Is overeating a consequence of an evolutionary predisposition? Or are we missing a deeper point?

Scientists and psychologists have studied the causes of obesity for several decades and one of the big questions is why can’t people just stop overeating. Surely when somebody becomes 10 stone (60kg) overweight there must be a discomfort, a sign that things aren’t going well that would spark up an interest to stop what they are doing and make a change in their life?

The direct unpleasant consequences of obesity include poor self-image and an inability to move freely. There are also some life-threatening consequences that we seem to ignore until they come knocking on our door in the form of unmanageable blood sugar levels, heart disease, nerve damage and even amputation.

In the 1980’s there were 108 million adults living with diabetes, today there are 415 million and the Global Diabetes Community has predicted that by 2040 the number will increase to 642 million.[i] The World Health Organisation has stated that being overweight or obese are the strongest risk factors for developing Type 2 Diabetes.[ii]

However, as we all live in a world where it seems like the majority are not interested and we share a medical system that is straining to cope with the immense burden of ‘lifestyle diseases', it is important that even if the discomfort is not on our front porch, we begin to question what is going on.

It is common knowledge that we need food for nutrition to sustain the body and that without it we will wear out and die. We have witnessed many species use food to their advantage and evolve over time on our planet Earth. For example, in Year 9 Science class we were taught that many species (such as giraffes) evolved to be in their current state due to their particular ability to access food.[iii]

The notion of using food to evolve has led some scientists to suggest that human beings overeat (and/or have a sweet tooth) as a result of an ‘evolutionary predisposition’.[iv] In other words, overeating is in our genetics because in the past the lack of readily available foods would have meant that our ancestors would eat everything that was available to them in order to keep a layer of fat in case they were unable to find food over long periods of time. Yes, that sounds logical; after all squirrels, chipmunks and some insects indeed store food for winter when they know that they will not be able to find it so easily.[v]

However, something doesn’t make sense as the Mayans of Central America (human beings) did not have a sugar rich diet – their main staple was maize along with vegetables and beans prior to the 1950’s. When they discovered the Western diet of North America the weight began to pile on,[vi] leading to an astonishing 12% (almost an 8th) of the population developing Type 2 Diabetes.[vii]

Furthermore, are we forgetting that as well as eating, our ancestors had to walk, run and work very hard to find food and shelter? And if we follow the idea that they overate to make sure they didn’t die out of starvation, then that does not explain how an ‘evolutionary behaviour’ would leave somebody feeling sluggish and unable to respond to danger quickly and with a clear mind – making overeating a pretty anti-evolutionary trait.

Is it possible that although we as species think that we’ve reached the peak of evolution, our arrogance is preventing us from seeing that not only is this not the case, but we are light years away from our optimum state of being?

So, this brings us back to the main question: why do we overeat?

Psychologists have discovered that one of the most common traits between people with eating disorders (i.e. bulimia/binge eating) is that they have experienced abuse during their early years of development.[viii]

In my experience with bulimia and binge eating, I have found that the moments where I feel out of control and can’t shove the food in my mouth fast enough, are indeed moments when there are emotions running through me that I do not want to feel.

Even more so, I have used food to abuse myself in moments where I have felt that what I am doing, thinking and the way I am living is not good enough, that I am not good enough – just the way a person who self-harms cuts themselves in moments of self-abuse.

What is worse is that we as a society look at people who are overweight or obese and judge them; we make fun of them and don’t take seriously the fact that many of these people have probably tried all of the diets in the world, but nothing is working because the root cause of these behaviours is not sought after.

If we saw overeating as an act of self-harm, would we still judge the people who are doing it? If we opened up our eyes and saw that our judgements may actually be contributing to that self-harm, would we still do it?

Even more so, would we hide our food and plan secret binges if we ourselves opened up to the fact that we may be self-abusing with food? Is it possible that if we flipped it around and realised that food can be just as self-harming as a knife, more and more people would seek help when they find themselves in front of the fridge at 3am, blinded by the light but looking for something ever so desperately to eat and quash whatever is running through their mind?

Abuse is abuse, it does not have to come from the outside in order to hurt. In fact, the abuse that hurts the most is the one we cast upon ourselves – in our minds, our behaviours and the way we are towards ourselves.

It has been almost two years since the last time I felt like bulimia had control over my life, but this is not because I have a strong willpower, this is a result of consistently deepening my self-loving behaviours in all other aspects of my life –– from the way I take a shower, to the way I take myself to bed. The more I care, the less I abuse myself with food – it is only logical.

So to flip this ‘evolutionary theory’ on its head, no – my genetics have not bound my path of overeating; in fact, I naturally don’t like sugar anymore because it makes me sweat and my farts get very, very smelly. Which brings me to an answer: perhaps overeating and sugar binges are not genetically locked in our make-up, but it is actually very possible that we as a species have found ourselves a tool which not only numbs our awareness, but can actually become a very self-abusing behaviour.

  • Thus, could it be possible that we overeat to stall our true evolution , which is to live with the profound level of subtle awareness that arises when we treat our body with care, precision, and love?
  • Perhaps we do so to not feel the jealousy that flies into our court as soon as we start to make more loving choices and begin to feel good about ourselves?
  • More so, could we be numbing ourselves with food so that we don’t feel the judgements of the people in our lives because we want to live a life that is a bit different to the normal?

The toll of diabetes is but one price we are paying for failing to address the fundamental reason people overeat. Perhaps the layers of fat we put on are not there just in case we run out of food and the body needs some reserves to survive, but are used as a protective armour to keep us shielded from feeling all the horrible things mentioned above? Writing off overeating as a genetic anomaly allows us to avoid this essential point altogether.


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Filed under

ObesityOver eatingEating disorder Diabetes

  • By Viktoria Stoykova, BSc Psychology and Business; Assoc. CIPD

    A young woman living in the heart of London. I love singing, writing, talking to friends, family and strangers on the tube.

  • Photography: Rebecca W., UK, Photographer

    I am a tender and sensitive woman who is inspired by the playfulness of children and the beauty of nature. I love photographing people and capturing magical and joyful moments on my camera.