By Carlon M. Colker, M.D., FACN
Reserve Deputy Sheriff
Bedford County Sheriff's Office
We have to stop and eat at some point, and it doesn't matter if we are on the job or not. Sooner or later your appetite catches up to you. Unfortunately because we are on the go at such a high work intensity, all too often law enforcement relies heavily on the worst types of nutrients - fast food. Burgers, fries, chips, soda, deep fried food, pre-packaged foods, coffeecake, donuts, etc., litter the working landscape. While we all know that healthy food is better for you, the subject today is actually not what types of foods you should eat, but instead the temporal relationship of your meals when on the job. When you eat is as important as what you eat.
To compound the problem of bad fast food choices, too often we push off our hunger until we are ravenous and then we gorge ourselves on whatever is in front of us. In the worst cases we ignore our hunger most all of the day and stuff it in at night. Did you just grab a cup of coffee this morning, plan on sneaking a donut or bagel with cream cheese at the stationhouse, and not plan on eating big until tonight? Sound like what you do almost every day? The fact is, with this particular diet pattern, you don't even need to eat very many calories at all too gain tons of blubber around your midsection. It's a principle I call starvation alert.
It's an age-old mechanism whereby your body attempts to resist change. Any warm-blooded animal has an internally programmed physiologic drive to preserve energy and not change when times are good. This is a condition called homeostasis, or literal etymology of "pertaining to a condition of remaining the same". When an African tiger, cheetah, or other predatory mammal has had unsuccessful hunts and has gone hungry for days, times are bad. The animal's body knows that, and internal adjustments are automatically made. The metabolism slows, hormone levels change, and sleep patterns alter. They are in the state of starvation alert. But the moment they finally make a big kill and gorge themselves, their bodies have an interesting response. They generally collapse and fall asleep from exhaustion even though they just ate massive quantities!
This seemingly paradoxical response of their physiology actually makes a great deal of sense when you think about it. The period of starvation throws the body into a shocked state in which it makes necessary survival adjustments. These adjustments involve making fat storing pathways more energetically favorable. In so doing, during such a state, even small amounts of calories can result in stored fat. This is the nature of the starvation alert mode - preparing for another imminent harsh time of deprivation by causing the body to hoard fat.
My favorite example illustrating the principle of starvation alert in humans are the Japanese Sumo Wrestlers. I have spent quite a bit of time in Japan and have made many close and dear friends of Japanese heritage. In my time abroad, over the years I feel I have come to know the culture fairly well. I can tell you first hand that the Japanese are not an obese culture by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, traditionally the women are quite beautiful and lean, while the men are svelte and fairly fit. This is so much the case that it leads one to believe that genetics and not just dietary habits are at work here. But then like a blip on a radar screen or a spike on a seismograph, emerging from these people of modest streamlined physiologic stature, there is Sumo.
Thousands of years old, the sport of Sumo seems more like a religious tradition at times than a sport. These massive athletes are actually tremendously powerful wrestlers - albeit their power comes from fat! That's right, FAT. These men grow to staggering proportions, with some weighing well over 500 pounds. So, doesn't it make you wonder how a man from such an innately trim culture can produce so much fat? The answer is simple. It seems the Japanese have discovered the application of my theory of starvation alert and basically used it to create the otherwise inconceivable girth on these men.