The Meaty Appetite of Locusts

Humans and other animals have evolved elegant appetite systems to ensure the adequate consumption of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and micronutrients.

Growth and reproductive fitness depend highly on an optimal diet, and these appetite systems work marvellously to drive us in search of the perfect amount of each macro- and micronutrient.

Trouble comes along when we eat a diet with a macronutrient composition vastly different from that with which we have evolved, or if our appetite or taste systems have been fooled in some way. Disturbingly, this describes exactly the foodscape seen in the developed world these days.

Many highly palatable processed foods contain nutrient compositions that are vastly different to that which they appear. Some foods have deceptively low amounts of protein, while being engineered to taste protein-rich. In this situation, many people enormously overeat on carbohydrates and lipid, because their system is continually trying to reach that elusive meaty goal.

Professor Steve Simpson at the University of Sydney, Australia, demonstrated this with an extraordinary investigation into the protein seeking behaviour of locusts. He has shown that locusts will incessantly swarm, in search of a particular dietary protein target, eating everything in sight, and will not rest until they find their goal. This drive for protein is so strong that any member of the swarm that does not join the march becomes a quick and easy food source for those on the move.

Humans and other animals have this same internal requirement for the ingestion of a set quantity of protein. As Professor Simpson suggests, like locusts, we will overeat until we reach our goal – “Many people eat far too much fat and carbohydrate in their attempt to consume enough protein”. Known as the ‘protein leverage effect’, this drive may be a major contributor to our global obesity epidemic.

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Locust Swarm in Israel

The complexity and variability of human obesity and metabolic disease can never be distilled down to a single malicious culprit; but as this and similar studies prove, simply being knowledgeable about the nutrient composition of the food we eat is a highly significant step towards a healthier life and a healthier society.

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Lauren Wright

Globetrotting Aussie postdoc on the hunt for science, logic, and humanity. I research metabolism, mitochondria, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other weighty stuff.

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