Not so long ago I was privileged to watch the BBC Horizon program by Dr Michael Mosley, The Truth About Exercise, followed shortly after by Eat, Fast, Live Longer.
Seriously, watch them. They will blow a hole in your mind hole. I’d actually prefer if you watched them and didn’t read anything else I have to say – that’s how important they are. For those of you still with me, we shall progress…
Both programs shattered my preconceived ideas about how our bodies deal with diet (as in nutrition, not dieting) and exercise as a means to burn off excess kilojoules or calories. It was a strange sensation – exciting and terrifying in the same moment. Everything my society, my peers, magazines, films, newspapers even doctors said about the body, nutrition and activity was essentially wrong, or so off the mark that the implications were disastrous.
They tell us we can all look like ‘this’, we can all lose unwanted kilos by simply eating less and exercising more. And the science makes sense. You have to burn as much as you consume to maintain weight, and consume less than you need to lose it, ergo, you gain weight when you take in more than you use.
This is hard. Hard to start, hard to maintain and all to easy to stop. It has led to decades of dangerous starvation diets, cleanses, yoyo dieting, self hate, eating disorders and rock bottom self esteem. I’m sorry, but no one will ever convince me that a ‘lemon detox’, or any detox, is healthy. Gwyneth Paltrow, although gorgeous, has a personal trainer and works out three hours a day while someone looks after her kids. That is not achievable, nor is it healthy. It is wrong and to pretend otherwise is a fallacy of the worst kind.
However, new in-depth studies looking at long lived populations and rodents (an odd combination, I know), have begun to unravel an uncomfortable truth. Not everyone can lose weight easily, if at all (see The Truth About Fat below). Some of us, a shocking majority, are actually programmed to gain weight and keep it on at all costs, no matter how much we thrash ourselves on a treadmill. For others, weight and figure maintenance is arduous, long term and requires fierce commitment. People loving the cross-fit movement have my admiration – I couldn’t think of anything worse than flogging myself up and down an oval, getting savaged by mosquitoes and sand flies, sweating, vomiting and sweating again. Yuck. So yuck. I am the epitome of this meme:
I’m lucky though. My genetics have gifted me with a tall frame, about 174cm in height and a pretty good metabolic rate for burning off calories. People in my family are generally healthy, lean and fit, at least in appearance (see above videos for the meaning of TOFI bodies). For most of my life I’ve been able to eat a wide variety of foods without much concern for what it did to me, my weight or my waist. Until recently.
I have a child now, and my body is in ‘post-child chubby mode’. It’s as though the female body is programmed to store every last skerrick of fat it ingests in case a massive food shortage strikes the western world and the children need to eat all the available McNuggets. Fortunately for me, there is unlikely to be a worldwide McNugget shortage any time soon. Unfortunately, my body was built to prepare for and survive such an apocalypse. I’m sure there is a fancy science name for this evolutionary phenomenon, but let’s call it Survival of the Fattest.
The theory is firmly rooted in the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ or more accurately, the survival of those able to adapt over those unable to adjust to changing environments.
Let me use an example:
There are two families living on a hillside in pre-historic Europe. It’s cold. It’s very cold.
During spring and summer, there are herds of animals to hunt, as well as vegetables and fruits to collect. One family stacks on the kilos, while the other only slightly increases their body weight, despite eating exactly the same diet. They consume the fattiest meat from their hunted prey as a priority, they eat the marrow from the bones in order to glean ever last molecule of nutrition from the animal. They gather starchy, carbohydrate loaded root vegetables and sugary fruits. The fish they catch are full of essential fats and nutrients to feed their growing, thinking, inventing brains. Their tastebuds find those foods tasty and appealing, they enjoy the texture and salivate at the mere sight or smell.
Winter comes and the food supply vanishes. The winter is hard and cold. Stores of dried meat fail and stocks of root vegetables spoil. There are no wandering herds to replenish the lost food and all the plants are buried under feet of snow. Our ancestors start to go hungry. The family able to put on the pounds during the time of plenty have some hope, but those who didn’t develop larger bodily fat stores are in serious trouble. The ‘fatty’ family survive the harsh winter thanks to their body’s ability to optimise fuel storage. The ‘skinny’ family die. Perhaps not all of them and not all at once, but they do eventually die. Their offspring die in subsequent winters and droughts until the only people left are those who can gain weight in the good times in order to survive the bad. The ‘skinny’ genes literally exit the pool, wrap their bikini clad bodies in designer towels and bugger off for a full fat latte.
They leave Clan Chubby to populate the Earth and those people form the basis of our modern human race. Just like those humans who thought abstractly and adapted to a changing environment had the upper hand over their less clever fellows, those who had the right body type could survive the hardest climates nature could muster.
What does this mean for us?
Well, when was the last time you were hungry? I mean really hungry. So hungry you would strip bark from a tree just to put something in your mouth? So hungry you would catch crickets to have a decent protein meal? So hungry the family pet crosses a line from beloved to banquet?
I dare say, never. Unless you’ve done the 40 Hour Famine or had extensive fasting for a medical reason, you probably haven’t ever experienced real, devastating starvation like our ancestors or like so many people still do in poverty riddled nations and homeless shelters worldwide. Unless you lived through war rationing or the Great Depression, you have probably always had something in your pantry or fridge, although it might not be what you want to eat at the time.
We, the progeny of the Fatty Tribe, now live in a world (at least in the western hemisphere) where food is plentiful. I might even stretch to say food is excessively available. We are, for the first time in human history, surrounded by food 24 hours a day. We have it in our homes, available on the roadside, in planes, in cans, in space ships. It’s fast or slow, organic or chemically derived. It’s modified, cultivated, irrigated, vaccinated, portioned, labelled and recommended. Most of all, it’s everywhere.
Our bodies were built to crave high fat, high sugar, high carb and we have survived tens of thousands of years on those staples. Once, they were the foods that kept us alive. Now, they are going to kill us.
So will the gene pool slowly empty of those with the ‘weight gain’ adaptation, as we live in an environment saturated with food and lacking any famine? It seems so. While we are made to gain weight, we aren’t made to do it indefinitely or to carry it around for a lifetime. When we keep the blubber on, our bodies start to collapse, the fine balance of chemistry, mechanics and physics becoming distorted and warped under the sheer bulk of our lard. The body starts to malfunction and shut down. It isn’t supposed to live like this.
We need to figure out how to trigger our ‘lose’ function.
This future will come, unless we harness our learnings now and change our behaviour. Those few remaining descendants of the ‘Skinny Tribe’, those envied few who can eat anything and stay thin, will survive and reproduce while Clan Chubby die out, kicking off early thanks to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and heart attack. Their children will be crippled by the same illnesses and earlier in life than their parents. The environment we have created for ourselves will dictate the rules of survival and the weak will fall.
This is the pretence of the Fast diet theory. While we are built to put on weight, we are able to lose it through fasting. Note – fasting not starving. Fasting is an idea still alive in cultures the planet over (Lent, Ramadan etc). It doesn’t mean no food, just dramatically less for select periods of time. You can do intense, long fasts but they are extreme and not for the faint hearted. There are people who live daily on 600 calories, a quarter of a recommended adult’s intake to maintain a ‘healthy’ weight. Such advocates swear they have boundless energy and maintain youthful bodies, but holy wow that sounds like a miserable existence. Why would I want to live to 120 if I have to eat three cherry tomatoes a day until then? I’d rather die in a pork and wine induced coma, choking on cracking and drowning in shiraz, than live like that.
The Fast Diet seems to have found a balance between these two extremes – intermittently fasting two days of the week and eating normally on the remaining five days.
The science of calorie restriction and the positive effects on ageing, disease risk and cell renewal is gathering momentum. Doctors and researchers are taking on the idea of fasting and proving it can reset our bodies to the ‘normal’ state of being – feast and famine, controlled and careful. I’m excited by this prospect and by the idea that this simple concept could be the key to saving Team Fatty-fat-fat from extinction.
Can we harness the knowledge we have now about how our bodies have evolved to help save our population? Or will the fate of the human race be to tip the scales in the opposite direction? It’s either that, or commiserate with the dinosaurs and dodos about the perils of being extinct.
I’m going to give the Fast a go and see where it takes me. I’m hoping back to my cave dwelling roots, but with all the mod-cons in tow.
Further info and sources:
The Fast Diet – Dr Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer