Paleo this Cro-Magnon that

Many of you will have heard of one version or another of the ‘mankind is old and our diet is new and it is killing us.’ And, basically, it is true. Virtually all of Europe was colonized by our genetic ancestors over 20,000 ago and they survived until the end of the last Great Ice Age about 10,000 ago. They seemed to disappear; actually they didn’t disappear because ‘they’ are ‘us.’ Out of the Urals, out of the Alps, out of ice and snow and struggle and trial emerged a fast, strong, intelligent, highly athletic King of All Jungles, King of All Mountains: mankind as we know him today. Out of such places and times emerged pretty much our entire genome; our entire metabolic heritage.

You can read a number of theories about rates of genetic change and drift; from sudden jumps and starts to slow meticulous incremental change over thousands and thousands of years. No version gives a good account of why we should eat sugar, or starch quite frankly because almost none of such things existed in the 50,000 year history of our ancestors and only a few thousand years of our lives as farmers.

So what? Well, as I’ve said elsewhere, the body always makes sense and so it makes sense that eating these things might not be good for us and thus the rise of agriculture, and I mean sufficient agriculture for grains to become a large part of our caloric base, is clearly associated with diabetes, coronary artery disease and the like. As primitive cultures rise out of the dietary level of subsistence they start developing degenerative diseases like diabetes. It seems fashionable to blame the Western Diet for the rise of diabetes in India, China, and elsewhere; it is not the Western Diet but the inevitable consequence of getting enough to eat of what everyone wants: in China enough rice, in India enough wheat as papadums and nan, in Central America as tortillas and cornmeal.  Its the grains, the starch in sufficient amounts that kills.

The largest experiment on the effects of a vegetarian diet has been done and it has been shown to be a disastrous, deadly diet to pursue. The name of the experiment is called “The Sub-Continent of India.” Diabetes and heart disease are rampant there. Vegetables don’t kill, the grains as a large part of the calorie base is what kills. Why would this be you might ask?

Well ‘the body always makes sense’ and our ancestors did not have, could not have evolved to tolerate, such foods. Our modern (less than 5,000 year old) sensibilities may not like it but we are genetic omnivores; hunters and gatherers of what the harsh landscape of the last Great Ice Age afforded. OK, you get this one, have heard it before and makes sense to you.

Well this same line of thought will help you understand why endurance exercise and especially long distance running, or staying on the treadmill for prolonged periods, is so harmful. And be clear it is harmful. Well done studies tracking the rate of the progression of coronary artery disease have shown that the only way faster to age your arteries than long distance running is not to exercise at all.

Well our body evolved to cope with a wide range of conditions: times of plenty, times of scarcity, times of terror and times of joy suffused with hope, gratitude and peace. Our body can swing from making lots of new stuff, like muscle and bone and babies to tearing down our very bone and hearts and brains to generate fuel to survive until the next time of plenty. (See also “Anabolic Catabolic” GO )

Times of survival meant running or walking, often great distances, to find new prey or new leaves and roots and nuts; to find new hunting and grazing grounds. This, it makes sense, demanded a low energy transportation method: we call this walking or jogging. The mechanism that turns down our metabolism, so we don’t run out of fuel before the next fields of plenty are found, is stress and eccentric exercise. Eccentric exercise is that use of muscles whereby they resist getting longer rather than forcefully get shorter. For you bodybuilders out there this is the difference between a positive exercise and a negative. Negatives tear down muscle, in fact they turn down the very metabolism of the muscle in use. Guess what? Walking and jogging are eccentric, that is, negative use of the leg muscles. Jogging increases the metabolic effects of stress so that we will burn fewer calories for work done (tough one I know, see also “Calories In, Calories Out: The Big Lie” GO). But, lest you be misled, sprinting does just the opposite.

Again, “The Body Always Makes Sense” so imagine almost any survival scenario in our ancestral genetic history and you will see, almost as if you were in some museum looking at a diorama of Piltdown Man, you will see what is a health creating environment and behavior and that which is basic, survivalist, primitive; you will see, that is, what is finally unhealthy in a sustained way but necessary for transitory continuity of the species. Be glad your body has such an adaptive capacity but don’t spend time hammering on it. When the next famine comes it will kick in quite nicely without training for it.

On the other hand you will always need your ability to hunt, to gather, to fish. I am not selling ad space for your local sporting good store, I am making the point that exercise which increases strength, foot speed, hand/eye coordination, flexibility, agility, multi-planar capacity and power is a positive adaptive capacity for the good times not for famine. This kind of exercise increases your metabolism, your immunity, your intellect, your memory; your fun!

Now this kind of thinking is useful but can get too ‘cute.’ We live in the modern world, eat food from a depleted food chain and most of us would wind up dead if we depended on bow hunting and the outcome of wrestling crocodiles. So we need a method to approximate the benefits of such a life without the probable evolutionary cost to our family and friends.

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