Swimming Upstream: Why It’s So Hard to “Get Healthy”

Spoiler alert: It’s not your fault that it’s hard.

I bet that most of my friends and acquaintances don’t want to be unhealthy. Nobody signs up to be pre-diabetic or chronically ill. Nobody signs up for food intolerances, gut problems, or immune system dysfunction. Nobody is dying to become depressed or anxious.

If I told you there’s a possible, potential way to heal yourself of these things through diet and lifestyle, you might say – wait, really!? If you were really struggling and ready for change, you might even try changing something one day. Maybe for a week. Maybe even for a month.

But let me tell you, all of us that are trying to be healthy are swimming upstream.

Salmon literally run themselves ragged trying to get upstream, and all they have to do when they get there is spawn and die. Being healthy is an uphill, upstream swim with no real destination and no end in sight.

Here’s a few reasons why:

We evolved in an environment of “food scarcity.”

As hunter-gatherers and cavemen, eating relied on finding food, trapping it or catching it, and cooking it – all in the great outdoors. It seems obvious that there was no “UberPrey” delivering us fresh kills for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had to walk everywhere (and be very lucky) to find food in the first place, let alone be skilled enough to catch it. So, sometimes we went without food. It was never on-demand exactly what we wanted.

That part is obvious, but what may be less obvious is what that did to our bodies.

In my exposure to the world of nutrition, one very common piece of information I’ve picked up is that our bodies are designed to seek and binge high-reward foods. This means dense carbs (bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, pizza, etc.) and sugar (candy, ice cream, cookies, cakes, etc.), both of which were very scarce in our primal diet.

We probably almost never had access to these things in our caveman years. Dense carbs and sugars were like the dopamine hit of the year when they appeared. As a result, when we saw an apple, we would be biologically compelled to grab it and eat the whole thing. And because they were so rare, many of the mechanisms in our body are designed to store away the nutrients in these things – as fat.

Yep, they both turn into fat.

Actually, in caveman days they probably didn’t. They probably instead got used up in the highly ambulatory lifestyle of our ancestors. The occasional packet of glucose (apple), not to mention the stored fat, was probably essential and critical for survival.

So here’s our problem:

Now, at least in the city, we have UberEats. We have AmazonFresh. We have fast food restaurants, we have grocery stores with everything we could possibly want. Food scarcity is completely not a thing.*

Not only that, but we have food scientists, hired by companies to make sure that food optimally targets alllll our reward pathways. They understand that the brain is wired to seek and crave and binge certain flavors, and they use this to mix new things that leave us bingeing and craving and spending more and more $$$ to get our fix.

TL;DR: We are literally genetically programmed to crave and binge on these high-reward foods, and food companies take advantage of this to sell products

In order for our bodies to be adequately able to digest things like pizza, we would have to have a significant change in our mechanisms for digesting and metabolizing nutrients. Our bodies would have to become smarter waste-disposal systems to adequately filter out all of the non-nutritious (and sometimes poisonous) crap that is in our food to make it taste good and make us want more. That change simply is not going to happen unless we have another 1,000 years to evolve over generations – simply to catch up to the food environment we have today, and that’s if nothing changes in the food industry.

So, Reason #1 that it’s not our fault that it’s hard to get healthy:

Our bodies weren’t designed for the amount and types of food that we now have at our disposal. We are programmed to become slaves to high-reward foods and the people who are making them know and exploit this fact. 

It’s not your fault, it’s an unfortunate combination of social norms, capitalism, and genetics. If you’re trying to avoid these foods, you are barraged with advertisements, pizza smells lurk around every corner, and getting happy hour with friends becomes a battle of wits with the menu and the servers to find out what the heck is in your food.

I know because I’ve been there. It sucks. It’s hard.

Other things that suck and are hard: being chronically sick. Being depressed and anxious. Having no energy.

I chose the first one simply because I was so tired of feeling ill. And you have to be extremely motivated to make changes like this happen, given all the forces working against you. For everyone who just is lethargic sometimes, who has a few skin issues, who sometimes gets an upset stomach – it may feel like more work to do the food thing than it’s worth. I feel that. If you aren’t sick, why do it?

But what if you do really want to be healthier?

My future posts are going to contain things you can do that make it less hard. It’s been almost a year now since I overhauled my diet and lifestyle, and this anniversary has me reflecting on what’s been working and what’s still not where I want it to be.

I just want to acknowledge to everyone that anyone who does anything (yes, really any little thing) to be more healthy is a hero and a champion and kudos, because it’s really hard. You’re battling social norms, misinformation, capitalism, evil food scientists, your own body – even your friends and family.

I’m with you, superhero.

 

* This is disregarding socioeconomics, location, and systemic issues – food as an access/social justice issue is a beast for a different post.

Swimming Upstream: Why It’s So Hard to “Get Healthy”

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