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  • Dr. Joe Malone

What is Behind Women’s Appetites?

In Why Women Need Fat, William Lassek and Steven Gaulin showcase research that points out that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is crucial in the formation of the human brain?

One third of the typical brain is made of this fatty acid. DHA happens to be one of the main components of omega-3 fat, which is stored primarily in the legs, buttocks, and hips of young women. These areas act as reservoirs of the critical nutrient.

DHA is also crucial in the creation of human baby’s brains, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy and during the course of breastfeeding. This may seem simple, quaint, and outdated, but it is a pivotal component of human success, and yes, has even impacted our very survival as a species. Once again, for the vast majority of the past two million years, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to struggle to make this work under opposite conditions than those of the twenty-first century, developed world. Instead of having a ready abundance of food-like products low in nutrients but high in calories, our ancestors had to scrap, scrape, and labor to find and procure rudimentary nutrition. These coarse, fiber-filled, primitive, vegetable-derived foods were not only moderately nutrient-dense in many cases, but they were also very scarce and low in calories.

In The Story of the Human Body, Dr. Daniel Lieberman describes this situation well. Gathering food was very challenging for our ancestors because they had to walk at least four miles a day just to find a few edible, underground roots, berries that were defended by toxins and nuts that were encased in hard shells, amongst other edible foliage. This, by the way, is why humans don’t naturally want to exercise on their own. Being able to relax when not having to exert brought energy, balance, and health in ancient times and so that tendency to relax when given the opportunity was selected for. Clearly, because of the cultural mismatch, this is not an advantage to our health today.

It Didn’t Come Easy

When our ancestors went out gathering food, there were always challenges. A single root could take twenty minutes to extract and often involved moving large rocks, tree branches, etc. That single root would then have to be pounded or cooked before it was even digestible. Plant foods, especially non-domesticated ones, are high in non-digestible fiber and relatively low in nutrient density. Two million years ago, early human women were caught in a dilemma completely opposite of the conundrum women face today. A young woman who weighed 110 pounds back then would have needed about 1,800 calories per day just for her own body’s basic function and would have required an additional 500 calories per day if she was pregnant or nursing. Most of a young woman’s life was spent pregnant or nursing, so for the majority of her adult life, she needed 2,300 calories per day.As time went on, she would also need 1,000-2,000 additional calories for each of her older children who could not yet forage independently. Studies of present-day hunter-gatherers show that mothers who are nursing or encumbered by toddlers cannot get near their needed 2,300 calories. That means women must have faced a near perpetual state of starvation much of the time during our ancestral mothers’ lives.

Forever Eating for Two

The increased calorie needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding set up a situation where women are genetically encoded to seek calories when and where they can find them. Sweetened foods are one of the strongest motivational stimulators, especially for human females. Our brains have been encoded to recognize these kinds of foods (or food-like substances) as calorie-dense nutrients. Therefore, modern-day women have a predisposition for those kinds of foods and are driven to overeating them when they are readily available.

Again, solutions to our ancestral, near-starvation situation would have had to include pair bonding (monogamy) with men who, unencumbered by young ones, could hunt for meat and provide those extra calories. Hunting for meat started at least 2.6 million years ago. Meat is nutrient-and calorie-dense. It is a rich food source in many other ways as well, carrying significant amounts of zinc andiron.

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