This is how things are supposed to work:
You’re a hunting and gathering human being, out in the wild. You come across a brightly colored but unfamiliar object dangling from a tree. It looks potentially edible.
Is that good for me, you wonder?
You take a tiny bite.
It’s delicious. One of the best things you’ve ever tasted. Clearly you’ve struck gold.
You pick as many from the tree as you can carry, and take them back to the rest of the tribe so you can share in your discovery.
Follow Your Bliss?
Our feelings exist to tell us when something we do is good for us. It’s how our brain guides us to do what’s in our best interest.
Despite puritanical influences to the contrary, we’re supposed to do more of the things that feel good, less of the things that feel bad. That’s the whole point of our reward circuitry. Our brain’s reward circuits exist to let us know when we’ve done something right.
And, of course, this includes the reward system we have in place for food.
If you’re a human in the wild, you need a way of knowing whether something you’ve put in your mouth will hurt or harm you.
Tastes really, really good? Don’t stop till it’s all gone.
Tastes pretty good? Keep eating. You’re ok.
Tastes awful? Spit it out.
Makes perfect sense.
Through a couple million years of human evolution, our brain has evolved a finely tuned system for letting us know when we’ve put something in our mouth that’s good for us, something that increases the odds we’ll live to see another day.
But, if that’s the case, how is it we find ourselves in a world where things that taste really, really good are referred to as “sinful,”only to be consumed as an occasional indulgence, if that? Isn’t that the stuff we should be eating more of?
The Perils of Lily Gilding
The problem began when we humans decided to start monkeying with our food reward system. When we started trying to engineer our food to MAXIMIZE its tastiness, without concern for its nutritional value.
In our efforts to gild the lily, we invented new foods in which the pleasure of their consumption was no longer associated with their biological value. We concocted foods in which taste was no longer a reliable indicator of healthfulness.
Now, you might thing this started somewhere around the mid-20th Century, around the time when factory produced convenience foods exploded onto the scene, filling the grocery store shelves with an ever expanding array of tasty treats designed with the sole purpose of getting us to eat as much of them as possible.
And this is certainly a BIG part of the story. Big food has literally turned manipulating our food reward circuits into a science. Looked at objectively, these achievements are impressive, and a testament to human ingenuity. Yet, few would argue that their efforts helped spawn a public health disaster.
The fascinating tale of the food industry’s mastery of food reward is told in the book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us.” I’m still making my way through it, and it’s been selected as one of two of our initial selections for the first Migrai-Neverland book club.
Older Than You Think
But, if you think the food chemists are solely to blame, think again. It turns out that we humans started monkeying with our food reward circuits long before the first Twinkie was plucked off a conveyor belt. That’s right, we’ve been mastering the art of designing food to tickle our pleasure centers long before that.
Ever since we began cultivating plants, in fact. Ever since the dawn of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, we’ve been selecting for the tastiest varieties of fruits and vegetables, shaping their evolution.
Just as we’ve bred dogs and cats to provide maximal people happiness, selecting for things like big eyes, tail wagging, coon-hunting prowess, and loud purrs, so have we selected for the tastiest fruits and vegetables of every generation.
Usually this means the sweetest, often at the expense of nutrient content.
Generation after generation, as the starch and sugar went up, the phytonutrients and minerals went down.
And over time, just as we’ve done with factory made convenience foods, we began eroding the connection between taste and biological value.
That’s how we can find ourselves in a world where adding an apple a day from the grocery store could actually INCREASE our risk of heart disease!
But, alas, there’s hope!
The reason we’ve stopped trusting our food-induced feelings is because of the abundance of foods specifically engineered to hijack the brain circuits that produce those feelings.
The bliss from a bite of double stuffed Oreo certainly should NOT be interpreted as a signal to eat more of it, because the Oreo was designed to specifically manipulate the brain’s reward system.
That system was NEVER made to deal with an Oreo.
However, the system was designed to deal with all the foods we encountered in the 2.5 million years before we started monkeying with our foods.
Translation: the sheer bliss you feel after biting into a juicy, grass fed ribeye, or the addictive tangy sweetness of a ripe, wild blackberry, those things CAN be trusted. That’s smart, not sinful.
That’s your reward circuits working as nature intended.
So, the upside here – and it’s a big upside, IMO – is that a return to eating evolutionarily appropriate foods means a return to a reliable food reward system. Eat something that you like a lot? Well done! That’s how it’s all supposed to work. Guilt does not belong.
But bringing our diet closer to the that of our ancestors means not only avoiding the factory made stuff, it also means being mindful of the fruits and vegetables we select.
The story of how we’ve cultivated plants to tickle our taste buds is told in Jo Robinson’s exhaustively researched and outstanding book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link To Optimum Health,” the second selection in our inaugural Migrai-Neverland book club.
It’s chock full of great information, including how to make good choices in the grocery store, how to find unaltered wild varieties, how to store and prepare your fruits and veggies so that they retain their beneficial properties, and so on.
These two books make perfect complements, as together they tell the story of our 10,000 year quest to hack our brain’s food reward circuitry. It’s a story that has major implications for the migraineur, and should provide plenty of food for thought and discussion for our first Migrai-Neverland book club.