Cavemen, extreme diets and stress

December 13, 2022
6 min read
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Let’s travel back to caveman times (exact date TBC). It had been a great month, you and your small village had slain a woolly mammoth, food was plentiful and you were feasting like no one's business. However, the food inevitably began to run out and the so-called ‘best hunters in the cave' weren’t delivering the goods and hunger soon started to set-in. 

Part of the physiological response to this would have been your body processing the hunger as a form of ‘stress’ and thus would go into survival mode. Your body hangs on for dear life to the valuable body fat you had left. Fat is the most calorific of the macronutrients, you can get 9 calories per gram of fat compared to the 4 calories per gram in both carbs and protein. Luckily you had gorged on the mammoth and you have just enough fat stores to see you through to the next hunt. Once again you make a kill and the cycle continues.

Fast forward a few tens of thousand of years and our bodies haven’t changed a huge amount. However our ‘stresses’ have changed significantly and are far more frequent compared to our ancestors. From worrying about paying the bills, work deadlines, rush hour on the tube, all of these are still perceived in the same way as a lack of food thousands of years ago. Stress isn’t a bad thing in small doses, we actually need it to keep our internal environment in prime condition. However chronically elevated stress levels are an issue. Chronically elevated stress levels means the body goes back to the lessons it learnt from your Neanderthal cousins and interprets the stress messages it receives as “hold tight we’re not sure where the next meal is coming from, baton down the hatches, and don’t let fatty out of sight!” The result is a highly stressed state, which many of us suffer from, often unknowingly, and which promotes abdominal fat deposition and makes your weight loss fight that much tougher. It’s also another reason why extreme calorie deficit diets don’t work. A large calorie deficit mimics the starvation symptoms we would have experienced as cavemen. With any diet, smaller, sustained deficits are the way to go.

Stress, in its many forms, also has a significant impact on the hormones responsible for making us feel hungry (grehlin) and making us feel full and satisfied (leptin). When we’re stressed these hormones can get whacked out of sync for some people, with an up-regulation in grehlin, meaning you feel hungrier more often, and a down-regulation in leptin, meaning you find yourself less full from meals. Both scenarios can lead to over-eating and you add in the fact that when you’re stressed after a hard day at work, junk food or highly palatable ready meals are super easy to consume and the result is a recipe that ultimately sways in the favour of weight gain.

This may all seem like doom and gloom, and de-stressing isn’t always the easiest thing to do. It takes practice, dedication to actually de-stressing your life rather than going through the motions, and committing to a certain amount of structure. But it also shouldn’t be a battle you face alone. We’re trying to help companies create healthier workspaces on all fronts, so alongside fitness classes and other initiatives, we’re looking to highlight the important of balance in the workplace. Stress is often the product of feeling out of control of a given situation, where perceived demand outweighs resources. We recently attended a talk on stress in the work place and an interesting statistic came up that less than 5% of employees that experienced stress or anxiety at work felt capable of talking to their employer about it. On the flip side around 80% of employers felt their employees could or would come to them if they had work related stress or anxiety. An interesting disconnect. A one hour fitness class one lunch time a week is great for getting rid of some stress and the associated benefits that go with exercise, but it’s not going to solve or remove the pressures of your job. That is why it needs your buy-in as an employee but also from the top down; from CEO through to every individual, to help create a new work culture that encourages and commends mindfulness, movement and creativity. With that in mind here are our top stress busting behaviours or ideas to consider introducing if you are a business leader or manager, that we have either witnessed through our clients or are provided by industry leaders (feel free to nudge your boss in the direction of this article if you are the employee!):

1.     Develop, provide & personally invest time in stress management activities – This can range from yoga and fitness classes, meditation and mindfulness (both are becoming increasingly prevalent and effective), nutrition & health advice, financial planning, time & stress management workshops, psychotherapy and massage. The major patterns we’ve seen for those that have been successful is the key decision makers buy-into the schemes and support them, not just by signing off the costs but getting involved themselves and being seen to do so. The result of this is employees feel comfortable enough to participate if the head of the company is actively invested.

2.     Choice is key – Traditionally offices have been confined spaces where people go and sit at their cubicle and stay in that same spot, day in day out. This in itself can be stressful and another element employees don’t feel in control of. But companies are cleaning up their acts. Many of our clients now have break out areas, or communal workspaces where you can take your laptop and work in a new, fresh environment for an hour or two. This not only breathes life into the workday but aids creativity and work productivity. Another thing we have seen first hand is the office environment itself, with employees able to adjust the light, temperature and sound in their space as well as standing desks or walking meetings (something the company AlphaSights, who I used to work for, were big fans of, as are Google), meaning employees are able to create a workspace that best suits the way they work and the way they feel about their workspace.

3.     Create a connected environment and you’ll create a productive workforce – All of the best work teams I ever worked for came about from getting to know each other away from the spreadsheets and laptop screens. It may be a small detail but laughter and creating a happy team can be a huge element in reducing stress. Investing in your people and putting together a set of unique work perks has a two-fold effect; it says “we care”, but it also creates opportunities for workers to get to know each other outside of work demands. Ultimately this means they are more comfortable with each other at work and more likely to let each other know when the stress kicks in and they can work together to de-stress rather than simmering in silence.

Stress in the workplace can have a huge impact on people’s lives and their health, both mental and physical. Luckily people are getting more and more vocal on the subject, but the workspace is still one that needs some work. If you are a business leader or manager what structures do you have in place to ensure your employees are supported at work to ensure the ups and downs of work life don’t negatively impact their well-being?