Instincts are useful. In fact, for a few million years, they were downright essential for the species. Back before we had the brains to consistently make the good decisions or the infrastructure to be reasonably sure we would have enough food and energy to get through our day, instincts kept us doing the right things. Things are different now, but unfortunately the body doesn’t have an on/off switch for our these things, and nowadays they tend to do more harm than good.
Have you ever wondered why sugar and fat are so delicious? It is because they are compact, efficient sources of sweet, sweet calories. In the early days of the species, food was in fairly short supply. If you found some, you ate it, all of it. If there was a choice, though, we had to go for the foods that gave us the most bang for our buck. Remember, though, that this was before our brains had cycles to spare, so we couldn’t be bothered trying to figure out what food was the primordial equivalent of an energy bar. Thus, mother nature saw fit to program us to like the stuff that would fuel us for the longest time. It did a darn good job, as should be clear by the fact that we still exist as a species. But there have been some developments since then which make the trusty instincts less beneficial. Things like grocery stores. And Twinkies. And deep fried Twinkies. Yes indeed, the whole process of deep frying something is a love letter to our baser instincts, and a ransom note to our arteries. It is fast and adds tasty energy to the mix. If our cave dwelling ancestors had had the technology, you can be sure they would have deep fried everything. Which would have been fine, because how often did they catch an elk to flash fry? In the era of the drive through, that instinct is packing on the pounds.
On the same note, you know what my perfect day is? A day where I eat until I’m sleepy, then sleep until I’m hungry. That’s because I’m a man in touch with my instincts. Unfortunately, listening to them was almost enough to make me two men in touch with their instincts. See, it goes hand in hand with the “seek out cheese” instinct that you also conserve all of that precious energy. Sure, YOU know there will be eight hours of sleep and three square meals again tomorrow, but there was no way to be sure of that back when the body’s operation manual was being written. So sleep is pretty much everybody’s second favorite activity behind eating, whether you want to admit it or not, and the concept of exercise makes the body cry foul. Wasting energy?! On PURPOSE!? You might need that energy to run from a Sabre-tooth tiger, so get off that treadmill right this minute!
Those two facts are unfortunate, but at least they are just behavioral. Work hard enough and you can counter the effects, but there other problems that aren’t quite so voluntary. Let’s say you eat a cheeseburger or five, and it turns out you didn’t need 8000 calories that day. You know what your body is going to do with the five or six thousand calories you didn’t use? Turn them to fat. Once again, a prudent measure when gorging on an entire buffalo was something that would only happen once every few months. You had to get while the getting was good, and squirrel away a few pounds for a rainy day. Not so useful or necessary anymore. Life would be a lot more pleasant if it just threw out the calories we didn’t need, but evolution is pathologically efficient. Evidently it thinks that you’re going to eventually have to go for a few years without eating, so it better hang on to that side of bacon, just in case. The body is an old dog, and a society that allows for regular meals is a new trick.
No one is really sure where in the genetic blueprints the body keeps its instincts. If we did, I think it wouldn’t be long before we figured out how to swap bacon and spinach on the ol’ craving lineup. Since that isn’t the case, we’ll just have to start using our instincts in a different way. When it comes to health, if your body says do it, do the opposite. If you see chips and broccoli on the same table and your brain says, “Well, gee, that salty pile of oil and carbs seems like a good idea”, reach for the broccoli. Your body doesn’t have its own best interests at heart.