How Humans Evolved to Have Too Much of a Good Thing

Another New Year’s Day is coming up fast, and with it, another set of resolutions. And if you’re like 32 percent of all Americans, losing weight is at the top of your list.

But of course, by early February (right around the time of the Feast of the Blessed Super Bowl) that resolution will be gone, and you’ll have decided that you’re just predisposed to put on weight. In other words, the reason you can’t squeeze into those jeans any more is probably exactly what you suspected—it’s all in your genes.

too-much-of-a-good-thing-lee-goldman-coverThe evidence agrees with you. A new book by a nationally renowned doctor has a radical explanation for our individual (and national) weight crisis, along with a host of other maladies. “Some of the key protective strategies our bodies have used to assure the survival of our human species for tens of thousands of years now cause many of the major diseases of modern industrialized societies,” writes Dr. Lee Goldman, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us (Little, Brown; December 8, 2015).

“We wouldn’t be here today, let alone dominate the world, if it were not for fundamental survival traits,” writes Goldman. “These hardwired survival traits are often now ‘too good’—not only more powerful than we need them to be to survive in the modern world, but also so strong that, paradoxically, they’ve become major causes of disease and death.”

So why is it that I find myself wanting to snack so much? As it turns out, the same craving for high-calorie, fat-laden foods often helped our ancestors accumulate fat and keep from starving to death when food was scarce. “That tendency to eat more than our bodies really need explains why 35 percent of Americans are obese and have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and even cancer,” Goldman writes.

Dr. Lee Goldman
Dr. Lee Goldman

What about other modern diseases that stem from hardwired survival traits? Some of them come from our need for water and salt, according to Goldman. “Our ancestors continually faced the possibility of fatal dehydration, especially if they exercised and sweated, so their bodies had to crave and conserve both water and salt,” he writes. “Today, many Americans consume far more salt than they need, and this excess salt combined with the same internal hormones that conserve salt and water are the reasons why 30 percent of us have high blood pressure—significantly increasing our risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.”

The natural “fight or flight” instinct we often feel could be wreaking havoc with our mental health as well, according to Goldman. “In prehistoric societies, up to 25 percent of deaths were caused by violence, so it was critical to be hypervigilant, always worrying about potentially getting killed,” he writes. “Suicide is now much more common in the United States than murder and fatal animal attacks. Why? Our hyper vigilance, fears and worrying contribute to a growing epidemic of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress—and the suicides that can result.”

In order for us to live in a modern world in bodies that have yet to catch up genetically to a modern lifestyle, Goldman says that we must “take advantage of modern science—not in isolation, but as a key complement to continued attempts to approve our lifestyles.” This includes things like medication to treat illnesses like high blood pressure and depression, and stomach surgery for extreme obesity. “This growing reliance on medication or even surgery shouldn’t be dismissed as moral weaknesses, but rather recognized as the sometimes necessary way to do what we can’t do on our own—because our genes simply aren’t built that way and can’t change fast enough.”

Before too long, however, our doctors may be able to treat the actual genes that are messing us up so much. “With the decoding of the human genome, we’re entering into an era in which the specific genetic causes of modern diseases may be treated with medicines that target only the responsible gene,” he writes. “These advances auger a new era of personalized medicine: treatment specifically designed to address each individual’s needs.

Goldman argues that “we can and must continue to use our brains to get our genes and our bodies back into sync with the environment we’ve created.”

 

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Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, “From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything,” the anthology, “Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature,” and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.