Archives For food

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.


Who’s Health?

October 10, 2013 — Leave a comment
image courtesy of

image courtesy of

When Joseph Pilates wrote “Your Health” in 1934 the world was a different place from the one we know now (or, at least, the Western world was). The majority of people would have lived less sedentary lives. Whilst work for many was physically hard, it appears that lines between work and leisure were much less blurred than they are now (e-mail, anyone?) Industrial food giants were largely a twinkle in the eye of their founders and real food, as opposed to food products, would have been the standard. Wheat looked very little like the Frankenstein’s monster of a grain that it is now, and CAFOs (‘concentrated animal feeding operations’) were a couple of decades away. Ancel Keys wouldn’t succeed in demonising saturated fat for another 25-30 years (and, in the absence of CAFOs, animal fat would have been less potentially sinister anyway).

The list of health related differences could probably go on for a while. In short, I suspect that it was a little easier for people to be responsible for their health then than it is now.

What of it? Well, a couple of years ago I was at the house of a client who had a business associate visiting (both American). There was an American news channel on the television, with a discussion of Obama’s universal healthcare policy underway. My two companions were clearly of a Republican persuasion, and vigorously opposed to this socialist notion. As a European I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could be opposed to something that I have taken for granted for my whole life.

I’ve lived and worked in the US, and experienced the surprise of being asked for my credit card details, in the ER, whilst trying to staunch the bleeding from a sizeable wound. I’ve also seen people of apparently limited means handing over large sums of cash in the pharmacy for their monthly prescriptions. How could this be reasonable?

More recently I’ve started to question my knee-jerk position on universal healthcare. I suspect that the Republicans mentioned above are opposed to the idea for financial reasons – I don’t know the details (apparently the ‘Obamacare’ bill runs to more than a thousand pages, so perhaps no one does) but I can imagine that there are potentially lost profits somewhere in the system. There’s little prospect of me profiting from privatised health care, beyond teaching Pilates, so I’m not concerned by that. What I am uncertain about is the degree to which our system allows us to imagine that, collectively, GPs; surgeons; nurses; physiotherapists; pharmacists etc. are responsible for <strong>our</strong> health. We can afford to fail to take care of ourselves, and make poor choices, because there’s a broad safety net of health professionals that are obliged to try to fix us. Clearly not a good recipe for personal responsibility. If we all knew that there would be financial consequences for the poor lifestyle choices that we make wouldn’t we be much more likely to make better choices?

The problem is that the ship of personal responsibility, in this regard, sailed a long time ago. Even if this isn’t you, I bet you know plenty of people who will seek a pill for any ailment, take antibiotics for a cough/cold, or go to their osteopath/chiropractor/physio to get ‘fixed’ if something hurts. If you’re a Pilates teacher I’d be amazed if you have not been asked for a remedy to some physical ill.

And here’s the real problem – we’ve been encouraged to think like this, by both governments and the corporations that ‘help’ them to form policy. Who knows why the food pyramid looks the way it does? Was it the work of a well-meaning but scientifically illiterate committee of politicians, or was it hatched in the subterranean lair of an evil food corporation executive? Probably somewhere in between, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Their work is done and the great majority of us ‘know’, beyond doubt, what healthy eating looks like. We also know that several episodes per week of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise are what we need to manage our weight and keep our cardiovascular system in top condition. (This probably requires a post of its own, but don’t we also know that it’s natural for a baby to vomit much of its food…?)

Governments try to protect us from the evils of tobacco, and, to a lesser degree, alcohol, and we justify huge rates of duty because these lifestyle choices place an extra burden on public healthcare. If you manufacture cigarettes you may not advertise your products, because we know all about the health risks associated with your product. However, we enjoy no such protection from the promotional efforts of the corporations, some of whose products purport to be healthy. Nestlé are free to advertise breakfast cereal made with ‘healthy whole grains’, Tropicana are equally free to advertise orange juice, which has the same sugar load as Coca Cola (who, of course, enjoy the same freedom to promote their wares). The list could go on and on – margarine proven to lower cholesterol, sweetened drinks to improve your gut health etc etc.

In these circumstances the odds seem so heavily stacked against us that personal responsibility is hardly an option. Informed choices are only as useful as the information they’re founded on. If governments and corporate giants collude to mislead us, a two-headed monster of misinformation, doing our best can easily become a recipe for ill-health. In these circumstances it seems more than ever that providing universal healthcare is an obligation. If your body were a high performance car, you’d be careful about the fuel you put in, you’d put air in tyres if they looked a little squishy. Perhaps you’d clean it often, and you probably wouldn’t park it where the risk of damage or vandalism was high. In short, you’d probably follow the manufacturers recommendations to keep it in good, if not great condition. This analogy stumbles a little in that our bodies don’t come with a manufacturers warranty, and companion handbook. However, the two-headed monster above has purported to provide one for us. ‘You break it, you pay for it’ seems like a generally appropriate maxim, and could be well applied to healthcare – you abuse and damage your body, you pay to sort it out. However, if you’ve followed the manufacturer’s instructions faithfully, surely it’s their problem?

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.

The “Fast Diet”, also referred to as the “5:2” diet seems to be all over the UK media at the moment, accompanied by both very positive reviews, and expressions of concern about the dangers of encouraging anyone to fast.

I had this diet described to me as “fast for 2 days (actually, limit calories to 500/600 per day), and eat what you like for 5 days”. The man behind this is Dr Michael Mosley – and he made a television programme all about it, so it must be infallible. Apparently he found evidence that, aside from weight-loss, the Fast Diet is also associated with a range of other health benefits.

I have grave misgivings about any suggestion of ‘eat what you like’, because it seems to suggest that nutrition is unimportant. In other words, there’s an awful lot of ‘food’ around these days of very limited nutritional value. The idea (not Dr Mosley’s, I’m sure, but possibly widely-held nonetheless) that it’s okay to eat crap for 5 days, and then severely restrict your calories for the other 2, sounds like a recipe for very poor nutrition. And food, after all, is meant to nourish us, not simply supply us with calories.

I can’t help but listen to news items about diets without my Paleo-biased brain shouting “It’s what you eat, not how much or how often, that matters”. I’m also trying not to be a 197693_3967280097068_451202589_nfundamentalist about food. I do get a little stressed over vegan parents raising their babies as vegans. Equally, it would take very strong evidence (that I’ve seen no trace of) to persuade me that being vegetarian is as healthy (never mind sustainable) as being omnivorous . At the same time, occasional rants about soy products aside, if someone feels that the way they eat is the best for them, what business is it of mine? None, of course.

Back to ‘diets’. The biggest problem that I can see is that they always appear to be temporary. I may well be wrong, but I doubt that Dr Mosley is proposing that anyone follows the 5:2 ratio for life. This is why I really like the way that I’m eating these days (and why I’m always a little baffled by people asking me if I’m “still doing that diet”) – it’s great because it feels totally sustainable. I choose, generally, not to eat certain things, that were amazingly easy to give up. That’s it. Again, I’m trying not to evangelise.

I was exposed to another idea today (courtesy of Paleo Solution podcast episode 167), attributed to Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit. It seems like a brilliant approach to body composition, health, and (probably) any other outcome one might desire from a diet. Essentially, set yourself some athletic goals that will really stretch you. The podcast mentions double-bodyweight back squats and a couple of other outlandish strength/gymnastic goals, but we can all figure out athletic achievements that will stretch our individual capabilities. Perhaps it’s mastering the entire Super-Advanced Reformer repertoire, or doing “Romana’s Mat Challenge” 4 times in a row, if Pilates is your thing (though I think a more profound strength challenge would be best). Maybe it’s preparing to climb Kilimanjaro for charity. The point is that, if your goal is sufficiently challenging for you, doing what it takes to reach it will inevitably involve eating appropriately, and making positive changes to your body composition. No 5:2, no GI, no Caveman, no South Beach, no Atkins, no Blood Type (and on and on and on and on)

Perfect! Nourish yourself to achieve amazingness, and enjoy the combined side-effects of better health, and the body composition you’ve dreamed of.

How did cheap and dirty become delicious?

(This post owes a huge debt to “It Starts With Food” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig – buy it for yourself, and for everyone else that you care about…)

Millions of years before food scientists existed, our ancestors developed ways of helping them distinguish, and then remember, between good sources of nutrition, and bad. Sources of quick energy tasted sweet; sources of dense calories tasted fatty; and salty tastes were a sign of foods to help hydration, or maintaining hydration.

The net result: we are ‘hard-wired’ to seek out sweet, fatty and salty foods. It’s worth mentioning that the fruit our early ancestors ate was probably a fraction as sweet as the fruit we enjoy – we’ve had hundreds of thousands of years to select the sweeter mutations and make them dominant in their species. Fat sources would have been unprocessed, and salt simply found in more sodium-rich foods.

Everything our ancestors needed to nourish themselves was available in nature.
We all know that food can elicit an emotional response, and if our brain is receiving the signals that we’re being nourished it will release dopamine and endorphins. Thus, our ancestors would not only be nourished, but would feel good too.

Fast-forward to around ten thousand years ago, and our less-distant ancestors developed agriculture – allowing for production of food by a few for many to consume, and the potential to store food for long periods (never mind, for now, that this food was less nutritionally dense than more traditional hunted/gathered food).

I only mention agriculture because it allowed for all sorts of development, not least the study of sciences. Not needing to hunt or gather, some of those ancestors of ours had the time to indulge in more lofty pursuits. So, in more than one sense, agriculture gave us food scientists.

Fast-forward again, this time to the middle of the twentieth century, and manufacturers of food products had the knowledge and facility to exploit our hard-wiring to generate masses of profit. All that was necessary was to make food products that were sweet, fatty, or salty, or (ideally) a combination – doughnuts, potato crisps…..

These food products tasted amazing, and ticked the boxes that our DNA was programmed to recognise as nutritious input.

Here’s the best part, and the answer to the opening question. Real food (animals, fish, vegetables, fruit) can be costly to come by, might require a lot of looking after, careful handling and so forth. Those crops that lend themselves to an industrial scale of production (grains, corn, rape, soy, sugar beet etc) do so because they’re much less complicated they can be mechanically harvested and require minimal care in their handling en route to processing. Therefore they’re relatively cheap, and never mind that they’re a poor source of nutrition, the food scientists have an array of additives, or means of manipulating them so that they can be turned into ‘super-normal’ (super = beyond) tasting sweet, salty or fatty foods – way beyond what nature could conceive.
What effect does that have on our emotional response to food, mentioned above? Natural/real food, with its modest level of sweetness, fattiness, or saltiness, rapidly loses the ability to get our brains excited enough to release those feel good chemicals. How could it compete with ‘super’ ‘Frankenfoods’?

Have a look at the ingredients of, say, a packet (tube?) of Kellog’s sour cream and onion Pringles:

Dehydrated potatoes, vegetable oil, vegetable fat, rice flour, wheat starch, sour cream & onion flavour(hardened vegetable fat, onion powder, sour cream powder, dextrose, flavourings, sugar, sweet whey powder, lactose, milk protein, potato starch, food acids:citric acid, lactic acid and malic acid), emulsifier:E471, maltodextrin, salt, modified rice starch

Might any of those ingredients look like food? Sugar and salt, probably; dehydrated potatoes, maybe; modified rice starch….?

Where does this stuff come from…..

“Disc centrifuge for vegetable oil refining are widely used in continuous degumming, neutralizing, dewaxing, and washing of vegetable oils, such as peanut oils, colza oil,palm oil,oliver oil,sunflower oil,cottonseed oil,corn oil etc.”

Makes for an interesting contrast with ‘first cold pressing’, no?

                                                                                                               Modified starch making machine                            For more on rice starch click here

Mmmmm, ‘spray process’.

(It was an eye-opener having a brief search for suitable pictures, especially if one is viewing them from the ‘food’ & ‘industrial’ are two words that don’t go together perspective)

Perhaps this was my subconscious at work – I thought of Pringles as an example before I remembered their advertising strap line: “once you pop, you can’t stop”. They make a virtue of the fact that their food product is addictive…. Plus, it’s cheap to produce, dirty (in that, if shown them all individually, you probably couldn’t identify any of the ingredients, apart from sugar and salt), and (doubtless, to many) delicious.

Why would you want to eat real food ever again?

Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, of  Whole9, have determined a set of ‘Good Food Standards’, set out below.

The foods we eat should:

  1. Promote a healthy psychological response.
  2. Promote a healthy hormonal response.
  3. Support a healthy gut.
  4. Support immune function and minimize inflammation.

Their basic message is that you should eat things that are nutritious (good for you), and avoid those ‘foods’ that are not – for instance, food with a high caloric but low nutrient value. I’m three and a half days into my fist attempt at a Whole30, a thirty day nutrition programme devised by Whole9. A Whole30 involves eliminating the following: all grains; all legumes (pulses, beans, peanuts etc.); all dairy (apart from clarified butter); all sugar (and substitutes); all alcohol. In addition, potatoes aren’t allowed, nor are any processed vegetable oils, which basically eliminates any restaurant fried food.

What’s the point? For me, it’s mostly to do with seeing if I notice any changes in all aspects of my life – exercise, sleep, energy levels, body shape and so on. It’s already been interesting to see how careful one has to be to follow this regime. I absent-mindedly reached for the chewing gum in the car yesterday and, thank goodness for my alert wife, was stopped in time.

I’m, typically, fairly mindful of what I’m eating, aiming to be generally living a primal lifestyle, but I’d noticed that I was managing to sneak more sugar back into my diet (85% cocoa chocolate still has sugar in, as apparently does alcohol, damn it). I’m curious to see how easy/hard it will be to go without those things that I’m used to having for a whole month, and my resolve is being bolstered by concurrently reading “Primal Body, Primal Mind” by Nora Gedgaudis, full of fascinating information about the consequences of our food choices.

It turns out that our digestive system is intimately linked with our immune system and overall health. We also, apparently, have more nerve cells in our gut than our brain, and 95% of all serotonin is produced in the gut, suggesting that there are links between digestion, and mood and sleep quality.

So, our fridge is stuffed with eggs and animal protein, and plenty of vegetables and fruit. I am feeling slightly more obsessive about food than usual, but obsessing about nutrient density doesn’t feel like such a bad thing. If it seems at all interesting I’ll report back at the end of June, when my 30 days will be up.