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Health Hack #35 - Why Metabolic Disease Is So Rampant: A Quick Evolutionary Tale

A Less Discussed Pandemic

With no intent to make light of COVID-19, there is in fact another pandemic among us, and one that’s been growing in intensity for the past few decades. It’s been referred to as the Obesity Epidemic (Pandemic would be the more appropriate term nowadays), although it doesn’t carry a certified name, and unfortunately, it’s not discussed often enough in the framework of how devastating it’s become on a global scale. It’s insidious (unlike a traditional faster-moving virus), but it’s built up enough momentum over the years to pose a serious threat to our health care system, with enough strength to potentially collapse it.

Obesity happens to be the clearest indicator that things are awry, which makes it seem intuitive to refer to it as an issue of obesity. But at its root, obesity is a manifestation of something lurking further beneath the surface. The root cause is tied to metabolic dysregulation. Our bodies rely on a fixed set of chemical reactions to sustain healthy existence, and these processes comprise what is known as our metabolism. Some of us are dealt a very poor metabolic hand from the start, such as those with Type 1 Diabetes, which is often the result of a genetic predisposition. For most, however, metabolic dysfunction is brought upon by environmental and lifestyle factors, namely by our food choices.

Our Modern Food Dilemma: A Broad Overview

There are many parts of the world where it costs less to access soda than it does drinkable water. Let that sink in, as there’s no exaggeration whatsoever. This staggering statistic epitomizes everything that is wrong with our food supply. With the advent of nefarious sweetener hacks like high fructose corn syrup (we learned here and here how dangerous these ingredients are), we began to see a divergence from the real food way. What initially seemed to be at worst innocuous carbohydrates, and at best a hack to help cure world hunger - via bringing cheap calories in bulk to the world market - quickly became the driving force behind a devastating wave of free-falling health.

There is little science suggesting that human beings have gotten markedly lazier, which might explain the sharp rise in obesity each of the last four decades. Things are certainly easier now than ever before, and convenience can make us less active. Convenience is playing a huge role here, but more so in our ability access highly processed junk (edible food-like substances, as Michael Pollan might refer to them as). The real driver of this pandemic lies in a flat out incompatibility. Evolution is a slow, tedious process. Understanding its story in the context of our current state of affairs is a necessary insight for being able to grasp why metabolic disease is so rampant. It’s a very simple tale, but an interesting one.

Insulin Resistance as a Tool for Survival

Any reader of this blog will understand the purpose of insulin, but for the uninformed - it’s a growth hormone whose primary function is to partition sugars that we consume, such that they don’t remain lingering in our bloodstream for too long. We want insulin to be generated moderately upon ingesting carbohydrates, have it tame our blood glucose levels effectively, and then watch its disappearance marked by evidence of our blood glucose levels dropping. To be insulin sensitive is to possess the ability for insulin to work as it's designed, get in and get out. We know that exercise improves insulin sensitivity (Exercise & Insulin Sensitivity), as does time restricted eating (Time Restricted Eating), and in this day and age, we’re always looking to train this pathway towards improved sensitivity. So it would seem counterintuitive that insulin resistance could be useful. Well that’s because nowadays it is. But for our ancestors, it’s a very different story…

Many many years ago, our ancestors ate from the land. Hunters and gatherers as they were known, they spent a good amount of their time foraging for food. This system functioned for tens of thousands of years, long enough for evolutionary adaptations to settle in.

In climates similar to ours, food was especially scarce in the winter. The berries had long vanished from the trees. Roots had long been picked over from the soil. Things fell into dormancy as they do with the winter slumber. How were we ever able to make it to spring?

The key to our survival was our carefully cultivated insulin resistance (the converse of insulin sensitivity). This evolved mechanism was akin to the hibernating bear. When do food sources start to disappear? Very soon after the fall harvest. What foods would these fall harvests yield, well before our agricultural revolution? Apples, figs, pears, and grapes to name the staples. Uncoincidentally, fruits that are very high glycemic in nature, meaning those known to have a heavier impact on insulin and blood glucose.

These foods provided heavy insulin spikes, which in these days we seek to avoid. The difference is that the sustained insulin spikes were needed back then, as they served as a vehicle for storing fat. Winter is long and foreboding and food is barely existent, so the only surefire means of survival is to literally fatten ourselves and sustain our being from that excess tissue until springtime arrives. A pretty nifty hack, courtesy of evolution.

Modern Times Don’t Jive With Insulin Resistance

Though ultimately a magical force of nature, evolution isn’t a speedy process, and it often lags behind sudden and drastic changes to our environment. Insulin Resistance adapted as a useful tool to the very survival of our species, back when food scarcity was a life-threatening concern for almost four months out of the year. In our modern world, we’re inundated with processed foods that never go bad, we're confronted with artificially sweetened beverages virtually everywhere we turn, and our global economy has made virtually all foods under the sun accessible to us at all times. Not to mention that the things that are worst for us happen to cost less than anything real. In many areas of the world, soda is actually cheaper than drinkable water.

Given this evolved predisposition towards Insulin Resistance, it’s no wonder that we’ve so quickly derailed. Ironically, it's the mechanism that so elegantly aided in the very survival of our species and led us to now, that is plaguing the very health of our planet. This is not relegated only to us Americans, either. It’s global, as it’s lesser world nations with inferior infrastructure and poor access to clean water and real foods who turn to soda and processed garbage the fastest. It’s truly a Pandemic.

Help Ourselves, Help the Planet

For a more universal approach to eradicating these issues, we refer you to a book that recently came on our radar, “The Food Fix” by Dr. Mark Hyman. The book speaks for itself, and little justice could be done by attempting to whittle down its ideas into a concluding paragraph.

At the individual level, the prescription isn’t all that unique. Develop a habitual exercise regimen, whichever one suits your fancy. Aim to maximize sleep quality and sleep quantity, and worship our circadian rhythms. Eat slowly and mindfully, giving our bodies ample time to recognize satiety. Consider a time restricted eating protocol, if only on occasion, say for part of the week. Pulling any of these levers should help improve our insulin sensitivity, helping to hack our way towards safer ground. We’ll always, even the most dogmatic real food purists, consume the foods we know we shouldn’t, so why not better brace ourselves for those instances. But above all else, on the individual level (as we learned last week - Eat (Real) Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants), avoid “foods” that our great grandparents wouldn’t have recognized.  

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