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Our modern lifestyle: the victory of our natural instincts over our biological needs

Our current modern lifestyle is making us sick

That our current modern lifestyle is making us sick is becoming less and less debated. The only question is how sick and how much of it is preventable through lifestyle change.

It’s well known that the health trends in our modern societies are more negative than positive. There is an explosion in the proportion of us suffering from: obesity, being overweight, type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, dementia, depression, osteoporosis and many other physical or mental ailments. What’s more they’re now occurring at ever younger ages.

We’re also much less capable, physically and mentally, than the previous generations. So while we may live longer than they did, our older years suffer from many physical and mental limitations.

And actually, average life expectancy at birth, that very flawed and simplistic metric we’ve been reassuring ourselves with, because it constantly increased; guess what? It’s started to decrease in the US and the UK in the past few years (well before the COVID-19 pandemic). We’ve just reached such a disconnect between our way of life and what our bodies need to stay healthy that, even with all the benefits of modern medicine, our life expectancy is decreasing.

And don’t get me started on healthy life expectancy (the number of healthy life years at birth), which is a paltry 64.2 years for women and 63.7 for men in Europe.

There is little doubt for most public health professionals that our lifestyle plays a major part in these ever increasing health issues. After all, they have created guidelines around physical activity and healthy eating for exactly that reason: because we move too little and generally eat too much, and not in a healthy way.

Why have we created a lifestyle so detrimental to our health

An interesting question, then, is why have we created such a lifestyle for ourselves? The answer might surprise you: it’s because we’ve followed our natural instincts.

See, the human body evolved to cope with an environment of strong energy scarcity and with many demands placed on it (movements, temperature regulation, digestion, etc.) that were costly in energy. So it developed biological processes to minimize energy use. Some of these processes are part of our natural instincts, which lead us to:

  • always seek calories and gorge on them as much as we can when we do find them
  • prefer foods rich in calories: fat and carbs
  • seek ways to always minimize our energy expenditure: avoid physical efforts, mental efforts (the brain is energivore), discomforts (because they require energy to compensate), and so on

We also evolved big brains that enabled us to find ways to satisfy these instincts and achieve our goals.

Our lifestyle today is the culmination of this quest: for those of us in western countries, we can finally get all the calories we want and move as little as possible.

In a very narrow sense, that’s a fulfillment of our human nature.

Our biological nature hasn’t evolved in the same timeframe

Unfortunately for us, evolution and biology do not operate in the same timescale as the civilization we have created. Our bodies are still similar to the ones of our ancestors 300.000 ago and adapted for the same lifestyle. We subject them to a very different one and just can’t cope, because they never were “designed” to cope with it.

All those increasing negative health trends result, in a major part, from this mismatch. Which is exactly why we’re advocating for a change in our lifestyle to counteract his effect: living a foresighted lifestyle.

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