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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

M&Ms and Evolution

Published February 6, 2013 3:51 PM by Michael Jones

For most of history, our ancestors have resorted to gluttony as a means of survival if they sensed hard times ahead. As a result, our modern day instincts are still hardwired to tell us to consume more calories in preparation for times of scarcity, even despite an abundance of food. There are pressures of life surrounding the laboratory. These stresses can follow you home from work or vice versa, affecting you externally due to things like seasonal changes or financial strain. A recent NPR article noted people who are down in the winter or stressed out because of their economic situation can experience periods of weight gain due to a higher calorie diet.

Of course, it makes sense to put away something extra, especially if the outlook is bleak for future meals. According to the article, “That response, while perfectly suited for prehistoric times, is maladaptive today, when more people in wealthy countries such as the United States are dying from diseases related to obesity rather than starvation.”

The article chronicled researchers in a study as they surveyed 121 college student using M&Ms and well-phrased sentences. Volunteers were given a bag of M&Ms -- pretty much a dream-come-true if you share my addiction to the little candies. Researchers first informed the volunteers that some of the M&Ms were “high calorie” and some were “low calorie,” and “then exposed the volunteers to unconscious signals -- words that indicated harsh environmental conditions such as ‘survival,’ ‘withstand,’ ‘persistence,’ ‘shortfall,’ ‘struggle’ and ‘adversity.’” It was soon discovered that, when subjected to the cautious or otherwise foreboding language, the “high calorie” M&M-eating volunteers “ate nearly twice as many” as their “low calorie” counterparts.   

“High calorie foods, which are useful when resources are scarce, are consumed in larger quantities when an environment is perceived to be harsh, whereas low-calorie foods are consumed in smaller quantities” (Sic.) said University of Miami researchers, Juliano Laran and Anthony Salerno. Which explains why, when prompted in a second survey to feel the additional pressure of limited resources, the volunteers ate even more of the “high calorie” candy.

Have you noticed some extra unwanted pounds lately? Do your laboratory co-workers tend to change their diet with the seasons? The good news is that it might not be our fault -- at least, not entirely  -- but rather the impact of evolution that hasn’t quite caught up with modern society yet. As researchers wrote, “The key is to understand that the choice of unhealthy food is not always the result of a willingness to indulge but can sometimes be the result of exposure to information suggesting environmental harshness.”

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