By: Bo Stansell, SPARC Specialist, MS, CSCS
Losing weight is hard. There is no denying it. More than 2 in 3 adults are overweight or obese, and a significant percentage of that population is actively trying to lose weight through diet, exercise or both. There are a multitude of factors that have brought us to this point, but, simply put, our bodies are genetically adapted for a food scarce environment, and we live in a world where food is calorically dense and easily available. It’s an uphill battle.
The human body is an impressive machine. It can repair itself rapidly, has excellent hand dexterity that allows us to manipulate objects easily, has built-in failsafes to ensure survival and allows us to be some of the best endurance runners in the animal kingdom (not kidding, see persistence hunting). While these impressive capabilities don’t have as much relevance today, they were at one point critical for the survival of our species. Along with these necessary adaptations, we also developed some others to combat the issues of food scarcity. We can continue making glucose from non-carbohydrate substrates when our stores of glycogen, the stored form of glucose, have been depleted. So even when we run out of “energy” our body can provide more using raw materials from elsewhere in the body to help sustain us during fasting periods. Not only that, but it is adept at storing any surplus of calories in the form of fat to prepare for that inevitable period of time where we can’t find food.
Fortunately and unfortunately, food is abundant in America for relatively low cost. All those awesome human adaptations to ensure survival are now creating a different problem. The ubiquity of high calorie foods has led to most of us being in a caloric surplus, and thus led to high storage of calories in the form of fat. Notice that I said “surplus”. If we only ate what our bodies needed we would not be accumulating so much fat (barring any other kind of metabolic dysfunction). The high caloric content of processed foods and the wonderfully addictive taste (created through hours of research to increase palatability) of said foods is quite literally a recipe for disaster. Eating yourself into caloric overload is much easier than it used to be, and we have our oversized waistlines to prove it. While overeating and/or eating high calorie foods is one of the main culprits, it would be erroneous of me to point to it as the sole contributor to the obesity epidemic.
Bodies poorly adapted to food abundance are only part of the equation. Technological advancements and the lack of a need to hunt or forage for our food have led to a dramatic decrease in the one thing we are perfectly built for…moving. We can jump, sprint, throw, climb, and move in all sorts of ways to help us achieve what we need to do to survive. Moving was as important as breathing at one point in our history. Anyone who couldn’t do it would most likely starve and/or be killed by a predator. Now that we no longer have to regularly worry about falling victim to predation or running/walking for miles for a meal, we have gotten lazy. Technology is slowly eroding away what high activity occupations we have left. Our incessant desire for convenience will create a world where one never needs to leave the comfort of his/her own home. The fitness industry is thriving by providing the opportunity to do what was once a basic part of human life.
Our circumstances play a significant role in the current obesity problem, but there are ways to combat the poor hands we are dealt. We are simply not expending enough energy to offset the large amount of calories we are taking in. Moving more and eating less isn’t a difficult concept to understand, but it can be extremely difficult to implement. I will follow up with another more detailed post on ways to improve weight loss that will hopefully not be the generic recommendations you see in every fitness article. Understanding what makes us the way we are is an important step in making a change towards a better version of ourselves.
Note: Metabolic concepts in the post are somewhat simplified to aid in understanding. Metabolism is much more complicated and is dependent on a large number of factors not presented in the article.