Posted by: fireandstone | April 6, 2010

Are We Really Supposed to Look Jacked?

The question: are we supposed to be ripped, jacked toned specimens of abdominal perfection? Is this really a good representation of our Paleolithic ancestors?

I’ve been wanting to write on this subject for quite a while and I had it squarely in mind when I started this blog, but the effort I wanted to put into it was substantial, so it had to wait until my newborn settled down a bit. I had carried on a fairly lengthy exchange with someone over at Mark’s Daily Apple in one of the post discussions that Mark picked up on and created an entire post to explore the topic. My conclusion was that our Paleolithic ancestors (and by consequence us) *were* in fact adapted to carry very little body fat and to maintain strong, dense, functional muscularity. Some of the premises in support are intuitive, some comparative and some consult direct evidence. I’ll structure my argument here as a series of responses to opposing arguments:

Don’t humans have the ability to store fat so we can survive lean months and periods of famine? – Possibly, but it seems like it has a much more prolific role as a small buffer to our energy needs during daily and weekly cycles of feasting and resting. Other high order carnivorous species with which we shared our environment (lions, hyenas, wild dogs) also have the ability to store great quantities of fat, as evidenced by captivity and domestication scenarios, yet never seem to in the wild. So apparently seasonal blubber for land based predators in temperate climate conditions offers no species level survival benefit. A cache of fat on the body only serves to slow down a predator, decrease their agility and reduce their overall functionality. A little fat also goes a pretty long way, considering that a pound of it provides 3500 calories, 10 lbs of it (on an average male human this is perhaps 6% of total mass) provides enough energy to eat absolutely nothing for the modern human for maybe 20 days, not including the muscle tissue that would also be metabolized to meet the functional protein requirements of organs, which is often 50% of total weight lost in famine. A mere 6% body fat could earn you as much as 40 days of life without food, so even a very lean human is endowed with substantial reserves as is.

It seems like people have a very easy time putting on fat, and a very hard time getting it off…doesn’t that mean that our physiology makes that the “normal” condition? – It doesn’t if our surviving  hunter-gatherer brethren of the modern world are in any way a reasonable analogue to what Paleo man looked like, and I have a strong suspicion that they are. These people are invariably low on body fat, even as they’re well nourished. I know from personal experience that once you’re body is lean, it’s almost impossible to become fat on a natural, Paleolithic style human diet with a modicum of physical activity. How much more so that would have been for Paleo people who had truly physically demanding lifestyles? Here are their most representative descendants:

Australia's Aboriginal hunter-gatherers, prior to contact with western diets, display low body fat and high natural musculature.

!Kung San hunter-gatherers, though of realtively gracile appearance and slighter musculature, also show very low natural body fat.

So maybe there’s a case for low body fat, but don’t all these male fitness types have way too much muscle? – Not even close. The archaeological record tells us that Paleo era people had large tendon attachments, indicating thick, well developed musculature which no doubt came in handy during the rigors of hunting and generally surviving the harsh environment of the time. It must be noted that not all surviving hunter-gatherers are so well muscled as their/our Paleo ancestors, but there has been alot of adaptation between then and now. Technology has improved and made beefy muscles less relevant to survival for many of them. The muscle mass that each person carries at natural equilibrium is going to be a matter of genetics, so there are many different looks that qualify as natural, but none of them are fat.

One point to which there is no argument is that people *want* to look lean, fit, muscular (in each their own way), functional and well proportioned. People are attracted to people that look like this universally and as attraction follows form, and form follows function, it’s pretty damned likely that the proper human form is the one to which we are hardwired to find appealing.

A caveat: being a man, I have seemingly little insight into how many of my ramblings relate to the female form and female function. I apologize for that, but also have no particularly good remedy for the situation either. Fortunately there are many women out there in this genre of blogging that have some good insight to share on their own behalf, and I certainly welcome their input to help round out the picture.

IntroductionComparison with other carnivorous species

Comparison with existing hunter-gatherers

Superimposition of modern hunter-gatherers with skeletal muscle mass of Paleo hominins

Euro-grok (to borrow a meme from Mark Sisson)

Phsycial appeal: attraction follows form, form follows function

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Responses

  1. […] Jacked – The Followup As I was writing up my last post, it most definitely didn’t escape my attention that many many people that have arrived at the […]

  2. […] Fire And Stone The Paleo Spirit of a Modern Consumer-Gatherer […]

  3. […] this site 10,000 unique visits per day for two days via Reddit. Though it is not necessary to get jacked to achieve optimal health, it sure helps folks perception of you when you look the part. While it […]

  4. […] Check that, as best I can tell none do any formal exercise at all. None of them are involved in elaborate exercise routines. None of them are doing anything for physical activity that takes them out of their normal course of living (be it work or play). Yet none of them are suffering from overweight, cellulite, obesity and all the other things we try to address with exercise. Some of them are even mildly jacked. […]

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