How our survival mechanisms are killing us

11 Dec
By Nancy Szokan

Here’s a thought that has occurred to a lot of weight-conscious
people: If fatty, salty foods are so bad for us, why do we crave
them? Shouldn’t our bodies, evolving over many millennia, naturally
want to eat foods that are good for us?

Cardiologist Lee Goldman examines this paradox in a larger context
in his new book, “Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Traits Are
Now Killing Us.” He goes beyond diet issues to talk about survival
mechanisms that worked well for thousands of generations but have
now turned against human health:

0M A craving for high-calorie foods and the ability to store excess
calories as fat: These traits helped our ancestors survive when food
was scarce; today, he says, they explain why so many Americans are
dangerously overweight or obese.

0M A craving for salt: Early man continually faced the possibility
of fatal dehydration, so human bodies evolved to crave and conserve
both water and salt. Today our heavy consumption of salt, combined
with the internal hormones that conserve salt and water, contributes
to heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.

0M Fear and self-protection: Hypervigilance enabled our ancestors to
escape or defeat a variety of prehistoric dangers. Today this
impulse contributes to soaring rates of depression, anxiety,
post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

0M The ability to form blood clots: Before the advent of medical
care, humans’ efficient clotting mechanism kept people from bleeding
to death after injuries, and particularly after giving birth. Today
the same clotting mechanism contributes to heart attacks and
strokes, the leading causes of death in today’s industrialized

In all, writes Goldman, dean of the faculties of health sciences and
medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, these four traits
have evolved to the point where they cause more than six times the
number of deaths they prevent.

Beginning with a chapter titled “Can our genes evolve fast enough to
solve our problems?” (short answer: no), Goldman discusses how we
should think about correcting this paradox. He unsurprisingly
advocates behavioral changes but also puts a lot of faith in
medications and such genetic interventions as DNA repair and gene
therapy. Eventually, he says, “the challenge is to use our brains,
which so rapidly changed our environment and created these problems
in the first place, to help us get back into sync.”


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