Archives For February 2012

Let me ‘set my stall out’. I believe that there are too many people on the planet, and that the level of human population cannot be sustained. I wonder if a widespread transition to a vegan diet could be the solution to this problem…..

This was how this post was originally supposed to start (and it was to be called “Go vegan, save the planet”), with the plan that I would then attempt to take apart the various health arguments for being vegan that one reads. This would lead to the conclusion that ‘veganism’ is yet another of Mother Nature’s schemes for reducing our species, because it’s a lifestyle that weakens and eventually kills us. If it kills enough of us that would be great for the planet.

Having begun to set about ‘The China Study’ I started to feel demoralised. I’m not sure that science is a very good tool for challenging the notion that a vegan diet is healthy, not least because much of the internet based information on ‘healthy vegan diet’ relies on repeating fallacies, rather than providing evidence. I had also been listening to an episode of “The Evolving Scientist” podcast, discussing the compatibility of science and religion, which inevitably contained a discussion of the nature of faith. I suspect that any of us who follow a particular nutritional dogma are in danger of relying on faith rather than evidence (perhaps more of this in a coming post…) and this certainly seems true of the vegan presence on the web.

It would appear that the popularity of a vegan diet is on the rise – a 2007 government survey suggests that people describing themselves as vegan number more than one million in the UK. Cornell McClellan, President Obama’s trainer and a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition is a vegan advocate. A number of public figures in the USA have proclaimed their veganism in the last few years – Ellen Degeneres’ ‘Going Vegan with Ellen’ website has a catalogue of celebrities who are vegan, including Bill Clinton. Even when you set aside the ethical concerns, you don’t have to look hard to see why it would be a good idea to become vegan, the ‘facts’ are widely available on the internet.

I’ve begun to wonder if there might be any mileage in luring people away from veganism not by arguing against the moral/ethical stand point but by asking why it’s being so widely promoted, and who stands to gain from it. I’m interested in promoting a paleo/primal way of eating to my family, friends and clients. One of the wonderful things about this way of eating is that, in essence, it involves buying fresh ingredients, cooking, and eating them. To borrow from Frank Forencich it involves eating food rather than food products. Luckily my local butcher sells vegetables, so I can go there and buy steak, eggs, peppers and kale, do some washing and chopping, fry and eat – PERFECT. The key point is that none of this food has been processed or packaged, no-one has ‘added value’ by dressing it up in any way, it hasn’t gone near a factory (The Ginger Pig rears their meat on their own farm), and there’s probably a relatively small margin of profit, that won’t be going to shareholders.

There may well be some vegans that eat in a similar way to the one described above (sans steak and eggs), perhaps even growing their own vegetables, but we know deep down that they aren’t going to be very healthy without more than kale and peppers.

Here’s what the Vegan Food Pyramid looks like:

Note that the pyramid is heavy on the carbohydrates, easy on the protein, and very light on fat. Leaving aside the topsy-turvey nature of this picture (the one non-essential macronutrient makes up the bulk of daily food intake), this pyramid will render the follower heavily dependant on agriculture.

The Carbohydrate Problem

Hats off to those vegans that manage to get all their carbohydrates from local or small-scale producers. The grim reality is that much of the world’s grain output is controlled by a few giant  food producing corporations and those “healthy whole grains”, as well as having to undergo significant processing, are likely to be lining the pockets of companies like Cargill (their own figures show 2011 revenues in excess of $119 billion). Cargill is a privately owned business, and known for secrecy – according to Wikipedia, in addition to having a huge share of the market of grain for human consumption, they are a major supplier of meat to the US market, the largest chicken ‘producer’ in Thailand, and handle the entire egg production for McDonalds in the US.

Money aside for a moment, Lierre Keith does a stellar job of exposing the horrible realities of agribusiness in The Vegetarian Myth:  degradation of farmland, insane subsidies, bankrupting of farmers in developing countries etc.

The Protein Problem

Moving higher up the pyramid we have the bean department. I love the idea of ‘bean alternates’ – what could that mean? Another vegan pyramid includes the fascinating “meat analogs” (analog meat! Did anything ever sound less like food?) – perhaps bean alternates is another way of saying bean analogs? Star of the bean and, of course, soy department – the soy bean. Which corporation is one of the world’s largest producers of soy bean seed, and mired in controversy? Monsanto – I’m not linking because I want to promote them – have a look at the website and consider that this company’s business is FOOD.  They have a ‘portfolio’ of soy bean seeds, including some that are engineered to poison insects. Frankenstein’s monster anyone? Good for the environment? According to the Guardian soy is in 60% of the UKs processed consumer foods, often in the form of soybean oil. You can easily research the thyroid inhibiting properties of soy, not to mention the problems with partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils. That aside, why should soy be in so much of our food? Because someone is making a great deal of money from it.

While we know that there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate (useful if exercising above a certain intensity, yes; essential for life, no), protein is essential. Herein lies the challenge for vegans – the great majority of allowable proteins require  significant processing. Tofu, seitan, textured vegetable protein – all those meat analogs – have been manufactured. To highlight the point of manufacture I can’t resist including this paragraph about difficulties in soy milk production:With some methods, the problem flavor is controlled, but the product yield goes down. With others the result is good flavor but poor “mouthfeel” , or unsuitable functionality for other derivative foods. Finally, many major processors design either hybrids or variations of these methods, with or without their own innovations. For some consumer products, the final soymilk is “deodorized” with vacuum systems, prior to formulation and packaging.’ (

Eat food

It seems so counter-intuitive that a vegan diet might be dominated by food products, rather than real food. Again, there may well be many vegans who manage to eat without feeding the industrial complex, but I imagine they’re a small minority.

It’s too bad that food has to be a political issue, but it’s unavoidable with the world’s population at the level that it is. People often argue that a paleo diet is too expensive, and it’s true that properly reared animal protein doesn’t come cheap. On the other hand, it’s nutritionally very dense, and the price that you pay is likely a reflection of the real cost of raising the animal, rather than the cost of keeping industrialists and shareholders happy.




February 18, 2012 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the person who handles marketing for a yoga centre at which I teach a (Pilates) class. All the centre’s teachers were being approached for their input in an idea to tie the London Olympics into the centre’s publicity, with an ‘Olympic challenge’: “The idea is to get who ever does the challenge [as] fit as an Olympic athlete through Cycling, Yoga , Pilates, Nutrition and treatments.”
I was fascinated by this idea on a number of levels.

The first to get out of the way is incredulity at the idea that a combination of the above would produce similar results to the training regime of an Olympic athlete, unless we’re considering pistol marksmen/women, or some similar sports person. I think most people conjuring the idea of an Olympic athlete will come up with someone like Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy, Tom Daly etc. I know that Usain Bolt is notoriously lackadaisical about his training but I cannot believe that a similar physical condition could be achieved through yoga, pilates and nutrition, with some treatments thrown in.

I specifically referred to Usain Bolt’s physical condition to avoid using the word fitness. This is the part of the ‘fit as an Olympic athlete’ concept that I find really interesting. How are we to define fitness? And will Olympic athletes fit into that definition?

I asked a friend of mine, Pilates teacher Suzanne Scott, “an anatomist with physiology leanings”,  to define fitness for me recently, and this is what she came up with: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges”, which, aside from being marvellously worded in a very science-y way, captures an evolutionary notion of fitness rather well, and I shall return to this. Biology online says: “In biology, Darwinian fitness or simply fitness of a biological trait describes how successful an organism has been at passing on its genes. The more likely that an individual is able to survive and live longer to reproduce, the higher is the fitness of that individual.” Hence ‘ survival of the fittest’ – those that are best adapted to be able to successfully pass their genes on to successive generations. (This perhaps calls for a separate post on how our species has nearly circumvented this simple evolutionary rule by inventing agriculture, with its attendant advantages and disadvantages).

So what has evolutionary theory got to do with Olympic athletes? If we were to define fitness as the ability to perform a narrow range of specific tasks repeatedly and, perhaps, particularly fast, then an Olympic athlete may well be the model of fitness. However, in keeping with my primal/paleo bias, I have an imaginary prehistoric framework in which an individual’s fitness is tested – a wild place, untouched by ‘civilisation’, in which there are a variety of hazards to be negotiated or avoided, and great skill at a narrow range of tasks will not do. Survival, or better yet, flourishing (for that’s what I hope we all strive for), in this environment requires many attributes: keen senses, agility, speed, strength, endurance, ingenuity and so on. All of these attributes may well be possessed by a number of Olympic athletes, so why not call them fit? It isn’t a new idea that the most successful Tour de France cyclists are those that can tolerate the most pain. Similarly, it is well established that competing in endurance events (Ironman Triathlons, for example) causes more cell damage than it’s possible for our bodies to fully recover from, chronic inflammation, and has a corresponding impact on our immune systems. (A brief trawl of Google will proffer plenty of articles linking prolonged training for, and participation in, endurance sports to increased risk of various conditions from heart disease to cancer.)

As sports science and our understanding of human physiology and biomechanics  has developed the level of performance has risen to a staggering degree (world best marathon time teetering on the brink of the 2 hour barrier being broken!). To be ‘elite’ means monitoring the minutiae of an athlete’s life and training, and competing at the very edge of one’s potential. Pushing to that ‘edge’ inevitably means that many athletes seem to be, even when performing very well, on the verge of injury and/or illness. To be really successful as an athlete means maximising your adaptation to your chosen activity. This adaptation ultimately means that an athlete’s body starts to dispense with any tissue that doesn’t help perform the relevant specialisation, whether it be muscle, bone or brain! If you need to be as light as possible to be really good at your chosen sport then your ability to store energy is going to be compromised. This is fine if you have a ready supply of food, but could lead to catabolism (something like your body ‘eating’ your muscle tissue) if not. However impressive a lot of sporting achievements are, and how much I enjoy watching them, this doesn’t feel like a model of fitness to me. While some elite athletes might do very well within the prehistoric framework mentioned above, I suspect that many would have trained the necessary versatility out of themselves, in order to be highly skilled at their specific event.

An honourable mention is due the Olympic decathletes, like Brian Clay (pictured), whose multi-sport discipline of running, jumping, throwing and vaulting (an amazing combination of movements) requires them to have a truly impressive combinbation of strength, speed, stamina and agility.

Okay, so I’ve succeeded in arguing that actually some Olympians do qualify as really fit – not my original intention. I still stand by the argument that, very often, the requirements of elite sporting performance are incompatible with a Darwinian interpretation of fitness. Given that, let’s return to what does qualify as fitness, or what does “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” really mean? Can you cope with unexpected challenges to necessary or normal activity? (I wrote about how Pilates relates to this here).

If you’re a slight framed woman driving an Audi Q7 around London’s streets (yes, I’m a cyclist), and an electronic malfunction means that your power steering is disabled, can you control your vehicle? If you live on the 6th floor, and the lift is out of order, can you get your 20 kilos of groceries upstairs to your home? If you’re a 70 year old out for a stroll and some lunatic on a bike appears from nowhere heading straight for you, do you have the speed and agility (and balance) to get out of harm’s way? I’m sure we could come up with infinite examples of such scenarios. An answer of “yes” would suggest that, having a greater tolerance to …, you are more fit than some. Let’s not say that a ”no” answer means that you are unfit, rather that you could be fitter. The truth is that many, many people will get by, and quite possibly even thrive, without the skills to make it within the prehistoric framework. I would suggest that this only serves to show that our species is weaker than it once was.

Pilates for….what, exactly?

February 10, 2012 — 1 Comment

(The first thing I feel I should point out is that I’m writing this as a Pilates teacher trained, and practicing, in the UK. Other Pilates teachers may not recognise some of the scenarios I’m describing.)

Pilates called his system Contrology and in Return to Life he wrote:

“Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work. You will develop muscular power with corresponding endurance, ability to perform arduous duties to play strenuous games, to walk, to run or travel long distances without undue body fatigue or mental strain.”*

It is clear that he intended his method to be a preparation for other ‘stuff’ – for life, in fact. Herein lies my frustration with a lot of what I see in Pilates studios and mat classes. Not to mention the kind of comments I hear, and see in social media from my peers.

I have heard American teachers insisting that, although injured people went to Pilates’ studio, and clearly got help with their injuries form the man himself, Pilates as an exercise method is intended for fit people. In the UK it seems that we have been somewhat hamstrung by the general impression that Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This has been propagated by the media, and doubtless encouraged by teachers who want to boost their business by appealing to those people who may not feel that they can manage ‘normal’ exercise. Not to mention that many of us, myself included, took up Pilates to try to deal with chronic pain of some sort, and became evangelists for the method because it is has the capacity to change lives.

What’s the problem with that? On the face of it, it’s a brilliant thing, and I have been nearly moved to tears on a number of occasions when I’ve seen people discover that they’re able to do more than they believed possible. Unfortunately, what I seem to see all to often, is people doing Pilates weekly (or even more frequently) who have plateaued at a reduction in their pain, and failed to move forward from there. The promises contained in the quote above have little or no relevance to them, and this is a tragedy. Instead of feeling empowered to do more, it seems as though they and/or their teacher/s have created an invisible ceiling for them, that they are terrified to try to break through. What seems to be left then is an emotional attachment to Pilates, a belief that they cannot function without it, yet no desire for, or belief in the possibility of achieving more (playing strenuous games, for example).

As teachers we often have a difficult job encouraging clients to expect more, and I fear that sometimes we, knowingly or not, succeed in holding them back, or at least allow them to ‘aim low’. I would suggest that the first lesson of Pilates ought to be “You are responsible for your own health” – a notion that seems to be systematically undermined in our society. I have seen advertisements for Pilates workshops that describe “using Pilates on our clients”, and I have heard clients saying “[insert teacher’s name] has been working a lot on my shoulders”. As soon as we allow ourselves to take the client’s personal responsibility from them, we have disempowered them, and greatly reduced their chances of enjoying the kind of results that Pilates wrote about.

It seems blindingly obvious that the underlying message of the passage quoted above is that Pilates is not an end in itself. I absolutely endorse the idea of Pilates as a lifelong practice, but not for its own sake. We often teach people to move slowly, in order to help them move with control. This is just a part of the journey, and not a rounded preparation for life outside the studio/class. We may well give people exercises with relatively low loads, in order for them to sense how they can transfer load from their limbs to their centre – fantastic! But not enough if we really want to make people fit and strong – and if Pilates isn’t about trying to help people to be fit and strong then we’ve seriously lost the plot.

If I try to answer my own question (Pilates for what?) I have to say (however corny it sounds) “Pilates for life” – not for ‘relaxation’, ‘feeling good’, ‘Pippa’s bum’, ‘weight-loss’, ‘core stability’ etc.  I want to stand for Pilates as a means to deal with all the stuff that life puts in our path, good and bad, as well as we possibly can.

*I have the impression that a lot of teachers these days have a rather dismissive attitude to Pilates theories, preferring to believe that we have a much better understanding of things with the advances of science since he was writing. Every time I look through Pilates’ writing, I am delighted to discover how often he was spot on. I think this may relate to my previous post – a lot of his ideas still make perfect sense because they fit within the framework of evolutionary biology.

“Why boast of this age of science and invention that has produced so many marvelous wonders when, in the final analysis, we find that man has entirely overlooked the most complex and marvelous of all creations: himself?”
Joseph Pilates, Your Health (1934)

The motivation behind this post is an effort to reconcile my career as a Pilates teacher with my growing enthusiasm for the Primal/Paleo lifestyle, and to try to discover how much synergy there is between the two.

This first post will mostly be an attempt to discover hints of a primal approach to human health in Pilates’ own writing, specifically “Your Health”, published in 1934.

My understanding of the Primal approach to living boils down to simple guidelines related to nutrition, exercise, sleep and sun-exposure. (A fuller list can be found here). In essence, the idea is to use the lives of pre-historic humans as a framework on which we can model our own behaviour. We are apparently genetically virtually identical to our paleolithic ancestors, and will achieve the best health by eating, moving, sleeping etc. in the way that archeology and anthropology suggests our ancestors did.

Much of the output of blogs, books, and podcasts from the primal/paleo community are intended to help people suffering from the symptoms of metabolic syndrome (obesity, insulin resistance etc.), and diseases/ailments related to chronic and or systemic inflammation (degenerative joint conditions, gastro-intestinal problems, multiple sclerosis etc.).

The primal/paleo philosophy is that what is generally recognised as ‘normal’ for old age – steady physical decline, illness, disease etc. may be usual, but are not normal for our species. By following the guidelines mentioned we are capable of living to old age without suffering substantial physical (or mental) deterioration – one of Mark Sisson’s ‘slogans’ is “Live long, drop dead”. The advice on how to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible typically comes down to addressing nutrition, exercise, sleep and sun-exposure.

Pilates was obviously writing at a very different time, and the health problems that our society faces were quite likely unimaginable in the 1930s. Nonetheless Pilates clearly wasn’t happy with the condition of many of the people he saw around him, and certainly had a lot to say about health and longevity. He saw “Tuberculosis, heart disease, posture problems such as bow legs, knock knees and curvature of the spine, as well as a veritable legion of other minor ills..”. He was concerned with both the physical and ‘moral’ health of humanity:

“As civilisation advances, the need for prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals should steadily decrease. But is this the case in our era? Certainly not!”

He was writing at a time when a lot of the working population of the United States were probably transitioning from more manual work to more sedentary work but with still much more balance between the two than is the case now. Some of his ideas, and some of the exercise repertoire that he devised may seem inappropriate now, but it’s quite possible that those things made more sense for his time.

Whilst he was certainly concerned with sleep quality, going so far as to design a bed, his primary interest was clearly exercise, or movement. Whilst contemporary pilates teaching may well have a slightly different emphasis, Pilates himself was promoting exercise that required, at the more advanced level, a combination of gymnastic skill, flexibility and strength. Typical workouts suggested by the Primal/Paleo crowd often involve those same combinations.

Joseph Pilates, aged 54, working on his Vitamin D levels

Frequent sun exposure and supplementing with Vitamin D are common recommendations in books such as Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution”, and other Primal/Paleo media. Statistics suggest that, in the USA, something like a third of the population are deficient in Vitamin D and it’s safe to assume that the figures for the UK are similar, if not worse. The photograph on the left shows Pilates in what was apparently typical attire for him. In “Your Health”, though he doesn’t mention Vitamin D specifically, he lauds the ancient Greeks for preferring “to more or less expose their bodies to the invigorating air and revitalizing rays of the sun…”.

Pilates’ method is often referred to as ‘mind-body’ exercise, and he was convinced of the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Those relationships are less explicit within the Primal/Paleo world, yet there is a lot of discussion over the negative effects of, for example, over-production of cortisol on both a physical and mental/emotional level. In addition, via podcasts and articles, I have come across numerous mentions of links between diet and mental health, including a link between wheat consumption and schizophrenia and apparent links between poor insulin sensitivity (see ‘metabolic derangement’ above) and Alzheimers, leading to the suggestion of a Type 3 diabetes.

One significant gap in any connection between the two philosophies is that, as a part of his exercise regime, Pilates was especially concerned with ‘correct’ breathing. He believed that a great many people didn’t know how to breath properly, and that the action of fully filling and emptying the lungs has great benefit for ridding the body of toxins and maintaining vigour. I have yet to come across any specific mention of breathing habits in the ‘paleosphere’ but I think this relates to the notion that we have lost touch with our ‘natural’ selves, and therefore need to be retaught the most basic of human activities. This certainly fits within my understanding of the Primal/Paleo philosophy.

Pilates didn’t seem to be much of a one for going to the doctor. Concerning preventing or curing the ills of society in the 1930s, he wrote: “Can this be done through medicine? No! It can be done by following basic health rules and a simple exercise regimen,”. Again, there is some synergy here, as the wealth of shared information amongst the P/P community indicates – with many people eschewing conventional medicine and seeking to heal a variety of problems from autoimmune conditions to skin problems to metabolic syndrome and beyond, by means of lifestyle changes – very often dietary changes in particular. This is another area where Pilates and the Primal/Paleo camp don’t appear to have much in common, yet I’m inclined to argue that, had Pilates been alive now, he would have had a lot to say about nutrition. The so-called ‘Green Revolution’ was most pronounced in the years immediately after Pilates’ death (the term was first used in 1968, Pilates died in 1967). This went hand in hand with the acceleration of industrial food processing (a somewhat depressing timeline can be viewed here), leading us to the current situation in which we can make a choice when shopping, if we wish, to buy food, or food products. Inevitably, the massive advertising budgets are behind food products, rather than real food. I believe that Pilates, on the basis of much that he wrote to do with mankind in his/her natural state, would have abhorred the state of general nutrition these days, and would have been urging his clients to follow a dietary regime that looked a lot like Primal/Paleo eating.

In essence Pilates was a celebrator of the wonders of the human organism, and a proponent of living in a way that optimised the health and fitness of said organism. This seems to me to be exactly aligned with the more recently developed Primal/Paleo philosophy, which has more reference to evolutionary biology (and scientific studies), but the same underlying promotion of physical health and longevity.