by Brian Awehali
On a long road trip several years ago, when I was still eating even very bad roadside food, I listened to the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, and I found myself delaying gas and bathroom breaks because I was too interested in what would happen next. McDougall told a wildly entertaining story about traditional and modern competitive “ultra”-runners that managed to also be a sort of ethnography and a treatise on a significant aspect of human evolution: our unequaled long-distance running ability and our related unique ability to sweat from every part of our body, instead of just from our tongues, as basically all other land mammals do.
Why is this significant? As an October 2012 article, “The Running Man Revisited,” from Seed magazine explains:
“…[R]oughly 2 million years ago, Australopithecus, with its tiny brain, hefty jaw and diet of rough, fibrous plants, evolved into Homo erectus, our slim, long-legged ancestor with a big brain and small teeth suited for tearing into animal and fruit flesh. Such a transformation almost certainly involved a reliable supply of calorie-laden meat, yet according to the fossil record, spear points have been in use for 200,000 years at most, and the bow and arrow for only 50,000 years, leaving an enormous stretch of time when early humans were consuming meat without the use of tools. […] A deer and a decently fit man … trot at almost an identical pace, but in order to accelerate, a deer goes anaerobic, while the man remains in an oxygenated jogging zone. The same is true for horses, antelopes, and a slew of other four-legged creatures … and because quadrupeds can’t pant while they run, they also quickly overheat.”
Humans can’t outrun a cheetah or an antelope over short distances, but those animals can only run at their faster speeds for short distances compared to humans. Organized human “persistence” hunters can run an animal until it literally drops of heatstroke, as illustrated by the BBC documentary clip below (hard not to feel bad for the prey):
Hunting doesn’t interest me–if I needed it for survival, I’d feel differently–but hunting for sport seems needlessly cruel and stupid.
But this book made me take up running, an activity I used to loathe unless it happened on a basketball court. I’ve always been basically athletic; I was a competitive swimmer in school, played basketball several times a week on some good Oakland courts through the latter half of the oughts, and ditched my car entirely in 2004 to be a full-time bicyclist in the Bay Area (I’ve since moved away and am driving a car again). But a once daily love of weed, along with various sedentary computer-oriented jobs–designing, editing and writing–just made running seem needlessly intense and ache-producing to me. Bicycling and swimming aren’t weight bearing, and although swimming can be very cardiovascularly intense, you also never really sweat in the water, and it’s easy to loaf and glide without feeling stupid. I don’t like to jog, I like to run, and without working up to it, that meant I always felt vaguely dumb huffing along after 10 or 15 minutes.
Born to Run encouraged me to quit running on concrete, to run barefoot or in trail shoes, and to change entirely the mechanics of my running form. Hell, it even more or less led to me reading ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s book, Eat and Run, and then undertaking a year of eating (mostly) vegan.
I can’t really say there have been many books that have had such a direct impact on my life. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde, The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt, Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, Vol. 2 (read as a teenager), and the non-fiction essays and commencement speeches of David Foster Wallace are maybe the only others with comparable direct impact.
And so I spent this past summer on the trails and in the ponds of Western Massachusetts with my dog, fighting past the early physical limits and aches, and inching towards veganism, which I didn’t undertake in earnest until September.
I dislike the culture of veganism, in part because I lived in the Bay Area for many years and had to endure the obnoxiously self-righteous, puritanical and often passive-aggressively confrontational drivel of a lot of vegans. I don’t agree with people like chef Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, who notoriously wrote that “vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit,” but I sympathize completely with his disgust for a great deal of their culture and totalizing modes of communication.
If you get your packaged, processed, chemical-ridden food from the industrial food system, and paid war taxes on your purchase, you’ve got no righteous leg to stand on. Nor does an intellectually honest look at the sentient (emotional, intelligent) life of plants or the true environmental impact of mass agriculture on wildlife and the biosphere permit those who don’t eat animals any moral high ground or comfortable distance from cruelty. Everything in the world eats something else to survive, and that something else, whether it runs on blood or chlorophyll, would always rather continue to live rather than become sustenance for another. No animal wants to be penned up and milked, or caged and harvested, and you’ve never seen plants growing in regimented lines of their own accord, or giving up life voluntarily at any point in their life-cycles.
I undertook this as a psychological, nutritional and culinary experiment, mostly in response to my understanding of our industrial food systems. I was curious to know how animal fat had impacted my satiety points, for one thing. I spent a good part of my teenage years homeless and experiencing scarcity of various kinds, and I remember how, especially in winter, almost nothing satisfied me into a pleasant coma-like stupor more than several pounds of fatty hamburger meat. I didn’t have a refrigerator, so I’d cook it all up and eat it in one sitting before passing out for the night, utterly sated. To this day, especially at stressful times, I have a powerful desire to sate myself with even very bad meat.
Fat, and animal fat in particular, coats, and is satisfying in a base way few other things are. The manipulation of satiety points is a major part of our current industrial food system’s behavior. And every caterer can tell you the three things that make people happy and satisfied at a catered event: fat, salt and sugar.
As it so happens, these are the three main things (along with calorie density, texture, free glutamate, and starch, among other things) that the food engineers employed by food manufacturers count on and aggressively manipulate in order to get customers hooked on their products.
“Important systems in the brain and body control appetite (the desire to eat), hunger (the physical manifestation of needing food), and satiety (feelings of fullness and satisfaction). These systems have done us very well for millennia.
However, these systems evolved in conditions of food scarcity and irregularity. They evolved when food was high-fibre, often high-protein, and high in naturally occurring “good” fats. And they evolved in conditions where we might have to trek many, many miles to get that food. We evolved to run after beasts, to scoop fish from streams and oceans, to scrabble roots out of the soil, and to pluck tiny berries from bushes as we walked and walked and walked. Sweetness signaled “good to eat” and “fruit.” Salt came from the sea, or from the blood of animals freshly killed.
We did not, in other words, evolve to manage an overstimulating environment replete with artificial fats, mountains of sugar, constipatingly fibreless hunks of gluten, artificially generated scents that remind us of sizzling meat on a grill or fresh strawberries, nor a host of other chemicals that stimulate our reward pathways.”
So I’ve wondered for a while how much of a product I am — how much my tastes and food satisfactions are the result of manipulated realities of food manufacturers. I’ve known for a very long time that people who sell me food are mostly interested in profit, not my, the customer’s/addict’s, health or well-being. I’ve avoided high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, white bread (unless it’s part of a particularly tasty pastry or confection), and a host of other unhealthy things for a long time, and so this year’s experiment is really a natural progression on my path. Everything I’ve made a study of related to food and nutrition leads me to the conclusion that the simplest and healthiest, non-commodified dietary approach is: Eat what’s grown naturally, nearby, in-season, and lead an active life.
Making that happen takes some work, but it’s great when the answer to something important turns out to be simple.