Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Fate of Sisyphus

   In my previous life (pre-paleo era) every winter was a struggle, I would effortlessly pack on 5-10 pounds in the winter months. It usually took many hikes starting from spring to late fall to lose the extra baggage and once the weight was lost...guess what...the winter came again, lo and behold the weight was back. Alas, the vicious cycle continued. This seems to be the case for many folks. First week of January, standing around the water coolers and coffee stations these stories are reverberating all over the country. Everyone seems to be happy and relaxed after a much needed rest, but no one is happy with the extra baggage they seem to have packed on during the holidays. Plans are usually being made to exercise, join a gym, or enroll in the company sponsored weight watchers' programs. The gym parking lots are full, and the multi-billion dollars weight loss industry begins to churn. The fate of Sisyphus becomes our fate as we begin to push the heavy boulder up the hill only to see the heavy boulder roll down the hill again in the winter months. Is there a solution to this problem or are we to just hide behind the cards we were dealt with? Why do we tend to eat more during the winter months? Why doesn't all of the weight comes off during the summer months? The answer to these questions may lie by examining our physiology and the way we were genetically me, there is a way to escape the cursed fate of Sisyphus.

  The only star in our solar system, the sun produces enormous amount of energy every second to sustain life on earth. As sun burns and gives off energy, part of it dies every second to produce that energy. As the old adage goes---nothing lasts forever, the mighty sun will too eventually run out of its fuel and will cease to produce the energy that we humans have depended on for millions of years. Don't pull money out of your 401K yet, we are covered for few more million years. OK, where am I headed with this sun story? I strongly believe that if you want to study the big universe (macrocosm) then first study the small universe (microcosm). The closest microcosm available to us is our own body. There are literally hundreds of similarities between our bodies and the macro physical universe. Our body like the sun is a fuel burning furnace, producing heat at a constant rate and maintaining an internal temperature of 98.5 degrees fahrenheit to sustain hundreds of chemical reactions necessary for life. We must eat carbon based foods (fuel) to release the energy to maintain our internal temperature. In the winter months when the external temperature falls, the body must produce more heat to maintain its internal temperature. It is a delicate game of thermal balance. We actually end up burning more calories in the winter due to cold weather. Burning calories translates to eating more. This is no different than exercise in the summer. When we exercise we burn calories, and we consume food to make up the energy that we have expended. The cold weather lowers are body temperature and the body must produce more heat by burning calories. The calories have to be supplied by eating food. The body usually requires and craves calorie-dense foods like fats and proteins in the winter months. If we study the Norse Greenland society during the time of Erik the Red, we find that Vikings usually consumed seal blubber, seal meat, caribou meat, cow meat, and various cheese products during the harsh winter months. The Vikings lived off the heavy fatty foods and appeared to be healthy and strong. They never got excessively fat. Since The Vikings never developed methods to harvest grains due to short growing season in Greenland, hence, they primarily lived off the animal products.

  The body's hormonal activity fluctuates and changes with different seasons, we begin to store few extra pounds in the late summer and autumn as fat, as an insurance policy just in case food happens to run out or run low during the upcoming winter months. Packing few pounds during the summer months was probably a good thing for the Greenland vikings as the winter approached and they prepared for few harsh months. If the food happen to run out then their body fat insurance policy could pay off and they could survive another Greenland winter. However, this is not the case these days; we have supermarkets and Walmarts open 24 hours. Also culturally, we basically get a free license to eat everything and anything starting around halloween. The candies come out everywhere around mid-october. The giant media-marketing machine begins to churn and the consumers are bombarded with commercial after commercial and excessive advertisements encouraging us to buy, buy and buy. Just buy something, if you are not buying something then you are not celebrating the holidays the right way.  I have even heard news anchormen encouraging us to get out and shop to help the economy. I work in an office and yes, around the holidays, there is plenty of food, candies, and potlucks. None of the foods are healthy and good for you, but we have lots of it everywhere. As mentioned earlier, the license to eat everything and anything starts with halloween and the trend continues to thanksgiving, and then takes on a maniacal turn around Christmas time. By that time, the major winter damage has been done. The new year is around the corner and we jump on the scale and are horrified from what we see. Many of us will make new year resolutions to exercise more and many of us will wait for the summer to arrive to get active. Unlike, the Norse Vikings, the food supply is never a problem in the winter months for us. So instead of getting slim, we tend to fatten up in the winter. Observing the animal kingdom today, we see the same pattern that Norse Vikings and many other hunter gatherer societies followed years ago. Of course, the squirrels and other animals are still following the natural rhythms while we humans have long parted our ways with nature and have become city slickers. A squirrel gets fat during the summer months as it prepares for winter. A bear packs on pounds as he prepares for long hibernation period during the winter months. We humans do just the opposite, we hit the gym and get slim in the summer time, while getting fat in the winter time. The nature wants us to eat more carbs, like fruits and vegetables, in the summertime, and eat more meats and fats in the winter time. The carbs like fruits and vegetables are abundant in quantity in the summertime and have a much shorter shelf life. The meats and fats are perfect for long storage (when cured properly) and small quantity can provide abundant calories. Hence, making meats and fats perfect for the winter months.

  Another reason for packing on few pounds during the winter is the lack of sunlight. The days are much shorter. Most of us go to work in the dark and when we leave our offices it is almost dark. During the day we have no desire to go out because it is simply cold. Living in California, we are fortunate that we can actually enjoy sunlight during the day, but we have to make an effort to leave our desk and take a stroll outside. In the east coast many folks suffer from depression during the long cold winters. The lack of sunlight sours our moods and makes us irritable. There are many known credible studies indicating a strong correlation between overeating and depression. The cold weather outside, the lack of sun, and ample food available just drives us to eat. There is a very nice person in my office, who loves to bake, and several times per month brings in delicious baked goods. The baked goods are left in the central coffee area and within few hours the baked goods disappear like magic. My appeal to this person, please keep bringing the love....but make it gluten free. Getting back to the sunlight and packing on pounds...the lack of sunlight may signal the body to start storing energy as fat as the body senses a prolonged winter ahead. Vitamin D may also play a role in this. The lack of sunlight reduces the production of vitamin D and the lack of vitamin D reduces the absorption of calcium by the bones and interrupts the fat metabolic activity. The bones requiring more calcium and fat not metabolized may possibly signal the body to eat more food. This is purely my theory and speculation on my part. My reasoning is deduced from observing that we tend to require more food around dinner time, because, the lack of sunlight signals the body that there is an unknown prolonged period of fasting ahead....better store up the fuel. Once again, my personal belief that lack of sunlight promotes weight gain in the winter months.     

  The hunter gatherers roaming the earth over 10,000 years ago, were in tune with the seasons. They ate seasonal fruits and vegetables during the summer months. They hunted and ate meats and fats from their hunts. They gathered fats and meats and cured the meats and the fats for winter usage. The little fat that they did acquire during late summer and fall helped them get through the winter months. Since hunter gatherers roamed about and never stayed in one place for a long time, the notion of farming and domesticating crops was not on their priority list. They lived a grain free healthy life. I have noticed for myself that I don't get hungry in the winter months. Most often, I can easily skip any given meal. On the weekends, I almost always skip lunch. The desire to eat is simply not there. I do crave hot drinks like coffee and tea. And I drink my share. My being on paleo has adjusted my appetite to eat according to the energy requirements of the body. I eat my fill when hungry and that is it. It is very possible that my leptin hormone levels have adjusted due to the absence of grains in my diet. Once the leptin levels are adjusted then responding to external stimuli is easier. I am simply not going to eat, no matter how appealing the food looks. I am only going to eat when hungry. I have also heard from many people that you need body fat in the winter time to stay warm. That is why you pack on extra pounds and it is completely acceptable. How about just wearing proper clothes to keep our bodies warm? That would solve that problem. The textile industry makes pretty good sweaters and undergarments these days. The moral of the story is that we were not meant to get fat during the winter months. We are genetically programmed to fatten up during late summer and fall and that fat should serve as an insurance policy to get us through the winter. We should come out of winter months nice and lean not 10 pounds heavier. When squirrels come out in the springtime, they are skinny. Eating meats and fats during the winter months keep us satisfied and fruits and vegetables during the summer months keep us active and energized for summer outdoor activities. We can finally escape the punishment of Sisyphus, and that big boulder can stay on the top forever.

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