Why Eating McDonald's Is Completely 'Natural'
To a great many ardent nutrition purveyors, the Big Mac is the embodiment of evil: greasy, loaded with hard-to-pronounce chemicals, and entirely unnatural.
Packing in 550 calories, 29 grams of fat, and 65% of your daily value of sodium, it's easy to see why you probably shouldn't eat a Big Mac at every meal. However, with that said, caricaturing the act of eating McDonald's and other fast food as unnatural is completely unwarranted. (It is also, of course, fallacious to assume that what is "natural" is always better.)
Humans are perhaps the ultimate omnivores. We evolved to eat whatever is around, be it plant, animal, or burger. Before the rise of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, our ancestors were predominantly hunter-gatherers. Spread far across the globe, their diets matched their surroundings. For examples, we can look to modern hunter-gatherers. 95% of the Inuit's diet is comprised of meat and fish. The !Kung of southern Africa eat mostly seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Farther north, the Hadza predominantly consume meat, fish, and roots.
There is no specific "natural" human diet, evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk wrote in 2009. What's "natural" for us is to eat whatever we can. Over time, our bodies may adapt to take advantage.
"Take dairy products, one of the classic modern foods we supposedly aren’t meant to eat. Most people who can’t tolerate them lack a gene that confers the ability to break down lactose, the sugar in milk, after the age of weaning. Our Stone Age ancestors couldn’t digest milk as adults either, but a recent study shows that about 5,000 years ago, mutations that keep that gene switched on spread throughout Northern Europe. That’s also when cattle began to be domesticated; being able to drink milk as well as lower-lactose cheese would have been advantageous as a source of nutrition and fluids."
So then what about the epidemic levels of obesity? Our Paleolithic ancestors certainly weren't as voluptuous as we are. That's true, but they also only lived till age forty. Moreover, obesity levels aren't sky high because humans have strayed from our natural dietary path. They're sky high because food is much easier to attain than it used to be. In the developed world, the question now is not "Will we eat?" It's "How much will we eat?" If an "unnatural" McDonald's diet made us fat, then you wouldn't be able to lose weight eating there. But you can!
Writing at Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall dismantles the notion of a natural human diet:
Arguments that we should eat what we evolved to eat are undercut by three facts: humans have continued to evolve since the Paleolithic, humans evolved to be adaptable and to thrive on a wide variety of dietary intakes; and we evolved to have the survival advantage of intelligence and inventiveness to develop technology to improve our access to food (for instance, cooking). In other words, technology is “natural” for humans, and eating in a variety of ways is natural for humans too.
Imagine if humans weren't naturally flexible eaters.
"If our ancestors had been less adaptable and if there was a single healthy diet, humans could not have spread to new continents or survived the climate changes of the Ice Age," Hall notes.
Humans' natural ability to thrive on almost any diet is a key to our species' success. So go ahead. Have that Big Mac.