Archives For fat

150px-PET-imageA recent, soon to be published study by the prestigious Centre for the Understanding of Nutritional Technology and Science has found that consumption of more than two servings of tofu (a soybean derived food product) per week may lead to a loss of IQ.

The study, conducted over a number of years, looked at the effect of varying degrees of tofu consumption on subjects’ scores in standardised IQ tests. Even when allowing for other factors that have been previously indicated to negatively effect intelligence, the results were “damning”, according to the study’s conclusion. In an interview, a representative of the Centre declared that he and his team are satisfied that they have achieved a significant breakthrough in our understanding of tofu, and have proven beyond doubt that, when consumed in greater than normal amounts, it does make humans more stupid. He added: “We have yet to prove a link between tofu and obesity, but our research continues.”

I’m sure that you will be aware of a number of stories that have made the news in recent years, linking consumption of certain foods, particularly red meat, to various diseases. If you want to read rebuttals of news stories like Red Meat Causes Cancer, or the more recent High Protein Diet as bad as 20 Cigarettes per Day, or simply to read about the problems inherent in these kinds of studies, you can do so here, here and here. This is the territory of people with degrees in medicine or biochemistry, neither of which I have. Instead here are a couple of questions that we should all be asking ourselves when faced with news stories that make these kind of alarming food related claims.

The first is, what’s the agenda? As the articles I linked to above point out, epidemiological studies (that look for patterns, or associations) almost inevitably start out looking for specific patterns – in other words, researchers don’t set out to see if they can spot any patterns at all, they go looking for a specific one. If you go looking for a specific pattern the chances are that you will lean towards finding evidence to support it. Epidemiology might support a hypothesis, but never proves it. T. Colin Campbell, one of the authors of the “China Study”, is well known as an advocate for a vegan diet, and (to quote Wikipedia): “The authors conclude that people who eat a whole-food, plant-based/vegan diet—avoiding all animal products, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese and milk, and reducing their intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—will escape, reduce or reverse the development of numerous diseases.” 

So, if I write a story about the link between tofu consumption and reduced IQ (let’s be totally honest, and in case you didn’t guess, I made that up), you would need to ask yourself why I went looking for such an association in the first place. Perhaps I’m some kind of omnivorous fundamentalist who thinks that soy products are rooted in evil….

The second, and perhaps more significant question is, (to quote Robb Wolf) “What is the mechanism?” Unless there is a viable explanation for why heavy tofu consumption causes a loss of IQ (I just had a thought – imagine if my made up story turns out to be true!), then it’s simply an association that may be a complete coincidence. A favourite analogy is ‘Fire engines cause fires’ – because studies show that there is a strong association between buildings on fire, and the presence of fire engines. Or even better, if you didn’t follow the link to Dr Briffa’s article above: ‘ice cream causes shark attacks’.

Who can blame researchers who want to catch some headlines? Both of the UK broadsheet newspapers that carried this story had some caveats, if you read to the end, but the headlines and the accompanying pictures are what stay with you (do you think tofu seems more sinister when I include a picture of a brain scan?) It’s too bad that the news media we appear to want is that which scares, rather than informs.


What does fit weigh?

September 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

3_seca-760_ecru_white_detailMy urge to write often seems related to the me coming across two colliding ideas, or if not colliding, at least divergent ideas. In this case, I’ve recently started reading the excellent “The Paleo Coach” by Jason Seib, and also seen snippets/chunks of the series “The Men Who Made Us Thin” on the BBC, written and presented by Jacques Peretti.

Peretti’s TV series offers up some extraordinary insight, my favourite moment being when the former CFO of Weight Watchers in the United States almost gleefully pronounces that the company he spent 20 years working for was a good business model because their product didn’t work, but kept people coming back and paying for more. It was if, instead of being interviewed by a journalist, he was making a secret presentation to potential investors.

Overall, the series seems to be a sincere attempt to uncover why so many people are becoming obese, and what solutions, if any, are effective. Peretti points out a number of misleading generalisations, but makes plenty of his own in the process. The most striking thing for me in all that I saw was this comment: “Personally I think people should stop worrying about their weight and focus on being healthy and happy, at any size.” This seems to me to highlight the degree to which our thinking about health has been torn away from any grounding in evolutionary biology, and outright bizarre. If your brain and body are under the impression that your situation is so stressful, or that a time of famine is imminent, and that you need ample stores of fat, is there any possibility that you are healthy?

It’s widely accepted that being fat is unhealthy, yet it seems that the opposite extreme has become the definition of healthy. There is no middle ground – Fat is bad, ergo skinny is good. When skinny is patently unattainable (not to mention ‘unhealthy’) the response is to celebrate being too fat, as in “I’m happy the way I am.” There may be a case to say that, in some sections of the UK media, the pressure to be happy the way you are is nearly as great as the pressure to look like someone else a good deal smaller than you. The idea of being fat and fit is bound up somewhere in all of this. For Peretti, the fact that two obese women, who had some previous experience, could keep going in an aerobics class longer than he could was a sign that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the message seemed to be that nothing is truly effective in combating obesity long term – dieting doesn’t work, exercising doesn’t work, surgical intervention doesn’t work etc. Not great news for the concerned viewer who really wants to change themselves.

Then I picked up Jason Seib’s book, and was delighted. Having ‘Paleo’ in the title means I know he’s going to be talking about an ‘ancestral’ model for living now. In other words, taking the physical activity and nutrition of our ancestors as a template for how to live now. This is another way of saying that he uses evolutionary biology as the basis for his assertions about health and fitness (more of ‘health and fitness’ anon).

It fits that our concerns about our size and weight are related to how other people perceive us, or how attractive we are. Using that evolutionary model, we are wired to propagate our own genes, and mix them with other genes that are going to be resilient, robust etc. From that perspective, what attracts us to others is their appearance of health – “Does this person have what it takes to survive and flourish, and produce children that will do the same, in this adversarial world?” Just as excessive body fat won’t signal a promising mate, nor will being very skinny. In other words, as life has become easier and easier, we have developed some twisted ideas about what the roots of attraction are.

Seib argues that people who begin a diet, or programme of exercise, with aesthetic goals are largely bound to fail. That said, it’s not unreasonable to have a goal of fitting into clothes that you wore a couple of years back, or to want a smaller waist circumference, BUT weight per se is a red herring. You might change your body composition significantly, effectively exchanging stored fat for muscle mass, and not lose much weight. The whole notion of ‘losing weight’ is misguided in fact. Bathroom scales tell us next to nothing about how healthy we are. I know someone who has recently succeeded in losing weight, and I’m certain that, as well as shedding some body fat, she has also lost muscle mass. Did anyone’s health ever improve as they got weaker?

As an aside, Seib refers to research that indicates that yo-yo dieters become more efficient at storing body fat. In other words, if you get into a cycle of dieting to lose weight, and then regaining that weight, then you are likely to become progressively fatter. I can’t articulate how or why, but this is surely a natural response of the human body to the stress of deprivation and signalling the need for storing greater energy reserves.

The solution of “The Paleo Coach” is to have a goal of health, rather than a number that you read on the scale. If you take the necessary steps to be as healthy as possible then aesthetic goals will be achieved as a by-product – again, we’ve evolved to find the appearance of robust health desirable. This brings me back to the ‘health and fitness’ point. Under the heading of “What is fitness?” the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, CrossFit, again) contains this line: “We have observed that nearly every measurable value of health can be placed on a continuum that ranges from sickness to wellness to fitness.” This is to say, health and fitness are not separate – fitness is the optimum state of health. If we accept this idea then the notion of “happy and healthy at any size” is exposed as a nonsense.

Bathroom scales can tell you how heavy you are, they cannot tell you how healthy you are (I know there are some that purport to measure body fat but since one such scale told me that I was borderline morbidly obese I doubt their accuracy). Unless you’re wanting to go on, say, a theme park ride with a weight limitation, or wondering if the lift can cope with one more body in it, what you weigh is of minimal significance – your fitness will take care of your weight.

Oh, and don’t settle for wellness (“How are you?” “Oh, fair to middling.”) – is that really going to be good enough for you?

Better Than God?

June 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

Most people, if you stopped them in the street to talk about nutrition, would probably know that butter and saturated fat are bad for you. They may well also know that those fats will raise your cholesterol level, and that high cholesterol can kill people. They may well also have some ideas about what constitute healthy fats. After all, this information has been very well disseminated by governments, medical professionals, news media, and producers of healthy fat and cholesterol lowering products.

I know how easy it is to make butter. I made some once when I was overzealous in my cream-whipping, trying to impress someone. Margarine, or Benecol (“Benecol is a range of foods that contain a unique patented ingredient, Plant Stanol Ester, that is proven to lower cholesterol. Benecol is available in a variety of delicious products including yogurts, yogurt drinks and spreads.”) is a different story – I’ve no idea where to start, so I looked it up, and apparently making margarine goes something like this:

It appears that olive oil is also relatively simple to extract from an olive. Certainly the process is mechanised these days, but it’s easy to find instructions for the home enthusiast, requiring nothing more complicated than millstones… It’s also pretty easy to render lard – animal fat, heat, a pan, a jar and some cheesecloth are all that’s required.

Vegetable oil, or seed oil is, like margarine, a different story, as this video shows. In the US they call it ‘canola’, in the UK we call it ‘rapeseed’. (You may not fancy watching the whole thing. If you do, listen out for key words such as: ‘solvent’, ‘chemical extraction process’, ‘wash with sodium hydroxide’*, ‘bleach’. You’ll be glad too to hear that they deodorise the final product…)

It’s pretty much the same process that’s outlined in the flow chart. (Clearly not instructions for making Benecol, because there’s no mention of adding those plant stanol esters….)

What, might you ask, has this got to do with God? You can say God, if you like, or you might choose Mother Nature, for the sake of this particular argument. I’m inclined to simply call her Nature. And here’s my point: someone who is very dear to me is a regular consumer of industrial food products like Benecol margarine, and also happens to be a practicing Catholic. He eats Benecol on his bread (there’s a whole other problem) because medical professionals, and advertising have told him this is what’s best for him, and because I’ve got no credentials for getting into an argument with his doctor.

I don’t practice any religion, so I’m guessing how the thinking might go. At the same time I believe that human evolution has been intimately entwined with us making use of the things that nature provides us with, just as is the case for most living things. Predatory carnivores pick their food from herds of herbivores, antelope graze, killer whales eat seals, seals eat fish (some of the really mean ones eat penguins!), many fish graze on algae etc. Technology changes many things for us – it’s very much easier for us to control fire the it used to be, we don’t need to hunt wild animals any more because we’ve learned how to corral and domesticate them. That list can go on and on. The thing is that technology tends to make life easier for us, and tends to generate revenue for the inventor and/or manufacturer. It doesn’t necessarily make us better (Yes, this was last week’s subject.) And when we’re talking about fat, we’re talking about nutrition. Say it out loud: ‘NUTRITION’ – that which nourishes us. There’s hardly anything more important than this in our lives. If we make changes to how we nourish ourselves, surely they should be based on making us better – not based on making life easier, or generating huge profits for industrial food corporations? (By the way, isn’t it weird that the same company that makes Cornetto, also makes Comfort fabric softener?)

Back to my Bencol eating, Catholic friend. Because it feels cruel, I’ve resisted saying to him: ‘God has given us all this bounty with which we can nourish ourselves. Do you really think that we can manufacture better nourishment in a factory, using enormous resources of energy, chemicals and precious water, than God has seen fit to make easily available to us?’ Again, I’d rather be talking about ‘Nature’ than ‘God’, but that’s largely irrelevant. What kind of arrogance leads us to believe that we are somehow different from any other lifeforms on the planet, and that despite millennia of successful nourishment, garnered with the assistance of  some simple hand tools, and fire, we can ‘create’ food that will do a better job of nourishing us?

Of course the real truth is that it’s probably a combination of greed and fear that leads us to the point where we believe that readily-derived-from-nature is bad, and chemically/industrially manufactured is better. However, if we can strip that away (tough, because fear is what drives capitalism so well) then perhaps we can see that it is vanity and arrogance that tricks into thinking that we (or our doctor) may know better…

Special bonus video (reward for perseverance)

*Yes, it’s caustic soda, but don’t worry, it’s of a higher grade than the oven cleaning or sink unblocking kind.

(Subtitle: “Is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?)

This is a question that I have been musing about for a long time, and wondering if it’s even appropriate to be asking it. Certainly it feels decidedly taboo, perhaps because as a society (combatting the tyranny of generally unattainable/false body images that are routinely shown in the media), in the guise of compassion, we seem to be finding ways of saying “It’s okay to be overweight.” The question might equally be “Can one have poor posture, and be a Pilates teacher?”, or “Can one be weak, and a Pilates teacher?” We could go on, with reference to endurance, agility, mobility and so on.

I’m going to stick with the weight question because the topic of overweight/obesity has such profound implications for our society, not least in terms of the likely costs to the NHS as the percentage of the population who are overweight steadily rises. The Centre for Disease Control (US) lists an array of potential health problems from cardio vascular disease, to orthopaedic and respiratory problems; and economic consequences, from direct medical costs, to loss of productivity and absenteeism. I understand that there are a variety of different mechanisms at work to cause people to store excess fat, and I am not at all interested in stigmatising overweight people (who are very often given very poor advice when it comes to weight loss – see previous post), but I am interested in challenging the notion that we should find excuses for people to remain overweight, rather than trying to address the problem.

So is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?

Answering a question with another, what is the job of a Pilates teacher? I’m sure that there are many answers. My own choices in describing my work would be: To teach people good (efficient, controlled) movement, and to help them to be as healthy as possible. In the spirit of pursuing Pilates’ own aim of “whole body health”, I think we have to aim higher than addressing movement alone, and I have previously suggested that Pilates teachers might address nutrition. (As an aside, Kelly Starrett suggests that the human body, with the right movement, and the right lifestyle, is a “perfect healing machine” – an idea that I like a lot).

Paul Chek writes, in the introduction to his Ebook ‘The Last 4 Doctors You’ll Ever Need’: “Over and over again, I am astounded to find that the wellbeing of exercise and health professionals of all types show little if any improvement over the health of their own patients and clients.” At a recent gathering of Pilates teachers, I was struck by the number of people present with distinctly less than optimal postures. If I am really honest, I found myself thinking “Who would want to go to a teacher that looks like that?” I also know very well that economics often mean that time earning money is easily favoured over time working on one’s own body, just like the cobbler’s children having worn out shoes.

So, is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?

Here is where things get a little tricky. If I am to use my work to try to help people achieve optimal health, then I believe part of that is to try to embody optimal health to the best of my ability. And this point is important – I am not advocating legions of sylphlike ‘perfect’ Pilates teachers, and there are many different bodies that can be inspirational/aspirational for the spectrum of the population. I have a friend and colleague who is also a karate teacher, and I learned from her that one of the rules of the dojo is that you give as much of yourself as possible to the practice at any given time. So, there are many terrific Pilates teachers with a variety of physical limitations, spinal fusion, for example, and are able to fully embody the concept of whole body health, by giving of their best.

I had a debate with another teacher some time ago over whether or not it would be appropriate for teacher trainees to be examined in their proficiency at Pilates, along with their proficiency at teaching it. My position was/is that it may well be appropriate and, again, this has little to do with perfection. I fully accept the notion that you don’t have to be able to ‘perform’ a specific exercise in order to be able to teach it well. At the same time, if you’re in the business of teaching exercise, you ought to have a compelling reason not to be able to do something that you are expecting someone else to do. In other words, if you can’t demonstrate ‘The Snake’ on the reformer, because it’s quite difficult, what business do you have asking someone else to do it? If it’s good for your client, surely it’s good for you? (I can’t manage ‘The Squirrel’ on the cadillac, but I’m still working on it….)

And still there is no answer to the pressing question: is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?

The practice of Pilates doesn’t pretend to lead to weight loss, in itself (it may come peripherally, facilitated, for example, by increased mobility).  So one might argue that, since it’s not an expected outcome of the practice, that there should be no expectation of the teacher having a particular bodyweight, or body fat percentage. But we want to be models of whole body health, don’t we? (Yes, the mechanisms of fat storage and release are complicated, and/but you also know that the client with the dodgy knee would really help themselves if they lost some weight….). So the fat question is not a straightforward one. I would say “ideally not”, and quickly revert to: ‘Can you have poor posture and be a Pilates teacher?’ Here the answer is unequivocal – No! If you’ve been teaching Pilates for years, as an enhancement to life and all it throws at us, and your head position is inches forwards of your shoulders, you are proof that Pilates doesn’t work. In our studio we are constantly telling clients that Pilates isn’t an end in itself, but a means of making everything else that one has to do easier. In other words, you can apply Pilates to everything you do. If you’re spending your day bent over people that you’re teaching, and you’re not applying Pilates principles to maintain a decent posture, is it remotely reasonable to hope for that from your clients?

I’m not pretending to be perfect, but I am trying to be better (another Kelly Starrett-ism is that ‘we need to be better at everything’ – that’s my goal). So, if you see me in the street, and you think I’m not ‘walking my talk’ then please let me know.

I have to hold my hand up at the outset and acknowledge that this post is going to be little more than a highly abridged version of Gary Taubes work in “The Diet Delusion“. That is to say, your time may be profitably spent reading his book instead of this post. I’m writing this really only to vent my frustration at the endless repetition of myths that Taubes so compelling takes apart in his book.

There have been a quite surprising volume of health/nutrition related programmes, and news features on UK television recently, ranging from: ‘Supersize vs. Superskinny’; to news coverage of the Harvard School of Public Health’s ‘Red meat increases cancer risk’ study; to Horizon documentaries like ‘The Truth About Fat’ and ‘The Truth About Exercise’.

What I find particularly remarkable about so much of the content is not what’s included, but what’s left out. That is to say that all of these programmes that I have seen assume that the viewers are already in possession of various ‘facts’ that require no explanation or back up. Things that we all ‘know’, such as: Dietary fat is bad for you, saturated fat is especially bad for you, cholesterol is bad for you, vegetable oils are more healthy than animal fats, wholegrains are healthy, high fibre is good, starches should form the basis of our meals, milk is healthy if it’s low fat…etc.etc.

Some time ago I saw another news story in which a member of the public was interviewed about lifestyle, and came out with the line: “We all know how to eat healthily…”. Obviously this is true, we’ve all heard it many times, and we can look at the Department of Health website if we’re not sure, that will show us the ‘Eatwell Plate’ to guide us to the right choices.

This is the conventional wisdom: low fat, high carbohydrate; 5 a day; and, increasingly, eat less meat. The question that Taubes set out to answer in “The Diet Delusion” was: ‘If we know so much about healthy eating, and sales of low fat and fat free foods have been so strong, why are obesity (and heart disease) rates still rocketing up?’ The answer, of course, is that we’ve been given bad advice on how to eat for the last fifty years or so.

Horizon’s ‘The Truth About Exercise’ was the first programme to make me think about the regurgitation of  conventional wisdom. The point of the programme was apparently to look at how exercise might prevent the presenter form succumbing to diabetes. One of the segments looked at his blood lipids (how much fat was in his blood) after eating, and if exercising before eating had an impact on his blood lipid profile. The meal used for this was a ‘typical’ Scottish breakfast.

The expert, Dr John Gill  of the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at Glasgow University made a point of the fat in the breakfast (making no mention of the sugars present in the beans, bread, tomato etc.), and then took some of the presenter’s blood after eating, showing the viewer the level of fat in his blood. The message was very clear – eat fat, and the fat in your blood will increase. I’m no biochemist, but my understanding is that the mechanisms of digestion are a little more complicated than that. For example, if you’re eating fruit, and you’re muscle stores are full of glycogen then your liver will turn the fructose from the fruit into triglycerides (fat) that will then be transported by your blood to fat cells.

Horizon also presented ‘The Truth About Fat’ a couple of weeks later. It was refreshing to see that the gastric surgeon turned presenter for the programme changed her view of obese people (it turns out they don’t just lack her self-control). Disappointing to find that the ‘Truth’ that the programme offered lay in surgery, or hormone regulation medication that may be developed. Also disappointing to see the presenter selling the programme on breakfast television and casually mentioning the hormones that make fat people “want fatty foods”. A throwaway remark perhaps, and yet more reinforcement of the idea that fat makes you fat. The evidence is that it is carbohydrate that makes you fat, and addicted to it, to boot. (Read ‘Wheatbelly‘ for more on the addictive properties of wheat in particular).

The view of obese people often seems to be that they are greedy and lazy, and that if they only had more discipline, and exercised more, they would lose weight. I can accept that there are a lot of obese people who are continually consuming manifestly bad stuff – high sugar fizzy drinks, doughnuts etc., and I’m also sure that there are plenty of people who are trying hard to lose weight by “eating right”, but unsuccessful because what we’ve been told is the right way to eat is almost exactly the opposite of what will encourage weight loss. (According to Taubes the truth about healthy eating was being established by German scientists before the second world war but, tragically, there work was ignored – German science having been discredited by the horrors of the Nazi regieme).

Another BBC news story that I happened upon was about the popularity of ‘free-from’ foods (gluten-free, dairy-free etc.). The segment confidently asserted that only 1-2% of us are allergic to certain foods (subtext = it’s a fad). Whilst a small percentage of people may be allergic to gluten, testing is often unreliable, and many more of us may not tolerate gluten well. You don’t have to be celiac to suffer negative effects from gluten, possieffecting not on the gut, but the brain!   The dietician interviewed in the piece suggests that, if we exclude things like wheat and dairy, not only will we be eating a limited range of food, but we may be in danger of becoming malnourished (around 1:40 in the clip if you’re really interested). The story was followed by a discussion in the studio. The BBCs obligation to impartiality clearly doesn’t extend to nutrition, as the BBCs resident GP was the only person on hand to comment. Amongst her advice to viewers: “Do not consult a nutritionist, they are unregulated. Only consult a dietician” – like the one in the segment who thinks that eliminating wheat and dairy from your diet may result in malnutrition! If you visit the website of the British Dietetic Association seeking advice on healthy eating you will quickly find yourself looking at the ‘Eatwell Plate’, pictured above. Yes, meals based on starches, that we know make us fat. In fact, unless we are indulging in regular endurance type activity, we do not need any dietary carbohydrate because, by a process called gluconeogenesis, our body can make carbohydrate from other sources. (I’m not advocating a zero-carb diet, just trying to underline the crassness of suggesting that carbohydrate needs to form the basis of all our meals).

The Harvard School of Public Health’s study implicating red meat consumption represented another opportunity for the BBC news to cover itself in glory, presenting the story in an entirely uncritical light, and featuring a representative of Cancer Research declaring that “We now know that red meat causes cancer.” (To understand why this study is only fit for “lining a budgie’s cage” please see herehere, or here.)

There was no explanation of any possible mechanism, no-one to question how the data was gathered or interpreted. This was not a clinical trial that could legitimately be said to prove anything, yet the ‘findings’ were presented as incontravertible fact. Later that day in the gym I heard a trainer confidently asserting  that his client must get his protein needs from sources other than red meat. Fairy tale has become fact.

You might well argue that misrepresentations about eating red meat are less serious than those about how we become and remain fat – the consequences of people eating less red meat aren’t likely to be nearly as serious as the consequences ofoverweight people beingadvised to eat less fat and more starch (slow releasing sugar is still sugar). The pressing question is how we can be fit and well as a society if poor information, through repetition (often by authority figures), becomes popular belief? What’s the definition of insanity? How about repeating the low fat/high carbohydrate mantra and expecting obesity/cardio vascular disease rates to go down.

There’s a wealth of information available, not least of which is Taubes’ incredibly extensively referenced book. If you don’t fancy reading that, perhaps consider listening with a sceptic’s ear next time there’s a media story on nutrition/health.