Blog post

Modern Life is Sweet…

Constant sugar cravings and a culture of treats. Homo Erectus wouldn’t approve … 

Sit too much, snack too much, sugar too much; sleep too little, play too little, fruit too little

Today’s lifestyle and nutrition negatives wound the human body. But more than that, they punch holes in a body of work that was commissioned at the dawn of time.

Because the principles of decent nutrition were known before the era of modern medicine. They predate Tudors, Stewarts and Roman Empires. When good nutrition met humanity, we were a lot hairier.

Our ancestors weren’t daft … they wanted to live.

Hunter-gatherer’s sweet tooth

Nowadays, a sweet tooth is connected to a lack of sleep (more later) or a high general sugar intake. For some it’s chemical: the liver goes into business for itself and sends rogue hormones demanding a hit. 

But at its root, humanity’s sweet tooth is based on an ancestral survival instinct. When plants and fruits were sweet, they were ripe and ready for hunter-gatherers to eat. When plants and fruit were sour … danger. Sweet was life and sour was death.

The surge in positive feelings we get from sugar, to this day, are likely a throwback to humanity’s formative years when healthy, ripe fruit represented energy and life; for a few days at least

Hence sweet tooth. In evolutionary terms we’re wired to seek out sugar … and at the crossroads of manufacturing and marketing they know it. Seductive sugary snacks exploit our natural instincts and trap us in a sweet, sweet chemical loop.

The sugary fruit loop

Snacks generally contain not just glucose (an uncomplicated sugar) but lots of fructose, which is cheaper, sweeter and more manipulatable. 

No matter where you look on our timeline, the human body has never dealt well with fructose, even in its natural fruit form.

For one, the liver struggles to use fructose well. It doesn’t send it out to the body for energy as it does glucose, but instead files most of it away under fat

Also, fructose confuses the body. When we consume high-fructose snacks it misses the calorie intake and keeps hunger switched on.

We don’t see all this activity, but we feel it, first a sugar buzz and then a crash. It’s exhausting. We tend to crash after sugary snacks. And this is why, to perk us back up, we eat something sweet … and the cycle continues. 

Overriding our natural defences

Although our ancestors didn’t pound fizzy drinks and gummy sweets, they did sometimes gorge on fructose and they too put on fat. The difference is, they used the resulting fat to their advantage. 

In feast-famine times, fructose fat was a lifeline. Cavemen and women typically indulged in fruity feasts at the end of the summer and early autumn. This meant they had a reservoir of fat that’d help through the lean winter months; when food was scarce and the weather cold. 

Fortunately/ unfortunately, today we don’t have famine to counterbalance feast, so fructose – which is mainly consumed through processed foods and not fruit – is primed to add to the scales all year round. 

Rethinking sweet treats

Treats are great. They’re sweet and they’re moreish. But once again, our relationship with treats is worlds apart from where it once was. 

Here we don’t have to travel back to the dawn of humanity to see how treats have evolved. Before the industrial revolution, sweets and confectionery were hand-made luxuries, available only to kings, queens and the wealthy. 

In fact, the clue’s in the name: to confect is to mix and merge component parts – in this case ingredients – and to do that one needs knowledge, skill, and resources.

Just a few lifetimes ago, food treats were served rarely and with reverence and occasion. Treats were a big, big deal

That’s not the case now. Food security, in the majority of the Western world at least, means that one can literally consume in a day another era’s treat allowance for the decade. 

And while snack-pushing marketers constantly tell us to be ‘good to ourselves’, treats are rarely good for ourselves. They’re a Frankenstein of chemicals; tailor-made (read constructed, synthesised, created) to hijack our body chemistry, trap us, and leave us craving for more. 

Sleepy deprivation

Speaking of more, one thing we’re not getting more of is sleep. Over the last four decades, Western sleep has been in decline.

Part of it is cultural. Working patterns have crept north as sleep has gone south. As time has moved on, we’ve lost comprehension of what sleep is and does. Sleep seems like a period of pure inactivity: an annoyance when we’d rather be working, reading, clicking, watching, socialising …

Hustleporn entrepreneurs often hold a sort-of romance about forgoing sleep to chase the dream … yet 10,000 different academic papers agree that 100% of people who get fewer than six hours’ sleep will, not may, will show impairment

Did cavemen undersleep? Most likely not. A 2015 study published in Current Biology – based on an exhaustive study of pre-industrial African societies – proposed that cavemen slept just fine. Eight hours fine – slap bang in the middle of recommended sleep parameters that exist to this day. 

Getting this much sleep isn’t a motherly suggestion, but a strong medical recommendation given sleep’s role in developing body, mind, intellect and immune strength. If sleep heals wounds and sharpens instincts, no doubt cavemen were all-in.

Often under-reported, too, is the relationship between sleep and weight gain. Poor sleep impacts and impedes the body’s natural weight management system. We’re also much more likely to reach for sugary snacks, drinks and treats when we’re tired. We use chemical assistance to hold us together … but it comes at a price. 

We have science, Homo Erectus had rocks

We could go on romanticising the caveman way – but beyond the bulletpoints it’s not appropriate. Our cavemen ancestors had black teeth and fleshwounds were a death sentence. 27-year-olds were OAPs and surgery was praying to the sun.

For all our bad habits today, we sit at the intersection of science and data and medicine, and it’s an amazing hotbed of discovery. We’re updating and refining the Human Wellbeing Almanac with more speed and insight than ever before … 

We simply shouldn’t forget our roots, and who started the project in the first place

The uncomplicated diet of eras past found a simpatico and balance with the human body that facilitated humankind’s evolution. In other words, we’re supposed to eat and sleep a certain way – 5,000 generations of evidence says so.

It’s ironic that cavemen had the instincts but none of the knowledge. We have the knowledge but the instincts are getting lost in a pool of screens, marketing and sweet, sweet snacks.

No-one’s saying we need to be more hunter-gatherer, but it wouldn’t hurt to stop and think: what would Homo Erectus do?