Thursday, 15 May 2008

Eat Less. Do More

At the time of writing, the Food Standards Agency offers tips on healthy eating and living, amongst which is the advice to "Get active and try to be a healthy weight". It goes on to suggest that you should:

- only eat as much food as you need
- make healthy choices - it's a good idea to choose low-fat and low-sugar varieties, eat plenty of fruit and veg and whole grains
- get more active.

Only eat as much food as you need! Can you believe how vacuous this statement is? How many people out there think "You know what, I have eaten as much as I need, but I reckon I will eat some more?". If this is the reason for people being overweight, then, given current obesity levels, people would have to be coming to the "I've Had As Much Food As I Need But I'm Going To Eat Some More" conclusion regularly.

The one thing the FSA does not answer is HOW to identify that you have eaten 'as much as you need'. The answer is simple. Appetite.

Appetite is a desire for food which manifests as hunger. Appetite serves to regulate adequate energy intake sufficient to maintain our metabolic needs. The question is, why does this regulator of how much we eat seem to work so poorly, such that we can eat ourselves in to a state of immobilisation? Why can't we trust our appetite to regulate our consumption?

Think about it. What percentage of your diet comes from refined foods? (By refined, I mean anything that you could not eat in a raw form.) Now imagine that you are on a large desert island with no modern tools (including lighters or matches). What would you eat? You could fish and trap game. You could gather seasonal fruit, salad, vegetables and nuts. All could be eaten raw if need be. If you found a particularly supply, you would likely eat until you were full (as indicated by appetite), but no more - just as we eat now - until our appetite is sufficed.

It is unlikely you would eat grains or potatoes as the former require much effort to gather as they grow disparately and both require processing to make them suitable for human consumption. Without some form of settled agriculture, refined carbohydrate would not feature in the diet. By all accounts, you exist in a rather carbohydrate scarce environment. Honey would be available, but wild bees would fiercely defend it - so you would have to decide if obtaining it was worth the risk?

With this 'island diet' in mind, what percentage is carbohydrate? More importantly, compare this carbohydrate percentage to that with your modern day diet. Notice a difference?

Now this harvest would require some modest energy expenditure to gather but, save for lugging the harvest back to camp, nothing too physically intense.

Now throw in a mix of apex predators, maybe a bear or some big cats. It would pay to be able to run fast, to climb, maybe to fight (especially if there were another hostile survivor on the island). These fight or flight responses would require intense activity and would be periodically tested. Other skills might be to swim (but speed would be an important quality of your swimming given the predators in the water). Once you have burned a load of calories this way, you need to replenish your body's energy stores!

Anyone lacking speed, agility, strength, power would not last in such an environment. Anyone who regularly ate 'more than they needed' and became obese would lose speed and agility in particular. In this situation, you become a snack for Mr Apex.

Dinner at Mine; A Question

Stay with me, I am coming to my conclusion! The FSA's advice basically boils down to 'Eat Less, Do More'. Now if I were to invite you to my house for a four course meal with all the trimmings and said 'bring your appetite', how would you develop your appetite? You might skip breakfast (i.e, eat less), and/or you might go for a big walk or for a swim (i.e, do more).

Does it therefore strike you as somewhat curious that the very thing the FSA is advising as a means to control your weight (eat less, do more), is the very thing most of us would do to increase our capacity to eat food?

Our desert island survivor above would not be eating a diet based heavily on carbohydrate. He would be eating minimal (if any), refined carbohydrate. If he was one of a tribe, over thousands of years, evolution would ensure that his offspring could regulate their dietary consumption using appetite. Those who were unable to do this would be picked off by other predators.

Given these factors, and the scarcity of carbohydrate in our ancestor's environment:

- Would it not make sense for us to gorge on carbohydrate when we found it? Especially as carbohydrate is a fantastic energy source and hunger is a massive driver of our behaviour.

- What better way for our body to ensure we stock up on such a rare and rich energy source than by offering a 'disconnect' between our appetite and the 'prize' we have found? (Given the carbohydrate scarcity there is little chance of 'over consuming' it.)

- If carbohydrate was scarce, how could we ever develop the appropriate metabolic controls to deal with it?

So there you have it, a reasonable explanation of why we are compelled to gorge on sugar, bread, pastries and potatoes. Eat more, do less? No way! For a start, simply eat right.

1 comment:

Scott Kustes said...

Very nice post Chris! I concur wholeheartedly. Start with real can mess with macronutrients once that is settled.

Scott Kustes
Modern Forager