October 28, 2011

Dieting is not about willpower

Willpower has limits.

All too often, the unsuccessful dieter blames their own "lack of willpower." Why did they give in to that treat, those choices at dinner, the late night doughnut drive-through?

Why can't they dine upon a single lettuce leaf drizzled with fat free dressing?

Because such eating won't keep them alive, that's why.

demotivational posters - DETERMINATIONWe can think our problem is lack of willpower... but we would be wrong.

Our problem is that we are told we must starve ourselves to lose weight.

Then, when our bodies rebel against low intake, when we struggle against starving ourselves... it's our fault we can't do
see more Very Demotivational it!

If we thought about it, we would see how ridiculous that is. But we don't get a chance to think about it; we are so overwhelmed with judgmental messages about how piggy, undisciplined, and hedonistic we are.

My own liberation came about when I realized how unfounded such charges were in my own case.

I have discipline. I have lots of discipline. I couldn't have developed my binge/starve cycle without it!

I've gone as long as five days without eating. I've kept myself to 1200 calories for weeks on end; until I stopped losing weight. Once the scale stopped dropping (and it was never as low as I wanted it to be) I stopped finding the will to starve myself.

Fact is, every overweight person in the land has proven themselves able to discipline themselves... only, not indefinitely. We cannot struggle, and win, against our own instincts, indefinitely.

The problem is that starving ourselves doesn't work. Or, you know, it would work.

October 26, 2011

But what about all those studies?

Isn't it true that "studies show" eating low fat and whole grains prevents heart disease and cancer and fatness?


Because it's not ethical to lock a bunch of people in a room and randomly assign them to lives on weird diets, there's many ways science uses to get around this most direct approach. These ways, in turn, all have their own problems that need to be gotten around. And so forth.

This graph proves my point.
But the real problem is that so much of what we are told to eat comes with hidden agendas.

Once someone has an agenda, "studies" can be tormented into yielding up whatever is being sought.

These conclusions are then simplified in a way that highlights their controversial or frightening content once they reach most press outlets.

That's because such conveyors of information are not... conveyors of information.

They are ways of selling advertising.

If a media outlet's reason for being is to convey information, the resultant article will explain that this conclusion is tentative because it is from a rodent study, and common lab animals are known to react to foods differently than the way humans do. Or that this is a correlation, and such studies only suggest fruitful places to find theories, not create strong support for them. Or that this study was done through self-reporting, and those are notoriously inaccurate.

But if a media outlet's reason for being is to sell advertising, such dull facts will not get the job done. They need something dramatic, like Eating Fat Will Kill You. Only people who read all the way to the bottom will discover that trans-fats make cellular membranes unstable. Since they don't understand what that means, they will only remember the headline.

Then this same article will get used by someone who wants to sell statin drugs and scare people about cholesterol. Or by a vegan who is promoting their diet for political reasons but wants to make it about health. Or by a weight loss expert selling their low fat diet book.

There is strong evidence that trans-fats (if the label says partially hyrdogenated, beware!) are dangerous to health because of their dysfunctional effect on the way our cells transport nutrients and defend against intruders. So my example headline is accurate... but also misleading.

October 24, 2011

Why low fat doesn't work

The conception that fat in our diet leads to fat on our bodies is spectacularly wrong.

I use the word "spectacular" because so much of our body consists of fat. Yet we act as though the extra padding on our bellies and behinds is the only place fat turns up; and we usually don't want it there.

So if we simply starve our bodies of fat, they will use up the "extra" and behold! New wardrobe.

Of course, the whole "fat is bad for us" theory didn't start out this starkly stupid. Because this is not how our diet experts treat protein.

This is good for us.
They recognize that protein is a vital micronutrient, and that we need a constant supply. Opinions vary on how much, especially if these opinions have a vegetarian slant.

Ideologues differ between cutting down on animal products for health reasons or humanitarian reasons. However, the assumed consensus that fat and protein are actually bad for us springs from the fact that both are much more abundant in animal sources.

An excellent series at The Hungry Cow blog states that a typical hunter-gatherer would have consumed 55-65% of his calories from meat and fish. We did gather plants; but this was pre-agriculture. None of those healthy whole grains showed up for many millions of years. This is how we evolved our big brains; with protein and fat.

Humans crave fat because we need it just as much as we need protein. Our brain? 60% fat. All the insulation that runs along our nerves, making sure they don't short out like a bad toaster? Made of fat. Our cell membranes, the stuff that keeps us from melting into a puddle of soup? All fat.

So compliance on low fat diets will always struggle between poor and terrible. Not only does our body crave animal fat, fat itself is important to a feeling of satiation.

Without it, we are always hungry, and always wanting to eat.

October 21, 2011

Because it is empty, and because it is my stomach

How did I become overweight? Oh, there isn't any question, is it? I ate too much!

This is your stomach on high carb.
By the time I was a teenager we weren't eating the meat and vegetables I had grown up eating; we were now too poor.

Ironically, we were eating Food Pyramid years before it came out; because we did what poor people always have done. We "stretched" our expensive meat and vegetables by dicing them up and scattering them through a cheaper base like macaroni or rice.

I would have a serving of such casseroles, along with a glass of lowfat milk. It was lowfat because I would cut our whole milk with nonfat powdered milk to save money. This was one of my periodic duties; mixing the milk at night and letting it sit in the fridge so it didn't taste so horrible.

My mother was trying to feed four growing kids on a low budget. None of us knew she was actually working from the future USDA Food Pyramid: with its small portions of fat and meat and dairy and its huge portions of grains.

Yes, another irony: the famous Food Pyramid could have been shortened to: eat like you're poor. Which can lead to the famous "poverty paradigm." In countries with food shortages, poverty results in overweight mothers, and skinny, stunted, children.

The science writer Gary Taubes, in his book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, points out that this makes no sense:
If we believe the mothers were fat because they ate too much, and we know their children are thin and stunted because they're not getting enough food, we're assuming that the mothers were willing to starve their children so they could overeat. This goes against everything we know about maternal behavior.
I would have my serving of casserole and low fat milk and two hours later I would be screaming-off-the-wall hungry. Fortunately, there wasn't any shortage of milk or casserole; we were not that poor.

So I'd eat again. And again. I would be sobbing with frustration when, late at night, I'd find myself searching the fridge for more, loading up a bowl with cereal and that milk, the cheap bagged cereal that wasn't sugary, it was puffed wheat and puffed rice and sugar from the sugar bowl.

I didn't know that low fat/high carb is the kind of food that simply pours glucose into the blood. If it gets too high, it's deadly poison; so the body responds by flooding with insulin. This hormone yanks the glucose out of the blood and into our fat cells.

When the load is so high, the blood sugar dips too low; and we become ravenously hungry.

Over and over.

October 19, 2011

It's not our fault

I honestly believe that.

For the millions who suffer from overweight, and its accompanying Syndrome X, which is a metabolic disruption that leads to cardiac disease, stroke, and diabetes, I want to say: it's not your fault.

There's an animated map of obesity on the CDC's website, which shows how the nation got fatter over time.

No question but that's an environmental change. We're the same genotype we've had for thousands of years. And despite the popular notion that our "lifestyles" have radically changed in that period of time, I don't think that's the case.

We're told we're more sedentary; but in 1985 there was already cable TV and computer games.

We're told it is increased access to fast food; but there were plenty of chains in 1985.

Now, from 1965 to 1985: huge changes. When I was a child in 1965, there were three television stations, and maybe a UHF station that came in on rabbit ears wrapped with tinfoil. We were thrown out of the house to play and told not to come back until it was dark.

If we went to McDonald's the portions were much smaller. When we ate dinner there was always meat and vegetables on the plate, and we were not allowed to snack because it would spoil our dinner.

If "eating more and moving less" was the reason for obesity, it would have already been in full bloom by 1985. But I can tell you what happened in 1992: that's when the Food Pyramid came out.

I can tell you for a fact: people did change the way they ate. Dinner changed from a meat and two vegetables to a pile of pasta.

People started eating more and more and more.

But this didn't happen because of marketing or "lifestyles" or anything else. It happened because, when we eat according to the food pyramid, we are hungry all the time.

And it's not our fault.

October 17, 2011

One bad idea leads to another

When it comes to understanding how people jump to the wrong conclusions, I'm fond of the saying:

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Once enough influential bodies accepted the lipid hypothesis, both nutritional theories and their real world applications had to conform to its conclusions.

Low-saturated fat diets were recommended for heart patients. Then these same diets were considered a good idea for people who wanted to avoid becoming heart patients. Since overweight was a risk factor for heart attacks, it only made sense to recommend these same nutritional principles to those seeking to lose weight.

As the media and the food corporations began picking up on this message, it became even more simplified... and distorted. From "lower your saturated fat" the message became "fat is bad." That was easy to splash across a box or bag, so food manufacturers began touting their low-fat products.

Since so many outlets thought fat was bad, the general public internalized these messages. In the 1980's, it was repeated over and over that cutting fat from one's diet lowered the calories, and since "everyone knew" lowering calories was the way to lose weight, it made a relentless kind of sense to the embattled victims of overweight.

Naming your elephant Rover will not make them a dog.
The low fat/high carbohydrate diet was born. Nutritionists were quick to plug any holes in the dam by explaining that of course we had to exercise, too!

If it didn't work, it was our fault. It must be because we were still eating too much and not exercising enough.

The latest wrinkle in trying to make it work is the admission that processed carbohydrates are nutritionally empty and should be "eaten in moderation."

That also led to enshrining the unprocessed version of carbohydrates as the centerpiece of our daily intake; thus the emphasis on "healthy" whole grains.

All along, this officially-embraced, heavily-promoted, staked-a-reputation-on-it lipid hypothesis led to cholesterol-lowering drugs, the idea of very low fat diets to reverse heart disease, and a higher health reputation for vegetarianism. As a nation, we dutifully lowered our fat and increased our exercise.

Except none of this makes any of the science of the lipid hypothesis actually work.

October 14, 2011

The wrong road

Dr. Ancel Keys was actually the "K" in the famous K-rations used in the military during WWII. He did experimental research on the minimums required to keep the flame of life alive in human beings during times of food scarcity. (The resemblance to the "starve yourself" advice given by modern weight loss gurus is merely an eerie coincidence.)

Keyes lived long -- but not well
Keys, seen here shortly before his death at the age of 100, formulated the "lipid hypothesis," which theorizes that eating saturated fat leads to the clogged arteries of atherosclerosis, which in turn leads to heart attacks.

He was not a medical doctor; he received a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1930. But his human nutritional studies had led to a great deal of institutional respect. When he concluded, based on data from the European nations dealing with rationing as a result of WWII, that it was their lowered saturated fat intake that led to a lowered rate of heart disease; he was listened to.

His Seven Countries Study was the first study to systematically examine the relationships between lifestyle, diet, coronary heart disease and stroke in different populations from different regions of the world. It pointed clearly to saturated fat intake as a driver for heart attack incidence.

Except... he actually had data from twenty two countries. He left out all the countries which did not support his hypothesis.

This, in science, is known as "cheating."

In the words of a ground-breaking NYT article, "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?":

Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health ... is the de facto spokesman of the longest-running, most comprehensive diet and health studies ever performed. 
He says that low-fat weight-loss diets have proved in clinical trials and real life to be dismal failures, and that on top of it all, the percentage of fat in the American diet has been decreasing for two decades. Our cholesterol levels have been declining, and we have been smoking less, and yet the incidence of heart disease has not declined as would be expected. ''That is very disconcerting,'' Willett says. ''It suggests that something else bad is happening.''

October 12, 2011

What is the carbohydrate hypothesis?

I lost weight, and maintain my loss, by fitting my eating plan to the "carbohydrate hypothesis." What on earth is that?

100 years ago, this was a circus fat man.
This is the scientific theory that says eating carbohydrate in excess of our body's needs is what creates too much fat on our bodies.

Is this some new, cutting edge, theory? I wish.

It was first published in 1863, by a formerly obese British undertaker, William Banting.

The booklet describing Banting's successful weight loss was called Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. It became such a bestseller that "banting" was a synonym for "dieting" in the British Isles for many decades.

As detailed in the comprehensive guide to the subject, Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories, this scientific approach was solidly supported, and widely advised, right up to the 1960's. Weight Watchers started, in 1963, as a carbohydrate-restriction plan -- which was completely uncontroversial at the time.

Ever wonder why many restaurants still offer the "diet plate" for lunch, consisting of a scoop of cottage cheese on a lettuce leaf? A bread-less lunch is lower in carbohydrates; that's how popular and accepted the notion that "carbohydrates are fattening" had become. What happened? Why, in our own time, do so-called "diet experts" actually advocate eating even more carbohydrate and then exercising it off?

Ironically, it wasn't obesity research that created what we might call the "eat less, move more" theory of weight loss; the one so many labor in vain to follow. That was a side path carved out by the cardiac disease theories of Dr. Ancel Keys, who formulated the "lipid hypothesis." It was based on clinical observations that the "plaques" which clog up arteries are composed of cholesterol.

It was theorized that this made cholesterol the problem. It turns out cholesterol was not the problem; it was a symptom of the body's attempt at a solution. But by the time we figured that out, a whole bunch of more wrong assumptions had been acted upon.

October 10, 2011

Our toxic food environment

It's becoming more popular to recognize the "toxic food environment" we all live in as citizens of industrialized countries. Except the advocates of such a concept usually get the toxic part wrong. High fat and too many calories are the factors they claim are behind the Obesity Epidemic.

Except the way I lost weight, and have been keeping it off, was by increasing my fat and calories.

Wheat and sugar -- the obesity factory of the future!
How can an entire industry, combined with the weight of modern medical knowledge, be so wrong?

Because they have fallen into the trap of not knowing what it is they do not know.

They have observed that lowering calories lowers weight. Then, they stopped thinking.

This is how we get told that we are fat because we are simply eating too much. And we should get our giant behinds off the couch and move more, too.

Except... such methods have a failure rate of 95%. I don't want to do anything that has a failure rate of 95%! Yet when this is the best our "experts" have to offer, is it any wonder that people feel despair over changing their overweight fate?

I lost my weight, and have been keeping it off for a staggering seven years, by increasing my fat and calories; and lowering my intake of dietary carbohydrate. This actually targets the cause of overweight; overproduction of the hormone, insulin.

According to the "carbohydrate theory of overweight," carbohydrate drives insulin which drives fat.

What truly makes our food environment toxic is the overwhelming abundance of carbohydrate.

October 7, 2011

Believing in what doesn't work

Even doctors can be fooled by assumptions, as in treatments that do not have a proper scientific basis but are used on patients anyway.

This same kind of fact-blindness is at work when we are told that to lose weight, we must "eat less and move more." And we do. And it doesn't work.

I'm saying this as someone who successfully mastered it. For my body, it took an hour and a half a day of structured exercise (and this is all on the machines, no prep or commute time.) It took eating every two or three hours, of foods that made me hungry, like salad with no fat dressing.

This was a very difficult plan. This is the best they can do?

I went in young and strong.

I felt I had damaged my body with my binge eating and malnutrition from my periodic starve cycles which followed. I ate all the healthy foods like whole grain bread and low fat yogurt and rice cakes. I did a lot of cardio.

This, ironically, was the exact wrong thing to do.

When I couldn't exercise at that pace anymore; that whole way of eating worked against me.

Yet, it was still the only one they offered.

I did not regain my health and slimness until I was willing to admit there must be something wrong with the expert's advice. So I went against their advice, and it worked out well.

Or, I'm a mutant. Except; I'm not the only one.

October 3, 2011

But those are my favorite things!

I know that people regard my suggestion to eliminate wheat and sugar as an extreme one.
But we also know where moderation has gotten us.

Wheat and sugar have powerful effects on the body and the brain.

Our systems clamor for these foods because they have a short-term soothing effect.

Our metabolism reacts badly to these foods because they stress our energy pathways.

No good comes of this.

This is why it is so difficult to "cut down" on our favorite treats. The more we restrict them, the more we think about them. To imagine life without them, we envision ourselves unable to escape from the torment of wanting them.

But the opposite happens. The more we stay away from wheat and sugar, the less we want them.

Wheat contains exorphins and sugar raises serotonin; these are feel-good brain chemicals. It would be ridiculous to think we wouldn't reach for anything that soothes us so well in times of stress.

We knew these weren't health foods. Why wasn't our willpower strong enough?

Because willpower, like our muscles, are good for only so many "reps" and then it runs out of steam and stops. So we can't rely on our conscious brain continually over-riding urgent messages from our metabolic cellular structure.

We have to base our new eating system on a new eating system. Because few can eat artificially for long, and no one thrives on it.