We’ve all heard a dieter confess to their weekend “cheat”. There is a certain shame that comes with breaking the rules of a diet; indulging is a crime. Of course, this makes sense at a superficial level. However, drill deeper and you might just start seeing things differently.
For 99% of our existence, we humans were hunter-gatherers (Scanes, 2017). This meant we spent the majority of our evolution expending large amounts of energy foraging for plant foods and catching animal products. Starvation was much more of a risk factor for our ancestors than obesity. If a population happened across an abundant grove of high-sugar fruit, eating the lot wasn’t some naughty act. In fact, the only crime would be not gorging oneself – a calorie-rich source of nutrition was hard to find.
During our evolution, there were no cookie-filled pantries or Uber Eats to satisfy peckish pangs. The foods we now deem naughty – those high in sugars and fats – were about the most valuable little morsels our ancestors could have lucked upon. Of course, everything is relative. To the hungry hunter-gatherer, a chocolate bar would have been a rare jewel. To the modern Westerner, a chocolate bar is superfluous.
Here, we come to the salient point. Although our circumstances have changed drastically from their evolutionary condition, our minds haven’t. There hasn’t been sufficient time for us to genetically evolve appropriate behavioural alterations. Our bodies are still Homo sapiens, and hundreds of thousands of years have led to a highly efficient calorie-seeking machine. This is known as an ‘environmental mismatch’. In our ancestral environment, filling up on an elusive hive of honey gave individuals an adaptive advantage; if we didn’t starve, we might survive. In our current environment, eating the same amount of honey would add unnecessary hundreds of calories to our already rich diet. We can rationalise this with our minds, but our bodies still crave that potentially life-saving energy.
I’m not advocating the expulsion of diets. They are, in effect, a culturally evolved mechanism to prevent obesity and other maladies. My point is simply this: a cheat meal is not intrinsically evil. It is simply a manifestation of our bodies’ cravings, a desire to stock up on energy for times of famine. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the forbidden fruit – previously limited access made it that much more coveted. This shouldn’t change your diet rules, but I hope it may alleviate some of the guilt often associated with diet deviations. Perhaps, like me, you can view a cheat meal as a treat meal.
Scanes, C., 2017. Hunter-Gatherers. In: C. Scanes and S. Toukhsati, eds. 2018. Animals and Human Society. Academic Press, pp. 65-82. [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128052471000046 [Accessed 6 October 2021]