Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why fight millions of years of evolution (Notes from downunder)

I have been thinking (and reading) recently about how our bodies process food and react to how we treat them.

Aside from a few loony religious fundamentalist creationists it is now widely accepted that we are as we are, through a process of evolution over millions of years. Homo Sapiens is thought to have started walking the earth around 60,000 years ago and our precursor species for millions of years before that. In terms of our experience of time even 60,000 years is almost impossible to get our heads around let alone millions of years!

The relevance of this to fat loss and fitness is that we have to put our current challenges into some sort of evolutionary context.

For roughly 55,000 of those 60,000 years mankind was a nomadic hunter gatherer (as indeed were whatever precursor species that came before,) which meant they got food where they could, followed the meat on the hoof and gathered berries and nuts at the right times of year.

Of course anthropologists and only guess on detailed lifestyles of early man but what is I think safe to say is that hunter/gatherer early man was not all the time surrounded by an excess of foods. Yes there will have been times when there was abundance but we can be sure that it was not year round.

We also know from the study of natural selection that it is those parts of the species that can survive though to reproduction age and successfully pass their genes on to the next generation. The rest die out.

So if you are early homo sapiens and your body contains a mutation that means you are more resistant to famine (i.e. your body is better at keeping valuable fat stores) you have much more chance of surviving hard times than someone with a genetic make up that does not store fat as well.

The same is true with those whose bodies are adapted to respond well to times where food is available but where it needs to support the finding that food through the production of muscle in order to run, hunt, throw, lift boulders etc, those people had the best chance of survival.

So my ‘guess’ is that we have inherited bodies that are ideally adapted to doing both of these things as it will have been those early men/women that could do this that would have survived through to adulthood and reproduced.

Fast forward to 5/6 thousand years ago when mankind started putting down roots and farming. Yes, we did start to have a little more control over our food production but due to climatic and other natural conditions we were still subject to periods of famine and most people had to put in a great deal of physical effort into keeping ourselves alive. For the vast, vast majority of mankind there was not a permanent surplus of food.

Fast forward further still until just 30/40 years ago. In the developed world we have been subject to a huge (and many would say dangerous) fundamental change to our food/lifestyle. For the vast majority of the developed world there is NEVER and shortage of calories. We are surrounded by a total overabundance of food energy. Even the ‘poor’ in the developed world have access to an abundance of ‘cheap’ calories.

At the same time many many more people are earning their daily bread by how they think and how they communicate rather than by the physical sweat of their brow.

Now I am NOT making a judgement here. What is, is and I am a great believer in playing the pieces on the board as they stand not as you would wish them to be.

However I think it is hugely useful to recognise that our surroundings (in terms of calorie availability) and lifestyles have changed beyond all recognition since WW2 but our bodies just cannot evolve in that space of time. Consequently we are creating a constant problem for our bodies to process levels of input that they are just not (for many of us at least) evolved to handle.

Does that mean we have to eat and behave like cavemen? To an extent I would say yes. Our bodies have evolved to process a certain amount of protein, natural fats (albeit that the animal type would not have been in overabundance, though nuts and seeds would have been at certain times of year), and carbohydrates from naturally occurring grains veggies and fruit.

What we know we have NOT evolved to do is process a constant excess of any food, nor have we evolved to be able to process large amount of process grains or sugars.

I am not suggesting that anyone puts on a loincloth and runs around hunting the local wildlife and gathering berries! However my experience is that life is a whole lot easier without conflict, and that is what modern eating patterns have created in our bodies – constant conflict with our evolved physical nature.

The same is true for physical activity. We have not evolved to sit in front of PCs TVs and computer games! We have evolved the need to use and develop our physical bodies, that need has not suddenly changed in the last 50 years!

Take from this post whatever you wish but the more I think about it the more I realise that if I respect my evolutionary imperatives I am working with my body not against it and that seems like the way to go for me.