Courtesy of La Nina, it has been a ridiculously mild winter here in the nation’s capital. So much so that by the end of February, the cherry blossoms were starting to peek out and the daffodils (my fave) were in full bloom. And last week it was in the 80s. Yeesh!
It doesn’t look like it will happen, but what a disaster it would be if we got a seasonal storm in the next couple of weeks. The blossoms will freeze and drop off, the daffodils will droop over and wither away.
So what the heck does this have to do with weight?
Weight and homeostasis
A while back on PaleoHacks, J Stanton wrote regarding weight set point that it is “just a homeostasis we don’t understand yet.”
Homeostasis is “the maintenance of metabolic equilibrium within an animal by a tendency to compensate for disrupting changes.” Until very recently, most adults kept fairly weight stable throughout their lives without having to pay much attention to questions of calories and macronutrient ratios.
So how to explain obesity? Well, some think they do understand it, and for them, the equation goes something like:
New weight = old weight + (calories in – calories out)/3500
But it’s fairly clear that’s overly simplistic (as the Shift obesity map shows). And as more research is done, many other factors are looking more promising. In their video (below), SciShow points fingers at several potential factors, including not enough sleep, toxins in the environment, and my recent fave, epigenetics (the idea that what your grandparents or parents ate could affect how your genes are expressed).
Back to spring flowers. Watching this odd spring unfold got me thinking that there might be an interesting metaphor for weight homeostasis there. If the seasons proceed normally, things go fine. But what happens when they don’t? Well, it depends, but generally plants bounce back, if a bit less vigorously the following year. And then if the following seasons are likewise normal, eventually the plant will (likely) completely rebounds.
But what happens when some problematic external circumstance occurs again? Or again and again? At some point, the plant’s seasonal homeostasis (as it were) cannot recover.
Just a thought (not even a theory), but perhaps this is what’s going on with obesity? Only in our case, it’s not the frost after the thaw, but the feast without the famine. Our bodies are equipped to handle the occasional feast, but not all feasting, all the time.
Our evolutionary biology
Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, suggests that obesity is a result of a mismatch of the environment and our own evolution:
We evolved to enjoy rest, but have to exercise; crave fat, sugar & salt, but have to eat wild foods
In other words, our modern environment plus our evolutionary biology might be viewed in the same way as the cherry blossoms trying to deal with a freeze in the middle of a growing season. Handle it once? Sure. But if this environment/evolution mismatch occurs again and again and again? And we keep feasting but never fast?
[As an aside, Lieberman may be great at evolutionary biologist, but I think he’s not so great at public health policy … his idea of coercion regarding activity? Meh.]
Anyways, at this point this is more art than science. But as a thought experiment it reinforces (to me anyways) the usefulness of following a lifestyle that is more in line with nature and our own biology.
And that lifestyle doesn’t just include diet (and fussing over whether some arcane foodstuff is paleo or not), but it includes the whole package, which is also physical activity (I happen to like Mark Sisson’s approach of low & slow, lifting heavy things, and sprinting occasionally), getting enough sleep, and managing stress/cortisol.
Ancestral health FTW?