We need an old paradigm of why we get fat

How often have you heard some variation to, “There’s no secret to weight loss, you just have to exercise and eat less.” The implications are clear, if you are fat, it’s because you are lazy (you don’t exercise enough) or you are slovenly (you eat too much). Obesity and the associated diseases are the wages of sin and the only way to overcome these temptations is through will power and virtue.

These ideas that obesity is the result of eating too much or exercising too little or both is treated as a self-evident truth. People invoke the First Law of Thermodynamics and people who argue otherwise are marginalized as not understanding the First Law.

But what if it’s wrong? What if the causality is all mixed up? What if you eat more because your body is getting fat? What if you don’t feel like exercising because you are already obese? What if simple calorie restriction is not particularly effective in losing weight? It isn’t and yet it’s repeated over and over again, “You are overweight because you overeat,” and “If you just eat less, you will lose weight.”

In this lecture by Gary Taubes, he does a great job of showing the fallacy of the conventional wisdom:

It’s a longish video, about 70 minutes, but it’s a nice introduction to his ideas. If you find it all compelling I highly recommend his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. It’s not a diet book, it’s a science book, and it sets out to demolish some of the conventional paradigms we have about diet, obesity and disease.

UPDATE: Changed the title because we don’t need a new paradigm really, we need an old one. If you watch the video, you will understand what I mean.

My Local Farmer’s Market

Recently, I’ve taken to the idea of buying locally grown foods. This idea has been bouncing around the zeitgeist for some time now and usually when I hear about it, the reasoning behind it is the environment. Local foods should supposedly reduce your diet’s carbon footprint, since it has a shorter distance to travel to you.

That may often be true (though in some cases it may actually have a smaller impact to buy products from the global market), but it’s not exactly the kind of reason that vaults it to the top of my priorities. There are so many ways in which our lives impact the local and global environment, it’s hard to know where to begin. I have more personal reasons for looking into local food sources.

I’d like to be able to look my farmer in the eye. I want to find out how she raises her food. I want to know how she treats her animals and what she feeds them. I want to know whether her animals get to wander a pasture and graze or whether they spend time in a feed lot. And I’d like to be welcome to visit her farm. Do her animals eat the kinds of foods that they would eat if left to their own devices, or are they force fed whatever fattens them up the cheapest, even if it makes them sick. It’s nice to know that your lettuce has been grown without chemicals, but I’m more concerned with whether the cows I eat spend their days covered in their own filth and pumped full of antibiotics.

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When Gallbladders Attack

It starts as a faint feeling of discomfort in my abdomen, a deep ache or tightness, and then begins to spread. At the outset, I’ve mistaken it for hunger, but as it progresses, the pain increases. It becomes very clear what is happening. My gallbladder is malfunctioning. The ducts from the gallbladder are blocked, and the pain will soon become quite unbearable.

The most common symptom of biliary sludge — when it causes symptoms — is pain in the abdomen often associated with nausea and vomiting. This occurs when the particles obstruct the ducts leading from the gallbladder to the intestine.

Now, it’s not the worst pain I’ve felt in my life. I can certainly imagine pains that are deeper and more acute. However, it’s a very frustrating pain. My first few attacks, I didn’t even know what it was. I thought it was food poisoning. The nausea that accompanied it made me feel like vomiting might help, but it never did.

I tried a variety of products to lessen the symptoms. Alka Seltzer seemed to be the only one that had any effect.

When I finally talked to a doctor about it, he suggested that a pain reliever like Advil might help. “Take a few Advil when you feel the pain coming on.” So that is what I do now. When that pain starts to come on, I take a few Advil and/or some Alka Seltzer and lie down. Surprisingly it does the trick.

Now these attacks are infrequent. I had several last fall, but I think I’ve only had two this year. The hypothesis that I’m currently working under is that starches in my diet aggravate it. The first few attacks I had were after large meals with lots of rice. I also noticed that the lignans that accompany flax seed oil also irritate it, as do ground flax seeds themselves (the oil without lignans seems to be fine).

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Pollan vs. Taubes

I find it interesting that in the book Omnivore’s Dilemma, the author Michael Pollan takes, not one but two jabs Gary Taubes and his 2002 article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The first is in the introduction, and the second is here:

It remains to be seen whether the current Atkins school theory of ketosis—the process by which the body resorts to burning its own fat when starved of carbohydrates—will someday seem as quaintly quackish as Kellogg’s theory of colonic autointoxication. What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these applecart-toppling nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this nation’s diet overnight. One article in the New York Times Magazine in 2002 almost single-handedly set off the recent spasm of carbophobia in America.

I wonder if Pollan has read Taubes book. I’d be shocked if he hadn’t. To me there is much that they agree on. For instance, I bet they both would agree that we would be more healthy if we ate like our great grandparents did, and that traditional cuisines lead to healthier people than modern processed diets. They both see the large amount of processed carbohydrates like high fructose corn syrup as harmful to those that eat it. Furthermore, Taubes goes to great lengths to establish that cutting carbs to lose weight is not a late 20th century fad. It’s the accumulated wisdom of doctors and patients going back at least two centuries, precisely the kind of cultural wisdom that Pollan so admires in traditional cuisines.

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Would you send your kids to a school where you didn’t know the teachers?

Would you ever send your kids to a school where you didn’t know the teachers and you had no chance of ever meeting or interacting with the teachers?

Of course not.

So why do we accept a food system where we have little chance of meeting the farmer who grows our food?

There is an alternative, or rather alternatives.

Life is a pattern game

Last Spring, I listened to Freakonomics on CD as I drove from Illinois to Arizona. In the appendix, the authors have a short article on Seth Roberts and his strange idea that drinking sugar water can lead to weight loss.

A month or two later, frustrated with my inability to lose weight on my own, I looked up Seth’s scientific paper online about what makes food fattening and tried his method. It worked! I started losing weight again.

After a few weeks of sipping sugar water and drinking olive oil, I spent a week in New York for the Del Close Marathon. I was explaining it to a friend and he responded, “Oh you mean the Shangri-la Diet.”

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First Five Days on Low Carb

So far so good. I’ve made it through the first five full days on a low carb diet. Besides a small serving of berries and full fat yogurt each day, my diet has been meat, egg and cheese (usually with a serving or two of green leafy vegetables a day). My typical breakfast looks like this:

Low Carb Breakfast - Eggs and Ham

After five days, I’ve had no real weight loss. After a big meal, I’ve occasionally felt a bit overfull, which probably means I’m eating more than I need to. And on day two I had a small carb crash. But in general I’ve felt good. I haven’t felt very hungry. The food is relatively satisfying and the restrictions haven’t been hard to stay within. I miss the fruits and vegetables a bit, but I’m thinking that I’ll add a few servings of them back eventually.

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Good Calories, Bad Calories in a nutshell

I’m surprised how long it has taken me to get through Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. After 2 and half weeks, I’m still not done. I’m on the last chapter though. Maybe I’m just a slow reader.

The book is dense, bringing together a huge number of scientific studies that date back to the beginning of the the 20th century. His goal seems to be to overwhelm the reader with evidence that many of the assumptions about diet, obesity and disease are wrong. He isn’t content to give you one or two examples of studies that suggest that carbohydrates are the primary factor behind obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a range of other modern illnesses that were rare before the 20th century. He piles it on, determined to make sure that someone can’t read his book and dismiss it as “some fad diet book.” If you say he is wrong, you better bring your citations with you.

I’ve enjoyed the ride, but I wonder how many readers get bogged down and don’t finish it, or don’t care so much about the reams of evidence that Taubes has compiled and want to skip to his conclusions. One passage near the end that jumped out at me as something that people need to know:

By the mid-1960s, four facts had been established beyond reasonable doubt: (1) carbohydrates are singularly responsible for prompting insulin secretion; (2) insulin is singularly responsible for inducing fat accumulation; (3) dietary carbohydrates are required for excess fat accumulation; and (4) both Type 2 diabetics and the obese have abnormally elevated levels of circulating insulin and a “greatly exaggerated” insulin response to carbohydrates in the diet

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Switching to a Low Carb Diet

I have been slowing moving toward a low carb diet over the last couple of months and yesterday I took a big plunge to a diet that is mostly meat, eggs, cheese and some dairy. I am having a small amount of fruit and vegetables, but I’m cutting all sugar, bread, pasta, potatoes or other big sources of carbs for a while.

It’s very odd eating this much meat, cheese and eggs, especially when it’s not mixed in with noodles or bread. It’s almost a chore to eat two scrambled eggs and a ham steak for breakfast. I get full fast and even after a couple of days I’m kinda bored with the menu. On the positive side, I’ve already seen the scale start to budge a little and I’m feeling pretty good overall.

On the negative side, I think I’m experiencing a little carb crash. Today after lunch, I got very tired and my body felt a little tingly. It’s supposed to go away after a few days as your body switches gears and gets used to all the missing carbs. My plan is to eat a few berries with plain yogurt when I feel that way.

Yesterday morning (3/26), before I started the low carb diet, I weighed 176.4, about 20 pounds from my goal weight.