The Sweetness of a Carrot: Ancestral Eating and the Glorious Gustatory Reset

“…almost all the fruits our ancestors ate were about as sweet as carrots.”

– Dan Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body

carrotFinally, it seems that sugar is all by its lonesome. Long defended as a harmless empty calorie, even mainstream nutritionists now view sugar as problematic. It, not fat, along with other forms of refined carbohydrates, is now widely viewed as the single biggest driver of the obesity epidemic amongst both adults and children.

As Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard, put it: “Fat is not the problem. If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.” I’d add migraines to that list as well.

But giving up sugar, for most folks, seems like a very tall order, requiring superhuman reserves of willpower to maintain.

I was there, too. I was a soda drinker for many years, and I figured that I’d be battling my urge to guzzle bubbly sugar water for the rest of my days. This, I thought, would undoubtedly be the biggest challenge of adopting an ancestral diet.

Turns out, it hasn’t been anything like that. It took about two weeks for me to lose all cravings for soda, or sweets of any sort, for that matter. It’s now almost four years later, and I still couldn’t care less about them.

Even more surprising than the absence of sugar cravings, however, has been how giving it up changed the way everything tastes – almost universally for the better. In fact, this gustatory reset is one of the most commonly cited benefits of an ancestral diet.

Foods that once seemed bland now deliver depth and richness. Flavors, long suppressed by the palate-usurping reign of sugar, suddenly emerge from hiding.

Most striking is the sweetness you find in foods where you never knew it existed. Also striking is how cloyingly sweet so much of today’s food is — without resetting your baseline frame of reference, you’ll never fully appreciate how ridiculously sweet a can of cola is — or most every dessert, for that matter.

And surely if you’d told me five years ago that the sweetest fruits our ancestors ate were the sweetness equivalent of a carrot – as Dan Lieberman has in the above quote – I’d have protested: “but carrots aren’t sweet!”

But, yes, carrots are sweet. At least, compared to the other foods with which we have a long evolutionary history with they are. And this includes the fruit our ancestors consumed, as what we eat today has been selected over many generations for maximal sweetness. No fruits that prehistoric humans ate even approached the sweetness of the modern apple or banana.

Sensory Adaptation and the Gustatory Reset

In retrospect, this gustatory awakening isn’t that surprising. Sensory adaptation is a well known phenonemon in the world of neurophysiology — persistent, high levels of any sensory stimulus, when presented to the nervous system over extended periods of time, eventually leads to a suppression of our response to it. And the world of your typical modern human is sweeter in every way – not only is sugar added to just about every convenience food, but many of our fruits are several of orders of magnitude sweeter than their pre-agricultural ancestors. We have such a sweet tooth that we’ve bred them to be this way.

In the book, I discuss the physiology of blood glucose regulation, in particular how the rapid swings in blood sugar that are an inevitable consequence of a standard American diet predispose us to migraines — a fact that’s been overlooked thanks to the ubiquity of refined carbohydrates. And I caution against eating a sweeter fruit (apple, banana, pineapple, etc.) on an empty stomach, when there’s nothing else present to blunt the carbohydrate absorption. For me and many others, doing so will virtually guarantee a migraine. This might seem like a puzzling phenomenon, at first. After all, migraines are a disease of civilization, meaning they weren’t experienced by ancient humans or contemporary hunter-gatherers. Yet, if our pre-agricultural ancestors ate fruit, too, then why didn’t they get them?

Because a modern apple is not a carrot. That’s why.

Just Do It

So don’t fear the sugar-free plunge. The health benefits extend beyond freedom from migraines — this we can now all agree on. And not only will it likely be easier than you think, but the gustatory awakening that it brings will renew your appreciation of a world of food that is not only more nourishing, but that tastes far better.