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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?

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.

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.

Why go Primal?

March 15, 2012 — 2 Comments

Around June 2011 a friend of mine (let’s call him Glen, since that’s his name, and he may often make an appearance on this blog) told me about a book that he was reading, ‘The Diet Delusion‘. It sounded interesting, so I bought it, and was amazed by what I read in the first few chapters.  I won’t go into details here, suffice it say that the author dismantles, with the help of an astonishing array of references, many of the ‘sacred cows’ of healthy eating that I had believed in for years (the book is pretty dense, for a summary you can watch this video).

Talking to Glen about what I’d been reading, he suggested looking at the website Mark’s Daily Apple. Discovering this site was the watershed for me, and before long the shelf above my desk looked like this:

‘The Primal Blueprint’ is the manifesto of Mark (‘s Daily Apple) Sissons, and became my guide to applying the information of “The Diet Delusion’ to my life. The blurb on the cover offers “…effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy”, and Sissons is very clear that the Primal Blueprint concept is not a diet, but a lifestyle. Nutrition is a significant slice of the Primal pie, but exercise, sleep and sun also play a part.

I didn’t start reading either of these books thinking that I needed to lose weight, but I certainly knew that I ate more sugar than was good for me, and had had a nutritionist point out to me that my diet was dominated by wheat. My daily food might look something like: toast and jam for breakfast; pain au chocolat and perhaps a croissant too during the morning; sandwich, with fruit, and probably chocolate for lunch; muffin/brownie/chocolate coated peanuts and maybe more fruit afternoon snack; and pasta or pizza for dinner. On the whole I considered myself to be reasonably fit and healthy (on reflection I may be very lucky with my genes…) and I knew that cutting back on sugar was very difficult for me. The transformation in my eating began, as I learned about the role of carbohydrate in fat storage, with trying to increase my protein intake – opting for sausage and egg croissant instead of the pain au chocolat, for example.

The more I read (and one of the things I enjoy about the Primal/paleo community is how much information people offer for free), the more I started to believe that eating grains was a bad idea, and with that I found it surprisingly easy to cut back on my wheat consumption. The shift in my eating probably took four or five months, and was amazingly easy. At first it was very difficult to find ‘primal’ snacks when I was out of the house but as my eating changed more I discovered that I don’t need snacks – four to five hours without food is perfectly manageable if you’re not carbohydrate dependent. A year ago I could easily eat an entire bar of Green & Black’s creamy milk chocolate (36% fat, 50% carbohydrate) – I might have felt a bit sick afterwards, but that wouldn’t have stopped me. Now I find one square of milk chocolate a) doesn’t taste of chocolate at all and b) is so sweet I can hardly bear it. At the same time Lindt 90% cocoa dark chocolate (55% fat, 14% carbohydrate) tastes truly wonderful.

As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Primal Blueprint’ isn’t just a diet book, so what else is there?

These are the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws. Some may need a bit of elucidation: ‘avoid trauma’ in an earlier edition of the book was ‘avoid stupid mistakes’, and is essentially to do with being more conscious of one’s environment, so as not to get hurt; ‘avoid poisonous things’ largely refers to eating foods that contain anti-predation chemicals/elements that we’re not made to digest – these would include almost all grains and legumes (I’m not the ideal person to explain why – please click on the links for Sisson’s own explanation).

I’ve not done so well with the insect eating, lots of sleep is sometimes tricky (especially when living with an excitable kitten…), and I don’t play as much as I might, but on the whole it’s been a very positive experience trying to stick to them. In fact, the changes to the way I eat, and approach exercise have led to one of the biggest transformations of my life.

Pilates definitely had a hugely transformative effect on me – it freed me from 18 months or so of chronic pain, and opened the door to the first real career that I’d ever wanted (and I met my wife through Pilates). It’s inspired me to learn, and allowed me the chance to be a part of running a thriving business. Probably because of my nature, Pilates also allowed me to have a somewhat entrenched view of ‘proper’, or worthwhile exercise, and a limited perspective on physical health. (Let’s be clear, these are my shortcomings. Please see my earlier post for more thoughts about Pilates and health).

And how has the Primal lifestyle transformed me? I’ve lost body fat (I had no idea I stored so much fat in my legs…); I feel like I have more energy; I’m stronger; my eczema is a thing of the past; I don’t feel bloated after eating; I’m less gassy, and my digestion from (ahem) start to finish is generally better. The weightlifting appears to have made me more flexible, and has also made me work some muscles much more than I’d managed previously – I’d never felt my back extensors work like they have to when I squat properly. I’ve also learned that activities like weight lifting have more in common with Pilates than I might have imagined – the language and the application is different but you still have to work from your centre, and the load is supported from your centre.

Physical things aside, there are plenty of other benefits. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy cooking, and, better still, the pleasure of cooking for friends and family who appreciate the food. I’ve developed a relationship with some of the people that I buy food from, and get a surprising kick from the whole process of eating, from the buying of fresh ingredients to the preparation and cooking (no more ready meals in our house…). As well as taking up weight-lifting and other high intensity exercise, I’ve also been introduced to other approaches to exercise/movement like MovNat and Exuberant Animal (see ‘Useful Links’), that I’m really excited to be learning more about. My inspiration to learn is greater than it has been in a long time, and I’m optimistic that I will be able to offer more to my clients over the coming years as a result. I’ve been led toward quite diverse reading material that has helped me to reframe thoughts about a variety of subjects, and to be more considerate of how my actions effect my immediate environment, and the larger world.

In the same way that we try to encourage clients at our Pilates studio to feel responsible for their health and well-being, the primal lifestyle really  fosters personal responsibility  that, in turn, encourages a positive outlook. If I believe that I’m in charge of my health, and I’m making sensible choices to support it, then I can feel optimistic about remaining healthy, fit and strong as I get older.

Pilates for…

March 6, 2012 — 6 Comments

Many books about Pilates list the “6 principles of Pilates”, a number of them have extended 6 to 8 or 9, but many teachers will be able to tell you that the ‘original’ principles of pilates are: Breath; Centre; Control; Concentration; Precision; and Flow[ing movement].
These 6 principles do not appear in any of Pilates’ own writing and, in fact, appear to originate in ‘The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning by Friedman & Eisen, and first published in 1980 (13 years after Pilates’ death).
The guiding principles of Pilates’ method, to be found in his 1945 book ‘Return to Life‘ are: Whole body health; Whole body commitment; and Breath; and have a very Pilates-esque no-nonsense simplicity to them. Why have 9 principles when 3 will get the message across?
Clearly things have changed in the years since Pilates’ death, we have a much better understanding of biomechanics, physiology and anatomy, along with entirely different ways of even considering human anatomy. (It should be said, too, that Pilates may not have been much concerned with those details – one of the highlights of the conversation between ‘Elders’ Ron Fletcher and Kathy Grant, available on DVD, is Fletcher’s reminiscence that, when asking Pilates what a particular exercise was for he received the gruff reply “It’s for the body”.) Despite these advances I can’t think of any compelling reasons to stray from his original 3 principles.

I’m all for asking for total commitment from our clients, especially if they have goals that they want to reach through Pilates, or expectations of what Pilates might do for them. This then begs the question (of me, at least): In teaching people Pilates, are we offering (the possibility of) whole body health?

Perhaps borrowing for the Pareto Principle, it seems to be widely accepted on fitness/exercise related internet resources that body composition is 80% determined by diet, meaning that exercise has a relatively limited effect on how fat we are. I’m not advocating a fixation on body fat, but all Pilates teachers must be aware that being overweight is highly likely to take an orthopaedic toll on an individual’s body. For example, the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Centre reports that ‘being only 10 pounds overweight increases the force on the knee by 30-60 pounds with each step.’ Joint problems are just one of many potential health issues related to being overweight or obese.

Having used it repeatedly in the paragraph above, I want to avoid repeating weight – I don’t think someone’s weight is as useful a measure of health as their body composition, how much fat they are storing. Hence how one’s clothes fit is a better indicator than a set of scales. It can be hugely challenging to address a client’s body composition, and requires that a relationship be established between teacher and client first of all (unless both are pretty thick-skinned). Nonetheless, if Pilates teachers (as fitness professionals, not alternative therapists), are to help clients towards whole body health I think we may have a responsibility to address such tricky topics. As you may have gathered if you’ve read earlier posts on this site, I lean quite strongly towards a particular way of eating – (in the interests of simplicity) low carbohydrate, moderate protein, high fat  – and, having read quite a lot on the subject, I’m happy to get into a conversation about nutrition with anyone these days (yes, maybe too happy, and more on that next time). The chances are that my nutrition views aren’t shared by all Pilates teachers, perhaps only a few, and I’m not arguing that we should all be preaching paleo eating to our clients. In the past I have had clients say to me “I know I need to lose some weight” and I’ve probably mumbled awkwardly and equivocated – now I think that, without getting into an epic conversation, I could have simply asked what they were doing, or planning to do, to accomplish the fat loss. I am not a nutritionist, but I can encourage clients to get help with shedding body fat, in the same way that I might encourage them to go to a physio or osteopath if that seems appropriate.

A lot of the clients that come to our studio list ‘weight loss’ as one of their goals. All other benefits aside, I don’t believe that Pilates is an effective means of achieving such a thing. Indeed, I think the evidence shows that eating is far more important to body composition than exercise. As fitness professionals I think we do have a responsibility to address nutrition (and maybe to mention that sleep quality and cortisol levels have a significant impact on our metabolism), even if that is no more than encouraging clients to seek professional help (or perhaps to read Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It“). I’d love to hear what any fellow Pilates professional (in fact, anyone who may be reading) thinks….