impossible to walk from one place to another - and people who try to walk anyway are regarded as aberrant.

We have systematically set ourselves up for failure on a mass scale. In addition, there are huge, powerful corporate interests on every side of the crisis - the food industry, the automobile industry, and the healthcare/pharmaceutical industry - that are committed to making sure we don't significantly change the context in which they have grown so large and powerful.

One final note: it's not nearly enough merely to "educate" people about this system or encourage "healthier choices" - and it's sheer malpractice to blame people for getting sick in an environment that is designed to make people sick. Most people, most of the time, are just too busy just trying to live our lives to commit to a long uphill slog against the prevailing winds of our civilization.

Until we actually change our society so that default behaviours favour routine moderate physical activity and healthy food, this public health crisis will just continue to get worse.