The modern nutritional conditions that are making us retain fat & how to get skinny by eating like it’s springtime on the Prairie.
Our bodies evolved to thrive in perfect synchronicity with the planet. For most humans across most of history 1, this synchronicity involved the ebb and flow of the seasons. And for most humans across most of history, life was a study in survival, a study in securing food. 2
Winter’s end is approaching. We’ve been living on insulin-releasing, fat-storing grain and hardy fruit for months. But these crucial, life-sustaining, high-sugar and high-starch foods are running out. If we are wealthy enough to have cultivated and stored more than the average family, what remains of our food is overtaken by hungry pests – our perpetual enemies in the war for calories (energy) – themselves waking from their winter slumber. By the first thaw, those with the best root cellars have been living for weeks or months on nothing but small rations of potatoes and other starchy tubers. The truly lucky have a small stash of dried beans from which to draw. Come March we are weak and lethargic from inactivity and a lack of nutritious food.
Spring could not come quickly enough.
Livestock, thin from the winter and from gestating young, are giving birth onto newly-thawed ground. We set about planting the food that will mark the end of winter’s forced vitamin and mineral deficiency. Early spring vegetables are soon available in abundance. Once a new generation is safely born, we are at liberty to slaughter a few older livestock and feast on fresh, lean meat. We fish the increasingly populous rivers and streams. The protein in these springtime feasts enables our bodies to repair winter’s damage and rebuild lost muscle. If we’re lucky enough to be able to digest dairy, we share fresh milk with nursing goats and cattle. Sowing fields, repairing damaged homes, and tending gardens means we are active from dawn to dusk every day. There is no wheat and hasn’t been for months. There is no fruit. The tubers and beans are gone. Physically active, living on fresh vegetables, lean meats and milk, we move toward the lower end of our natural weight range. We regain our full strength and health. We are energized. We are sated.
Summer is a time of even greater activity. As each week unfolds, different crops become available, and for the short time that each individual food is ‘in season,’ our tables and bellies are full of them. The ‘balanced meal,’ a post-industrialization fabrication that necessitates both electricity and the internal combustion engine, does not exist. We eat our fill of what we have. What we don’t have, we anticipate. This anticipation makes foods special. It adds meaning to the seasons. It gives us a chance to live in the state of wanting, which increases our experience of pleasure and, many social psychologists report, our overall happiness. Through summer we continue to inhabit the low end of our natural weight range. There is an abundance of fresh food, physical activity and deep, well-earned sleep. In this mode, we reach the lowest end of our natural weight range. We are in perfect sync with the planet and our surroundings 3.
The arrival of autumn is bittersweet. A long, difficult, physically stagnant winter is ahead for most. Harvest time foods provide a tremendous number of calories (energy). These specific foods enable us to gain and store the fat that will take us through the winter. Were it not for the body’s ability to quickly stockpile and retain fat, we wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving the the cold, dark months ahead.
What foods mark the harvest? What foods do we have to thank for our efficient weight gain and retention? What foods, prior to refrigeration and mass transport, were responsible for giving us enough fat to live on to be able to survive several winter months of near-starvation?
Grains (read: wheat). Rice. Cereals. High-sugar fruit. We owe them a debt of gratitude. And we don’t need them anymore.
The sweetness we experience when we eat starch and sugar is pleasurable. It inspires us to eat more. The euphoria we experience when we digest these foods helps to numb our feelings of fullness so we can eat past it.
As far as our bodies are concerned, our very survival depends on our ability to eat every morsel of sweetness that we can secure. Through most of human history, the more starch and sugar we were able to eat, the more fat we stored, and the more fat we stored, the more likely we were to see the spring.
The grain and starchy vegetables and fruit we managed to set aside helped us maintain the fat we’d spent autumn storing. Since glucose is always the body’s preferred fuel, it doesn’t take much of it to prevent the body from burning stored fat. Today, this metabolic safety net is a curse; back then, it was what kept us alive. We were fat-storing machines until the food ran out or the rats and weevils got into the wooden barrels in our root cellars and begin their own Thanksgiving.
My, modernity, you’re…convenient.
With you, it’s always harvest time. I’m no longer competing with rats for my wheat stores. Hell, I don’t even have to bake my own bread! Sugar is something my body evolved to eat healthily for only 6 weeks out of every year when fruit was in season, but now that there’s a freighter full of internationally harvested fruit that arrives in Gloucester three times a week, I can eat it all day every day. How wonderful. How simple. How tasty. How absolutely not how our bodies evolved to eat.
As a society, we demand and fully expect that every day be Thanksgiving Day. Our bodies have become entirely divorced from the natural, healthy ebb and flow of the seasons, of nature. If you have addictive tendencies around certain foods it’s effortless to eat like every day is a feast day, and many of us do. Obesity is evidence that the survival mechanism manifested as the body’s drive to store fat has overridden the brain’s ability to mediate our physical and mental cravings in light new, hugely relevant information: The famine is never going to come.
Say that ten times fast.
When every day is Thanksgiving Day it’s up to us to enforce our own system of checks and balances. We try by limiting calories. We fail. We try by listening to the party line that says we should just eat less and exercise more. We fail. And we fail. And we fail. Don’t beat yourself up, Baby. You’re failing because you didn’t evolve to eat that way.
We were never meant to control our consumption of sweet, high-starch, high-sugar foods – we were meant to eat as much of them as we could in order to store the fat we needed to survive.
Because of our biological drive to eat eat eat sweet foods, portion control is difficult for everyone. I would argue that making an effort to control our portions is unnatural. What’s a modern person, interested in dropping excess weight, to do?
There is an easier, more natural solution: to choose, for a period of time, to eat like it’s springtime and early summer, the body’s natural time of fat loss. Meats. Fresh, seasonal vegetables. Dairy, gut-permitting. Fresh, whole, nutritive foods. The compulsion to eat more more more is quieted. The body has the vitamin and mineral resources to repair old damage. Excess fat burns like a prairie fire. Balance is restored – naturally.
If you’re like me, 4 the coolest part of eating like it’s spring and summer is the time it gives you. Breaking the cycle of bingeing and craving gives us the time and the emotional and mental freedom to develop a new, healthier, happier, more pleasurable relationship to food. With time and practice, some can even develop a natural ability to eat sweet, starchy foods in moderation, in a way that maintains balance. But like any new skill, we need freedom, time, and practice to get better.
*Addendum to the title: the terms “Fat” and “Skinny” leave much to be desired, and I would liked to have titled this post “Why Our Bodies Have a Tendency to Store Excess Fat & What We Can Do To Quickly and Safely Burn Through Those Stores of Excess Fat to Reach Our Healthiest Weight and Then Maintain That Weight As Nature Intended Us to Maintain That Weight Over the Course of Our Lifetimes.” Motivated by the desire to reach as many people as possible, I chose to make the title something that would get found in a Google search. Working within a pre-existing paradigm, especially when that paradigm is riddled with dumb, is extremely frustrating. Forgive me.
- For the sake of simplicity, my focus is on the agricultural period (circa 8000 BC-1825 AD). The same applies for the hunter-gatherer period, but with a ton more walking. And spears. ↩
- Though the conclusion I arrive at in this essay is true, I get there in a convoluted, inaccurate, logical-fallacy-laden kind of a way. So here’s the disclaimer: I’m not science-y. I was an English major. The truth of the matter is that our guts evolved long before the agricultural period, back when we were still primates. We were losing and gaining then, in synchronicity with the ebb and flow of the season. I hope, though, that bringing the process to the prairie as I have in this essay will make it more meaningful and accessible, more relate-able and more memorable. ↩
- Of course, through most of the agricultural period people had a life expectancy of about 30. If you wash your hands with soap, have a functioning toilet and are current with your vaccinations, your life expectancy pushes back substantially. ↩
- A born over-eater, an addict, a compulsive pleasure-hunter. ↩