blog, lifestyle, nutrition, WOD

Why our environment is stacking the odds against health

Have you ever seen obese wildlife? If you have, I would bet it was city ‘wildlife’: squirrels and raccoons who have grown accustomed to scavenging through garbage bins in search of human food leftovers as a replacement for their own evolved food. But in their natural habitats, I would wager you haven’t seen any morbidly overweight deer or birds around lately. 
Next question: have you ever seen an animal with a calorie counting app? A blood glucose monitor? For that matter, consider this: humans, before the advent of our modern technology, didn’t have access to these constant information delivery that we do now via our phones, watches, heart rate monitor straps etc. How were people pre- MyFitnessPal and Apple Watches’ movement tracker not sick and obese?! 

Technology: helping or hurting?

These devices that allow dieters in 2019 to track their carefully measured out food intake and log exact calories burned to ensure that they have exactly the right caloric balance on any given day rob us of our natural instincts and intuition regarding movement and food.

Our bodies are smart. They have built in regulatory mechanisms to tell us when we’re hungry, when we’re full, if we need more of a certain mineral or vitamin or macronutrient. Furthermore, our bodies are also designed to not have the exact same calories in and calories out on any given day. 
Our hunter gatherer ancestors didn’t think about calories in food. They ate when there was food available and didn’t when there wasn’t. 
Furthermore, there were periods of fasting naturally built in - and in addition to limitations in food availability, the lack of artificial light dictated stricter circadian rhythm patterns. Research emerging is showing the power that this time restricted feeding and periodic fasting has on our cells - and how disruption to these previously ubiquitous practices influences our vulnerability to heart disease, metabolic syndrome, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. 

The food industry doesn’t make money if you’re healthy (nor does pharma)

The modern environment - of hyper palatable foods, of engineers in labs whose job it is to design ‘franken-foods’ that make us unable to stop eating, of constant food availability - is not what our genes are wired for.

The very drive that kept us alive as a species, to seek out high energy food, in combination with industries built to take advantage of our hormonal systems so that they can sell more product (at the expense of our health) has consequently made us sick and obese, plagued with chronic lifestyle diseases that hunter gatherers were free from in old age. 
It makes sense that as humans, we evolved to take advantage of abundance when it was present; the next meal was not a given. An affinity for high sugar (in the form of naturally occurring glucose and fructose - fruit, starchy vegetables, honey) and fat (most definitely not coming from highly processed industrial oils) made sense. So now we live in an environment where our genetics are still programmed to seek out these highly prized, energy dense molecules - but most people are not faced with scarcity of volume or availability of these foods. There’s a mismatch, and this is a major problem.

Is your food really food?

If it's got an ingredients list and/or that list contains anything you can't identify, the answer is likely 'no'

Try reading a ingredients label any common packaged, processed food. A protein bar, a frozen, pre made meal, a box of sugared cereal. Even some of the items in the bio markets - the ‘healthy’, ‘gluten free’, ‘keto’, ‘vegan’ labelled snack foods: aim to identify what all of the ingredients are. Below are ingredients lists for two ‘healthy’ protein bars.
  • Ingredients

    Protein Bar A

    Milk Protein, White Chocolate (Sweeteners: Maltitol, Cocoa Butter, Milk Powder, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Flavouring), Humectant (Glycerol), Isomaltooligosaccharides, Collagen Peptides, Water, Almond, Soy Crisps (Soy Protein, Cocoa Powder, Tapioca Starch), Cocoa Powder, Milk Chocolate (Sweetener (Maltitol), Cocoa Butter, Milk Powder, Cocoa Mass, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Flavouring), Flavouring, Salt, Sweetener (Sucralose, Acesulfame K).

  • Ingredients

    Protein Bar B

    Protein blend (whey protein concentrate, milk protein) (32,5%), humectant (glycerine), cocoa powder (15%), isomalto-oligosaccharide syrup, almond flour (9.1%), almonds (5.3%), fructo-oligosaccharide syrup, fller (polydextrose), natural flavour, acidity regulator (sodium hydrogen carbonate), acidifer (citric acid), sweetener (steviol glycosides)

  • Worth it?

    The first point to make about this is take a step back: real food generally doesn’t require an ingredients list at all. What’s the ingredients in an avocado? Avocado. Chicken? Chicken. Broccoli? You get the point. Real food doesn’t have preservatives, emulsifiers, ‘flavourings’. It also doesn’t last forever. If your ‘food’ comes with an expiration date that’s a long time away, that’s a pretty good sign in most cases that manufacturers have necessarily processed and altered the food from its natural state so that it can sell for longer.

Sugar’s role in mental and physical health

Is it really just 'harmless' and 'the same as other calories' as the food industry has told us? There's a much darker side than the energy highs and crashes of this addictive substance

The other thing to note about these two protein bar examples above is most of the ingredients list is comprised of sugar or sweeteners in one form or another. Most protein bars on the market are sugar bars with some poor quality protein thrown in there. If it’s possible, a couple eggs or a piece of fish would provide a much better option for protein (without triggering a sugar craving cascade) than a typical protein bar on the market. 
Sugar stimulates the same neurochemical pathways in the brain as addictive drugs: no wonder everyone loves sugar. It gives a dopamine response, a high that makes us want more and more and more. And if you work in the food industry, this is exactly the goal: to keep you eating and buying their products! 
Not only does sugar simply drive us to consume more in terms of calories, these calories are poorer quality than other real sources - causing an inflammatory cascade of signalling in your body. You’ll experience an energy high and then a quick crash - the glucose will be quickly absorbed and spike in your blood, which when done excessively, leads your body down the path towards obesity and type 2 diabetes. Not only is inflammation an underpinning mechanism in most modern, chronic diseases, it is also emerging to be a causal factor in mental health and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Not only this, but the conventional wisdom that saturated fat and cholesterol are behind heart disease is showing to be incorrect; it is, in fact, sugar that’s driving cardiovascular disease. 

A confluence of factors not in your favour

It’s impossible to pin down an exact, singular cause for the global obesity and health epidemic. No doubt is the combination of 24/7 access to food, most of which is engineered to tap into hardwired addictive pathways in the brain via careful combination of sugar, fat and salt a major player, but the rest of 21st century compounds these effects.

The stress of modern life and often demanding work and family expectations have deleterious effects on sleep and stress management (and therefore drive excess inflammation, especially in the brain, and contribute massively to hormonal imbalances causing weight gain). 
Work and social structures that are primarily indoors and sedentary; we sit most of the day at work and then drive to and from work, and sit in front of a screen at home. Our bodies were designed to move and we’re ignoring this. The data are supporting the immense benefits of being in nature and exposure to sunlight for overall health - especially for hormone and circadian rhythm health, which influences everything from sleep quality to appetite regulation
Constant obsessive technology usage, from smartphones to social media to data collection apps. Again, this fuels stress, inflammation and mental health issues. 
Everyday environments such as the supermarkets that are designed to press your willpower to give in to the chocolate bar or ice cream. 
Chronic exposure to toxins and pollutants - exemplified by the air pollution issues in cities and the preponderance of endocrine disruptors in the plastics present in everything from shampoo to tupperware. 

You can gain some control back!

You can gain some control back! There are some ways to work around our environment that is setting us up to fail; it just requires more work. Here’s a list of general tips:

  • Eat FOOD. Not 'food products'.

    Eating real, whole foods that don’t have an ingredients list (eliminating processed items and sugar)

  • Avoid grazing

    Practice fasting, generally 12 hours minimum between dinner and breakfast the next morning. Minimum once a week doing more, 14 to 16 hours, enhances these benefits. Exercising in the fasted state can further improve how you feel, and can down regulate appetite hormones! Also, try to space meals out - aim to go 4-5 hours between meals. This will allow your body to go into periods of using fat for a fuel and avoid constant elevation of insulin, the primary storage hormone. The process of fat gain is a complex hormonal process, but insulin is arguably the ‘first order’ term in the equation .

  • Be careful when you're food shopping

    Go to the supermarket with a very specific list and stick to it. Know what you’re going to buy before you go; that way you are less likely to fall victim to impulse chocolate bar purchases at the checkout. Avoid the inner areas of the supermarket: this is where most of the processed food is. Stick to the outside perimeter; vegetables, fruits, meat, cheese!

  • Practice mindfulness

    Pay attention to emotional states and stress. Stress, from work or relationships, can cause us to overeat and seek out sweet, salty, and fatty foods: likely in combination with one another. Stopping to acknowledge and feel our emotions rather than using food to avoid feeling or as a way to deal with stress is a major difficulty.

  • Prepare for unexpected situations

    If you are travelling somewhere, do some short research beforehand; google the nearest supermarket, some possible healthy options nearby, and pack simple staples such as avocados, sardines (packed in high quality olive oil or water), raw nuts and seeds, coconut flakes.

  • Build a community

    Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and interests: Eating real, healthy food, getting outside, and training. Move your body every day! Training or just some low intensity movement also releases feel good hormones that will decrease your desire and need for a high reward food.

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