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It's ten o'clock at night as I write this, and I'm trying very hard to stay put at my desk and not run into the kitchen and start scavenging for cookies. Gingersnaps or Oreos, maybe. Or better yet, Milanos. Mint, orange, original, or mini--I'm not so picky about flavor or size. All I require is two lily white wafer cookies cradling a layer of waxy chocolate goodness so I get that crumby melt-in-your-mouth, then stick-to-your-tongue sugar and fat rush I crave so nearly uncontrollably after the sun goes down.
When I can stop myself long enough to pause and consider my behavior (not so often, I'll admit), I wonder: Why are these empty calorie treats so mightily enticing? Yes, I have a strong preference for sweet, fatty, and salty foods--but I think we all do. Given that fruits and vegetables are so much healthier for us, packed as they are with vitamins and minerals and all manner of healthful phytonutrients, wouldn't you think we'd have evolved to love them? Wouldn't you think it would make sense that we'd be programmed somehow to feel hungry for celery and pinto beans and ugli fruit? Whether you believe in goddess or evolution or intelligent design, it just seems to makes sense that we'd go for the proverbial carrot, right?
I put the question to my nutritionist, Eileen Behan, RD, author of Eat Well, Lose Weight While Breastfeeding and the upcoming all-you-need-resource for the under-five set, The Baby Food Bible. As she puts it, these healthful foods--especially bitter vegetables--"don't call to us."
Why not? Three reasons.
First off, we are inherently attracted to sweet things "because sweet things are almost never poison." (That would have been important in our grunting and scraping days, I'd imagine.) Second, we like salty because salt is essential to human life, yet is a rare flavor occurrence outside of the ocean--you had to eat it when you could get it.
And third we liked fat because we simply had to. Back in our caveman days, she says, fruits and vegetables were abundant in nature. "Nature programmed us to really want the taste of protein and fat for a reason," she says. "If you wanted a blueberry, you just reached over and pulled a blueberry off the tree. These foods required no energy to harvest. On the other hand, if you wanted to bring down a wild boar, you would have to spend a lot of energy. You had to really WANT it."
Moving forward in evolution only a little, the same is true for dairy products like cheese--we like them a lot, we have to work a lot to get them. And you only have to extrapolate a little to reach the only-slightly-daft conclusion that the harder we work to create something, the more we like it. We're hardly stalking wild boar these days, but we're certainly good at stripping wheat of its nutrients and adding in all sorts of delicious processed sugars and flavors and fats. Processed foods might be filling the void left by the hunter aspect of the human equation. In a weird way, those Mint Milanos might be scratching some kind of primal itch. One thing is for sure: When I go out there to the kitchen to find one, I'm gonna really WANT it.
Hillari Dowdle regularly hunts and gathers at West Town Mall in Knoxville, Tennessee. Send her news about any good bargains at firstname.lastname@example.org.