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Why Our Grandparents Never Had to Diet

We all seem to have had that one spunky elderly relative that stays fully independent into their later years. You know the one who stops caring about being socially appropriate, and yes, seems to eat whatever they want — while staying within 10 pounds of their high school weight from 70 years ago. Contrast with today’s “freshman 15” college weight gain struggle, stubborn baby weight that continues to linger even when the babies aren’t babies anymore, beer belly woes, and menopausal (or for men, andropausal) weight frustrations. What gives?

Our frustration is rightfully fueled by the fact that we seem to be paying more attention to food than ever before. We have shelves full of diet books, magazine clippings promising a beach body nutrition plan and an endless list of so-called “nutrition experts” trolling the internet. When you stop to think about it, it doesn’t even make sense that weight is so difficult to control. Why does it feel like such hard work sometimes to stay healthy, of all things?

Read on to learn why our grandparents had an easier time staying trim and fit without ever needing to count a single calorie.

They respected the sun and the moon.

No, I’m not talking about anything woo-woo here. I’m talking about one of the most basic, fundamental and absolutely critical facets of metabolism: circadian rhythm — the 24-hour cycle governing mind-blowingly complex physiological processes. A lot of them are totally dependent on sleep/wake cycles. We function completely differently on the inside during the day versus at night. Our wise ancestors rose with the sun and reclined after sunset, going to bed shortly after. These continuous ebb-and-flow patterns were consistent day-to-day, helping rejuvenate their minds, set hormones straight, control immune system function, and boost overall functioning. Staying up until midnight (and sleeping in till 11 on weekends, for that matter) on a regular basis just wasn’t done.

They ate foods without labels.

Have you ever stopped to think about the irony of our current grocery store landscape? Maybe not, although that’s probably a “hashtag dietitian thoughts” question. “Grocery” is supposed to mean “items of food.” Think about the thousands of food products currently found in the inner aisles of every grocery store. These common products found in bags, boxes and colorful packaging have inadvertently re-structured our societal definition of food. We live in a time that ingredients like corn, soy, and sugar with laboratory-altered DNA, noodles covered in sauce made from powdered “cheese,” nacho-flavored chips, chewy fruit-flavored, brightly-colored packaged snacks, and neon green blended ice beverages are all considered “normal.” Yet things like grass-fed beef, sauerkraut, garlic scapes, fennel, organic foods and organ meats are “weird.” While I’m not suggesting you have to eat liver, I am saying is that there really is something to the news stories of highlighting centennials that claim they eat eggs (with yolks!), butter and bacon every day. That used to be part of a diet of real, whole foods that likely included lots of fresh vegetables and unadulterated natural fats (lard and tallow for cooking, anyone?). The past generations didn’t have to worry about exposure to chemical flavorings, fake colors, lab-made preservatives, and highly addictive, purposefully-designed fat-to-carbohydrate ratios found in commercially prepared processed foods. They ate real food, period.

Their detoxification systems carried a lighter load.

In addition to the real-food environment, great-grandma and grandpa also had a detoxification system that could focus on filtering and excreting products of metabolism and endogenous waste produced as part of normal functioning, just like it’s supposed to do. What their livers, GI tracts, and lymphatic systems did not have to worry about were how to get rid of flame retardants, industrial insulators, food wrap coatings, and pesticides (all of which have been found in umbilical cord blood these days — scary!). And that’s just a few of the many things we’re currently exposed to that we really shouldn’t be. Relative to our ancestor’s environments, the industrial era has left us with new pollution, new body care products, new cleaning supplies, new lawn care, new medications...the list goes on and on. And our bodies still have to process what they were designed to process in the first place. All of this being said, most of these innovative chemicals have not been tested for human safety, yet they’re pretty much everywhere. The good news is that awareness is increasing and “cleaner” household and beauty products are becoming more readily available.

They broke a sweat every day.

We all know lifestyles have changed. We officially live in a world in which we can have a really busy, non-stop, productive day and actually be completely sedentary the entire time. That’s new. We can communicate with just about anyone from our fingertips, take long trips in a car or plane without even having to stand up, and click on an app on our phone and have pizza (with fake chemicals, to boot) show up at our door for dinner. It’s pretty crazy, actually! While technological advances are amazing, they are also easily abused. Our ancestors probably couldn’t go an entire hour without moving if they wanted to be productive and successful. They moved often and throughout the day, and they certainly did not need stationary equipment to “work out.” In fact, their entire day was a workout. Due to our technological advancements, it’s even more important that we are diligent about sticking to an exercise schedule and monitoring our daily step count to ensure that we mimic the lifestyle our bodies were truly designed for.

They got dirty.

Antibacterial soaps, bleach wipes, gel sanitizer — we, as a society, are so darn clean. While this may be necessary in certain environments (hospitals and medical offices, for example), we have become terrified of dirt, dog slobber and walking outside in bare feet. The thing is, regular exposure to environmental elements, especially in children, can actually be beneficial for their developing immune systems.  Additionally, our GI tracts and healthy, protective probiotic bugs in our large intestine have an interesting relationship with environmental microorganisms that our modern, squeaky-clean lifestyle has been interfering with a bit. Yes, we need to be careful not to get hurt or sick if possible. Yet, it’s also important to find that balance in realizing that we do not have to live in a sterile bubble.  I’m sure grandpa had more dirt under his fingernails than we do under our gel manicures nowadays. That being said, his gut health and immune system probably had a bit more fortification than ours currently does. Great gut health and immune function are critical cornerstones to metabolism.

There you have it! Our grandparents and generations before them benefitted from more optimal sleep/wake cycles, more nutritious food, less chemical burden, more movement, and better digestive and immune function. All of which are hallmarks of a great, fat-burning metabolism. While our food and lifestyle environment has changed dramatically over the last 50-to -100 years, taking small steps to mimic the healthy wisdom of the olden times can have surprising benefits to our health and waistlines. Give these habits a try! You might just become the long-lived, sassy, strong-willed and trim centennial on the news one day!

In health, Samantha Bielawski, Registered Dietitian, Program Manager - Life Time Lab Testing

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 

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