Stranded on an island?

I have been watching the HULU reality series, ALONE. At the end in each season we uncover the contestant who lasts the longest without completely starving.

Ten people, each alone and isolated from the others, are dumped unceremoniously with 10 tools of their choice on the seashore of Vancouver Island in Canada. It’s a contest and the person who stays the longest, the last man or woman standing so to speak, wins $500,000.

Vancouver Island is uninhabited. It’s a beautiful but not particularly pleasant place. Rainfall averages 12+ feet per year which effectively means it seems to be raining all the time. As if the rain were not enough, it also gets really cold. Cold and wet are not a comfortable combination. The animal population is predators – bear, cougar, and wolf. Guns are not among the tools contestants can choose from.

In the end the food supply had to come from the sea. Fishermen know you can’t trust the fish to be biting in every season and weather condition.

Survival requirements.

So anyway, in that environment all a person needs to survive is shelter that has to be built, fire that has to be started, water that has to be boiled, and food that has to be caught and cooked. Survival takes skill, creativity and bit of luck to help save you from a cougar, a broken leg, or drowning. But the ability to cope with being perpetually alone is a different story. You will be amazed how many contestant who seem to meet the other qualifications “tap out” due to loneliness.

So what would you expect was the biggest problem? What’s going to mess with a person’s energy, strength, creativity, coping mechanism and mental stability? Yep, it’s food. Each contestant has to ward off starvation for everything else to work. The winner in each season I have watched started out with a lot of extra fat, losing lost 60 to 80 pounds. Some contestants appeared to be more clever and creative but simply didn’t have enough fat to stay the course.

So how does starvation work?

Let’s pretend you are a contestant. There is nothing desirable about almost starving, unless maybe there is a boat load of money beckoning at the end. I should point out that the producers will remove you before you reach the point of no return. When the amount of energy consumed in food is less than the energy requirement the body will first use body fat for energy. This is God’s plan. The body will make a small amount of glucose to supply the brain and red blood cells. Doesn’t take much.

You have about a day’s worth of stored sugar (glucose) in your muscles and liver and you will use up that supply just trying to set up shelter for the first night. Then you begin burning your body fat for energy because you don’t have anything to eat. Shortly you begin searching frantically for meat/fish for fat in combination with protein.

Why meat? Why not just go for plants, the sources of sugar?

Your muscles are working very hard building, chopping wood, creating and maintaining fires, cooking, coping with cold, breathing, and always looking for food. Protein is required to maintain and rebuild the muscles and organ structures being used. As more and more fat disappears the body starts converting that critical muscle protein into energy and glucose for the brain and red blood cells. The muscle condition is now described as sarcopenic.

“Sarcopenia is a syndrome characterized by progressive and generalized loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength and it is strictly correlated with physical disability, poor quality of life and death. Risk factors for sarcopenia include age, gender and level of physical activity.”

Contestants don’t have a stash of energy intensive carbohydrates in the pantry, a nearby convenience store, or bakery. And no matter what, you aren’t going to find enough energy sources (fat or sugar) and protein in edible vegetation on Vancouver Island. Meat, on the other hand, comes in a tidy combination of protein and fat, often in substantial quantity. This is your only viable option for energy and protein.

Unfortunately , in this contest you will fail miserably in gathering up enough meat. Did I mention that contestants aren’t allowed to have guns? So as the body fat is being used up, your body starts breaking down your skeletal muscles into energy and creating the tiny amount of required glucose. Because you don’t have enough food, the essential vitamins/minerals/etc found in food are inadequate or absent. You get weaker and weaker and your brain power deteriorates. In other words you are starving. Miserable thought!

We can conclude from this story that protein, fat, a bit of glucose, and certain essential vitamins/minerals are required to maintain the human body. However, we do not have to be stranded on an island for there to be a nutritional shortfall. Starvation comes for us normal people in a different way.

Not just any food will do

Clearly the answer to avoiding starvation is food. But also clearly, not any old food will do.

While there was some value in the vegetation on the island (if it was edible), there simply weren’t enough calories and essential micro nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) in any of the vegetation. In simple terms the food had to be animal protein/fat in enough quantity to maintain muscle mass and provide energy/micro nutrients. If they could have only trusted the fish.

As noted above, the winners lost 60 to 80 lbs. but all that weight wasn’t fat. Part of the weight was muscle that the body scavenged for essential functions. The older we get the more our muscle mass deteriorates as a matter of course. The younger the contestants, the better they could maintain muscle mass.

Are we in the contest?

You and I aren’t in that contest, thank goodness, and we don’t expect to be starving. The only people we might know to have starved were anorexic. But scarcopenia actually can happen to normal people over longer periods of time. So we can all be starving over time, even when when we have body fat. Shove enough processed carbohydrates in your mouth, sit around long enough and two things happen. You will store a lot of fat that won’t get used, miss out on enough protein and micro nutrients, develop continuous muscle deterioration, and slowly but surely starve.

You don’t have to be stranded on an island to starve. It may just takes longer.

We generally have plenty to eat, so much in fact that we build up substantial stores of long term energy storage, better known as body fat. Look at it this way; we are prepared to be stranded at all times. However, the stranding never comes and we don’t use that fat. We opt for the quick energy of dietary fat and sugar packed in combinations, generally those in boxes, sacks, various packaging on grocery and convenience store shelves. Its not just the fat nor just the sugar. It’s the combination that is the big trouble.

Fat and sugar in combination rarely comes naturally from whole food carbohydrate vegetables taken out of the ground or off a tree — stuff like spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, green beans, apples, even potatoes. Some of those carbohydrates, however, have a very high level of sugar (starch) and are generally viewed as needing fat to make them palatable. Frequently true of potatoes, grains (wheat and corn), legumes (beans), and plain old sugar.

Potatoes and grains combined with fat are the predominant ingredients on the grocery shelf. Tortilla, potato, or corn chips are good examples. But perhaps the most popular and dangerous food combinations are sweet including grain flour, sugar, and fat. I doubt I need to list them. Or maybe the most popular is soft drinks and juices, essentially sugar all on its own. Note those micro nutrients considered essential are markedly absent in these foods.

The more fat and sugar combinations make up your food, the less your diet contributes to adequate protein and vitamins/minerals/etc. As we pass the age of 30 our muscle mass begins to deteriorate as a matter of course, deterioration slowed only by exercise. Absence of exercise and deficiency in dietary protein only makes things worse. You weaken over time.

In my experience so far, the longest an ALONE contestant has lasted is around 90 days. You personally are certainly going to last longer. But along the way your nutrient deficiencies and sedentary lifestyle will likely present you with a number of illnesses we have discussed before including a weakened immune system.

What should you do?

Unless you are planning to sign up for Alone, get rid of that extra body fat. Here are some simple insights on how to do that.

  • Include some animal protein like meat, eggs, or dairy in every meal. It doesn’t have to be a lot as long you follow the other guidelines below. If you find yourself still hungry, eat more protein.
  • Minimize food products that contain grain, fat, and sugar in combination. Look at the ingredient list. Breakfast cereals and donuts fall nicely into this category.
  • The more excess body fat you have, the less extra fat you need in your diet.
  • If you happen to be diabetic and insulin resistant, minimize the high carbohydrate vegetables like potatoes and all grain including wheat, corn, and rice. Also minimize tree fruit.
  • Eat whole food vegetables. You find them in the produce and frozen food sections of the grocery, a local farm/farmers market, and (in a pinch) in cans.
  • Exercise. In other words, get moving.

Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Proceeds from her book benefit the Montgomery County Food Pantry. Her website is http://www.allaboutthefood.org/ She can be contacted at patsmith2@live.com, 870-490-1836. Her Facebook page is www.facebook.com/patsmithbooks.