Live Well
stuck-in-the-past
July 2014

Stuck in the Past

As I continue to read and learn about food and health, I am struck by the likeness to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. While everything in our society has moved forward at a very rapid pace, physiologically, we are still stuck in the past. This has important consequences for our health and well-being.

This can be seen, first of all, in our response to stress. In hunter-gatherer societies, stress came in the form of attacks by large animals (bears, lions, etc…). The body would set in motion processes to protect itself as a response to the stress of being attacked or chased by a large animal. The goal here was speed and strength to either run away or fight the large animal. In order to do this, processes considered “non-essential” by the body were shut down, such as the digestive system and the reproductive system. Specifically, when a person is under stress:

  • Their body starts to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol;
  • Their heart rate and blood pressure go up to increase the flow of blood to the brain and improve decision-making;
  • Their blood sugar rises to provide fuel for energy;
  • Blood is taken away from the gut to the large muscles of the arms and legs to provide more strength and speed;
  • Clotting occurs more quickly to prevent blood loss from injuries.

Being late to work, to drop the kids at school, or other daily stress triggers the same reaction as if one is being chased by a large animal. In this case, however, our stress reaction is being triggered on an almost continual basis. 80% of our immune system is in our gut, so when our digestive system is compromised, so is our immune system.

The second way in which we are similar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors is how our bodies store fat and excess carbohydrates. Because food was not always plentiful or easily accessible, our hunter-gatherer ancestors converted fats and carbohydrates into stored energy for future use, when food was not readily available. In today’s society, food is plentiful and excessively convenient so this predisposition to storing fat is no longer beneficial to us. This is why diets typically don’t work – if one abstains from eating, the body will start to store fat because it thinks it is starving.

While we may be living in a world of scientific and technological innovation, physiologically our bodies are still stuck in the past. Here are a few steps you can take which will be of great benefit in the long term:

  1. Try to minimize stress by exercising, meditating, or doing breathing exercises (I particularly like Dr. Andrew Weil’s breathing exercises. Check it out here.)
  2. Eat well-balanced meals with whole, real foods.
  3. Avoid eating too many carbohydrates – especially the refined ones – because if the body is flooded with too many carbohydrates, it will store excess carbohydrates as fat. They also wreak havoc on blood sugar levels and, over time, weaken your immune system.

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Worthwhile

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Fat Chance:

Beating the Odds Against
Sugar, Processed Food,
Obesity, and Disease

BY ROBERT LUSTIG, M.D., M.S.L.


Several weeks ago, I decided to re-watch Dr. Robert Lustig’s YouTube lecture called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. I was so fascinated by his talk that I decided to read his book, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. The book proved as interesting and informative as the video, if not more so.

In his book, Lustig explores how our current diet, high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and low in fiber affects weight gain, obesity, and obesity-related diseases. According to Lustig, the abundance of sugar in our diet has created an imbalance in two critical hormones, insulin and leptin. Insulin is the hormone that signals the body to store excess energy as fat. As our body releases more insulin – to deal with the surge in sugar that we are currently eating – our body begins to store more fat. At the same time, insulin shuts of leptin, the hormone that signals that your body has enough energy stored in the form of fat. In short: Increased sugar & refined carbohydrate consumption = excess insulin = reduced leptin = more consumption of sugar & refined carbohydrate consumption = weight gain.

What has caused the rapid and significant increase in the consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates? Stress is one key factor – read more about this in the Live Well posting above. Another is the medical profession’s faulty assumption that fat was at the root of cardiovascular disease. This led to the development of fat-free food products, in which fat was replaced with sugar. As Lustig notes, “We were beseeched to reduce our consumption of dietary fat from 40 to 30 percent. The food industry had to retool its products to meet the demand for low-fat fare. This meant altering its recipes. But when you take the fat out, the food tastes like cardboard. And palatability equals sales. The food industry had to find ways to make this low-fat fat fare palatable. They therefore upped the carbohydrate content, specifically the sugar.” (p.115). At the same time, we also began consuming less and less fiber, which is crucial to managing insulin levels because it slows the rise in blood sugar, released when a food is consumed. Environmental obesogens are another factor causing weight gain and obesity because they disrupt key hormones in the body.

Lustig tells us that we need to take our health into our hands by becoming more mindful of how and what we eat. The key here is to eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates and eat more fiber. We also need to get adequate sleep and exercise. The government and larger organizations, such as the World Health Organization, also have a role to play by mandating a reduction in the use and consumption of sugar, and by labeling food products in a more user-friendly way.

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breads-temple-bar-market Check out
some pictures of
my recent trip to
Ireland.

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Suggested Summer Reading & Viewing

If you have some time this summer, I highly recommend reading or watching the following:

  • Fat Chance:
    Beating the Odds
    Against Sugar,
    Processed Food,
    Obesity, and Disease

    by Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L.
  • Fed Up
    by Michele Simon
  • Food Matters
    by Vicky Blewitt and Ian Brighthope
  • Hungry for Change
    by Mike Adams and Nick Bolton
…and on the lighter side:

  • Le Chef
    by Daniel Cohen
  • The Lunchbox
    by Ritesh Batra
  • Pomegranate Soup
    by Marsha Mehran