Obesity, junk food, and the brain – tugging the human instinct in an unhealthy direction

Ever wonder about the effect modern life has on us? Unbridled freedom, choice and… fat? Yep. According to the BBC back in ’06, we were on course for 20% child obesity in 2010. I haven’t checked that fact, nor the actual 2010 figure, but I doubt anything has been done to solve this problem. It doesn’t appear that way on a walk down an average street, anyway.

Circumstances do kind of conspire against us though. Massive corporations spend millions learning how to alter the behaviour of consumers. Marketing departments and salesmen, in their own field, know as much about human psychology as scientists do. It’s almost empirical, you advertise here, and in this way, at this time, and watch the results. Companies know exactly what buttons to press to have us spending money on junk food.

Not only that, but junk food may be a bit of a ‘hack’ in itself. As the theory goes, changes in our diet have occurred at a much faster rate than our genome is able to adapt to. Our bodies don’t ‘know’ food is abundant; as far as they are concerned, we’re hunger-gatherers in the pleistocene and food is scarce indeed. Our most successful ancestors were the ones with the strongest taste for nutrient- and calorie-dense food (fat, sugar), they were more motivated to seek and eat food, and hence more likely to pass their sugar-loving genes into subsequent generations.

At the same time as food has been systematically refined into that which we can resist the least, our environment has been undergoing a similar shift. We can’t resist conserving our energy, resting. Wasting energy could be fatal 40,000 years ago, so if we have food and shelter nearby, we tend not to move (except perhaps for sex). Combine MacDonalds with La-z-boy, throw in a TV for entertainment, and you can see the results.

You just want to slap some people, don’t you?

I’m not saying there isn’t a degree of personal responsibility here; there is. My point is that the health and fitness deck is not exactly stacked in our favour. Our natural inclinations are being pulled in an unhealthy direction.

Do I see a similar thing going on with the brain?

If I can’t remember the name of that song, Google is at my fingertips to relieve me of the burden of recall. If I had an iWhatever, I could do this wherever I was. Is this another example of circumstances moving us away from optimal functioning?

It makes intuitive sense, and strong arguments have been put forward both for and against, but I’m not sure the evidence either way is deep enough to form a solid opinion yet. Some studies have been showing cognitive gains related to media usage (see this lab for instance).

On the other hand, there’s the multi-tasking study that many bloggers have picked up – where people who were classed as heavy multi-taskers were not so good on a test of task switching ability. But how this relates to general internet usage (for instance) isn’t all that clear.

But even assuming there is a detrimental effect going on (which as I say, I think is a big assumption at the moment), there might be a common solution, which I’ll talk about next time…

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