Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer BBQ

In the depth of summer, the natural impulse would be to eat cool, refreshing food, not hot and dry stuff. In addition to drinking all those glasses of water (ha - more likely beer, ice tea, lemonade, and pop) to replace fluids lost to evaporation from skin and breath, we need to eat water-rich food. (Watermelon is something like 98% water, but lettuce and other vegetables are also good sources of H2O.)
Yet the smell of roasting meat fills the air, not during the cold weather - the precise time you'd think most appropriate for hot, fatty food from a very hot fire - but in the summer.
Instead of sticking to a menu full of no-cook or low-cook fare, e.g., salads, sandwiches, tacos, sushi, and cold soups, in North America, at least, people love BBQ. They fire up the gas or charcoal grill. They set up a grill over a campfire. They - usually the males of the group - drag out massive amounts of red meat, raw cuts or semi-cured (e.g., hot dogs) to throw on the barbie.
Occasionally, seafood and vegetables will join or replace the cow, pig, and chicken parts, but classic BBQ means something bloody. It's as close to our so-called Original Diet as you can get without tearing something off an animal with your (inadequate) teeth and non-existent claws.
There's the clincher. Common sense may tell us to reach for the water in this weather. But an atavistic streak seems to be driving us to open-air meat fests, where the sight, sound, smell and later taste of fat (not protein - that comes much later) is critical. The fat in salad is very modest - zero in most fruit.
Why would we "need" fat in the warm weather? Isn't it crazy to overeat when it's already too hot to move?
It would be interesting to see if the craving is purely biological, or if something cultural - a favored way of male bonding, perhaps, carried down through the generations? - is at play.
If biological, there are several sides to the question. The brain is a very fatty organ, and it tends to slow down when fat is reduced in the diet. (Perhaps that's why supermodels tend to be just as super-grumpy as they are super-thin.) Maybe the craving for fat is a way of compensating for all the water and other fat-free fare we are forced to consume in the summer. (We don't have to drink quite so much in the winter.)
But surely, surely, the idea of cooking outside and delivering the results to your family and tribe is a very deep (and gratifying) memory in most men's brains? It became incorporated into culture, and then culture reinforced whatever appeared in individuals: a positive feedback loop.
That is something I will return to again in this blog.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Welcome to my blog about the way brain and diet have "interacted" over millennia, each driving the other to greater complexity.

I have been a long-time student of all things related to the brain. For the past ten years or so, I have become fascinated with food and the human diet. Only recently have I seen how intimately food and brain are connected.
We wouldn't be who we are as a species if not for all those higher cortical functions (e.g., language and facial recognition). But we would be very, very different if we ate only plants (herbivorous), only animals (carnivorous), and certainly if we focussed on one species the way a koala or panda does. You don't need to be a biologist to know somehow that a bamboo-eating panda is quite different from a black bear in behavior, and you'd probably be aware that the bear is far more intelligent. Like us, all bears (except perhaps polar bears) are omnivores: they can subsist on a diverse diet; indeed they must have a wide variety of foodstuffs in a given day. It is no surprise that bears and other non-human omnivores (e.g., raccoons and crows) are among the smartest creatures on the planet.
In coming posts, I'll be discussing academic and mainstream news on the evolution of the human diet - and the many features our brain has developed in response to the environment which provides the incredible array of (more or less edible) materials we call food.
I am planning to write a book about this subject next year. All comments welcome. You might even make it into the acknowledgements!