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"To take control of our lives, we need...to see our world more accurately so that we can control our instincts before they control us." Terry Burnham, Ph.D., and Jay Phelan, Ph.D.
Harnessing Our "Mean Genes"
An Albuquerque lawyer wrote several months back recommending a book by two highly regarded scholars, an economics professor from Harvard and a biology professor from UCLA. The book is Mean Genes by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan (Penguin books, 2001). "[It] reinforces most of the things Clarence has written," the lawyer wrote. "They write that our genes, because of our evolutionary history, can work against our best interests, and suggest ways to out smart our genes in areas such as discipline, exercise and eating."
Flattery, of course, will get you everywhere. I’m always interested when academics confirm my views. I bought the book, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. Burnham and Phelan explain our evolutionary biology in a clear and entertaining manner; they make battling our primal instincts seem almost like a fair fight. In their words, they’ve written "an owner’s manual for your brain." Let’s look at a few of the things they say about diet and exercise. It does sound more than a little familiar.
The professors say there’s a reasons why we are so fat: Our world has changed. "Our appetites were built in a world were plentiful food was inconceivable," they write. "Our nearly insatiable appetite was once a survival feature of human biology." Unfortunately, our genes function as though nothing has changed. Our genes haven’t evolved to take into account that we no longer forage for food or undergo frequent famines. They haven’t adjusted to the fact that we now drive to supermarkets that are always fully stocked – with highly processed, fattening foods.
The "powerful, instinctive hunger" that once kept us alive to reproduce is now a "bug" in our genetic programming. But that’s no excuse. "We can’t get off the hook by simply pointing out that our thrifty genes are making us fat," say the authors. "Whatever our genetic endowment, any one of us will lose weight if we expend more calories than we consume." The challenge is to change our behavior patterns to make that work in our favor.
Hunger Makes Matters Worse
Dieting is not the answer, however. "Living in a perpetual state of hunger," write Burnham and Phelan, "may be the worst plan for permanent weight loss."
Starvation sets off survival mechanisms in our body. It makes us "grumpy" and slows down our metabolism to conserve precious calories. "Starvation-like behavior sends an alarm throughout the body saying, ‘We’re in trouble. Eat anything and everything in sight.’" Predictably, we soon gain back all the weight we lose dieting, and often more.
So, what’s the gene friendly answer? The authors’ recommendations are surprisingly low-tech and generally based on knowing our weaknesses. They reflect the wisdom of Socrates: "Knowing we will be weak allows us to be strong."
Among other things, they recommend planning the sort of food we eat. "When we try to reduce the number of calories we eat, our genetic systems fight us every step of the way," the professors warn. "We can, however, much more easily win the battle over the type of calories we consume."
As an example, they tell about a trick used by co-author Jay Phelan to avoid overeating: He ate three plain bagels on the way to a summer barbecue. He knew that cheeseburgers and nachos, which he loves, would be served. "By eating the bagels as a sort of preemptive strike, he decreased his appetite with a minimum of fat calories and had much more will power when tempted by the dangerous delicacies." In short, he acknowledged – and tamed -- his natural desire for the super high-calorie food to be served at the barbecue.
"This ability to choose the type of calories we consume may seem minor," the authors write, "but it can be central to controlling just how many calories we actually eat."
They offer a similar suggestion for people who suffer from late-night bingeing. Again, the key is to know that you will be weak and take action to limit the damage. I have a friend who duct tapes his refrigerator closed at night. He has the right idea, but the authors’ approach is simpler and more foolproof.
"Defeat that monster within by preemptively building a fence," the authors suggest. "Throw out the Ding-Dongs right after dinner – or better yet, don’t buy them." Act during the day or early in the evening, when you are strong. Avoid temptation by stocking your refrigerator with foods that will fill you up without giving you too many calories. If you are going to eat fattening foods, do it outside of the home. Don’t have fattening food around in the middle of the night when you are weak.
There are many more suggestions in Mean Genes (and in my books), but you get the idea. Don’t try to deny your natural tendency to overeat. Admit it. Deal with it. Out smart it.
Our Natural Sloth
The other key to weight control, of course, is exercise. The problem, according to Burnham and Phelan, is that most animals, including humans, are programmed to be lazy. "Evolution favors the frugal," they write, "and casts a hard, wary glance on an organism that frivolously wastes energy."
That’s why lions sleep most of the day and, according to the authors, well-fed mice in the laboratory will go to great lengths to avoid exercise. Wild animals who waste energy die – and their genes die with them. "We descended from humans who were frugal with their physical activity, and we carry their energy conserving genes."
We can be quite energetic, however, when necessary. Mice will run when they are hungry, looking for food. "Those frequently sleepy lions will sprint if there is a gazelle to be chased or a hyena to attack," write Burnham and Phelan.
The key to outsmarting our natural inclination to be lazy, according to the authors, is to create situations that require activity in order to meet a "worthy goal." As one might expect: "The type of goals that our genes consider worthy vary from person to person." You must know yourself, but there are some general guidelines.
Plan for Progress
Burnham and Phelan tick off the standard suggestions, such as finding a workout partner or engaging in a team sport. But their most important genetically-based tip, the one I like best, is: "We love making progress." To satisfy our genes, they say, exercise should be structured "to be on the upslope as much as possible." In other words, plan your workouts to show progress.
"To maximize our pleasure from physical activity," the authors write, "we should spend as much time as possible in the zone of rapid progress." Burnham and Phelan recommend training in "seasons." I would call it cross training or periodization.
They suggest pursuing difference sports, switching to a new one when your interest begins to wane. Like my friend Dr. Pat O’Shea, you could focus on strength training in the winter and aerobic activities, such as biking, in the summer. "Just as we plateau in one activity," they write, "we move to another and again enjoy the early increase in ability."
The same thing can be accomplished with weights by training in phases, using high, medium and low reps. As suggested in Ripped 3, you start each phase with poundages that you can handle comfortably, gradually increase the intensity until progress almost, but not quite, stalls, and then switch to another rep range and begin again. Lifting this way, you’re always moving forward, on an "upslope." It’s a beautiful system. The planned variation keeps you gaining from workout to workout, training cycle to training cycle. You push for a while, back off, and then push again, each time peaking a little higher than before.
"Our genes have built us with a relentless appetite for improvement and achievement," say the professors. By always trying to improve, never being content to maintain, we feed our natural desire for progress. We build a fire under our lazy genes.
Follow the advice of Drs. Burnham and Phelan – and mine. Harness your "wild genes" to work for you in a "tame world."
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