A “thrifty gene,” if you will, that evolved to favor those of us who easily packed on the pounds to weather the terrible famine conditions that our ancestors were forced to endure?
Although many people tout this hypothesis as truth, I can’t resist the challenge of debunking this bad science once and for all.
Did We Really Evolve During a Famine?
Although we cannot hop into a time machine and go back to the Pleistocene to observe our great-caveparents, it stands to reason that, like all other animals on earth, our population (not our waistlines) went up and down in response to the availability of food.
If our evolution consisted of as devastating a famine as the thrifty-geners imply we did, we simply wouldn’t still be around.
The mass extinction of large animals after humans migrated to the Americas, contemporary accounts of modern hunter-gatherers living in environments ripe with game, as well as our own omnivorism all suggest that our ancestors were able to live through times of surplus food without gaining excess weight.
Obesogenic Environments and Body Fat “Setpoints”
But if we have no “hard-wired” reason to become overweight, even obese, then why is it happening at ever-increasing levels?
Many point out that we live in an obesogenic environment compared to our stone age ancestors, that we no longer need to move our bodies to get food and build shelter, etc.
All are certainly part of the problem, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Recent studies suggest that our body composition, like most of the systems in our bodies, is tightly regulated to remain near a certain “setpoint,” which is influenced primarily by our environment.
Many of the characteristics of our modern lives (chronic stress, lots of sugar, and little sleep) may even mimic famine conditions, thus raising our body fat setpoint.
I’m not saying I’m behind these theories 100%, but they are far more logical than the “thrifty gene.” For more info, check out Whole Health Source’s articles on the body fat setpoint. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
The bottom line here is that the problem isn’t you, it’s your environment.
One Last Thought for the Naysayers
The same logic and creative storytelling required to concoct the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis can also be used to “prove” the exact opposite: that we evolved to be thin.
I mean, think about it, our ancestors needed to hunt and defend themselves from predators and warring tribes. Therefore, we must have evolved to over-exercise and under-eat in all situations in order to stay lean! (Of course, I don’t actually believe this. It’s just a thought experiment.)
In the next installment of this series on willpower and fitness, I will expose the oversimplifications of the “calories in – calories out” paradigm and (if I haven’t already) make you completely give up faith in the “eat less exercise more” mantra! 🙂