Fat Fiction Fat, lies and measuring tape


Fat people eat less than thin people

Meat and fat, a carnivore's dream

Have you ever met someone incredibly academically clever, yet lacking all common sense? Unless you happen to be that kind of person, you’ll recognise this as the guy who can mentally compute Pi to a thousand places, yet fail to work the pedestrian crossing. The girl who has committed the periodic table to memory, yet can’t seem to open the door. What happens when those kind of people conduct scientific research? They miss the blindingly obvious right in front of their bespectacled noses. And there’s no greater example than the paper known as the “American Paradox”.

This paper isn’t new – it dates back to 1996 – but it should have been headline news. Called snappily “Divergent trends in obesity and fat intake patterns” , they tell us that

- from 1976 to 1991, the number of overweight US citizens rose 31%
- total calorie intake decreased from 1854 kcal to 1785 kcal, a drop of 4%
- average fat intake – adjusted for total calories – dropped from 41% to 36.6%, an 11% decrease.
- number of people eating low calorie products rose from 19% to 76%
- the incidence of a sedentary lifestyle did not change over this period.

In case your eyes glazed over, people got fatter the more low calorie / fat free products they ate. And they did so in spite of their overall number of calories going down.

Excellent, so what conclusions would you like to draw from this? Anyone? Anyone? Yes you who’s having trouble with your shoelaces at the back there, what do you think?

“These diverging trends suggest that there has been a dramatic decrease in total physical activity related energy expenditure. Efforts to increase the average American's total exercise- and non-exercise-related physical activities may be essential for the prevention of obesity.”

Erm. Right, yes, that is one way of interpreting it sure. So everyone needs to exercise a bit more to burn off the fat, but remember we did say sedentary lifestyles didn’t change over this period, so it’s possible that everyone stopped playing football, but there might something… shall we say a little more obvious. Anyone? Anyone?

It’s painful. Really painful. If you think it’s calories in, calories out, nothing whatsoever will shake you from that belief. Nothing at all. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to work out what this means. It’s not how much you eat, it’s what you eat that counts.

But what about exercise?
You exercise more, you eat more, simple. You’ll feel good sure, but it’s not an effective form of weight control, and this is coming from me who’s just run a first-time marathon. A physiologist tested this theory recently with marathon runners, and sure enough, she concluded:

"Despite conventional wisdom, a majority of runners do not lose body weight while training for a marathon; instead the program results mainly in weight stability."

So why do you get fat?
So being fat is not about calories. It’s not about exercise. And yes sure, some people do overeat – Sumo wrestlers spring to mind with their 5000 calories a day – but most people clearly don’t. They get fat because they can’t burn it off. They can’t burn it off because they are not eating the nutrients you need – the metabolic keys to the ignition. The thing was, we’d probably be just about OK if Ancel Keys hadn’t stepped up with his shonky science telling us to avoid saturated fat to avoid heart disease – a prediction in hindsight so gloriously flawed, it makes David Icke’s ideas about the Queen Mother’s reptilian ancestry seem quite sensible. But Ancel told us to avoid saturated fats, so governments around the world took heed. Fat consumption went down, and consumption of foods that strip out nutrients and minerals went up.

Is saturated fat bad?
Nope. I gloss over this like everyone knows it isn’t. Ironically everyone does seem to know within the multitude of paleo-ish health blogs out there, but it’s not a majority view. If you want to get the full, unadulterated story about how we came up with some of the worst dietary advice since “For mash get Smash”, read the man who launched a thousand nutritional careers, Gary Taubes and his book Good Calories Bad Calories. If you want the abbreviated version, together with some solid insight, Mark Sisson has done a great job explaining why cutting the fat off your bacon is devil’s work. Taking this to its logical SuperSize Me-esque conclusion, check out Tom Naughton and his movie Fat Head. It’s such a mammoth site, it deserves a review of its own, another time.

Foods and nutrients
So we ate less fat - and then ate foods that actively strip out nutrients. Like what? White flour and sugar, closely followed by other grains and legumes. And what nutrient have we stopped eating? Fat.

I know the big post on wheat which the entire premise of this site depends on is waaaaaaay overdue, but in the meantime, it’s old (2 months, which in internet terms is an entire Jurassic era) but brilliant - if you haven’t already read Denise Minger’s ridiculously good study of the data on wheat in the China study, go there now. The highlight is this – consumption of wheat is the strongest predictor of body weight and heart disease.

Is it just wheat causing the world to get fat? Of course not - I believe the root cause of obesity is simply a lack of nutrients. You either don’t eat enough, you eat foods that strip nutrients, or you eat foods that damage your ability to absorb nutrients. Refined wheat is in a unique position of occupying first place in all three categories. You eat until you get enough nutrients. It doesn't matter if that makes you fat, you'll do it anyway.

So have scientists dumped calories in calories out?
A qualified dietician, and there’s not many of those about, said in some frankly arse about face press release today:

“While we wish we didn’t have to say we told you so, the only hope of slowing the obesity epidemic is to reverse our culture of eating too much, too often one bite at a time,” says Meredith Luce

She’s devised a cunning way of tackling the obesity epidemic. Eat just 80 bites a day. She’s even created an Iphone app to help you count them. Or in another word, starve yourself. Slowly.

Run come save me. It doesn’t have to be this complicated.

Incredible tiger photo courtesy of Tambako

Comments (13) Trackbacks (0)
  1. How come undernurished people in africa are skin and bones then?

  2. You’re full of shit..

    I’ve been fat all my life. The only thing that tends to work is the removal of all the high saturated fat food that i’ve been eating, even in small portions. Bottomline: if you’re not eating it and eating natural food without all the fat, you lose weight and become thin. Took me 25 years to get that through my thick skull, idiot…

    • If you’re big enough to admit you were wrong in your diet choices, you should be big enough to play the ball not the man eh Mark?
      You lost weight eating natural nutritious food is not a revelation, it’s exactly what this site is about. The fact you’ve ascribed it to losing saturated fat based on your n=1 experience does absolutely nothing to detract from the facts. Low-fat produce is now a worldwide industry. Seed oil has replaced lard and low-fat yoghurts from full fat. And still the world gets fatter.

  3. I used to live in sub-Saharan Africa, in one of the poorest countries in that impoverished region and one of the poorest regions of that country. Guess what? There – were – no – fat – people. There just wasn’t enough food to make them fat. There were people who were lucky and healthy weight like me, because they managed to get ENOUGH to eat, but nobody over there really had access to excess food. I find the use of the term “obesity epidemic” frankly rather insensitive since it’s just a matter of people who can afford too much food lacking proper self-control (besides of course things like Prader-Willis syndrome, but those are very rare).
    And yes, I am aware that poor people in the US tend to have higher obesity rates because they can afford only soda and dollar menu items from McDonalds. But – news flash – you STILL don’t NEED to eat the whole burger every time you buy it. Share it, or throw some away, thus reducing your caloric intake, and you will not be fat – and if you share it, you’ll SAVE some money too. Yes, you might not get the proper nutrients, but if you can only afford soda and a hamburger you won’t get those nutrients no matter how much you consume. You can be undernourished and fat, or undernourished and normal weight, which are both rather unfortunate choices but at least the second one’s better. And there are now healthier items even on the dollar menu, or one (if truly poor) can go to a food bank to obtain fruits/vegetables, so hopefully American poor can actually get a proper nutrition. But they can stop being fat right now.

    • Whether or not you believe the term ‘epidemic’ is insensitive or not is a moot point – obesity is classified as not only an epidemic, but as a pandemic condition. The problem is worldwide, and naturally not as prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, but still on the increase even in the 3rd world.
      Your opinion that self-control is the sole determinant of obesity is way off the mark. If all things being equal, two twins are given free access to two diets and one diet makes them fat, are you seriously suggesting that the fatter twin should be castigated for their lack of self-control? Put the blame where it lies – on the diet.
      Poverty and obesity are clearly intertwined, and by extension of what you’re saying, poor people have no self-control, as they constitute the fattest part of the population in western world.
      Finally, behind the idea of self-control is that if you follow the standard advice, you won’t be fat. Millions of people have realised that processed carbs cause weight gain, rather than some personality defect or laziness but millions more haven’t. Personal responsibility carries weight in so far as people are advised correctly and have access to the right foods. There are clear global failures on both of these counts. Blaming all obesity on the individual is like blaming North Koreans for their lack of knowledge of global politics.

  4. I agree with you in some regards–for example, your mentioning the importance of nutrients important to fat metabolism and energy. However, I do believe there is a fundamental flaw in one of your assumptions. Let me see if I can explain: The quote above that you listed about “low calorie product consumption going down” assumes that people began eating less and subsequently gained weight as a result. Your assumption is that these relatively “nutritionless” foods devoid of calories did not provide enough of the metabolic “catalysts” to burn off weight and so people just get fat. However, this assumption is not taking into account the thermic effect of food as well as the “caloric availabilty” of food. I agree with you that excess calories in do not necessarily mean weight gain, but for completely different reasons. Processed foods by their very definition are “processed.” This processing changes the particle sizes of food and subsequently makes them more readily absorbed in the body. Many studies have conclusively proved that cooking food, for example, makes more of the calories available (i.e. absorbable) than foods eaten raw and unprocessed. So the same volume/calories of cooked broccoli when compared to raw will cause more calories to be absorbed in the body than raw food. This means that it is still all about calories/energy when it comes to weight gain and loss. A similar issue is at play when you calculate the thermic effect of food. Close to thirty% of calories are lost during digestion from protein rich foods and similar numbers are found in high fiber foods. Fiber causes calories from all macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) to be excreted in stool–Fecal Energy Excretion. To summarize: The more processed and cooked food people began to eat, the less fiber, whole food protein, and raw food they consumed. This led to an overall better absorption and retention rate of calories in the body than in previous diets. They literally could get more energy out of their food. As a result, weight goes up. So in the end, it is still all about energy in and energy out (but good nutrition certainly does help with weight loss and energy):)

    • Hi Bo, thanks for solid feedback, and it’s a good point. Ingestion doesn’t equal absorption. But, here’s where we differ because I don’t agree it is all about calories, except on a purely technical level.
      If calorie consumption went down (which it did), and the only change was the nutritional composition of the food, and obesity correspondingly went up, then it’s the food that matters. Several things are at work when the composition changes:
      - as you rightly point out, different absorption rates will affect calorific intake
      - metabolic rate slows, so calorific requirements drop.
      - nutritional availability affects ability to burn fat as a fuel.
      - appetite changes
      While it’s true that calories are literally causing obesity because the energy has to come from somewhere, the bigger issue is for me the appetite that’s driving to consume excess energy. The correlation between the introduction of low fat foods (which we now know was built on science that’s since been discredited) and obesity is almost certainly a large part of this. The traditional calories in/calories out doesn’t get to the bottom of it – if a change of foods is causing people to get fat, that’s the cause. Calories explains one part of the process, but not all. The other wider point is the myth that all fat people are gluttonous slobs devoid of any willpower. Some are obviously, but if the overall calorie take is down, it’s the food composition that’s causing it. If someone gets struck by lightening, is it fault of the electricity or that fact they were waving a metal rod in the air? Technically it’s the electricity causing the problem but you’d probably advise not to play golf in a thunderstorm instead. Cheers

  5. Great points, Mike! I really think we agree more than disagree. I too believe that nutrition is of supreme importance–especially when it comes to preventing cravings, preventing disease, enhancing energy, fueling metabolic processes, etc. I also have seen time and time again that my clients who really buckle down with not only tracking “intake” but work hard on improving the nutritional “quality” of the their food do the best with weight loss. I agree with you that the kind of food your eating can definitely affect metabolic rate and the body’s ability to burn fat. For example, a lack of Vitamin C or B vitamins in the body can make it very difficult to oxidize fat.

    I think we both agree that at the “technical” level–it ultimately comes down to if more calories are retained than are burned (metabolized), this will equate to weight gain. However, certain kinds of foods are more likely to be stored than others (i.e. sugars and fats versus fiber and protein) and other foods promote cravings, hunger, and overeating more so than others. I agree that the best way to lose weight is to eat a “healthy” diet…now the question becomes: “What is a ‘healthy’ diet?” and “According to who?” Thanks Mike:)

    • Hi Bo, thanks for the comment. I know the headline is a bit of stretch when you have obese folk knocking back 6000 calories in a day, but adding a footnote with “* on average, but it’s still too much” lessens the impact :)
      As for a healthy diet, myself I’d say according to evolution – anything else is flawed by virtue of having so little empirical evidence, so it’s paleo all the way…

  6. EXCELLENT blog, Mike :)

    It is nice to see another person who knws the Caloric Hypothesis has MASSIVE contradictory data against it.

  7. There is actually something to this, scientifically speaking. I am a type 1 diabetic and the injection of insulin has caused me to gain more than 100 pounds. My diabetes is perfectly controlled, with a1c tests under 6.5 at all times over the past 22 years. I ate 1400 calories a day and GAINED WEIGHT. Now, I eat about 3500 calories a day and I’m losing weight. A lot of it. Really, it is quite simple. By limiting insulin without sacrificing blood sugar control, I am limiting the hormone responsible for the creation and storage of fat in the body. I have no choice but to take insulin. I’m a juvenile diabetic. However, I can limit what I take. Here’s what I do: I get 105 grams of carbohydrate per day. That’s the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 slices of bread at every meal plus a slice of bread to put wherever I want. Really, there’s no reason to eat more than that for anyone. But, I have a MINIMUM of 96 grams of protein per day and NO LIMIT to my fat intake. Protein and fat slow the absorption of carbohydrates (both simple and complex). The nutrients contained in them also increases the efficiency of insulin in the long term. Do I exercise? No. I don’t. But, I’m eating 3500 calories a day and in 3 months I have lost 27 pounds. So really, yeah, there’s something to the “what you eat” theory.

    • Hi Cyanne, that’s as good as advert as any, amazing it’s such a stark contrast. What I’d love to know – but of course we don’t yet – is the impact of the changes on your diet to gut flora – that then follow on to insulin.
      Thanks for sharing.

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