There is a tendency amongst folks, be that scientists, fitness people or just your everyday folks like you and me to find a single solution to a given problem and fat loss and body composition fall firmly into that category.
Some will tell us it is too many calories, too many carbs, not enough activity, not enough exercise – but what is the reality?
Can we hang all of our big, fat modern ills on one of these evils or is the reality, in this instance, a little more complex? Can we devise a single kind of food to avoid, exercise or even pill to take that will solve our problems once and for all?
Darkness and Sleep
In the book Lights Out the authors present the idea that when we don’t sleep in synch with seasonal light exposure (that is more in winter, less in summer) we end up out of sync with our environment and stuck in virtual summer and this is a bad thing. In summer our bodies are anticipating the coming winter and scarcity of food supply and we therefore crave carbs and calories to build up a good padding of body fat to help keep us warm and sustain us through months of scarce food, darkness and inactivity. The problem is, since we lit up the world with electricity and lightbulbs we are telling our bodies it is always summer and we never enter a period of short days, limited light exposure and most important scarcity.
Good Calories, Bad Calories, Too Many Calories
In Good Calories Bad Calories Gary Taubes looks at the current dogma that fat is bad, carbohydrates are good and to be healthy we just need to exercise more and effectively dismisses these claims. Things were already problematic before the low fat, high carb advice was pushed on us but since then, despite eating less fat and more carbs than ever before, obesity and diabetes are killing us in some scary numbers and we now have an epidemic of obese six year olds! The book goes on to argue how it is the wrong kind of calories and not so much the number that is causing us the problems and the sugars and refined carbohydrates that are at the root of our problems.
Alternatively, it could be that we just don’t do as much as we used to and we are a nation (globe) of people sitting around on our big, padded bottoms eating boxes of sugary donuts and swilling it down with high sugar drinks. Or, on the flipside, we do too much exercise, we run marathons and pound treadmills and fuel all of this with yet more sugar.
Could it all be down to the stress of our modern lives? Working too long, for too little. Not enough time with the family. Too much pressure for too long. Do we ever get to unwind? Mortgages kids, recessions, property booms, dot com busts – it’s a pretty nasty world out there and these stresses are constant factors running day in and day out. Compare this to what we know about our ancestors and modern hunter gatherer lifestyles – they had it both tougher and easier than we do. They had stress, for sure, I imagine hunting and killing your food could be pretty hairy, but at the same time, they had a whole lot of leisure time so their punctuated high stress periods are not well aligned with the constant, insidious pressures that we face (Robb Wolf covers this really well in the Cortisol chapter in the Paleo Solution book).
If you can’t take the heat…
We really do have things pretty nice recently and 90% of homes in the UK have central heating and there are not many of us who work outside and when we do, we have some fancy schmancy modern togs to keep us fully insulated (and we probably have some evolutionary fat padding under those new fangled clothes to round things (us) out).
In essence, we don’t really get cold any longer for any extended period of time so it’s no surprise that we now have a bunch of folks who are claiming that cold exposure is the fat loss secret we have been missing all along – could it be that simple? Get a bit cold and burn off some more calories?
Wheat, meat and sowing the seed (soils)
Of course, we could not look at what is making us fat, or at least ill, without considering wheat and seed oils. Seed oils in particular are a relatively new menace only introduced into our diet in the mid 1900’s and as our consumption of these oils increased, and saturated fat consumption decreased, heart disease was soaring – now, you don’t have to a rocket scientist to see the obvious problem with the recommendation to replace saturated fat with seed oils here. Oh and wheat, modern wheat at least – if you are working towards diabetes, heart disease, celiac, rheumatoid arthritis or even dementia then this modern, genetically modified monster is a friend else…
The Melting Pot
So, with so many potential issues, so many things that may be making us fat, which one of these delightful candidates fits (fats) the bill? Well, in my mind, there is no single issue, all of these issues contribute to our problems and the best way to review this is to look at our recent and not so recent history, use that evolutionary perspective and look at just when things started to go wrong and just what the changes in our environment where at that time.
There are some great statistics early on in Lights Out that detail how in 1910 the average adult got around 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night but now the average adult is lucky to get more than seven hours a night. That’s around 700 to 1000 hours of lost sleep a year and it would seem that sleep loss is a cumulative problem – miss an hour seven nights in a row and you may as well have just missed an entire night.
We also work more, relax and socialise less, exercise (badly) more and consume a whole lot more entertainment through our TV’s, computers and smart phones. And, it would seem, we are getting ill. We are at least getting fat, and illness and fatness are best buddies don’t ya’ know?
We don’t have one single problem here, we have many, many interconnected problems that all revolve around our modern world and the many stresses we have introduced. All of our ‘science’ and advice has got us nowhere, literally, as many of us are now too fat to really do much (or soon will be).
Lights Out talks about how we are designed to roll with the seasons and feast and frolic in the summer whilst the light allows and fast, famine and sleep a whole bunch more in the winter whilst there is little in the way of carbohydrates to sustain us. We should fatten up some during summer, but only for around five months a year and then we sleep when it gets cold and dark earlier.
If we look at the last 100 years or so then we have a pretty solid timeline:
1920 we lit the world up with the lightbulb (light), we started living in better and more well constructed houses (heat), we consume ever more and more sugar, more processed foods, better light bulbs, we got busier, worked more, had less leisure time. In the 1950’s we were told that saturated fat made us fat and ill so we started eating more seed oils and more, low fat processed food, and we got fatter and more ill than ever before. We now work even harder and in the last 15 years we have moved to a 24/7 environment where any day, at any time, a sugary, high calorie processed snack, served in a warm, well lit venue is only a short drive away. We drive everywhere, we eat rubbish, we are bathed in near constant light, we have no respect for the seasons, we don’t get enough sleep and we keep ourselves warm all the time – no wonder we are broken.
In a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers the Author makes the point that wild animals do not suffer from the stress related illnesses that plague modern humans. Likewise, in Lights Out the point is made that in nature, no animals get cancer. But some animals get cancer – the ones that live with us, that bath in our artifical light and eat the processed foods we give them.
The Evolutionary Template
So, the opening of this article looks at how we try to simplify things, and often, that should be the right way to arrive at a solid, uncomplicated answer that is based on few, if any assumptions but when it comes to finding a single problem driving our health and weight issues then we can’t hang our hat on any one issue be that wheat, meat, sleep, sugar, stress or exercise. But, we can look backwards, we can devise a simple answer to this problem and that is to simplify our lives and live in a way that our genes were designed for:
- Turn the lights off earlier and try to roll with the seasons a little more &
- Get more sleep, ideally 9 hours a night and in a pitch black room
- Eat real food – organic, seasonal fruit and veg + wild caught fish and grass fed animals
- Get more low intensity exercise – think walking the dog and hiking
- Get outside more, even when it is cold!
- Get more sunlight and don’t slaver yourself in sun block at every opportunity – we need some sun!
- Do some strength based exercise along with some high intensity interval work but don’t go crazy
- Manage stress – meditate, do some yoga, go to the park, whatever, just get some downtime
- Work less – put yourself first, examine your life and look for ways to do less
Ultimately, try to look backwards and live a more natural life that would imitate the lives of our modern and not so modern ancestors. Sleep, less artificial lights, real food, family, friends, get off Facebook get off this Blog, go and light a fire, cuddle up next to your wife and kids and tell a story – evolution sculpted us to put on weight, it also built us to lose it again when the time was right so live more naturally and you will be fitter, leaner and your health will thank you for it.