From jungle to laboratory and back to our own kitchens, David Raubenheimer andStephen Simpson’s new book explores how and why we eat, how appetites are fedand regulated – and how, in the end, it all comes back to five appetites.

Having studied appetite in animals over two decades, and transforming thescience of nutrition with their findings, Professors David Raubenheimer andStephen Simpson from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre andSchool of Life and Environmental Sciences are leaders in the field ofnutritional ecology and obesity.

Their new book Eat Like The Animals reveals the reasons a baboon, a cat anda locust instinctively know exactly what to eat for balanced nutrition, andyet we humans can’t seem to figure it out.

The surprising role of appetite

“It all comes down to the essential role of appetite to communicate the body’sneeds to the brain,” says Professor Raubenheimer, the University’s Leonard PUllmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology.

“Animals possess five appetites – for protein, carbohydrate, fat, salt andcalcium.

“In natural food environments these appetites cooperate to help animals choosea balanced diet. Humans have this ability too, but the modern food environmentis so altered that our appetites can no longer work together. Rather, theycompete, each vying for its own nutrient. It is this competition that causesus to over-eat fats and carbs, leading to obesity and the serious diseasesthat come with it.

“Surprisingly, we overeat fats and carbs not because the appetites for thesenutrients are stronger, but because the appetite for protein is strongest ofall! If protein is diluted in the food supply, we overeat until we satisfy ourprotein appetite. On high-protein diets, the protein appetite will besatisfied sooner—when fewer total calories have been eaten. This is what wecall the Protein Leverage effect.

“But more protein is not necessarily better. Eating too much protein switcheson biological processes that hasten aging and shorten lives.”

When food comes from factories rather than fields

Professor Simpson, the Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre,describes how our capacity to balance our nutrition has become seriouslyimpaired due to the industrialisation of the food system.

“We have made low-protein processed foods taste unnaturally good,” he says.

“We’ve diluted protein in the food supply with ultra-processed fats and carbs.We’ve also disconnected the brake on our appetite systems by decreasingdietary fibre. Perfect for getting us to eat and buy more but devastating forour health. Food cultures globally have been changed by aggressive marketingof these products.

“A pretty depressing story – but it’s not all doom and gloom – you canreinstate your innate nutritional wisdom by taking charge of your foodenvironment.”

What the animals have taught us about healthy eating

The authors have some tips for taking charge of your food environment andhelping your appetite to work for you, based on their take on the scientificevidence as informed by their own research.

1. Surround yourself with whole foods

“Surround yourself with whole foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, healthyoils, unrefined grains, pulses and moderate amounts of quality meats if youwish. Avoid meals and snacks that are factory-produced, or buy themsparingly,” says Professor Raubenheimer.

“That way, we can expose the amazing appetite systems we share with otherspecies to a food environment in which they are able to work their magic andlead us to a balanced diet.

“Let your brain ensure that your pantry and fridge are stocked with good,wholesome foods; then let your appetites do the rest,” he adds.

2. Aim for balance

“Ultimately, there are endless ways to achieve a nutritionally balanced diet,”says Professor Simpson.

“Various nutritional philosophies slugging it out today can provide healthyeating or can be misused to do the opposite.

“What they all have in common, is reducing or cutting out highly processedfoods, rich in sugar, fat and salt and poor in fibre and nutrients

“Unless there are specific medical reasons, you don’t need to cut out any foodgroup or eat things that you don’t like, or that are not appropriate to yourfood culture. It’s just an issue of proportions.”

3. Make it a habit

Professor Raubenheimer adds that before long, eating an enjoyable healthy dietwill become automatic.

“It’s like learning a sport, to play a musical instrument, or to drive anautomobile: at first it takes concentration, consciously applying rules,rehearsing them, and unlearning bad habits. And then it becomes secondnature,” he says.

“Or, in the case of healthy diets, perhaps we should consider this firstnature: creatures from slime moulds to baboons have been doing it for millionsof years before numbers, formulas, sports, music, and automobiles were eveninvented.”

Image: Olive baboons in Uganda eat the bark of particular trees that is richin sodium. This is driven by an appetite specific to that nutrient. Photocredit: D. Raubenheimer

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