Some type of evolved hummingbird, more designed to eat insects, the alternate food for hummingbirds, than sip nectar — Pantanal, 2006
One of the most interesting things when going through bird species is the different bills that birds have. Each appears uniquely adapted for a particular kind of food — a prime example of species diversification and adaptation to habitat niche. But bills are easy. You can look at ones like the photo above, taken on a birding trip to the Pantanal in Brazil, basically their version of the Everglades, and guess what their favorite food is. This one I caught with a bug in its beak. Not that hard.
But how its metabolism works? Not so easy. The above species looks evolved from some kind of hummingbird, though. A little known fact by most folks is that hummingbirds don’t drink nectar all day, every day. They supplement their diet with bugs. or actually (more likely) eat insects, and supplement their diet with nectar. I’m not a hummingbird expert, but if you are, let me know in the comments!
One thing I’ll bet you don’t think every time you see a photo of a bird, like the one above, or a wild animal, is that the animal is dying of starvation. Except for lions (cue the Lord Attenborough voice-over) we’re not conditioned by media or messaging to think of animals (including birds) as constantly starving and miserable. Because, well, they’re probably not. Their metabolism has adapted to their food circumstances for over millions of years. And crippling hunger doesn’t serve any sentient creature’s long-term prospect. The food a wild animal seeks out is the kind of food it can eat, and thrive on. If it doesn’t, then it simply can’t reproduce. No one makes babies of any variety if they’re starving. The energetics just don’t work that way.
And if you can’t cut it with your particular feeding/evolutionary strategy, then you go extinct. Every animal’s presence on this planet is an exercise in ongoing validity. Are hawks cold in the middle of the winter? I’m sure that there might be days out there when it’s tough. But if it were too tough, then the tough would get going. They’d become migratory, as many birds have become. And plus, the more that is learned about birds show they don’t care much about cold. Bar-headed geese migrate at 23000′ in altitude. It’s never warm up there.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because we don’t understand food for our own species in this larger context at all, as far as I can tell. And don’t think I’m going to go all-Paleo-diet on you, either. For those not in the know, Paleo is the latest diet that says you should eat what people ate 100,000 years ago. Well, OK. But as you read along, you’ll start to understand that just stating that alone is not going to get you where you want to go. I’m sure there are more sophisticated variants, but without time-dependent behavior, you’re still down in the lower v-Memes, believing another Authoritarian with no sense of temporal scaling or connection.
And now, before you read any further, I want you to sit down. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. And breathe. And in the process, move your mind out of the fundamental Belief-Based, Dichotomous, Two-Way Thinking mode that you (like me) and almost everyone else has been trained to think about food. Food is something that is deep inside our brains — but not because of any Survival v-Meme programming. What we know about food, and what we should eat, if we’re lucky, is mostly in our Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme minds. If we’re lucky, there might be a little Performance v-Meme and Communitarian v-Meme stuff in there as well. But mostly, food is built around shame, reward, and most likely, family. And as the world has changed, framing it in these terms is absolutely killing us. As I stated in the last Weight Loss post, a huge majority of us (especially in the U.S.) is fat, and getting fatter. Stephen Hawking said it’s the chief peril to the survival of humanity, and he may be right.
So take that deep breath. Because I’m about to lay a big truth on you.
You are not supposed to be hungry as part of a standard condition of existence.
Huh? What does that mean?
OK, here’s an elaboration. Your body can exist in homeostasis and 99% of the time not be hungry, and you can be healthy. And it can take you there, even if you’re fat. You DO have to follow the primal rules of your body. You can’t get there through just any old path. But you can do it.
Well, that’s fine. What does THAT mean? It means that if you understand your body in the Survival v-Meme, when we were running around with 8-10 other hominids, your body evolutionarily adapted to that world, and that’s the body you have now. And while it was decidedly low-empathy (empathy above mammalian attachment behavior, which can still be pretty sophisticated, was in pretty short supply) people weren’t miserable all the time. They weren’t. I’m not a fan of the blissful primal state, and I also believe that Ishmael by Daniel Quinn also made the point that we weren’t hungry all the time, but we weren’t hungry. Just like that hummingbird flycatcher thingy above isn’t miserable all the time either. Misery doesn’t drive upward social evolution for the most part (though Survival v-Meme crises can create neuroplasticity.) You have to have increased energy to evolve out of that Survival v-Meme band, and when you look at the sophistication of native art, up one click in the Tribal v-Meme, it’s plainly clear that those folks didn’t nearly starve every year.
Sure, there was a distribution — some communities fell on hard times and such. But it was far more likely that disease would get you than a lack of food. And this is true for most species. Every now and again, there may be a famine. But I can remember reading a pine beetle irruptive population paper about 15 years ago. What always got the pine beetles wasn’t a lack of food. It was disease. And with our own human cohort, it hasn’t been food supply that’s taken a knock in our numbers at any time since we figured out vaccinations and penicillin.
You have not evolved to be hungry as a standard condition of existence.
If we haven’t evolved to be hungry, then in order to understand hunger, we have to understand how we have evolved to be NOT hungry. That’s a key insight.
Now things get tricky, because there are lots of stories about all of this. And as with many human stories, there is some truth in most of them, (we learned that back in v-Meme 101!) but not total truth. What we CAN learn from an Integral perspective, though, is how to pull the appropriate truths, in the appropriate order, apply the appropriate temporal and spatial scales, and come up with something that looks like an elephant. It may be wrapped in spaghetti, and not simple. But we can get there. Bear with me.
In deep human/hominid time (depending on who you ask, at least .5M-1.6M BCE) we showed up on the planet. We had the potential for memetic evolution, but really, we were pretty much working on our biological, genetic foundation. Like most animals, we might have been reaching up there to the first two v-Meme levels (this was before solidified Tribal structures.) But we mostly hung out and responded to the environment. This is how we biologically evolved. The rest of human history is a scant 10,000 years. And while it may be having a profound effect on us, that part of evolution of humans as a complex, collective being is far more easily charted with v-Memes than with actual genes. If a good looking human from 50,000 years BCE showed up, I guarantee they could get a boyfriend or girlfriend. Even if there were some requisite time spent in charm school before you brought them home to the parents. It might bring some different perspective, however, to the phrase “she’s a total ANIMAL in the sack!”
So what was that deep history life like? Well, seasons mattered. Different foods were available during the different seasons, and we likely adapted our diet to those different seasons. Now here’s the key insight: Not only the surface level characteristics of our bodies adapted, but our metabolisms also adapted. We adapted both our habits, and switched our metabolic characteristics, to the seasons of the year. And these effects came with intertwined timescales. Not only did the Earth moving around the Sun matter. As important was our ability to metabolically adapt to changing circumstances, which was much shorter. It didn’t take all fall, or all spring, to take advantage of the change in food supply — or stop feeling bad because we couldn’t get any more apples.
The standard explanation of seasonal change in food supply is that we are supposed to put on weight in the summer and fall, when fruits were available, and then lose it, under stress, when they were not. Nothing in that statement is new. People have been saying that kind of stuff for ages. Locavore blah, blah, blah. We lost weight in the off-times because we were starving. And we had to put on enough fat to avoid starving in the winter. And so, implicitly, we had to have foods that help us put on weight. Like fruits. Or carbs. Or whatever.
Well, maybe not. Maybe there’s actually deep bullshit in that statement, that’s coded into our understanding of our bodies that comes from our v-Memes, and not our actual biology. And maybe there are other timescales in play regarding food, than just the source. Maybe adaptation time has something to do with it as well.
What’s really interesting is that no one talks about our bodies LOSING weight as part of the plan. Or diet. The whole idea is “we gain weight, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.” It’s just not considered that maybe losing weight is also part of our homeostatic trajectories.
I went looking for one of my favorite historic Nez Perce photos, of an entire tribal subgroup. The Nez Perce were never a survival band — far from it, so please don’t misinterpret my statements. But if you were to find a better-looking, cut-up band of body builders, you’d be hard pressed to do it. This one below will have to do — you can still see that Charles Whirlwind’s (photo credit NPS) band is still looking mighty fine.
The Nez Perce never starved — they were salmon-based Native Americans, and had the empathetic development benefit of jointly harvesting salmon when the runs came up the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. I can remember reading similar accounts of Comanche and other Great Plains Tribes, who towered in health and well-being over the U.S. Cavalry soldiers, who were often in poor health and a foot less in height. Great Plains tribes ate buffalo meat. U.S. Cavalry ate flapjacks and salted pork. Nez Perce ate salmon — lots of it. Save when the camas came in during the spring time, it was elk, salmon, and bison in the fall.
But let’s scroll life back far before that, to the African savannah. There would be no winter season to fatten up for or starve. There would be a wet and dry season, a season when plants would fruit, and then a season where you had to chase critters. And during both seasons, our deep ancestors would have bodies adapted to their lifestyles. But instead of assuming that they were starving during one season, and flourishing during the other, maybe what really happened is that they just changed their metabolism. During the dry season, when carbohydrates weren’t available, they just didn’t eat them. And maybe when they were, they had lots of sex, because we do know that elevated baseline fat level is important for estrogen, and therefore conception. That’s a very different narrative than alternate starving, and worrying about starving. Run around a lot one season. Have lots of sex during the other one. Or rather, have lots of sex period, but only have babies during the one, because everyone was fit and in great shape for the most part, just like animals usually appear in the wild, but energetic conditions were only right for making more humans during one. That’s a really different narrative than the chronic suffering one we’re used to.
If there’s a Guiding Principle regarding weight loss that I’ve figured out while changing my diet to more protein and fat, it’s this. I’m not supposed to be hungry. I can lose weight and not be hungry. I can harness my body’s deep memory that this might be the squirrel-chasing season, and not the apple-eating season. And once I get closer to a healthier homeostasis, I can diverge from that for an evening out with friends without worry. If I go back to eating lots of carbs, then I will shift my body to the primal state of eating apples and getting fatter. If I stick with eating protein and fat, I will shift my body back to the primal state of eating rabbits. My body will gear up to being more energetic because those little suckers are hard to catch. And not only that — my body will want itself to be skinnier and lighter, because it’s easier to chase rabbits if I’m not dragging around my beer gut. Or apple gut. Or whatever.
These types of metabolic changes are what in engineering (or science) we call First Order Effects. These are the primary drivers that affect how our body function, and they go back a long way. Intrinsic in all this is that my body is healthy, and that it is capable of achieving homeostasis. If I’ve already bunged up my pancreas, well, that’s a different story. But if all parts are in good, working order, then this is the first big choice.
That’s NOT to say that all the other stuff doesn’t matter. It does. If you’re exposed your whole life to pesticides, the odds go up in the population that you’ll get cancer. Exposure to preservatives, and how they affect the transition in hunger, and weight gain, are also likely very real. If you’re insulin sensitive because of long periods of obesity and inactivity, certainly that matters. But all these effects — UNLESS you have something non-functional with your core systems — are second order. You can eat plenty of organic food-based carbohydrates and still be unhealthy and obese. It’s not going to save you. You can miss the boat with timing and the Paleo diet will do you no good. Likewise, if you follow first-order effects and eat hot dogs and beans, odds are you’ll still lose weight and feel fine. If you don’t drink a ton of water — definitely a first-order effect — you won’t feel fine no matter what you do. If you never move around, you’ll always feel terrible. You’re supposed to get up and get on it every now and then. First order effect.
What’s the v-Meme path toward weight loss? Start at the bottom with Guiding Principles — carbs to gain weight, proteins and fats to lose weight. Mostly divided, and consumed at different times — they’ll have that effect. Almost never be chronically hungry — that’s the truly unnatural state. I’ve talked to enough people in the last couple of weeks about this to convince me that three, to at most seven days seems to be a magical number as far as metabolic shift. I get my data from friends going to Europe, changing mostly their breakfast pattern, and walking around a lot. Folks say they immediately drop 3 lbs. So do I when I go there. Your mileage may vary.
And don’t just leave out the knowledge from the other v-Memes. As you move up, pick the Authority wisely that works for you. That said, Gwyneth Paltrow talking about buying expensive fairy dust is probably a worse choice than Steven Ilg, famous mindfulness athletic trainer. Maybe you need a scientist. Or you’re like me, and the Four Hour Body made sense. Or you’re insulin-sensitive. You can find your way. I have faith in you.
But your body, if all systems are still go, has evolved to shift. Your weight can easily go up — and down. Because when the fruit rots, and there’s no more left on the ground, it’s time to stop laying around and having sex and start chasing those squirrels again. Now you’ll to excuse me while I eat some organic beans and a Nathan’s hot dog. I’ve got some weight to lose.
Postscript — fun Simpsons link. I love Dr. Nick. Definitely one of my favorite characters.