Scientific research about metabolism is beginning to prove what many of us are discovering intuitively: that the foods we eat and when we eat them, how much we move our bodies, when and how much we sleep, and our stress levels matter significantly to our health now and in the long term. Interestingly enough, “long term” may turn out to mean our future generations, too.
Recent findings offer a new language (that of epi-genetics) directly linking our “post-industrial lifestyles” to diseases related to disordered metabolism and fat. What do we mean when we refer to “post-industrial” disease? Usually, this means “lifestyle” related epidemics, and our “top killers,” such as diabetes (“diabesity” — the link of obesity and diabetes), heart disease, and increased prevalence of cancer.
Hannah Landecker, a science + sociology researcher at UCLA, is further developing the concept of “Post Industrial Metabolism“, with a project released in the Fall 2013 Public Culture issue as “Post Industrial Metabolism: Fat Knowledge.” This project views food as a form of “exposure” to which our body’s metabolic controls then respond, to create genetic information. So, what does that mean? The genetic info we create in conversation with our environment is what our cells are guided by in our own lives, and is also what’s inherited in part by our children (…whoah!). As our cells are “exposed” to foods (including what time of day food is eaten) they develop “knowledge” about how to respond in the future: how we metabolize our food “carries the world into our body” and sets the tone for how food will be processed in the future, including by those who inherit our genes (Landecker:2013, Public Culture 25:c). This finding translates to the rhythms created by not only food, but sleep, stress, and exercise, too.
So….what about those fatty, fried fast foods many people grab if we’re on a budget, or in a rush? What about the “knowledge-based work” a huge portion of our population now does, sitting in front of computers (i.e. sedentary lifestyles)? What about the huge percentage of our diets made up of glucose/sugars? ….These may be part of a “maladaptive” response, or a “biology of excess…of overload” (Landecker:2013), characteristic of bodies not made for the “cues” of this post-industrial age.
To sum up: these formative daily activities including how much & what types of foods we eat, our sleep & activity schedules, are all a part of creating “cellular communication” patterns. Basically (according to Landecker, and others in her field), this is the intersection of genetics + sociology: gene expression is regulated by signals from our environment, and what we do sends molecular cues to our bodies for how they can “live into a future environment.” This idea of predictive adaptive response in the body’s metabolism recognizes that we incorporate both internal and external signals genetically. When we give “excessive” cues to our bodies (from overeating, and not “using up” the calories we ingest; from working night shifts under bright lights, and eating at strange times), this affects the “circadian rhythms” of the signaling molecules related to inflammation, appetite, and fat metabolism. (And as we know, inflammation and fat have a huge relationship to the “big diseases” for people in post-industrial societies: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer).
So, is there a bright side? In my opinion, yes: Healthier choices mean a better today, and a better tomorrow. Let’s take it one step at a time, and keep supporting each other, as we re-orient the “cues we give our bodies” (and potential/existing children’s bodies) in a technological, post-industrial world. When we live in “zones” of exposure — to toxins put into our food, lifestyle, and environment — we must work together to fight our resulting illnesses.