Bonus: Dr. Hamilton Stapell – The Past, Present, and Future of Fitness

Jonathan: Hey everyone. Jonathan Bailor here and I’m very excited about today’s bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast because something very unique and something very cool, excuse me, someone very unique and someone very cool to share with you today. Joining us today we have professor and doctor, Hamilton M. Stapell who is a professor of history at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and actually sits on the Evolutionary Studies Board and one of the coolest things about Dr. Hamilton Stapell, I think, is that he is the creator of one of the first college level courses on ancestral living, or the title of the course is Evo 201: Evolution and Human Health and he is here to talk with us about the history of health and health movements and maybe even the present and the future. So, Dr. Hamilton, welcome.

Hamilton: I’m happy to be here. Thank you Jonathan.

Jonathan: Dr. Stapell, can you briefly tell us a little bit about your story and how – You’re a history professor but you’ve found yourself in the health and wellness movement. How did that happen?

Hamilton: Sure. It’s a great question. I’d always been interested in health and fitness and evolution, but I never made the connection between the two until about 2002 when I was living in Southern California. I came across this book called, Health Secrets of the Stone Age, and it really made all these connections between our ancestral paths and why we’re sick and unhealthy today. Since that time, I’ve been really interested in this topic. I read everything in the bibliography of that book and continued to be interested and follow up on it. A couple of years ago, I joined the faculty here at the State University of New York in New Paltz, and I had an opportunity to work with colleagues on the Evolutionary Studies Board. We started to put together a course that would allow our students to explore these topics for themselves about how we ate and lived and moved in the past and how that might be a guide for us today here in our modern world.

Jonathan: Dr. Stapell, the one thing that I just really kind of want to cut to the chase here. One of the most common questions I get asked, and that’s, “How far back do we have to look?” The reason I asked this question is because I think you know, we put out a little animated video recently and some of the comments on Facebook or, excuse me, on YouTube are like, “Well, you know, my grandmother ate dairy products.” You’re talking about going back in time, fifty, sixty years ago, the rates of obesity and diabetes were dramatically lower than they are today. My question is, how far back do you think we need to go?

Hamilton: I think we need to see the big picture of human evolution, of the evolution of homosapiens. This goes back for millions of years. I think the important place to kind of start is 2.5 million years ago with the development of the genus homo and how we’ve lived, how we’ve eaten and moved since then, for the past 2.5 million years. Of course, the environment changed over that time and there were different groups of people living in different climates and eating different things.

The real change happens about 10,000 years ago with the Neolithic revolution or we call the invention of agriculture. That’s when how we started to eat and how we started to live and the structure of society really began to change. That’s the development of civilization, of larger and larger groups, the specialization of labor, more hierarchy within society. That fundamentally changed how we worked, how we lived, how we mated, all of those things. So I think we need to look at a broader timescale.

Jonathan: It certainly makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that this invention of grain and the domestication of these plants certainly changed everything. I know in Jared Diamond’s work, it’s almost like the greatest thing and the worse thing that happened to humanity all wrapped up into one, because it enables us to form civilization, but in some ways set us on the path to where we ended up today which is not extremely positive from a obesity, diabetes, and heart disease perspective.

What I wanted to dig into, Hamilton, is we often – there’s two, in some ways they’re not conflicting, but I don’t know if they can both be true, messages out there and one is popularized by let’s say Michael Pollan who is, if we just turn the clock back, fifty, maybe 100 years, we sure would be healthier. Then there’s more of the further back ancestral push which is if we wind the clock back over 12,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture, that’s what we need to do to be healthy. How should we think of those two different positions?

Hamilton: Jonathan, that’s a great question and I’m glad you asked it because the other major change in terms of how we live and work and what we eat, happened about 150 years ago with the Industrial Revolution. I was just covering this in class this week talking to my students about how consumption patterns changed, production patterns changed within Western society as a whole and how that really transformed the way we move around, in trams and automobiles and eventually airplanes and what we eat.

Food is brought into cities as opposed to people living in the countryside and producing their own food. Then the types of food in terms of how sugars and grains are increasingly more refined. In addition to the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, the industrial revolution of 150 years ago also really transformed the way we eat and the way we live. I n some ways I think both of those positions are correct, both Michael Pollan and the evolutionary approach or ancestral health folks who say we should go back further. I think both of those have important things to tell us.

Jonathan: Do you see another important inflection point around, let’s say, forty or fifty years ago? Because it seems, I believe, the earliest, or I guess recognizable if we look at obesity rates that were gathered by I think the military was the earliest source of obesity rates. If we look back 100 or so years ago, I think it was sub-4 percent or something like that of individuals who would be considered obese, but,starting in the seventies, we saw this astronomical climb. Was there a third important shift?

Hamilton: That’s a great question. I think a lot of it has to do with the growing affluence of Western culture, both in the United States and then after the rebuilding in Europe after World War II, we get a growing affluence where more people can a food, more foods, more refined food and we see modern supermarkets develop. Packaged foods become very common. The food industry become much more established. Marketing. Campbell’s soups. All those kinds of things which sort of make life convenient, but not necessarily more healthy for us in the long run.

Jonathan: I find it to be very ironic, especially from a historical perspective too, that we seem to have, I call it a paradox of affluence or the affluence paradox, where today, you actually, one would think, that the wealthier someone is that the more food they can afford and the heavier they would be. Whereas actually we see the exact opposite relationship. We’re starting to see skyrocketing rates of obesity in some of the poorest countries of the world and some of the poorest areas of our country we find the highest rates of obesity. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Hamilton: Sure. That’s quite a paradox. I think it has to do with the quality of food available. Packaged, processed, refined food is cheap. It’s cheap for people to buy, so I think it’s directly related to income. I think there’s also an educational component as well. Not only do people have to have access and to be able to afford whole, healthy foods, but they also have to understand why those foods are important. Why they are necessary for good health. How they help prevent disease, because it’s a choice. It’s a choice that individuals make. How are you going to spend your income? Are you going to spend it on other consumer goods or are you going to invest it into healthy, whole foods. I think there’s both a price and availability issue, but there’s also I think an educational component there as well.

Jonathan: Is there a – for lack of better terms – solution to this? In the sense that how does one enable a world where you can have the urban populations and densely packed cities and a world that has, I don’t know, I think we’re getting close to seven billion people on it, all of whom would have their health best served eating foods which have actually never been made available to that many people. There just haven’t been that many people to feed with those foods historically. Is there a world where everyone can eat that way? How do we do that?

Hamilton: I think that’s a great question. I think that’s a difficult question to answer. I think it’s going to have – it’s going to be necessary for us to re-think our food production in the United States, in the West, in the world. Clearly it appears that mono culture, that growing one kind of crop, like soybeans or corn or wheat, over and over and over again, is not sustainable in the long run in terms of soil erosion, et cetra.

While those crops provide staples, it seems like that is going to be problematic. It also requires fossil fuels. The fertilizers today are typically made out of fossil fuels; they’re petroleum based. That of course, petroleum being a limited resource. I think there’s a problem with that model. The question becomes, well what is the alternative? For me, one of the most interesting alternatives are these highly diversified farms like Polyface Farm, run by Joe Salatin.

My understanding is that it’s the most productive farmland in the world in terms of nutrients per acre, so it can be done. You can create these farms which are highly diversified where the animals roam the land, they fertilize the land and then you grow crops and you rotate it around and the chickens come out. You can set it up in a way – it’s possible to set it up in a way where it’s efficient. Where it produces high quality foods and where it appears to be economically sustainable. Of course, we would need a lot of Polyface Farms in order to feed seven billion people, but I think that’s a place to start, that kind of model.

Jonathan: I think it’s really interesting Dr. Stapell because one could argue that what we’re currently doing right now is the least expensive model, or you just feed people these highly processed starches and sweets and refined seed oils and you can feed people and that’s great. Then you fast forward fifty years and you have a quarter of the population who’s diabetic or pre-diabetic and it’s estimated that having diabetes costs about $50,000 a year. In some ways, it’s we can either have a society where we have cheap, edible products and then extremely expensive health care or we could shift that money upstream and then not have the health care, because there are those costs. The question is, are we going to incur those costs once we’re sick? Or can we, incur a little bit more cost not getting sick in the first place.

Hamilton: I agree. That makes a lot of sense. It seems like at some point, it comes down to psychology. How do we allow people to understand or help convince them that this kind of initial investment up front makes more sense. To work on preventative medicine rather than trying to take care of someone after they’re sick and in a diseased state. I think that’s the goal, but this is what public health officials have been trying to do since the 1850s when public health became a major issue. When there was urbanization going on and you had more and more workers living in cities with industrialization.

This struggle between preventative health and dealing with people after the fact, has been going on for a long time. For at least 100 years in Europe and the United States. I don’t know exactly how we change both the opinions of politicians, because they have to guide some of this and change some of the laws, but also importantly, maybe more importantly, individuals. Again, it comes down to individuals choosing to invest their time and energy in one thing over another.

Jonathan: Absolutely. I do sometimes think that we could be – and this is just Jonathan, I’m going to go on a soap box for a second. I’m curious what you think.

Hamilton: Sure.

Jonathan: I think there is more we could do from a societal level to make this easier for individuals. Especially individuals who – I live on the West Coast and I talk to a lot of people who live in California and especially people who live in California. Talk about eating a certain way. That’s because anywhere you look in California, there’s a freaking farmer’s market on the corner. If you talk to someone who lives in a not as affluent area of downtown Chicago, you can’t – that’s not even a viable option for them.

What I’m curious about is, certainly the government has the ability to provide health care. We talk about health care and how the government needs to provide health care to people. We already have a government that provides farm subsidies. My question is, we already have institutions in place that will make it more or less beneficial to farmers to grow crop A versus crop B. It seems like that’s a lever we could pull on. It already seems like we have government institutions that have allocated money to eliminating illness. Right now it’s simply focused on wait till people get sick, then spend money on it, versus make it easier for them to not get sick in first place, but the lever is there. Right now, we’re flipping the subsidy lever towards corn and soy and wheat and we’re flipping the health care lever in terms of treatment rather than prevention. Why don’t we flip it the other way?

Hamilton: Well one is political will.

Jonathan: Yes.

Hamilton: Two, I think, importantly, is that something that I think if oftentimes underestimated is that these products; bread and corn, they’re really tightly woven into the fabric of our society. I think it’s hard to think about a – for example, a baseball game without a hot dog and a bun. It’s hard to think about Friday night without pizza. It’s hard to think about even religious practices. The importance of bread within Christianity. We have these staples, these things, these grains which, again, were really the foundations of civilization. They are tightly woven into our lives. I think there’s a lot of desire and there’s a lot of comfort that comes from them.

I think there’s an important piece on the demand side that people want these products. People want the convenience. People want these choices in their lives. There are things that they’ve grown up with. Things that they associate with their families and with holidays and with their grandmother or grandfather. I think it’s more complicated and it’s more subtle than it appears initially on the surface.

Jonathan: I would definitely agree with you there. I think in some ways, that gets back to more of the Michael Pollan sentiment where certainly if you wanted to achieve optimal human health, you would do something different than if you just wanted to not become diabetic and perpetuate the epidemic state of disease today. Which, again, we’re not in the state of affairs in the fifties and sixties and people still ate grains. They just didn’t eat concentrated, refined grains combined with hydrogenated fats combined with high fructose corn syrup in these frank and edible products.

That’s, I think, an important distinction simply because we can certainly talk about pizza and we can certainly talk about bread, but where I think it seems – what has changed over the past 40 years? What has changed is the concentration and refinement and engineering. In some ways, I would argue malicious engineering, of concentrated elements of foodstuffs to turn them into more of a drug of sorts.

Hamilton: I agree. I absolutely agree with you. I think there’s little doubt that the food become much more palatable, hyper palatable, and the food industry has worked hard to do that. I guess I want to connect this to something else. I’m sure you would agree with me. Of course, it’s not just diet that’s changed in the past forty years. There are probably other drivers which are equally, possibly, more important even. These are things like an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Disruption of circadian rhythms, a lack of social connections, increasing stress and economic insecurity. All of these things we know can have a tremendous impact on someone’s health.

I think it’s obviously not just a diet issue. It’s the combination, this whole constellation of lifestyle changes that’s occurred over the past 40 years that has led us to a point of — for example, 90 percent of the US population will be diagnosed with high blood pressure in their lifetime or two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese currently. Obviously, it’s more than just diet and I think we have to look holistically at how we live and the decisions that we make.

Jonathan: I think that’s a great point and I think there is also – you could imagine all of those negative influences you just mentioned feeding one another in the sense that as you’re more stressed, you start to look for quick ways of finding – like if you have no social connections and you’re constantly stressed, it’s a lot easier to use food as a drug and you’re a lot more driven to use food as a drug than if you had a bunch of awesome social connections and you weren’t stressed out. Right? They all seem to build on one another to create almost like a perfect storm.

Hamilton: I agree. It becomes difficult then to unwind that storm, because it’s so multi-factorial. Where do you start? Do you start by sleep or trying to tackle diet or having more face-to-face interactions with friends and family? It’s probably necessary to make progress on all of those fronts. Of course, any journey starts with a few small steps, so, I think there are lots of places to engage. Lots of places to begin, but ultimately, probably a whole range of lifestyle choices have to be made.

Jonathan: Hamilton, what would you say an individual should do? Let’s go down that path a little bit where what is a more of a holistic set of steps that an individual may be best served according to your research doing to help turn the tide against these diseases epidemics just on an individual level.

Hamilton: Sure. We’ve talked to them about nutrition. So maybe I’ll turn and talk about some other ideas. I think sleep quality and sleep duration are extremely important. That means getting eight to nine hours of sleep in a pitch dark room, ideally with good curtains on your windows without any artificial lights inside. Lights from computers, electronics, et cetra. I think that’s really crucial. I think with good sleep can do so much. You’re almost unbreakable with really good sleep. If you don’t have good sleep, it’s hard to keep you alive. I think that’s one crucial place to start. I think another important piece of this is sun exposure. Reasonable, moderate sun exposure. We know that this is important for Vitamin D, but also for other chemical processes and mood enhancement. The production of androgens and sex hormones. Across the board that being outside, getting sun exposure, spending time with nature improves immune function, is really important for our health and well-being.

Maybe the third point I would mention here would be movement and exercise. So spending more time, every day, moving around. Walking. Walking outside ideally. Trying to incorporate some weight training or more intense workouts when you can. Doesn’t have to be all the time. It doesn’t have to be too intense or over the top, but having some variety within your workouts and just being active. Just being a person that moves as opposed to sitting or being stationary all day.

Jonathan: Dr. Stapell, one thing that I think is brilliant about what you just said – there’s many things. One to focus on, but, we talk about sleep and we talk about exercise, and when we talk about just getting outside and spending more time with nature is so often, especially for someone such as myself who I talk about science a lot. Talk about science. People say food and they’re exactly correct. Food is not just about science. In fact, science might be a small part. It’s a very emotional issue and when we talk about things like sleep and we talk about things like being in nature and we talk about things like being active.

Those are things that I think have such profound impacts on our mood and on our emotions. Again, people talk about emotional eating. If you are a good emotional state, you don’t emotionally eat. Its very fascinating how these things which are not diet are often the key to enabling a person, potentially, to sustain a healthy diet because they’re able to handle the emotions that go along with eating appropriately. Does that make any sense?

Hamilton: It makes perfect sense. None of these different aspects or approaches to health operate in a vacuum or operate independently. In many ways they are dependent on one another. I think the most successful interventions will be ones that try to incorporate all of these different ideas to make progress. To move in the direction that you want to move. Again, you don’t have to do it all over, you don’t have to do it all at once, but thinking about the kind of – how do you want to feel? How would you like to feel? Thinking about some kinds of health goals whether it’s improving blood chemistry or weight loss or having more energy to spend time with your kids and your family. These are all different goals individuals can be motivated by. Then trying to tackle these goals or approach these goals by thinking about the different things that we’ve been talking about today.

Jonathan: I think it’s also – I think, in some ways empowering because the more we talk about this, the more we see that in some ways this is more and more – I’m just going to be very blunt. The more and more it shows how ridiculous of approach it is to tell people to just take an already nutritionally deficient typical American diet and starve yourself. Just eat less garbage and don’t replace it with anything. Just eat less. Be hungry all day. Have no energy.

When we think about what we’ve talked about here how a person is this complex system of interconnected parts and there’s emotional aspects. The more you think about things in real life terms like that, this concept of just starve your way to health, starts seeming almost laughably absurd.

Hamilton: I completely agree. It’s against our biological makeup. We don’t want to starve. It’s not good for us as an organism and it’s not good for – our body knows it’s not good for reproduction. If we’re starving we don’t have the hormone profile and the energy to reproduce. In many ways, that’s a crucial component to organisms’ orientation and health and what’s regulating the body. I think you’re absolutely right. That approach doesn’t make sense. The approach of starvation and limitation. It’s about selecting whole, healthy foods that are satisfying, that you enjoy eating and that lead to greater health.

Jonathan: It’s as simple as quality or maybe rather than quantity. We just need to shift our cues around because it seems like that’s all we’ve been focused on is that quantity metric. Well, Dr. Stapell, this is just awesome. I wish I could enroll in your Evolution and Human Health course because I could talk about this – I’d just have my hand up the whole time. I want to talk….

Hamilton: I’d love to have you in the class.

Jonathan: Well, Dr. Stapell, where can people who are sadly unable to enroll in your class but do want to learn more about what you’re up to, where can they learn more?

Hamilton: I work at the State University of New York in New Paltz. I have a little web page up there. I’ve also given some recent talks around the country on these topics and a Google search I’m sure can pull those up as well.

Jonathan: Wonderful. Yeah, folks please do, if you haven’t already typed into Google or any other search engine for that matter, Hamilton Stapell. That’s Stepell with two L’s. Please do so. Some really awesome videos available. Some awesome information. Dr. Stapell, what’s next for you?

Hamilton: I’m working on a couple of different projects. The first is trying to gauge the current size and composition of what’s known as the ancestral health movement. The current Paleo movement. I’m going to be presenting on that down in Texas in a couple of weeks, at the end of March. Then my next project after that is thinking about the future, thinking about the future of the ancestral health movement. The future of the Paleo movement and where that is going. Will it become mainstream? Or are there obstacles that are going to prevent it from really breaking through to the next level in terms of popularity. So I’m really excited about both of those projects.

I just ran a big online survey, surveying the ancestral health community. Had tremendous feedback. Over 4000 responses, that was way more than we had anticipated. Really great to see people interested in this topic and wanting to share information about their lives and their diet practices and their motivations for making lifestyle changes. We’re super happy with that and we look forward to crunching that data and presenting those results in the next coming weeks and months.

Jonathan: Well Dr. Stapell, I really appreciate all that you do. I think you bring a very unique and a very level-headed and a very insightful voice to the community. Thank you so much for that and we’ll have to have you back on the show to talk about some of that exciting, upcoming work if that’s all right.

Hamilton: Sounds great. I really enjoyed our conversation today.

Jonathan: Thank you so much Dr. Stapell, and folks, hopefully, you enjoyed our conversation as much as I did. Remember this week, and for every week that follows, Eat More and Exercise Less, but do that smarter. Talk to you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Hamilton Stapell, PhD. Professor Stapell is Assistant Professor of History at the State University of New York (SUNY), New Paltz, and sits on the Evolutionary Studies Board (EvoS). He is also is the creator of one of the first college-level courses on ancestral living: EVO 201 Evolution and Human Health and is here to offer a historical perspective on modern health and fitness.