Mark Wal­ton on calo­rie count­ing and SUVs

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I’ve been do­ing the 5:2 diet for two years now, be­cause I reached mid­dle age and re­alised I was go­ing to die soon. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the 5:2 diet means you re­strict your­self to 600 calo­ries for two days of the week, then party on with dou­ble break­fast the re­main­ing five. Those two fast­ing days lower your weekly calo­rie in­take and trick your body into burn­ing fat re­serves. (This isn’t o•cial di­etary guid­ance, by the way, I’m just giv­ing you the gist.)

One of the things this regime has high­lighted is just how hard it is to re­sist calo­ries in the mod­ern world. Su­per­mar­kets are gi­gan­tic reser­voirs of sugar and fat, and high street cof­fee chains har­bour thou­sands upon thou­sands of calo­ries on ev­ery shelf. On my diet days, those calo­ries call out to me, hyp­not­i­cally draw­ing me in like those deep-sea an­gler­fish, a glow­ing lure above ev­ery flap­jack and crois­sant.

This is be­cause I have a Palae­olithic brain. I un­der­stand this. Around two mil­lion years ago the hu­man noo­dle grew big­ger and started burn­ing 20 per cent of our en­ergy at rest, com­pared to just eight per cent for an ape. We got rav­en­ous for calo­ries, but be­fore agri­cul­ture came along (10,000 years ago) break­fast was never a cer­tainty. Stud­ies of the world’s re­main­ing hunter-gath­er­ers, like the Hadza tribe in Africa, have shown that more than half of all hunt­ing trips end in fail­ure. This ex­plains why, over two mil­lion years – over 99 per cent of all hu­man ex­is­tence – we were pro­grammed to stuff our faces when­ever an op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self. Killed a deer? Eat ev­ery­thing down to the bone mar­row. Stum­bled on a bee­hive? Drain the whole tree trunk of honey ’til you’re sick. It’s easy to see why, when a Stone Age brain en­ters Star­bucks, it’s so hard to re­sist drain­ing the trunk there too.

So why don’t we ap­ply this in­sight to our other hu­man weak­nesses? Re­sults at the end of 2019 showed that SUVs now rep­re­sent 40 per cent of all car sales across Europe. At the very mo­ment we, as a species, have come to un­der­stand the dan­gers of global warm­ing and our need to re­duce CO2 emis­sions, we’re in­ex­orably drawn to gi­gan­tic diesels with point­less four-wheel drive and self-open­ing boots. Felipe Munoz, an au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try an­a­lyst, be­lieves that Europe will even­tu­ally fol­low the US, and SUVs will make up 50 per cent of our car mar­ket. Like the su­per­mar­kets and the cof­fee chains, the car man­u­fac­tur­ers know they’re on to a good thing. ‘SUVs are like a drug for car mak­ers,’ Munoz says. ‘They sell lots of them, and make lots of money on them.’

But SUVs are our drug too, and our ad­dic­tion comes out of the same in­stinc­tive urges of our an­ces­tors. Palae­olithic man sought out high places with good views that could be eas­ily de­fended. In a world where preda­tors prowled and the nights were pitch black, we de­vel­oped an in­stinc­tive sense of se­cu­rity. And we still re­spond to that: I’m ab­so­lutely sure, if I were to take a Hadza tribesman out of Tan­za­nia and ask him to com­pare a Toy­ota Aygo with a Mercedes G-Class, he’d choose the Merc. I’m talk­ing about a peo­ple who live with no clocks, no crops, no roads or houses or gov­ern­ment. Peo­ple who own no live­stock and cel­e­brate no birthdays be­cause they don’t have cal­en­dars. I still think he’d choose the G-Class, be­cause our hu­man re­sponse to these cars is in­stinc­tive.

See­ing the SUV in par­al­lel to our calo­rie ad­dic­tion might help. Lots of mid­dle aged men like me have taken up the 5:2 diet and started wear­ing ly­cra at the week­ends. These aren’t just trends – they’re be­hav­iours based on im­proved knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing. My grandad had a heart at­tack in his for­ties, but then he smoked and ate choco­late cake ev­ery day. He didn’t know any bet­ter, but I do.

So now we know all about the down­sides of driv­ing SUVs and we un­der­stand their ir­re­sistible ap­peal, maybe a 5:2 diet could help here too? But it can’t be two days of fast­ing and five days of diesel gorg­ing. With China, Europe and the US all bing­ing, the 5:2 SUV diet will have to be more se­vere: you get two days a week to drive your SUV and five days on a bi­cy­cle as pay­back. And that leaves you feel­ing hard done-by? Ninety-nine per cent of your an­ces­tors would dis­agree.

Ed­i­tor-at-large Mark Wal­ton is more sports car than SUV in build. If only his col­umn didn’t fol­low the Twizy-thin Gavin Green’s in the mag­a­zine…

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