Monday, 8 October 2012

A counterintuitive way to eat

Ladies and gentlemen, today, I’d like to introduce you to David T Breaker.

Mr Breaker is a self-described “Conservative Home blogger. Liberty defender. Jeffersonian. Goldwater Reagan type. Winner Britain's Most Boring 2012.”

He doesn’t explain what “most boring” aspect of his existence this year has been accorded such an honour, but then it’s not easy to do such things within the limits of Twitter.

However, in the midst of an online exchange the other day about the NHS (he hates it, unsurprisingly) he objected to the idea of obesity as ‘a disease’, even though at least some medical practitioners describe it as exactly that.

“You can't catch obesity!” He tweeted, shrilly. “You cause it yourself. It’s self harm.”

Not, quite apart from the fact that you can’t “catch” cancer either, the rest of his comment is utter, simplistic nonsense.

Not, I hasten to add, that he is the only one to believe such rubbish.

Quite coincidentally, I have just finished reading Escape the Diet Trap by Dr John Briffa.

In it, the author (a British doctor) starts by detailing what, for many people, has been their experience of trying to lose weight.

In effect, it has meant going on a calorie-controlled diet, with exercise. Seeing some weight loss – then putting it back on. With interest.

The popular view – presumably believed by the likes of Breaker – is that the eventual outcome is doubtless down to a lack of self-discipline, laziness, greed and probably a few other similar failings.

It is quite something to read a doctor saying that this is not necessarily the case.

Briffa highlights the way that diet advice has centred on a mantra of combining calorie reduction with cutting fat and increasing complex carbs (bread, rice, pasta, potatoes etc).

Yet as he shows, this is counterproductive to weight loss.

What the book does is not lay out a ‘diet’ (“this is not a diet book’, says the subtitle), but explains in some detail, and with recourse to countless studies, what happens when we eat different foods and the effect of those foods on us.

So he explains, for instance, about insulin and what this and other hormones do.

He doesn’t limit this weight alone, but also tackles the major health concerns like diabetes and heart disease (which is something else you don’t “catch”).

In essence, Briffa explains that, over some years, he has seen considerable benefits for patients moving to a different way of eating.

He stresses low carbohydrate, high protein – for all sorts of scientific reasons, but also because it sates hunger better than starchy carbs – and higher fat than is usually recommended.

On the latter, he points out that the ‘link’ between a diet rich in saturated fat and heart disease is overstated.

Indeed, in a blog post only last week, he showed some recent statistics to illustrate that the ‘French Paradox’ is really no paradox at all.

For those who aren’t familiar with that idea, the French experience appears to contradict the conventional ‘wisdom’ that a diet high in saturated fat leads to ‘high cholesterol’ leads to heart disease.

Not only do the French consume more dairy produce than anyone else on Earth, they’re hardly reluctant to eat meat – and that’s before we mention the south west, where they create wonderful things such as foie gras and duck confit. And still don’t have the heart disease we and the US do.

Briffa does, incidentally use foie gras to reinforce one of his key arguments: to fatten the duck or goose liver, the bird is not fed fat – but grain.

He also notes the benefits of cutting bread and other starchy carbs from your diet in terms of feeling less bloated.

Now, as I mentioned here, for a few weeks now I’ve been experimenting with lowering carbs – and cutting out bread. It started, as it happened, before I’d read Briffa.

The strangest thing – because however much you read, the opposite has been drummed into our minds – is that I feel lighter.

If I were to attempt to analyse it more closely, I would also add that I frequently feel as though my belly is flatter. I’m not hungry, so I can only assume this is a lack of bloatedness.

Have I really been feeling bloated, on at least a minimal level, for some years?

So, if nothing else comes of this, I currently feel that bit ‘better’.

Back to Breaker: Briffa’s experience with his own patients illustrates just how wrong he is.

But he patently forgets or brushes over other issues that are contributors to the wider issue that the UK as a whole faces today.

Briffa has no time for processed food, and slates cereals as readily as bread.

But just look at cereals: portrayed as a generally healthy breakfast staple, even many of the so-called really healthy ones are laden with sugar and salt.

Advertising is then combined with that conventional wisdom to say that complex carbohydrates are so good you need more of them – and people eat them who are trying to lead a healthy life and eat healthily and maintain their desired weight.

The medical profession and government public health bodies do not have brilliant form in this area: as in the US, the advice has hugely been influenced by the lies of Ancel Keyes about saturated fat and heart disease (he hid more than half the results of his survey because they didn’t tally with what he wanted to ‘prove’).

But it perhaps says something that, for his stance, Briffa received what he described as “an abusive and invective-laden email from the head of communications of the trade organisation the Flour Advisory Bureau”.

Such bodies have a vested interest in people continuing to believe that starchy carbs are the foundation of a healthy diet.

Perhaps Breaker would like to consider that sort of abuse for a change.

And in the meantime, Briffa’s book is well worth a read.

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