We walk into the supermarket and everything we need is right there at our fingertips. We eat three energy-rich meals a day, plus snacks, with little or no physical exertion. This is highly unusual in the context of our evolutionary history.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in environments where there was sporadic food availability. For millions of years, their eating patterns fluctuated from famine to feast and everything in between. Fasting was common-place and a necessity for survival and certain foods were eaten at certain times of year.
When I think about this, I can’t help but be reminded of one of my favourite-ever meals.
I was doing business in Inner Mongolia during the depths of winter. After a day outside with farmers in the snow, I was the guest of honour at an evening feast. During the feast, there was one dish, that captured everything about that day, about that moment – it’s hard to articulate how amazing it tasted, especially when I describe to you its ingredients!
Pork, cabbage, potatoes, salt and water, slow cooked and served in a huge earthen pot. The pork fell apart – the salted cabbage and potatoes were somehow, exactly what my body needed. As I ate, I looked outside to see the snow falling as darkness descended. Simplicity, situation and seasonal eating at its best, washed down with Baijiu and celebrated with toasts – “Gānbēi!”
At a food science level, the heavy salting of the meal would have been introduced to preserve the pork. The cabbages and potatoes would have been some of the few vegetables which survived storage in winter and were able to withstand the cooking treatment. Pork is known as “warm food” in China, because physiologically, the higher fat and energy levels would have helped keep people warm during the colder months.
Should we go back to seasonal eating? Pork and boiled cabbage in winter would be a hard sell in urban centres, it doesn’t have the same ring as smashed avocado!
These days we are experiencing a greater incidence of chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, autoimmune diseases and cancer. Such diseases are shortening the quality and the length of our lives - notwithstanding the impact on our mental health.
Can we take elements from our hunting and gathering ancestors’ lifestyles and reduce the incidence or reverse the symptoms of chronic disease?
Some of you will have read about intermittent fasting – or time restricted eating - and its benefits for health – much of the data is compelling, yet we are early on in understanding the physiology behind how it works.
Recently I listened to a wonderful podcast (link here) where Dr Satchidananda Panda, was the guest on Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s “Feel Better, Live More” podcast. It’s a long listen, a couple of hours, but easy to follow and fascinating in terms of the science. Dr Panda is a scientist, at the Salk Institute, he specialises in the molecular mechanisms and physiology underpinning our body’s circadian clock. In the podcast, he explores the impact of when we eat and when we are exposed to light on our health: sleeping, disease states, weight management and mental state.
I don’t want to do the podcast a disservice by trying to sum it up – I really encourage you to have a listen - but I can’t resist sharing a few take-home messages:
Food and our bodies: when we eat is hugely important to the timing and functioning of our circadian rhythm – even good quality healthy food, eaten at the wrong time, eg a midnight feast – can be like junk food for our bodies.
- Eating window: we should aim to restrict our eating to a consistent 8-10 hour window – this is not always possible and there are good hacks for shift workers and jet lag.
- Light and our brain: light regulates compounds like melatonin in our bodies. By constantly exposing ourselves to screens and bright lights in the evening, we are messing with our brain’s ability to slow down, switch off and gain much needed quality sleep (read more about quality sleep here).
There are simple environmental changes we can make for our health. By preventing and better-managing age-related chronic diseases, we can extend our healthy lifespan and promote healthy aging – I’ll have a bit of that!
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