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By Mark Lundegren
Whether you are new to HumanaNatura’s OurPlate natural eating model or not, a crucial practice to ensure natural and optimal modern nutrition is guarding against what I will call carbo creep.
Carbo creep is easily defined and understood. And with attentiveness, it can be readily observed and steadily prevented, or cured, in our lives. As the name implies, carbo creep is the unwanted, often slow, and sometimes unconscious re-introduction of unnatural carbohydrate-dense foods (all other than fresh fruits) into our daily diet.
As you can see in my graphic, such carbohydrate-rich foods are not part of the HumanaNatura’s science-based OurPlate approach, just as they were not a principal part of our diet during most of our natural history and development, when we were primarily a hunting and gathering species.
You can learn more about why these foods are not part of OurPlate, and their generally harmful effects on our native physiology, via the Natural Eating section of HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program.
Natural Eating In – A Nutshell
To quickly recap this fairly large body of information, let me make three points. The first is that our long-evolved human diet is based on raw vegetables, lean animal meats and tree nuts, and fresh fruits and berries. While this idea was once controversial, likely you appreciate that it is now increasingly settled science.
The second point I’ll make is that we have good reason to believe significant departures from these natural food groups, for example by consuming modern junk foods, quickly and substantially reduces our physiological health. This idea is obvious to some of us, but remains subject to varying amounts of skepticism in both popular and scientific circles.
In general, most deviations from our original hunter-gatherer diet involve consumption of higher amounts of fatty foods, carbohydrate-rich foods, salt-rich foods, or all three. And the reliable consequences of these deviations form a familiar list – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, elevated cancers, and the like.
My third point is that we have equally good reason to believe that the scientific optimization of our original natural eating patterns is indeed the path to optimal modern eating – a path that makes the most of both our nature and our potential to nurture ourselves toward new levels of health and vitality. Importantly, this modern-natural approach is also one that does less ecological harm to our planet and its soils, and is likely far more sustainable than all other forms of eating.
As you may know, this last idea is the subject of intense scientific controversy in our time – with claims and counter-claims of misinterpreted research data – though the overall trend of this scientific investigation is in the direction of validating rather than rejecting the idea that modern people are best served via the optimization, rather than the replacement or upending, of our original natural diet.
For now, anyone who follows the OurPlate natural eating model – which seeks to scientifically optimize our original human dietary patterns – can quickly see its transformative power. And owing to its high proportion of perennial and grassland foods, the ecological advantages of the approach should be immediately evident to permaculturalists everywhere.
When Carbos Began To Creep
To understand our modern but natural vulnerability to carbo creep, I need to add that there have been three major alterations to our natural human diet since our move to grassland life roughly five million years ago.
These dietary alterations, or additions, include: 1) cooked meats and starchy root and gourd plants with the control of fire perhaps a million years ago, 2) increased red meats with the onset of organized large animal hunting roughly 100,000 years ago, and 3) dramatically increased amounts of cooked grains and beans (along with fattier meats and dairy products) with the Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago.
As relatively new additions to our longer-term natural diet, and amidst our only slowly changing genetics, we should expect mixed results from these newer foods and this is indeed the case. Cooked meats seem to be a net benefit, allowing us to consume more proteins and thereby better nourish larger brains. The case of cooked starches is more nuanced, since they are high in carbohydrates and are associated with obesity when eaten at modern levels – but they likely aided survival when game was scarce and stomachs were empty amidst primitive foraging life.
We know that our increased use of red meats is a less desirable approach to protein consumption, compared with small animal meats, poultry, and fish. And new research suggests that this is true even when the red meats we eat are lean – potentially increasing cardiovascular disease relative to alternative protein sources. This finding implies that we are not yet well-adapted for diets rich in red meats, even after a 100,ooo years or more of our increased use of them.
And then we have the rise and new prevalence of agricultural grains, beans, and other carbohydrate-dense foods in both our pre-modern and modern diets, a trend that occurred over 10,000 years but in a timeframe that is still sudden in evolutionary terms. As I said before, the impact of this now dominant dietary change on our natural physiology is enormously controversial today. But in any case, the new availability and wide presence of these new human foods amidst modern life is the reason we are so susceptible to carbo creep – which at a minimum is undoubtedly unhealthy when it leads us to repeated daily meals and snacks based on foods that are high in sugars and refined grains.
You will notice that I have not provided a list of modern carbohydrate-rich foods. Do I need too? The list is now familiar and reads like the food placards hanging overhead in most modern supermarket aisles. Unnatural carbohydrate foods include breads, cereals, foods and snacks made with grains and cereals or added sugars, foods high in beans and legumes, potatoes and other root and gourd plants, juices and sugary sodas, dried fruits, candy, and desserts of all kinds.
What all these foods have in common is that, until about 10,000 years ago, almost none of them were a significant part of our human diet. Today, they are of course everywhere and often mainstays are of what we eat each day.
Why We Struggle With Creeping Carbos
Though we can debate the nutritional merits of each of these foods, we really don’t need to, for the purposes of understanding why we are so often, and so strongly, beset by unwanted carbo creep – especially when we mean to eat naturally and with our carbohydrates primarily in the natural form of fresh fruits and berries.
After all, it is clear that regular infusions of carbohydrate-rich foods, along with fats and salts, would have been both rare and a boon to human life and reproduction in the sometimes tumultuous and pressured life of our African plains-dwelling ancestors. Then, essential sugars, fats, and salts were in comparatively short supply and we would have naturally evolved to pursue these foods with relish, whenever we could find them.
For this reason, we should expect and do find that humans naturally and strongly crave sweet, fatty, and salty foods – and not leafy vegetables and lean proteins – reflecting their relative scarcity and the natural survival benefits they would have afforded during millions of years of subsistence foraging. We crave these foods so much, in fact, that they can exert what is called a supernormal influence on us when presented in high or persistent quantities. This term refers to the manipulative triggering of primitive or instinctual aspects of our brains in ways that cause us to act, often unconsciously, below our full potential or at reduced states of health.
In our time, thanks to science and industry, most of us are now unnaturally surrounded by continuous supplies of salts, fats, and carbohydrate-rich foods, and are naturally but undesirably stimulated to seize these once rare foods when and where we can. And today, this can mean almost everywhere and almost all the time, if we are not informed and careful, and even if we are.
Owing to our human nature, evolved amidst carbohydrate scarcity, it can hardly be a surprise that carbohydrate-rich and other luxuriant foods tug at our instincts and steadily work their way into our diets, despite our best intentions and the clear recommendations of scientists. In practice, creeping carbohydrates often begin as rationalized but self-deceiving exceptions – a one-time piece of cake here, a grain-based meal there – but soon can become far from exceptional.
If we are not careful and simply go with the flow, not just of social norms but our natural instincts as well, these and other unnatural foods can increasingly work their way into our diets and our psyches. And we quickly can find ourselves eating enormous amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods, ones that invariably push away healthier alternatives.
From Carbo Creep To Carbo Cured
The way out of this modern nutritional, behavioral, and psychological trap is of course via new awareness and our willful movement away from unhealthy (and naturally circular or self-reinforcing) carbohydrate-dense food eating. This means calling supernormal carbo creep for what it is, manipulative and creepy – and our momentary exceptions for what they are too, rationalizations that reliably send us down a slippery slope of fleeting culinary pleasures, unnatural food cravings, and expanding waistlines.
In this curative process, it is essential to keep in mind that when we stay on a natural diet and follow the OurPlate approach, we quickly become perfectly satisfied with this way of eating and reliably experience its many health and fitness benefits. Often, it’s only when we are confronted with the opportunity of modern supernormal foods that want and temptation arise, and the prospect of creeping carbos creeps back in. When this happens, we can choose to maintain our healthier eating patterns or begin a new and naturally building cycle of creeping carbos – and perhaps of other unhealthy foods and behaviors too.
Three practical strategies can help you choose and stay on the high and naturally healthy road. First, try to maintain uninterrupted OurPlate eating as long as you can. This might start in hours but can become weeks and months with persistence. Second, choose your venues and companions as wisely as you can, and avoid being around tempting unnatural foods and eating, and the instinctive temptations they naturally create. Third, tell your friends what your nutritional, health, and personal goals are, and why. They might not agree with you, but will probably help and not hinder you in meeting them – if they are your friends.
If you do all this and still need help with momentary unhealthy food creepings and cravings, try this. Place a comfortably fitting rubber band around your left wrist and give it a light snap whenever you are tempted by carbohydrate-dense and other unnatural foods. It’s a simple trick that can pull you back to your senses (or away from them). Should you go off-plan with a meal or snack, move the band to your right wrist and leave it there for the rest of the day. It sounds silly, but if you are committed to your health, you may start to crave having that band on your left wrist as much as the carbohydrate foods that tempt you today.
Good luck, and watch out for all those creeps out there!
Health & best wishes,
Mark Lundegren is a writer and teacher, and the founder of HumanaNatura.
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