Is fruit specially engineered to be more calorie- and carbohydrate-dense–and thus fattening–than at any other time in history? Maybe, but that’s not the whole story. Meat and hypercaloricization.

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A common meme in alternative health circles is that fruit has been engineered to be more calorie-dense, thus more carbohydrate-rich, thus more fattening–than at any previous point in history. Therefore, as the argument goes, fruits by virtue of this aspect of their unnaturalness, are not wholesome like other whole foods. And therefore (as the argument goes), an appeal to the consumption of whole foods for health and weight management is misguided: we should also be excluding fruit.

A few representative memes are as follows:

The point of view encapsulated in the above memes has been gaining currency, especially over the past 5 years, as the ketogenic diet has been hitting the mainstream. However, there is just one problem with this perspective, and that is this:

In other words, while fruit and grains may be very different than they were in the past and while this may make them increasingly palatable (and therefore potentially fattening), the identical historical process of what we might call hypercaloricization–the progressive increase of caloric density in the human diet over the course of history–has also been taking place for meat, too. The result: many of our foods–fruits, grains, and meat included–are simply different from what they were only a few thousand years ago.

(Incidentally, the process of hypercaloricization might have been kick-started as early as when Homo erectus, our distant non-human ancestors, discovered how to cook–and thus dramatically increase the caloric content of plant foods such as tubers. For more details, see Richard Wrangham’s majestic if controversial work Catching Fire.)

Limiting one’s food intake to meat is therefore not limiting one’s intake to only “natural” foods. On the contrary. And indeed, the most careful analyses show hardly any advantage at all for diets that restrict carbohydrates:

This may be because it is as straightforward and simple to overeat zero- or low-carb foods as it is to eat foods containing large quantities of carbohydrate. And this might be because low-carbohydrate foods have, in their own turn, been subjected to the process of hypercaloricization as surely as the rest of the human diet has. Of course, this isn’t the only explanation for overeating in the modern world: the forces of hypercaloricization have taken a quantum leap in the past century and especially in the past half-century. But the forces of hypercaloricization have long been working their way through the human food supply.

(It should be noted that, as the above study points out, less methodologically robust studies are often published in even more prestigious journals. Why? Because in the age of social media, many of these journals–British Medical Journal being an excellent example–have pursued publishing strategies that emphasize positive findings over methodological rigor: such a publishing strategy brings more eyes to the journal’s papers. In a word: clickbait.)

This highlights an important point about the current food system–and modern life as a whole. So much has changed about it, that it is actually devilishly difficult to exactly replicate the living conditions of past generations, or even to know, so shrouded in myth, what these conditions actually are. To know what to do to be healthy, we need common sense supplemented with hard facts. And when we take that approach when discussing the energy content of modern meat and fruits, we find that the story of changing fruits is really less a story about fruits and more a story about the modern food system.

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1 Comment

  1. I would put your name somewhere on this page because it takes a bit of digging to find out who you are.

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