Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't feed your inner worm!

One of the most profound insights I got from reading Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes concerns the interpretation of cause and effect when considering caloric balance and weight gain. It is a difficult concept to grasp, and I had to think about it a long time before I understood it. I've participated in various comment sections in different blogs and have found that I have not done a good job explaining it, so rather than cluttering the comments in them, I'll expound on it here.

In a nutshell, the idea is this: if one gains weight, then by definition one has taken in more calories than one has expended -- one has "overeaten". That's what thermodynamics tells us. What it doesn't tell us is why one has overeaten. Most people believe -- and it seems obvious by observation -- that overeating causes weight gain. But here is the other possibility: weight gain causes overeating. This might seem silly and perplexing at first, but I propose a thought experiment below to explain the profound difference.

Let's imagine I have been affected with an intestinal parasite, like a tapeworm. This worm lives for itself, and steals some of the food I eat. It is capable of growing to an enormous size, capable of weighing as much as its host, and it has food preferences.

Now suppose this parasite steals ten percent of all the calories I ingest. Over time, I find that I am less satisfied with my portions, because the amounts I am used to eating now leave me hungry. So I have an extra snack or meal. If I had been living happily on an average of 2,000 calories a day, I find that I must now eat 2,200 calories, because the tapeworm has eaten and stored 200 of them to foster its own growth. After 150 days of this, my tapeworm now weighs a pound. The extra 200 calories a day is hardly noticed by me, because it is so easily obtained, and after ten years of living with my tapeworm, it has grown to weigh 20 lbs.

Now poor me, ten years older and 20 lbs. heavier, wonders how I gained this weight, in spite of watching my portions and exercising regularly! "Eat less!" "Exercise more!" say all of my friends, doctor, and the conventional wisdom.

So I cut my portions for a while, and guess what? I lose weight! Yes, my tapeworm slimmed down a bit, as have I, but now I am trying to live on reduced calories, and my worm still takes its (now reduced) tithe of my meals. My metabolism and cells are screaming for fuel by making me hungry. I feel tired and have no will to exercise. I still need my daily 2,000 to function well.

Eventually hunger gives in, and over time I must return to eating 2,200 calories a day, and my worm gets bigger than ever. And again I need even more energy to carry around the extra weight.

Now, knowing that my weight gain is due completely to the pirated and stored calories in my parasitic worm, and inaccessible to my metabolism, would any reasonable person blame my weight gain on my "overeating"? Is my overeating causing my weight gain?

No, the root cause is that the fuel I consume is not all getting to my metabolic engine. It is the weight gain of my parasite that is driving me to overeat. And if I don't overeat, I will become sedentary, or lose lean mass as my body attempts to compensate for the semi-starvation imposed upon it.

Now let's imagine two other conditions: my tapeworm loves, just loves sugars and starches! It will actually eat not 10% but 75% of the sugars I ingest, but it's not so fond of protein and fat. Furthermore, it is triggered to start eating by sensing high insulin levels in its host. Now what kind of diet would be the worst I could eat? What kind of diet would go a long way to fattening my worm, and leave me with the least share of the calories I eat? What kind of diet would ensure that I became really, really hungry not long after eating? I think you know the answer.

If you can now transfer these parasitic qualities to fat tissue itself, you begin to see the idea. Imagine that Metabolic Syndrome is an imbalance in the regulation of the fat tissue itself, causing it to hold on to stored calories more than release them. The end result is the same. The fat tissue has become like a parasite, robbing the rest of the body of the fuel it needs, and the body responds the way it always does, signaling the host to eat by inducing hunger. If that hunger is not met, it will slow down metabolism to compensate for the lack of energy. Fat storage is causing overeating, not the reverse!

If this is indeed the cause, or one possible cause of obesity, it explains several problems that the caloric-balance theory does not. For instance, why caloric restriction and exercise are so ineffective as a long term solution: it does not correct the underlying imbalance.

As far as I know, there has not been enough research done that can actually pin down the cause of the metabolic syndrome. Once you get it though, it may be incurable, and if I go out on a limb here, the best treatment may be a low carbohydrate diet.

I hope the above has made the understanding of the idea of causality in the conservation of energy a little easier -- and thank goodness we know how to treat tapeworm infections!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guest post: another paleo-diet success story

Anecdotal evidence continues to mount. Today's post is from a friend who has managed to lose 25 pounds in three months. He is the fourth person in my circle to have successful weight loss with a whole-foods, paleo approach to nutrition. This was originally posted at Thanks, Andy!

This is actually my second kick at the paleo can and, with one exception, it's gone much more smoothly than my first time around. In case anyone out there in Internet-land is as half-witted as I am, here are some basic tips from my go around that may help clarify things so you can get it right sooner.

And of course, I have been getting things wrong and will doubtless continued to do so (it's a gift, really), please revisit this thread as others who are much wiser than I correct me.

1) Don't over-read because you may confused between: the wealth of information, the various ideological camps within the paleo world and what things mean depending upon what you are trying to accomplish: are you trying to lose weight or maintain a particular weight. You also may be talking to someone with completely different goals from you. A 22-year-old who wants to get six-pack abs will have one set of needs rather different from you when you're a 55-year-old who's had two C-sections.

2) Keep it really simple to start: meat plus all the green vegetables you want. Where I made my mistake was treating all meats as equal -- in my first go around, I ate bags of cold cuts and paté, which have their place but lay off them to start. What I tell people is eat steak and all the celery, salad and spinach you want; or, salmon nuked on a plate with California mix veggies.

3) Your reading and people's opinions about what to eat depends in part on where you are.

Dairy and fruit in the weight-loss phase are completely different from the post-weight loss phase. There are pitched ideological battles over this but in the weight loss phase, less dairy is better. Now, I got confused by thinking dairy came from cows, cows are animals, ergo it's an animal fat, so I was slathering full-fat tzatziki on all my pork and lamb, and full fat sour cream on all my fish. No, not during the weight loss phase.

4) Nuts, eggs and the like are power foods. During my first paleo attempt I was eating nothing but and there was zero weight loss. I'm not saying never have these but moderate. I also have no natural immunity to nuts. If nuts are in front of me, I will finish the container, no matter how large the container is. It's like Kryptonite, I swear.

5) Add bacon and fish or freshly cooked meats and that unsalted salad spices to salads. This'll help wean you off of salad dressings. (Your taste buds will change, it's true.) Salad dressings I needed to cut in phases in my second go around. During my first go, I went through them by the vat but they're full of crap. Beware of fake bacon bits, too. Also consider buying fresh dill or coriander to scissor into your salads. These taste even stronger than any salad dressing.

Salads don't have to be complicated to be good.* When I restarted paleo, I bought many, many salad dressings. Well, after two or so months, they stopped being used. In fact, they're doing nothing but sitting in the back of the icebox for when guests come over. (By the way, a lot of them have sugar!)

6) In my first kick at the can, I found it hard to understand how the diet caused my lack of hunger. It works like this:

Animal fat keeps you from getting hungry -- particularly if you're overloading yourself with cheese as I was. With the amount of brie and nuts I was eating, my poo became frankly evil. Now that I eat no dairy apart for whitening my morning coffee, I've definitely started answering the second of nature's calls less because I'm getting my fats from freshly-cooked meats. Having fat in the meats keeps you from getting hungry.

That's normal so don't freak as is going 3/4 of a day without feeling peckish.**

By the way, if George Foreman has 'knocked the fat out,' why isn't he thin?

7) Fruits I also overdid when trying paleo for the first time. Again, your taste buds will change and remember that the weight loss phase is different from the maintenance phase. You can track down these nigh-religious debates over fruit in paleo discussion fora. Take home point: sweet fruits may slow your weight loss but if you've been having grapefruit for breakfast for the last 20 years and nothing short of Martians coming and kidnapping all of the grapefruit trees will stop you from doing so, dig in.

8 ) Get a crock pot.

9) Follow 80/20 rule to start. You will make mistakes, but if generally if you're doing 80 per cent of it right, you're going in the right direction. Staying at 80/20 to start rather than 'getting religion' and trying to stay at 100 per cent paleo to start will allow you time to experiment, and develop tastes. You're not a machine, you're a person with psychological quirks.

I deliberately gave myself open meals in the first month or two, and just...stopped. I found I could go a lot more toward the paleo side more quickly than I imagined. You may differ.

I once had an e-mail from someone who told me that I might as well not bother doing anything in paleo since I have cream in my morning coffee. That's elevating this nutritional plan to a religion. I mentioned to the same person (or was it someone else) that I also chew gum. Well, my goodness, it was like saying 'I'm a Nazi' to this one paleo practitioner. Since cavemen didn't chew gum, I wasn't on the diet therefore I should go to MacDonald's this instant.

Look, the point of eating this way, at this stage of the game, is to lose weight (another 25 lbs to go!) not adhere strictly to one person's strict interpretation of edge case items. Thog and Urg the cavemen also didn't drink Perrier or fizzy water but since my practical goal is weight loss, at this stage of the game the strictest possible interpretation of paleo is frankly 'paleo-ism' if I may coin a term.

Some discussions and articles flip freely between what foods mean in the weight loss phase, versus the maintenance phase because the authors themselves are confused or because they're answering an issue that's unrelated to your weight loss/maintenance status. Some people deal with edge cases and core foods the same way. People who do so can be well-meaning but cause you short term confusion. However, once things become clearer in your mind thanks to experience, you can have quite a lot of fun yanking their chains because they don't typically have senses of humour. If you're confused about what's nutrition/opinion or ideology, ask yourself if it fits within the 80/20 rule when explaining it to a really smart friend who doesn't know anything about this subject -- and relax.


*They also don't have to involve cutting tomatoes, which I regard as an imbecillic waste of time but that's just me.
**You'll also miss farting, one of the true pleasures of life but no diet is perfect.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A real scare, and a dietary scare within

An article in the newspaper today reports on a minor school bus accident where luckily all the children were unharmed. However, my nutrition awareness caused me to trip over this:

"Our staff got the children off the bus, stopped traffic and took them into the school and gave them cookies and juice," said Shawn O'Donnell, head of the school.

The bus driver was quite shaken up and worried about the children's welfare, O'Donnell said.

The accident aside, I would also worry about my child's welfare if strangers were feeding them "cookies and juice"! Once again I'm reminded that such unhealthy choices are deeply ingrained as comfort foods in our culture. As long as kids grow up thinking these things are normal, I fear that we'll never get a handle on obesity and diabetes.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fat gets the blame again, part II

Two recent articles once again the reveal the bias toward dietary fat. In a Globe and Mail article, I learned something that surprised me:
India has the world's biggest sweet tooth. It consumes more sugar than any other country on the planet thanks to a healthy appetite for sweets, a widespread use of sugar in mainstay dishes and a taste for cavity-inducing chai (tea).
(I thought perhaps the U.S. was a larger consumer of sugar, but according to the Sugar Association Inc., sugar has been mostly replaced by HFCS, so one "can't blame sugar for obesity". That's an astonishing conclusion, since the two products are chemically similar! This is like a tobacco company saying, "Don't blame us for lung cancer, our competition has been outselling us by a wide margin!")

But back to India, where we learn from a report from the BBC that diabetes rates are out of control. Do you wonder what might be causing it?
Part of the blame falls on the adoption of a more Western lifestyle, involving fatty food and too little exercise.
That's right, diabetes, a disease of glucose (blood sugar) metabolism, is caused in part by dietary fat intake! Once again the evidence is right in front of their eyes and they can't make the connection.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Fat gets the blame again

There's a new study being thrown around in the media blaming "fatty diets" for forming addictive behaviours in the brain's (actually rat brains) reward system. Here's the link to Nature Neuroscience.

So here's the diet the rats got addicted to: "The cafeteria diet consisted of bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, frosting and chocolate..."

This is also a very high sugar diet! Again fat gets the blame and sugar gets a pass.

It's known that low-carbohydrate/high-fat diets work well for weight loss -- even when unrestricted in calories. The mainstream explanation for this is that the diets are so restrictive in food choices that people voluntarily eat less because they get bored with the food, and create a caloric deficit.

So why is a fatty diet so boring in one case (bacon!) and addictive (cheesecake!) in another?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Good ol' parsnips

It's amazing how a diet of whole foods had changed my taste. After being off processed foods, and avoiding sugar like poison for two years, some things I never liked have somehow become palatable.

So yesterday, after a few moments' deliberation, a bag of parsnips joined the carrots in the grocery cart. Since I am not an adventurous cook, I simply boiled the lot for twenty minutes. Today I had some as a side dish to my fatty pork roast.

To my surprise, parsnips are sweet and delicious!

I'm still working up to brussels sprouts and fiddlehead greens.