The ancient reason behind why you love food with the most calories

Remember that iconic cartoon rendering of Bugs Bunny floating miraculously towards a delicious smelling pie left unsupervised in someone else’s window?

Turns out human beings have the same uncanny ability to locate high-caloric food items based on olfactory senses and spatial memory alone. This ancestral survivalist technique holds true in modern times according to a recent study conducted by researchers at a three-day-long Lowlands Science festival program in the Netherlands. This must also be the reason why I’m happier I moved closer to bars and cafes with delicious calorie-rich menu items.

Social Darwinism, also known as survival of the fittest, manifests in myriad ways. Homosapiens are some of the most advanced creatures in existence and their fascinating ability to adapt to ever-changing landscapes remains one of our most impressive evolutionary abilities to date. Let’s take a look at this recent case study investigating how humans tap into their senses and spatial memories to locate high-calorie morsels as a means to survive in competitive environments in which food is scarce.

The case study

The authors of these recent findings Rachelle de Vries and Paulina Morquecho-Campos set up a maze-like environment to test this hypothesis in action.

Researchers instructed 512 willing participants in the experiment to follow arrows around a room in which they placed the following food samples (8 pillars in total) :

  • Apple
  • Melon
  • Peanuts
  • Brownie
  • Chips
  • Cucumber
  • Tomato
  • Caramel

The participants were not given any indication they would have to recall where particular food items were located in this maze. After smelling or tasting these samples the group was then asked to locate these items on a map. Here is what the scientists found to be true outlined by the following statistics found in explicit detail here.

“Participants presented with food samples were 27% more accurate and those presented with food odor samples were 28% more accurate at mapping high than low-calorie foods to the correct location. Spatial memory was not affected by whether foods were sweet or savory or how much participants liked each sample. Overall mapping of foods was 243% more accurate when participants were presented with food samples rather than food-scented cotton pads.”

A brief of such findings can be found in Scientific Reports if this topic fascinates you and you’d like to do your own deep dive!

What does this tell us about humans evolutionarily?

Back when the invention of the wheel was trending news in advanced technology in B.C. days of yore; homosapiens relied on hunter-gatherer techniques in order to survive.

Turns out this survivalist tradition remains in our DNA despite our vastly different fast-paced, fast-food fueled modern world.

The authors hold up this theory by reiterating their findings at the experiments close.

“Taken together, we find that human minds may continue to house an implicit cognitive system optimized for energy-efficient foraging within the fluctuating ancestral food environments in which memory evolved.”

It’s simply not a coincidence that I never forget where my favorite dollar slice spot in the Lower East Side is located. Listen folks, I can’t help indulging in this greasy, calorie-laden treat it’s in my genetic makeup!

Modern-day hunter-gatherers

I’m a naturally curious person so I foraged on my own journey to find an example of modern-day hunter-gatherers. I found this scholarly anthropological research by Herman Pontzer, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and global health at Duke Global Health Institute. His findings are published here.

“Similar to our Paleolithic ancestors, today’s hunter-gatherers source their food entirely from the earth and wild animals, and they’re physically active for most of each day. For instance, the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group in northeast Tanzania that I’ve studied for the past ten years, spend their days walking eight to 12 kilometers, climbing trees and digging for root vegetables. Their diet consists of various meats, vegetables and fruits, as well as a significant amount of honey. In fact, they get 15 to 20 percent of their calories from honey, a simple carbohydrate.

The Hadza tend to maintain the same healthy weight, body mass index and walking speed throughout their entire adult lives. They commonly live into their 60s or 70s, and sometimes 80s, with very little to no cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes—conditions that are rapidly growing in prevalence in nearly every corner of the world.”

The Hadza hunter-gatherer lifestyle has a host of mental health benefits too! This is due to their nomadic way of existence and the community-minded approach of taking care of one another. This way of working with the earth to cultivate resources is environmentally sound and can even help control the spread of communicable diseases.

Pontzer urges Western Civilization to take a page out of the Hadza’s community playbook of survival techniques.

“Hunter-gatherers and people in other subsistence economies around the world have so many lessons to teach us about what to eat, how to move and how to avoid disease.”

Perhaps we could avoid another deadly pandemic if we lived a little differently.

What I learned

Human beings, myself included, are genetically and evolutionarily predisposed to locating calorie-heavy snacks as a means to survive. We channel our olfactory and muscle memory to lead us to the most fulfilling bounty for ourselves and loved ones.

The next time you pick up a large pie for you and your friends imagine yourself a loin-cloth clad warrior getting your loved ones through a long winter. Embracing those winter curves leads to emotional well being and a longer life span anyway. Stay positive, we’ll get through the cold months with the aid of quarantine snacks galore.