The folks at the Palo Alto Institute have posted the videos from last month’s New Opportunities at the Intersection of Evolution and Medicine. I have not watched the cancer or infectious disease videos, but did watch the keynote and the videos on behavior and diet.
Alas, I was a bit bummed by the session on diet. As apparently befitting a medical/academic conference, Dr. William Leonard read his talk, What did Humans Evolve to Eat? Evolutionary Perspective on Human Nutritional Health. And it’s my confirmation bias I’m sure, but I was disappointed that after the initial evolutionary concepts, Dr. Leonard concluded that the problem was essentially calories in vs out in about equal parts. (Although I thought it interesting that it pointed out in the panel discussion that some of the missing calories out was related to not having to spend energy to either warm ourselves up or cool ourselves down thanks to our modern environment.)
I thought the keynote on the chasm between evolutionary biology and medicine was quite interesting and fairly accessible to a lay audience. One of the topics he covers is why, after so many millions of years, there are still so many apparent flaws with our bodies. He suggests these factors:
- Mismatch: body in a novel environment
- Competition with fast evolving organisms
- Every trait is a trade-off
- Organisms shaped for reproduction, not health
- Defenses and suffering
Well worth checking out if you’re under the impression that evolution is just about positive adaptations!
But my favorite video was psychologist Steven Hayes’ talk, Improving Health by Changing Behavior: Evolution Science Shows How (embedded below).
I’m not sure the title matches the talk. But the most compelling part of it for me was his discussion of “experiential avoidance” (~4:10); the idea that our wired instincts to avoid pain can disable us when we go from avoiding external threats (a good thing) to avoiding “threats from within in the form of thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations.” He didn’t say explicitly, but I could certainly see implications for overeating.
The good news is that their research is showing that mindfulness or other approaches that enable people to accept these painful internal threats are successful. And even better, it doesn’t require years and years of therapy. They are seeing benefits with much shorter interventions.
I’m going to poke around in some of their resources to see what else I can learn (this ACT e-course looks particularly interesting). In the meantime, his talk certainly reinforces my conviction that for many of us, addressing needs to use food as a coping mechanism is critical to longer-term success.