On Big Brains And Cooking Our Calories

One of the most common misconceptions about food is that all calories are created equal. If food is energy, than however much fuel you give your body needs to be expelled proportionally. If only an equation this simple could solve our food woes! 

The metabolic process is far too complex to be boiled down as though our bodies are some elementary in-and-out machines. Human beings have a penchant for overcomplicating things: qualifying our diets is no exception. Take agriculture. We’ve domesticated plants and animals and in turn created an entire industrial system in order to foster their rapid proliferation. Some may say we’ve shot ourselves in the foot; producing cheap, accessible carbohydrates and processed foods that has left us fatter and further estranged from our food sources. Others will argue that agriculture and industrialized agriculture were the dialectical response to a seemingly tiresome existence based on searching for subsistence (a la our hunter-gatherer ancestors). 

We’ve been navigating grocery stores, restaurants, the farmer’s market, even the home kitchen and have eventually found ourselves here at Provenance Meals, a little nook of solace within an overly complex food world that wants to take us back to basics. At Provenance we believe diet shouldn’t be based on counting calories, but on spreading a food philosophy that can be better intuitively grasped and sustained through the types of foods we choose. Like I mentioned earlier, all calories are not created equal. Not only does each macronutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, fat) affect our insulin levels in different ways, but the state of the food consumed, like cook vs. raw, also plays a part in how we metabolize it.

Yet it seems as though food hype these days is primarily focused on finding the source of our increased body size, but what about our increased brain size? This amazing evolutionary feat has allowed us to question our metabolisms altogether. Let’s take a second to shift our focus from finding a culpable macronutrient (I apologize, carbs) to a specific food process that goes largely unquestioned: cooking. After all, it may be responsible for that pesky, convoluted little tendency of ours to “think critically.”

There is evidence that homo sapiens did not begin to harness fire for cooking until 1.8 million years ago. Before then, diets were mainly raw, fibrous vegetables and tough, uncooked meats. My jaw aches just thinking about the amount of time spent on chewing. Through evolution, our guts and teeth have shrunk, possibly as a result of our ability to use fire to our advantage: cooking foods break down fiber, allowing us to reallocate time spent chewing to other activities, conserving energy in the process. 

Research has shown that cooking has allowed for an increase in cranial capacity. Since our brains are calorically expensive, on a raw diet humans with increased brain size would have to spend too many hours a day chewing in order to consume enough nutrients to fuel their noggins. We can afford our expensive brain, using calories as our currency, through cooking. Cooking breaks down the structural integrity of food and shortens its transportation time through the digestive process. Energy and blood flow can therefore be redirected towards other areas of our body, namely our brains. 

In short, consuming cooked foods versus raw are two very different processes, yet are often conflated in terms of calories. Taking the caloric worth of food at face value can be wholly misleading. In terms of how our bodies process food, eating a raw apple is not the same as eating apple sauce, and 250 calories of cooked, processed white flour is not the same as 250 calories of raw almonds. As I have mentioned above, eating calorically equivalent diets, but comprised of different foods, will affect how the body holds on to weight. 

Paleo, vegan, raw, gluten-free: these diets are an effort to get at some “grain” (pun not intended) of truth about how we can eat to feel and function at an optimal level, without relying on calories as a one-size-fits-all diet proposition. Our meal model at Provenance is based on whole foods and transparency, so that our clients can choose meals that best fit their individual goals, all while eating deliciously and sustainably.