Instead of slowly guiding a cart through a supermarket, you fill bags that you must carry, or you push a basket-hauling bike. (It is also likely that you’ll avoid being tempted by racks full of low-nutrient, high-calorie snacks that beckon in a supermarket.)
None of this sounds that major, but as the zookeepers found out, many small changes in environment had a big impact. Cooking from scratch isn’t quite stalking a rabbit or scrounging for wax worms, but it can change the ratio of calories expended to calories consumed. Compare, for instance, the energy needed to walk around a kitchen, chopping food, opening and closing a refrigerator and cleaning pots to the efforts involved in driving past a fast-food window or pulling the top off a commercially prepared dinner. And then multiply that over many days.
For an even more ambitious reworking of one’s food environment, consider growing much of one’s own food, which Natterson-Horowitz describes as essentially “organized foraging.”
The Brookside Zoo nutritionists not only changed what and how the bears ate but also tried to make their cages bigger and fill them with distractions so that eating was not their only pastime. Such “environmental enrichment,” which can be seen all over the National Zoo — from the octopus tank with its shelves, archways, tunnels and doorways to the orangutan cage with its swings and aerial cables — decreases the stress and boredom of captivity and related overeating.
We too tend to eat and drink more when we are bored, anxious and lonely. Structuring our environment with plenty of engaging activities can keep us away from the pantry, the fridge and the snack bowl. For those who work from home, setting up stimulating decoys — such as that day’s newspaper — between desk and kitchen is a good way to distract from eating. Eating with others (and not in front of a screen) can also lead to slower eating and fewer calories consumed.
So how does this relate to patients who come to me blaming themselves for again failing to lose weight? The lesson of “Zoobiquity” is that we are simply exercising our animal natures in an environment that is anything but natural.
Of course, we can’t truly reproduce the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors any more than the zookeepers can perfectly replicate the fare available to the grizzlies that still roam the Rockies. But perhaps it’s time that we take a cue from Jim and Axhi, and start to live a little more on the wild side.
Miller is an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School. Her most recent book, “Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing,” will be published this month.