04th of April 2015

The 21st Century Woman I

Have you ever wondered why body fat is so difficult to shed and fasting is often ineffective in helping us achieve that? Would it be possible to help keep our weight in check by getting a better understanding of how hormones work?

This is a story about our primitive human ancestors, who developed hormonal adaptations to help them survive in much harsher environments. A blessing that was! However, in recent times, this blessing has morphed into more of a curse of sorts, particularly in the more affluent parts of the world where the environment is now a lot more benign. People have come to expect food to be plentiful all around the year, and our energy demands from our day-to-day activities differ greatly from those of our ancestors.

Ten thousand years ago, getting enough food was a serious, if not the most important, problem to solve on a daily basis. In a moderate climate, food would have been relatively plentiful in springtime and summertime, but much more scarce during the autumn and winter. Even in warmer climates, food would have been of course more readily available, but often hard to access, either potentially out of reach or too dangerous to obtain, and sometimes simply too hard to digest. For our ancestors, food was therefore essentially a question of survival.


The 21st Century Woman


Imagine the 'ideal' (for modern Western standards of aesthetic beauty and body shape) woman of the 21st Century, living in an affluent part of our modern world, who can eat as much as she desires and still somehow manages to keep in perfect shape and condition regardless of  the amounts of fat and sugar consumed. She does not need to actively exercise and turns her nose up at all the false miracle diet marketing out there. Imagine that such a hypothetical creature exists and let’s follow along with our imaginary exercise and send her back in time, to 10.000BC.


It’s autumn, there is a plenty of fruits and nuts to eat. She can just about get by with that, but she does not put on any weight. The days are starting to get colder and shorter, and food is increasingly harder to find. Accustomed to regular food intake and a much more benign and sedentary environment, she finds herself increasingly hungry, cannot save energy and quickly loses weight. She can get some nourishment from roots and nuts, but she has to walk further and further in order to get to them. She burns even more energy and rapidly loses strength. She starts searching desperately for food, even in harsh weather conditions. The cold and wind mercilessly rid her of her remaining energy. Her fat reserves are quickly depleted and she does not make it through the winter.

The 10.000 BC survivor


Now imagine a woman of the 21st Century who is somewhat overweight and has unsuccessfully tried out every dieting fad and trick with no lasting results.. Imagine, once again, that we can make her travel back in time and that we can send her back to 10.000BC during the summer season. She arrives in a world full of fruits, nuts and vegetable, of fish and plentiful prey for her men to hunt. There are no mirrors and certainly no fashion or women's magazines around bombarding her with peer pressure and societal body image views, and thus she happily stuffs herself with nature’s bounty and gains weight (and fat) at an astonishing pace.


By the time the winter arrives, she has managed to build up some nice fat reserves. She does not bother or need to go out looking for food, saving energy by spending most of her time resting in a sheltered place. Gradually consuming her own fat reserves, at some stage in midwinter she loses some weight and fat, and although she’s much thinner than she used to be, she survives the winter and starts feeding on fresh buds and herbs as soon as springtime arrives, cleansing her body from the metabolic waste accumulated by prolonged fat burning.


Now out of reserves, she has to start coming out of her shelter with increasing frequency, and walk for miles to gather enough food to replenish her reserves. This regular exercise allows her to keep her a thinner body shape until the next crop, at the start of the summer. She can then celebrate her first year having survived a harsh 10.000BC world, stuffing herself with lots of nuts and berries, as she starts preparing for the next winter. It has been the best year of her life, because she could eat at will, enjoy the occasional exercise, and did not spend a second thinking about her weight. She knows that she has got all it takes to survive in this world. Not bad, eh?


Is there anyone still concerned or thinking about our first (long dead) heroine? Why could she not survive? She could have eaten more, put some fat on, store food or find a way to make the most of her options. But remember, she used to eat a lot and still did not put on any weight in plentiful times. In fact, she was doomed from the very moment we sent her to the wrong place at the wrong time.


If you want to find out why and want to learn more about the role  our hormones played in shaping this fictional, albeit plausible story, read the next part, which will be posted in this blog in two weeks.


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Are you the slender, doomed beauty or the well-equipped survivor? Vote here.


Author: Martin Lukan, PhD