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.
Contrary to what you might think, most Sumo wrestlers traditionally eat only one meal a day in the evening. It's called chanko and is made up of a pot of broth with pieces of meat, poultry, and fish mixed in with vegetables. The dish is served with a pot of rice and tea. It doesn't sound that excessive to most people and many are puzzled to figure out what is so bad about this meal. When you understand the principle of starvation alert the problem is clear. Even though the total calories consumed are not that huge in number, the clear problem is one of timing. The meal is served in the evening and, worse yet, before sleep. The result is a cultivation of the worst aspects (for our purposes) of starvation alert.
Steeped in the tradition of Sumo, they purposely starve themselves all day. This puts them into a state of starvation alert so that when the evening feeding comes, the body is fully prepared to hoard nearly every calorie as fat, all in preparation for what the body perceives as necessary for surviving the next period of deprivation. The other rule of gaining weight for Sumo is to have this single, isolated meal late in the day and then fall asleep immediately afterward. This again powers the hoarding of nearly every calorie as fat. Interestingly, as with animals, this extreme fatigue to the point of falling asleep is actually effortless, as it is an integral hallmark of your body being immersed in a deep state of starvation alert.
Unlike the Sumo diet, a proper diet whether at home or out in the field simply does the reverse. Your meals should be smaller in size and spread with frequency throughout the day and higher in calories in the morning, decreasing to nothing at bedtime. Once past the short adjustment phase that it takes to get used to this way, your body will be able to comfortably burn fat without pangs of hunger. Simply stated, in the same way that Sumo wrestlers have perfected the art of gaining fat, if we more or less reverse the model and do everything the opposite way in terms of meal patterns and timing, you've got the rhythm of how to eat.
Perhaps the best common real world example of my theory of starvation alert in action is Thanksgiving Day. It seems like everyone at one time or another has approached this gluttonous day with a similar flawed logic, and thus experienced the same outcome - starvation alert and subsequent fat gain. It starts a day or so before Thanksgiving. We begin holding back on eating in preparation for the large meal to come. Thanksgiving Day hits and we only have a cup of coffee for breakfast and skip lunch altogether, somehow thinking that if we eat less during the day we will be able to get away with stuffing ourselves at night. Sound familiar? Just like the Sumo wrestler, we have put ourselves in a state of starvation alert.
The subsequent result is that, in our deprived condition, we are primed to gain fat. We get to dinner famished. We gorge ourselves with turkey with gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, giblets, and (let's not forget) cranberry sauce, among other yummies. What's the result? Well, if everyone else's diet theories about calories equaling energy were correct, we should be bouncing off the wall by now, right? Well, in theory maybe, but in fact quite the opposite happens.
Like the predatory cat in the wild and not much different from the Sumo wrestler, we are barely be able to keep our eyes open. As we deliriously rise from the table with our belt buckle discretely unsnapped, the blur of our gastronomically stretched consciousness comes into focus. Like fat lazy dogs we eye a quiet warm spot on the carpet near the television and collapse into a deep sleep. That is, of course, until we come back to life about a half hour later when someone wakes us up to ask us if we wanted some pumpkin pie!
So the moral of the story is basically to have breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper, with a small snack between meals. This way, you have enough calories back-loaded in the day to not stuff yourself at night right before bed.
About The Author:
Carlon M. Colker, M. D., FACN is the Chief Executive Officer and Medical Director of Peak Wellness, Inc. with centers in Greenwich, Connecticut and Beverly Hills, California. His practice specialties include internal medicine, sports medicine, and nutrition. He is an internationally recognized consultant in health and fitness and widely recognized as America's premier wellness coach. Marquee athletes and numerous world champions from the NBA, NFL, MLB, USTA, UFC, and WWE credit Colker with improving their lives and performance. As a Reserve Deputy Sheriff on ICAC/Blue Ridge Thunder Task Force in Bedford County Virginia, he serves hands-on in the field assisting in search warrants and arrests of people that harm our children.