A Closer Look at The Evolution of Food Consumption
By Andrew Rader, LAc, MS
In an earlier article I wrote about not trusting your instincts when it comes to food and eating. I am referring to the fact that we humans are living in unprecedented times in terms of food availability and that metabolically we are not ready for prime time.
The massive epidemic of chronic disease, most notably diabetes, heart disease and hypertension which can be collectively referred to as metabolic disorder, parallels the rise in sugar availability over the past 150 years.
On top of that there has also been an exponential rise in availability of cheap, poor quality calories of all types, including synthetic foods. While our evolutionary past compels us to eat whatever is in front of us, we now must temper that impulse and it is not our fault!
For the past 99.9 percent of human and proto-human existence, we have been hunter-gatherer-scavengers. For the past 10,000 years, even with the greater efficiencies of agriculture, most humans still lived with scarcity. We are designed, by necessity, to be very crafty with the food we could come by, metabolically speaking. Our cells, which need glucose, had to develop mechanisms that were extremely efficient and frugal with the glucose we managed to find, because the next meal was not certain. Fat cells would store glucose in the form of glycogen so that it would be released more conservatively. Thus, diverting energy into fat storage was an evolutionary advantage. Fast forward to the last 50 years where human beings must, for the first time in evolutionary history, resist and deny food due to its ubiquitous presence. Our metabolic strategies for preferring fat storage is now a major disadvantage.
It is in this context, that I would like to discuss weight loss.
Our metabolism still thinks we are on the Savannah scavenging for leftover lion kill. So our urge for sweets, fats and protein, never really turns off. We have rarely needed to just say no to food that wasn't spoiled or rotten. It is not in our genetic make-up to deny food. This is somewhat analogous to the situation that Native Americans encountered when the Europeans introduced alcohol. Since there was very little, if any, experience with distilled spirits in the Native American gene pool, the ability to tolerate alcohol was minimal. Their metabolic pathways had never needed to manage alcohol so there was less tolerance of it. So let's get it clear right now. There is no need to blame or shame anyone for the metabolic strategies they inherited. At the same time, there is still something to be done to alleviate this situation.
To start, we must consciously override our instinctual impulse to eat whatever is in front of us. In addition to this primary piece, weight loss needs to be approached from multiple angles, in order for it to be healthy, sustainable and realistic. Weight loss also needs to be framed within a context of focusing on health first, because this is the ultimate goal. When health is the main focus, our natural weight will present itself. If weight loss were the main focus, then anorexia could be a logical solution. There will be people who want to lose weight for unhealthy reasons but this is not the topic of this article. There are some socio-economic issues to consider with weight loss.
Poor communities have major obstacles to overcome regarding healthy weight. To begin, there are few, if any, choices of healthy food in poor neighborhoods. Rarely are there supermarkets, let alone natural food stores. Add to this the lack of education around food choices when faced with other survival issues, and people will be eating cheap and abundant sources of calories, namely simple carbohydrates and synthetic foods foisted upon them by the corporate food industry.
When I worked at the Haight Ashbury Free Acupuncture Clinic, I had to alter my consciousness around what a good diet was when I encountered someone who might consider a fast food hamburger their only good meal for the day, if they got any food at all.
On the other side of the economic spectrum, there is not a huge difference in chronic disease rates relative to the contrast in lifestyles and opportunities available for those fortunate enough to not be in poverty stricken areas. Since the affluent do have the availability of healthy foods, it is more about consciously making the decision to systematically, structurally set up a mechanism that enables one to avoid choosing poorly. I will assume for the rest of this article that healthy choices are available.
If one is at an unhealthy weight, and we can include being underweight as well, a conscious decision must be made in order to make any change. One must acknowledge that their health is at risk and that they must take some action. Again, there need not be any shame, or self-criticism, just an acknowledgement that something needs to shift. Just as an autopilot corrects an airplane's course, there is no judgment, just registering being off course and correcting it. This decision underlies everything that follows.
The next step would be to analyze and prioritize, with the help of a knowledgeable practitioner, what the first achievable, sustainable goals are within the first few weeks. It is critical that these goals be within reach, and are fairly enjoyable, because if they aren't, motivation to continue will most certainly fade away. Small victories, without the feeling of sacrifice, will build on each other and they will cultivate and nourish a desire to continue on. I am talking about a long-term, sustainable shift in lifestyle, not a diet. These goals must be measurable and noticeable. Most importantly, the subject must be able to feel the result. Feeling more energetic, feeling more confident, feeling proud, feeling a sense of accomplishment is what drives the process forward. These good feelings are now supplanting the feelings that non-essential food was previously supplying to the pleasure centers of the brain. Instead of sugar supplying the pleasure, other, healthier choices are now doing that. This is a major key to a sustainable progressively healthier metabolism.
Now let's look at the mechanics of a total weight loss program based on whole health from a systems approach. Using Chinese medicine, we can break this down a number of ways. I will start with the five phases as a template.
The Wood element encompasses the Liver and Gall Bladder, metabolic activity, proper blood health, detoxification, physical activity from the sinews and emotionally, anger.
This is a vast oversimplification but it is a starting point for deeper awareness. From the Wood angle, Yoga or Tai Chi, or some other activity lending itself toward suppleness and awareness of how we move may be introduced. Perhaps a cleanse is advisable, depending on the time of year, or some other type of detoxification can be introduced. A focus on proper sleep habits can be introduced as well.
The Fire element, in a similar manner, might inspire some cardio work, walking or hiking. Attention to unresolved grief issues, having more joy come into the picture. Perhaps relationships or lack of them, need to be addressed. Does the person exhibit any passion or enthusiasm for anything or anyone. Is there a lack of shen?
Earth can encompass food and diet, enzymes, other digestive aids, muscular activity such as weight training or other forms of strength training. Does the person exhibit emotional stability, or grounding?
Metal can turn us towards immune function, and Wei Qi. Breathing practices can be incorporated. Detoxification can fall into this realm as well as Wood. Proper elimination, on all forms can be examined. How well organized is this person and would they benefit from a plan to clear clutter and put things in order? Is the discipline to start a new systematic, methodical health program present or does it need some assistance?
The Water element will bring our awareness to the hormonal system, balancing hot and cold, activity and rest, and long-term issues of growth, maturation and change. What fears are preventing positive change?
Weight loss is the terminology that people will be looking for and using to express their desire to change. As practitioners we must be able to use this issue as a doorway to consider all the aspects of health that will naturally manifest proper body weight as a result of bringing greater health and balance into the lives of the people who come to us for help.
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