There are those in the diet world who stick firmly to the “Calories In, Calories Out” (CICO) model, citing the “Law of Thermodynamics”. This is a bit of a problem, and can be easily knocked over as an argument. Firstly, there is no one “Law of Thermodynamics”. If someone quotes that at you, ask them if they mean the zero-th, first, second or third law. That will probably shut them up! The thing is that we have been advised to eat less and exercise more to lose weight for the last 50-60 years and during that time obesity rates have soared around the world. Clearly something is wrong.
There has been much work over the last decade to show that, in human nutrition terms, a calorie is not just a calorie, and I put myself firmly in that camp. CICO leads to weight-loss advice that says either eat less, exercise more, or both. This is over-simplistic, and if you want chapter and verse on how to demolish this argument, read Gary Taubes’ books. ”Why We Get Fat” is the easy book: Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Known as “The Diet Delusion” in the UK) is the “big book” (if exercise is all you need, you could lose weight simply by carrying GCBC around with you!)
But while I am a total fan of Gary, and feel that his books have changed my life, the good old calorie can still tell us a few things: it can show you just how easy it can be to become malnourished when you’re on a diet.
For instance, the “average” person needs around 2000 calories a day to maintain normal life. This, of course, varies a lot. According to the math I would need 3050 calories a day to maintain my current size, and my wife would need 1755 (she’s younger, much smaller, and more active than me). You can see that it’s quite a range.
We know that body fat is a highly-effective energy storage medium: one pound (.45kg) of fat contains 3500 calories. So if we just go with the basic idea of “eat less”, if we want to lose 1lb a week we need to consume 3500 calories less per week, or 3500/7=500 calories less per day. For Susan that would mean reducing her daily calorie intake by 28%, for me I’d need to reduce by 16%.
That’s all very well, but our food is not just an energy supply. In addition we need micro-nutrients and, although as their names implies we don’t need much of them, when we don’t have enough the results can be horrendous. For instance, a severe deficiency of vitamin C causes a disease called scurvy, where your teeth fall out, you get suppurating sores and you get severely depressed (well, you would, wouldn’t you?)
Beri beri, a disease caused by a lack of thiamin (vitamin B1) caused extreme lethargy and even death. And pellagra, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B3 (niacin) affected more than three million people in the American south, killing 100,000 of them in the early part of the 20th century.
I got quite a shock, researching this.
I am from the UK but my wife is American and her father was a southerner. When she grew up she was accustomed to eating grits (from the same stem as English “groats”) and still enjoys grits when we go out to breakfast if we are in the Southern states. I have always laughed: to me grits looks like wallpaper paste, tastes not much better, and I imagined it to be completely devoid of nutrition, because grits is made from corn kernels, dried and soaked in lime (that’s the chemical, not the juice of the fruit!) But apparently, the key nutrient in corn (maize), niacin, is biologically unavailable (it’s locked up). However, if you treat the maize with lime it makes the niacin nutritionally available. Traditionally, new world cultivators of maize knew this (how?!) since 1500BC and didn’t suffer from pellagra, but when maize started being shipped around the world, people who adopted it without knowing about this process of nixtamalization developed diseases of malnutrition.
Now you may think that these were all diseases of the past, and that we no longer need to worry, but here’s the interesting (and worrying) thing … these are diseases of extreme malnutrition, but malnutrition happens on a sliding scale. If you are bit short of micro-nutrients you might not suffer from anything as bad as pellagra, beri beri or scurvy, but your health will be negatively affected.
Various governments publish “Recommended Daily Allowances” (known by various names depending on the government and the day of the week) for various nutrients. But these amounts are the amount that, if everyone in the population had that much, around 50% of them wouldn’t get ill. How much you need, not just to avoid malnutrition, but to be in optimum health, is probably much more than the RDA, or whatever your country calls it.
So, if you are aiming to lose one pound a week on your diet, and you do it by reducing what you eat by between 15% and 30%, you’re reducing your micro-nutrients by that amount, too.
Scary, isn’t it?
Before dieting you were probably malnourished to some degree; now you’re dieting it’s got worse. We have all heard of pregnant women getting cravings–that’s because the baby is using up the mother’s micro-nutrients. The craving is the body’s drive to get the mother to correct the deficiency.
But, if we’re eating a “normal” diet, are we getting all the nutrition we need? No. In the Standard American Diet (SAD), which (obviously, by definition) most Americans, and large numbers of people in the rest of the world eat, our food is deficient in these micro nutrients, for a variety of reasons:
- The soil is worn out: we keep cropping, but don’t replace what we take out
- The time from field to fork gets longer: vitamins start to decay once a plant is picked. In America the average distance travelled from field to fork is around 1500 miles. And if you think it’s better in Europe, just remember that most of your “fresh” vegetables and salad stuff comes from southern Spain. A tomato grown in a greenhouse in Malaga will have done over 1500 miles by the time it gets to a supermarket in Birmingham.
- Vegetables, nowadays, are picked before they are ripe, so that they will last longer on supermarket shelves.
- Food is irradiated, destroying its DNA.
- A lot of food is so processed that it has few, if any, micro-nutrients: what we call “junk food”.
So, we are already eating a diet that is low on nutrition, and then we eat 15-30% less of it. Less of a bad diet is a worse diet, not better. No wonder we have cravings and get hungry.
What are we to do?
Well, I already knew a lot of this information about nutrition, but it wasn’t at the top of my consciousness until I read Naked Calories and Rich Food, Poor Food by Jason and Mira Calton. Time for a declaration of interest. Currently I have no commercial relationship with the Caltons at all. But I am so impressed with the books, and with their supplement, that I am hopeful that I may be able to import it into the UK. I’ll alter this sentence if and when that happens!
By now you will understand the title of this post. If most of the food we eat is just “naked calories”, how can we make sure that our calories are well-dressed? The art and science of making sure that you have enough micro-nutrients is complex (one of the things I like about the Calton’s supplements is that they have made it very easy), but there are some things that we can do straight away.
Looking at the list of problems above, you can see that eating your five a day will help, especially if they come from a local, organic farm. When we live in Florida we buy as much as we can from Lake Meadow Naturals (about 10 miles from where we live) and in the UK we use Sunnyfields Farm and Beechcroft Farm, both, I was surprised to find, exactly 9 miles away from where we live, but in opposite directions!
Next, don’t keep stuff too long. Buying it fresh, organic and local is all very well, but if it sits in the veg drawer in the fridge until it’s floppy and unpleasant, you might have done better to buy canned or frozen!
Lastly, for now, aim for the most nutrient-dense foods that you can find. I will be helping with that by posting about various foods. For now, check out my recent blog post “Which Avocados are best for Paleo/Primal?”
And educate yourself. For starters, read the Calton’s books, and click the various links on this page. And watch out for the next posts in this series.
It is an occupational hazard of being overweight (in America the current politically correct term is “a person of size”!) that every second person wants you to read their favourite book, and when you run a website called Live Free From Obesity the frequency rises dramatically!
But I rate Kali’s opinion, so I thought I’d at least follow the link to Amazon, discovered that it’s only £4.05 on the Kindle (or on my iPad), thought “what the heck” and downloaded it just before Susan and I jumped into the car to head to Gatwick to catch the plane to Florida (to look after her sick Mom).
I had wanted to go to bed early, because we had to be at the airport early, but I started reading it in bed in the hotel and had to force myself to put it down and go to sleep at about 01:00am. By the time we landed in Orlando the next day I had read it one and a half times.
Gary is a science writer, but/and a very good one. He has been fascinated by all the bad (or non-existent) science behind nutritional advice, both in the USA and the rest of the world.
Gary’s theme is that we “people of size” (not his term) don’t get to be this way because we eat too much and exercise too little. And in the first half of the book he completely demolishes “gluttony and sloth” as adequate explanations for obesity. Gary says that we don’t get fat because we eat too much, but that we eat too much because we are growing fat. Does that scramble your brain? It did mine, until Gary talked about teenage boys.
We all know that teenage boys have growth spurts. We know that teenage boys eat a lot, and any of us who have had anything to do with teenage boys know that they can appear very lazy. But no-one would think to say “my son is growing tall because he eats too much”. We wouldn’t think of saying that the boy is growing tall because he never gets out of bed. We know that his hormones have triggered the growth spurt, and that his system craves more energy to fuel the growth spurt … and takes so much energy in making him grow tall, that he frequently doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.
So why would it be any different if we’re growing width-wise as opposed to height-wise?
But why do we get fat? Popular wisdom says that it’s all down to the 1st law of thermodynamics, and that you can’t deny the physics. Take more calories in than you expend through exercise, and you’re bound to get fatter. Hmm, says Gary. Imagine there are a row of rooms and each of these rooms has an entrance door and an exit door. Now imagine that a crowd of people is moving through the rooms. But one room has many more people in it than all the rest. You ask me why, and I say it’s because more people are entering that room than leaving it, and you look at me as though I’m losing the plot. ”Well, obviously!” but why? I have just stated the obvious, without any sort of explanation.
That’s the same as saying that I’m fat because I ate too much and didn’t exercise enough. Yes. Obviously. But Why? Again, popular wisdom would say that it’s obvious that I’m a greedy, lazy slob.
But nowadays we get children as young as 6 months old who are obese. Can it be that they are already greedy and lazy? Unlikely.
Gary explains how it’s all down to our endocrine system, and gives us a series of lessons: Adiposity 101, Endocrinology 101, etc. I can’t reproduce the entire book here: go get your own copy!
But if you’d like to sample Gary’s writing before lashing out a whole £4.05 for the Kindle edition, or a massive £4.49 for the paperback, try some of his New York Times articles:
A good place to start is with “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie“, published in the NYT in 2002.
Next try “Is Sugar Toxic“, a response in the NYT (April 2011) to the runaway viral success of Robert Lustig’s You Tube video, which I wrote about in my “Truth About Sugar” blog post back in early April.
But maybe you’d like to see and hear Gary. He did a lecture at Crossfit (a physical training outfit for people serious about getting fit: that Crossfit link is scary, but Crossfit is actually for everyone: check out this story in Sydney, Australia.) and the lecture was videoed and posted in three parts on You Tube: here they are:
Gary Taubes Cross Fit Talk, Part 1
Gary Taubes Cross Fit Talk, Part 2
Gary Taubes Cross Fit Talk, Part 3
In that lecture Gary referred several times to his first (500 page) book, called Good Calories — Bad Calories in the USA, and The Diet Delusion in the UK.
If you want to study this stuff in depth, or you’d like to see what a serious scientific investigative journalist can get up to for five years, then this is the book for you!
It arrived Friday morning (today is Saturday) and I’m just a couple of chapters in, but already I am enthralled.
Just by way of interest: having read Why We Get Fat on the plane to Orlando, I decided (despite having two week’s worth of Lipotrim in my case) to try Gary’s eating plan. I ate really well: eggs and bacon for breakfast (with mushrooms and tomatoes), cold meats and salad for lunch, and steaks, broccoli, salads for dinner. My weight dropped slightly (I had been worried it might soar!). My blood sugar continued to fall, and my blood pressure fell slightly.
I will return to Lipotrim, just as soon as I have the psychological and emotional support I need in place, to go through what Atkins would call the Induction Phase. I will be writing blog posts about Atkins, The Gabriel Method, and about T-Tapp training, and will then start to tie all these together.
Watch this space!