NY times hunter gatherer response

August 26, 2012 — 4 Comments

Read this brief article please http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/opinion/sunday/debunking-the-hunter-gatherer-workout.xml where Hunter-Gatherer tribes have been “proven” to burn the same amount of calories as western populations. Which is being extrapolated to mean that perhaps striving to burn more calories isn’t the golden answer to weight loss after all. Which leads to this:

YOU CAN’T OUT TRAIN A SHITTY DIET. And this is the main thing to remember. I’m going to argue why we shouldn’t stop with our encouraging of people to remain more active, but just remember that if it’s an either/or situation, diet is vastly more important than exercise.

These hunter gatherers are eating natural food that they hunt or gather. OH SHIT! All the people who poopoo the paleo diet can keep saying that it’s a dumb diet and that you can eat gummy bears and cereal and gluten and remain healthy/thin if they want, but they can also kiss my ass if they can’t at least admit that it works. I’m not saying its the only way to eat, but if you say it doesn’t work you are in fact an arguer for the sake of arguing dick head. Simple as that.

**I understand that the food choices in a paleo/primal diet inherently produce a caloric deficit on a weekly basis which in turn drives weight loss-but I also can’t/won’t turn a blind eye at the importance of food quality/gut health/hormonal responses-calories are NOT all that matter. And it’s easy to follow-with just a little patience and weaning yourself off of addictive foods. Rant over**

Now…let’s look at some of this article though, in grey is the article, and in black is me commentating.

“…our study used a technique that calculates the … calories burned per day – by tracking … an individual’s urine over a two-week period.” Question: was this a more strenuous two weeks of the year, what season? Who did they compare to, a New Yorker who walks everywhere or someone in Chicago who drives everywhere? This article doesn’t say, and I’d have to say that this makes a big difference. And have the westernized pop calorie expenditure been measured in the same fashion? Or were they estimated, (which is problematic according to the article). ?

“Each day the women comb miles of hilly terrain, foraging for tubers, berries and other wild plant foods, often while carrying infants, firewood and water. Men set out alone most days to collect honey or hunt for game using handmade bows and poison-tipped arrows, often covering 15 to 20 miles.” So, does this sound like a sedentary US citizen? Not at all. And instead of saying “turns out activity doesn’t matter”, this make me think “hmm, what is it about this activity that gets such good results?”  Are they doing these things in the morning when it is cool, and doing it fasted-which might see an increased utilization of fat usage? Is there a timing situation here that plays a large roll in WHY they remain lean and healthy?  Maybe that has something to do with it, and is why the warrior diet, IFing, the renegade diet, and all these eat-light-or-not-at-all-in-the-morning-and-feast-at-night diets seem to be magic for getting lean.

**PS…did you notice the bit about the grandmothers living into their 80’s…? Yeah, I’m asking those of you smartasses who say “well then why did hunter gatherers die so young if their diet was so good?” We know it was because of lack of medicine and other modern marvels of magic.**

“How can the Hadza be more active than we are without burning more calories? It’s not that their bodies are more efficient, allowing them to do more with less: separate measurements showed that the Hadza burn just as many calories while walking or resting as Westerners do.” I anecdotally disagree with this. 10 years at trader joes saw the following: when people started working at trader joes, they invariably lost weight during the first 1-2 months they worked there. Why? Because all of sudden they were doing 8 hours of walking/bending/lifting/carrying etc and they weren’t used to it.  They were sore, tired, beat up…but then they became adapted to it, and it was not as ‘costly’ to the body, both in inefficient movement, and in recovery needs-and they stopped losing weight. They weren’t lean by that point, but their bodies had become ‘used to’ that activity. Again, I know this is anecdotal. Also, the quote above says that the Hadza burn the same cals while walking and resting…however the article describes them as walking and “carrying infants, firewood, water” weapons, the game they killed and things they gathered….what western people actually carry stuff for miles on end? Answer: they don’t. We use shopping carts for 2 items at the grocery store, then push the groceries to our car in the cart, where we drive the groceries home…..long duration carrying is crazy effective.  Try it, if you have a dog you walk, start carrying 20lbs of kettle bells, dumbbells, or a bag of cans for the whole walk…just keep switching hands in farmer’s walk position, or carry them in the rack/baby holding position. Bet you that is MUCH more challenging and metabolically demanding. (metabolically doesn’t mean your are breathing hard or going fast BTW)

“We think that the Hadzas’ bodies have adjusted to the higher activity levels required for hunting and gathering by spending less energy elsewhere. Even for very active people, physical activity accounts for only a small portion of daily energy expenditure; most energy is spent behind the scenes on the myriad unseen tasks that keep our cells humming and our support systems working. If the Hadza’s bodies somehow manage to spend less energy in those areas, they could easily accommodate the elevated energy demands of hunting and gathering. And indeed, studies reporting differences in metabolic-hormone profiles between traditional and Western populations support this idea (though more work is needed).” Woah, so much vagueness here. “we think” “if” “somehow”…these are not statements that show an answer, yet this article is spreading around the internet at a very fast rate.  The key things from this quote above are: 1)  They contradict themselves and say that hunting and gathering does require more energy, and that the hadza spend less energy elsewhere. AKA, they actually REST when they aren’t working. Do we do that? Have concentrated work and concentrated rest periods? Or are we always just kinda going…with poor rest periods. I don’t JUST mean sleep, but I’m guessing these tribes people aren’t staring at a sleep disrupting computer screen before they go to sleep only to be woken up too early by a rude alarm clock. 2) They mention the metabolic-hormone profiles between traditional and western populations are different…meaning that it ISN’T JUST CALORIES. Sporadic caloric deficits have health promoting benefits, which is why IFing and fasting can be so useful for not just weight loss, but health issues and longevity. 

“All of this means that if we want to end obesity, we need to focus on our diet and reduce the number of calories we eat, particularly the sugars our primate brains have evolved to love. We’re getting fat because we eat too much, not because we’re sedentary.”  This is a great summation of their thoughts, though I think they miss a potential point of clarification: they say we get fat because we eat too much, I agree, but also because we eat LIKE SHIT. The crazy processed foods we stuff in our faces do things to our brains and bodies which encourage more eating…the foods the hadzas don’t do that. The entire article supports the idea that calories aren’t the only thing going on, yet they still cling to that being the only thing that matters. That’s not seeing the forest because you are looking at one tree.

“Physical activity is very important for maintaining physical and mental health, but we aren’t going to Jazzercise our way out of the obesity epidemic.” Now, I am very happy they put this in the article. Because only focusing on burning more calories by taking the stairs, or whatever, isnt going to solve your or our nations weight issues, because it isn’t the caloric expenditure that is why you should be more active.  Activity is important for your musculo-skeletal health, it is fun and relieves stress which is good for your mental health, it should provide a sense of community, and it should be FUN. This week I’ll put up my post on what PRIMAL fitness really is: and that is FUN. Not sledgehammers or carrying logs. 


4 responses to NY times hunter gatherer response


    Its published in PLoS One – a.k.a. the most bullshit journal ever to get into. If you’re an academic this is where you publish low profile papers that you want the intellectual rights to quickly or corrections to something you screwed up. Not saying their work was useless (we’re publishing in PLoS One in a few weeks, its useful for what it is) but it does say something about what the peer review community thinks of their work that it showed up there.

    PLoS is a free journal so you can read it here:

    It so happens I read this article when it came out 🙂 I thought it was super interesting. I took notes that answer some of your questions so I’ll put them below.

    They measured total caloric expenditure in Western populations the same way they did in the hunter gatherers (doubly labeled water – a pretty good metric). They did many of their own measurements, and in addition they collated data from a series of papers that used this method for other interventions. They only took control group/pre-intervention data. The populations were from rural America to Aberdeen, and varied from completely sedentary, to usual “Western exercise” like going for a jog, to competitively training for stuff like triathlons (although the athletes were the minority).

    They measured “energy expenditures during resting and walking using a portable, wearable respirometry system (Cosmed, K4b2) which measures both carbon dioxide production and oxygen consumption via “breath-by-breath” analysis. Sounds fun. To estimate daily walking cost (kCal/day) for each subject, each individual’s mean COTmin was multiplied by their body mass and daily travel distance. In order to measure daily travel distance, Hadza subjects wore a small global positioning system (GPS) device (Garmin 301 Forerunner) during daylight hours for their entire 11 day TEE measurement period.”

    I have to say that walking around and moving around are going to have different caloric requirements (i.e. efficiently striding vs. bending over, picking stuff up, etc.). They don’t take this into account in their study.

    Nice write up Cliff.


    Clif, great read. Regarding your point about food quality producing weight loss. There actually has been a study done where they put a group of people on a paleo diet but matched their old diet calorically. That is to say, they were taking in the same number of calories as usual and they were eating paleo foods. This group STILL lost weight as well as seeing positive changes in blood values and diabtetes, etc… If you dig around a little using Dr. Google you’ll find the study.

    It’s not HOW MUCH you eat that matters (within reason) so much as it is WHAT you eat that matters.

    twitter: @locosphinx

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