Trick or Treat

How a biological imperative can mess us up

Well another Halloween has come and gone. For many of us that may include the temptation of a left over bowl of mini-chocolate bars by the front door or covert dips into our kids’ Halloween stash while they’re at school.

Walking past the half full box of left over Cadbury minis by my front entranceway Saturday morning I have to admit feeling a measure of temptation myself (yes even we health club owners can falter to the seductive packaging of a Crispy Crunch bar). That got me thinking …

Trick or Treat?

Did you know humans are genetically programmed to favour higher caloric value foods? Moreover, humans are built to instinctively choose a higher calorie food selection over a lower calorie food selection.

Who knew? Well the manufacturers of those mini chocolate bars for one and they aren’t alone.

For the bulk of human evolution food was foraged for or hunted, not simply purchased from a supermarket and there was often a measure of scarcity. If our ancestors had not possessed the instinct to choose a piece of calorie dense fruit over and edible plant for example, or to choose a handful of nuts dense in quality fats over blades of grass, it is highly unlikely humans would have survived as a species. Favouring higher calorie foods is an instinct we all possess and though it served our ancestors well, it backfires on us in a day and age where food is both easily accessible and available in ever increasing caloric densities.

Food manufacturers are well aware of this evolutionary dynamic of favouring higher calorie foods and invest vast sums of money finding the perfect combinations of sugars, fats, salts and chemicals / additives to get you hooked on their product.

Here are some interesting statements from Michael Moss’s book “Salt Sugar Fat”:

“One of the things that really surprised me was how concerted and targeted the effort is by food companies to hit the magical formulation.”

“…The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the ‘bliss factor’.”

“…huge amounts of time spent formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves. It is the process they’ve engineered that struck me as really stunning.”

“…When it came to fat, it was the amazing role of what the industry calls the ‘mouth feel’….It rushes right to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does.”

Wow right? Well that’s the ‘trick’. Now the ‘treat’

It seems for many of us there’s a strong association between the term ‘treat’ and a food selection we know to be either fattening or just plain unhealthy. We may rationalize that adherence to a healthy eating plan for a period of time deserves indulgences or ‘treats’ as balance. (Can’t say I haven’t been there myself.)

Using those tasty mini-chocolate bars as an example though, what is the effect on our bodies? Well to start with, there are the sugars, sweeteners and additives that make you crave more. More of those same sugars, sweeteners and additives which are addicting making it virtually impossible to stop at just one. There are blood sugar and insulin spikes, shuttling large quantities of glucose into our body fat reserves. Spikes that can contribute to diseases like hypoglycemia and Type II Diabetes. Depending on the amount and frequency of these indulgences (remember these things are addictive) there can be significant weight gain as a result or perhaps just a significant disruption in what may be a goal to reduce body fat levels (we’ve all heard the myriad of health hazards associated with being overweight.)

What about the additives, chemicals and artificial sweeteners and preservatives these types of foods can contain? Effects from these are varied and far-reaching—from impacting us mentally (depression, hyperactivity and distractibility are just a few conditions strongly linked to consumption of many common processed food additives) to impacting our overall health (yes many of these additives, preservatives and artificial sweeteners are considered carcinogenic or neurotoxic to name just two). Digestive tract issues are also a common and more immediate side effect—bloating, stomach cramps and worse from those unpronounceable ingredients used to preserve products so they are still palatable and visually appealing for weeks and months after being packaged.

Treat!? They’re starting sound a lot more like a punishment to me.

In the end it’s all about balance and finding that equilibrium between enjoying ourselves while still achieving and maintaining our fitness and general health goals. It can be a slippery slope though, especially where sweets are concerned.

Sometimes just being aware of why we are so drawn to these products can make all the difference in whether or not we choose them. So now you know. Don’t get tricked by treats!

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KAEL SMITH is one of the owners of Urban Athlete located in Kensington, Calgary. If you have any fitness or nutrition questions please don’t hesitate to send him an email, or better yet, visit him in the studio[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]