Fat Loss, the Pima Indian Tribe and You...

By Brian Cole, Personal Training Associates

Referencing the research in Malcolm Gladwell’s (The Tipping Point, Blink and The Outliers) 1998 New Yorker article and connecting it to a point I made in an earlier column, I want to share some interesting info with you.

In 1963, National Institutes of Health researchers stumbled on one of the fattest groups of people in the world—the Pima Indian tribe of Arizona. Exhaustive studies of more than 7,000 people are still being conducted. Many of the adults weigh more than 500 pounds. For those Pima whose ages are 35 and older, the rate of diabetes (obesity’s disease) is 50 percent. That’s eight times our national average.

Researchers have learned valuable information about diabetes and have posited many theories about reasons for the tribe’s obesity. But hundreds of research papers for almost 50 years have been unable to stop the weight gain. Being informed about what to do does not translate into purposeful, disciplined action. This is true for the majority of overweight and obese people all over the world. Consistent weight gain and unhealthy outcomes continue.

In a previous column I pointed out that genetics was not an excuse for obesity nor for any negative lifestyle choices. Genetics is responsible for predispositions, but it’s not a guarantee. Genetics is actually a warning sign so our inherited tendencies can’t sneak up on us.

While all that is true, the hard, cold fact is that some of us are born with a fast metabolism and are therefore inefficient at storing fat (which is, by the way, a survival mechanism). After many generations of desert survival, the Pima who survived were those most efficient at storing fat. In today’s America with abundantly available food, this is genetic predisposition run amuck. Unfortunately for those genetically slower metabolic types, we don’t have any shortage of easily acquired calories with our 16-ounce sodas, double cheeseburgers and tons of handy simple sugar carbohydrates. Evolution’s not keeping up.

Fast forward to the Pima of Mexico. They are the long separated southern part of the tribe which once was continuous from Arizona to central Mexico. In the 1990s, a road was built which gave researchers access and an opportunity to study and record data on this segment of the same tribe—with the same genetics, of course. They eat a diet of beans, potatoes and corn tortillas, all of which they grow and make. They have very little protein from animal sources. They drink water. They average slightly more calories per day than the Pima of Arizona. But, they are thin. Huh?
Why? The Pima of Mexico average 23 hours a week of hard, physical labor; the Pima of Arizona put in less than two hours a week.

Now, if you’re overweight, we know you’re not going to add more than 20 hours a week of hard, physical labor. But the message is clear: the starchy foods consumed by the thin Pima of Mexico won’t be the staple in even the most irresponsible diet in the wacky but profitable diet book world. What you eat does not equal fat loss. While how much you eat is relevant, what you eat and drink is about your arteries, your heart and your long-term health.
I hope that’s important to you (try www.americanheart.org). But what you eat is not the focus for body fat loss. physical work is.

The lure of diet plans and books is that they sound like a quick fix. Other than a magic pill (they’re out there, too), nothing sounds easier than a dietary “adjustment,” and the fat just starts going away. Surely sounds easier than the physical work required to burn more calories. But the dietary adjustments don’t work (pun intended).

I want to be simple and direct here: The only way to reduce body fat and to keep it off is physical work. How much? More than you’re doing. Just get started. Stop looking for other ways to improve your overweight condition. The only way is work. Exercise—activity, movement, daily walking or running, progressive resistance training—is essential for body fat reduction.

Brian Cole is owner of Personal Training Associates with studios in Newport News (Port Warwick and Hilton Village), and Virginia Beach. He can be reached at 757-599-5999.

Back to Articles