The Evolution Of Food & Fitness: How Things Have Changed

Everything health and fitness related can all trace back to one thing: our human evolution.

Let’s unpack what we mean by this…

Humans evolved in nature’s garden. We gathered a wide variety of nuts, berries, tubers, and leafy greens. We hunted animals and were hunted by animals. Every day was spent in the elements, traveling, climbing trees for honey, bathing in streams, and sheltering under lean-tos. Fast forward two hundred fifty thousand years (or six million years if you’re counting our early hominid ancestry), and all of a sudden, we are standing in the chips aisle deciding if we want salt and cracked pepper or sea salt and vinegar potato chips after sitting in a chair and staring at a computer all day.

But our bodies are still functioning as if we are in our ancestral days that required lots of movement and hard work to get nutrient-dense foods. For some of us, those ancestral days might only be a couple of generations ago if you came from farming and trapping families.

This is why health and fitness are imperative in our modern world—our modern lifestyles simply do not give the body what it needs.

This article unpacks why the body needs what it does based on our human evolution and how to give the body what it needs in our modern world. It provides a more holistic approach to understanding why we need to eat a whole food diet, why starving yourself isn’t a good way to lose body fat, why strength training is the best movement for our bodies, and why excessive extreme high-intensity exercise is not.

 

The Evolution of Nutrition

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers for two hundred fifty thousand years with a diet that varied depending on the region, but mostly consisted of animals, wild roots, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. There are many theories about how eating meat caused our brains to grow and develop consciousness.

Humans also endured regular periods of feast and famine. Evolutionarily, our bodies adapted by wanting to store fat as energy as much as possible. This is important to remember when you’re trying to cut calories to lose fat because our bodies have the natural ability to quickly adjust to lower calories.

 

The Evolution of Food

The agricultural revolution happened about fourteen thousand years ago, which was a significant shift in the human diet and survival. The domestication of plants and animals made the food supply steady. There was less famine and starvation, which allowed for large population increases. However, this was not good for the human body. In the archaeological analysis of these first farmers, there is a nutrition deficiency that is evident in bone analysis as the human diet became more heavily focused on carbs and less nutrient-rich foods. You can see the same nutrient deficiencies in indigenous corn farmers from the American Southwest. Even though fourteen thousand years of farming seems like a long time, it has not been enough time for our bodies to adapt to this kind of diet. The human body is still wired for the two hundred fifty thousand years of being hunter-gatherers that preceded the agricultural revolution.

The industrial revolution in the past century further transformed our diets with the introduction of processed foods, refined sugars, and mass food production. This led to increased availability of calories but often at the expense of nutritional quality. With today’s standard American diet, there is a rise in health issues.

According to the mismatch hypothesis, human traits that were once advantageous due to our evolution are currently inadequate due to massive environmental changes. This hypothesis suggests that many modern health issues arise from the discrepancy between our ancient genetic makeup and contemporary lifestyles. Our bodies are adapted for a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, but current lifestyles and processed food choices don’t support that, producing more chronic illnesses.

 

Energy Conservation

Our bodies have evolved to be highly efficient at conserving energy, a trait that has been crucial for survival throughout human history until just a couple of generations ago, when our great-grandparents were farmers, ranchers, and trappers. Looking back at our ancestry, our hunter-gatherer lifestyle meant that there were times of food abundance and many times of scarcity.

The human body evolved to have a brilliant metabolic adaptation. In order for the human race to survive, the body learned to conserve energy. Despite living in our modern world, the body is still wired for survival—it doesn’t know that food is readily available everywhere.

Body Fat

It’s important to keep in mind that energy conservation means the continuation of the human species. For humans and all mammals, energy storage is fat storage. The primary way our bodies store energy is through adipose tissue (body fat). Excess calories consumed are converted into fat and stored for later use. During periods of low energy intake, the body slows down metabolism in order to conserve energy. In a modern-day context, eating too little isn’t a good thing because your body will simply slow your metabolism down.

Obesity

In our modern society, we have an overabundance of high-calorie, processed foods paired with a sedentary lifestyle. The end result: our bodies’ brilliant energy-conserving mechanisms now contribute to obesity. The efficient storage of excess calories as fat, combined with reduced energy expenditure, leads to the weight gain that we are ubiquitously seeing today.

Remember to give yourself more grace. Processed foods are now created to be addictive, which makes them easy to eat in excess. Because of the feast-or-famine environment we evolved in, our bodies are still structured to store any extra energy it possibly can.

The Evolution of Fitness

Humans have always had to work hard for their survival: climbing trees to get honey, tracking animals on a hunt, running away from other animals that want to harm us, using tools to create structures that protect us from the environment. What we consider fitness and exercise has always been inseparable from being human. This is why in our modern world, it is imperative that we carve out time and build discipline to incorporate fitness into our everyday lives.

 

Strength Training

Due to a variety of evolutionarily based reasons, strength training is absolutely necessary for our health in modern life. The more muscle you have, the better you are at disposing of glucose, which gets stored as body fat if consumed in excess. Studies on bodybuilders have found that having muscle is your best bet for preventing chronic diseases and cancer.

Because modern life has so much processed food, the best way to protect against that is to speed up your metabolism, which happens when we build muscle. If you’re eating at a caloric deficit regularly, reverse dieting can also speed up your metabolism. Remember, a higher metabolism means less body fat.

The Journey of Food and Fitness

Eating a balanced diet from mostly whole foods and consuming a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods is important for modern health because it’s the closest we can get to mimicking our ancestral diet. It’s equally important to build muscle, which requires consuming a large amount of protein.

Aside from strength training, regular physical activity (but not too much or too intense) is essential for modern health. This includes going on hikes, bike rides, etc. on a regular basis.

Food is literally everywhere in our modern world. It takes a lot of discipline to eat whole foods with an emphasis on protein consumption, which has never required discipline in the past. Give yourself grace around eating processed foods occasionally because eating an ideal diet requires work. Discipline is needed to choose to eat nutrient-dense foods versus hyper-palatable processed foods that are everywhere.

 

Want access to 3 weeks of nutrition guidance? Get access HERE

Want to learn more about how our evolution relates to health and fitness? Listen to The Stronger Than Your Boyfriend Podcast, Episode 190- Evolution of Food and Fitness: How Lifestyles Have Changed

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