There’s very little health news that surprises me these days. Typically, the breaking headlines all funnel back to the basics: We need to eat right and get exercise in order to be healthy. The latest study I just read actually surprised me, and it may do the same for you.
A recent article from TIME writer Laura Blue reported on new research concerning the energy expenditure of westerners vs. hunter-gatherer societies. The study was just published in the PLoS One Journal. It seemed fair to assume we westerners are fat because we eat too much and then sit all day in our cars, at our desks, and on our couches. Meanwhile, those in hunter-gatherer societies walk everywhere, hunt for food, dig in their gardens, and use primitive tools to do a day’s work. The research showed that actually, both societies have an equal energy output, if you can believe it.
Like I said, very little surprises me in health news, but this one was a total surprise. I see the typical American every day. We walk mere feet to our cars, drive to our location with hopes of getting the closest parking spot, walk mere feet to our desks, and not move again until we drive to lunch, which many times is a drive-thru pick-up. There is very little exercise in the typical daily routine.
Meanwhile the people of the Hazda hunter-gatherer society in Tanzania, Africa, hunt on foot with bows, forage for fresh foods daily, work with small axes and digging sticks, and all of their travel is done by foot.
But research showed that their output is nearly the same as ours. Wow.
Thirty adults from the Hazda society wore GPS units during this research so the distances they traveled on a daily basis could be tracked. They also wore breath monitors to have their metabolism tracked. Additionally, the subjects took urine tests to measure total energy expenditure. The urine tests showed how quickly a chemically-altered water could be expelled from their systems, a drink given to them by researchers. All of these results were compared with a group of 68 adults from various western countries in the U.S. and Europe, along with adults from farming communities in Bolivia, Nigeria, and Gambia.
One explanation for these surprising findings is that the Hazda people seem to have a lower basal metabolic rate, meaning they use less energy while at rest than those of the same size and age. And this backs up the idea that we all have varying metabolisms. However, there’s one more strong argument for the reason behind these findings.
If we expend the same amount of energy on a daily basis as our very active hunter-gatherer counterparts, why are we fat and they are not? It seems fair to point to diet. The Hazda eat nothing processed, the wild game they hunt themselves, tubers from their crops, and fruit and honey that they collect. More importantly, it seems the Hazda eat just enough, while westerners have what the study calls, “high energy intake,” or too much food.
Ok, now I can see the light. While the expenditure still baffles me, I see clearly why we’re the chubby ones and they are not. Their culture has promoted centuries of eating appropriately. There’s no extra, there’s just enough. Eating too much means taking from tomorrow’s share and forcing more work on the community. While exercise is helpful in weight management, most experts will still say that diet is the most important element.
Maybe if our lunch routine involved shooting arrows and eating an appropriate portion of lean food versus reaching out our car window to grab the grease bag, we might win this obesity war yet. Just maybe.