The men who made us thin

As a follow-up to The Men Who Made Us Fat, the fairly-predictably-titled The Men Who Made Us Thin was, on the basis of its first episode, a disappointment.

Now, you may feel that as someone who writes about diet approaches and offers weight coaching, I’m biased. And I am. Totally. I’m biased because I believe the central proposition of the programme was faulty. The host, Jacques Peretti, stated that only around 5% of people who try to lose weight keep it off. But he misspeaks. Firstly, the study he cites is limited to WeightWatchers- a weight loss approach I feel is outdated. Secondly, only 5% of people keep all of their weight off. Of course dieters are likely to put a few pounds, a kilo or three, back on once they adjust to a weight maintenance lifestyle. But in Peretti’s argument, they’ve failed.

It’s not to say that the episode made no good points. One aspect that was hammered home repeatedly was that someone on a diet is starving their body and the body responds appropriately – attempting to conserve as much of that energy as possible, slowing down metabolism and increasing food cravings. This is well known; it’s the source of the ‘starvation mode’ urban myth.

It’s telling that many of the facts shared in the original programme were omitted from this. For example, the first study that was referenced was explained to be from Ancel Keysdemonised as the ‘fat maker’ in the last series as he unscientifically identified fat, rather than sugar, as the main cause of obesity. This wasn’t mentioned here. Equally, the mention of Atkins was carefully phrased; something like “his detractors said that his diet caused his heart attack” without clearing up that misconception.

The whole thing was made to sound calculated and distrustful- when in fact, you could sum it up in two sentences.

  1. Every diet works, if you stick to it.
  2. Stop using the diet’s rules and you’ll regain your weight.

Eating out – Restaurant meals aren’t good for you.

A cheeky dinner out can be costly for your waistline.

Researchers from the University of Toronto examined the calorie, sodium, fat and cholesterol levels of 685 meals and 156 desserts from 19 sit-down restaurants around Canada. They found that the average meal has 1,128 calories. Given the average daily recommended intake for a British woman is 2,000 kcals, that’s over half used up at once.

Even worse, these meals are some of the unhealthiest you can eat. Another recent study looked at fast food in the US for the last 14 years. It showed that the nutritional value of the food available has pretty much remained the same, despite pledges to offer healthy choices.

Food from the companies included – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell,  KFC), Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen – were analysed and scored against a healthy eating index. In 1997 they scored 45/100. In 2009 that had risen to just 48/100. This was also compared to the average American’s diet, which scores 55/100.

So, food from restaurants is unhealthy and fattening. This isn’t surprising, but it shouldn’t be too worrying either – as long as your other meals are reduced in size accordingly. This is the problem for most of us; if meals out are normal, the other meals creep back up to standard sizes.So this is a Foodswap opportunity If restaurant food – (even a sandwich from Boots or Pret) are regulars in your diet. Reduce your meals-out frequency by bringing a lunchbox to work. Make your date night focus on a home-cooked meal, rather than one at a restaurant or the £10 Tesco deal.
A general focus away from pre-prepared food will help you set your own portion sizes and control your own calorific (and nutritional) inputs, leading to a healthier diet

Are you sitting down?

Amazingly, research has shown that a five-minute wander every half hour is more important when it comes to fending off diabetes than regular gym attendance.

The report, which reviewed many other studies, showed that those who sat the most had a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and death than those who sat the least.

This sounds obvious when phased like this. But in our everyday lives, most of us think that our health is down to the effort we put in at the gym – forgetting about what we do for the rest of the day, too.

In fact, according to a YouGov poll, a quarter of British adults now walk for less than nine minutes a day – including time spent getting to the car, work and the shops – that’s less than an hour every week. While nine out of 10 Britons agree that walking is a good form of exercise which can keep you healthy, most are not doing so nearly enough.

Almost half of people surveyed walk for two hours or less a week – meaning they are not doing enough walking to stay healthy. Chief medical officers recommend that adults do 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, like walking, per week, but 43 per cent of people surveyed walk for 120 minutes or less.

Dr Emma Wilmot, head of the study, said:

“If a worker sits at their desk all day then goes to the gym, while their colleague heads home to watch TV, then the gym-goer will have better health outcomes. But there is still a health risk because of the amount of sitting they do.

People convince themselves they are living a healthy lifestyle, doing their 30 minutes of exercise a day. But they need to think about the other 23.5 hours.”

I’ve spoken about NEAT before; this is more evidence of the same issue from the opposing angle. Those who move more throughout the entire day are healthier.

So stand up for your meetings. Walk during lunch. Get up to drink another water, then get up again to go to the loo.  Take ‘mini breaks’ from your desk. Run errands. Take part in hobbies that don’t include sitting down in the evening. Switch off the telly.

It’s looking even more important to your health than before.

Lack of exercise causing over 36,000 preventable deaths a year

A study published by the Lancet this month found that physical inactivity is one of the the UK’s top risk factors for death and disability.

The South West Public Health Observatory and Sustrans crunched the numbers and came out with the surprisingly specific 36,815 premature deaths in England caused by a lack of physical activity every year.

They think that if every 40-79 year-old in England was getting the 2.5 hours of activity a week currently recommended, each year there would be:

  • 12,061 fewer emergency hospital admissions for coronary heart disease
  • 6,735 fewer cases of breast cancer
  • 4,719 fewer cases of colorectal cancer
  • 294,730 fewer people living with diabetes

Unsurprisingly, their advice is to leave your car at home and walk – because Sustrans is a charity that promotes sustainable transport. But that doesn’t invalidate their argument;

“…the key for most people is to build physical activity into their daily lives, rather than thinking of it as something extra to fit in to already hectic lifestyles. One way to do this is to leave cars at home, walk and cycle more often to school, work and for leisure.”

Sugar is toxic

Eating too much is bad for you. That’s well known. But what more and more studies are showing is that sugar specifically is terrible.

In a NYTimes opinion piece, Mark Bittman writes (emphasis mine):

A study published in the 27 February issue of the journal PLoS One links increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of [type 2] diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of [t2] diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. And after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.

In other words and to oversimplify, according to this study, obesity itself doesn’t cause “adult onset” diabetes, the version that you give yourself: sugar does.*

A fairly bold claim. But people make claims like this all the time – what makes this different?

The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s… “You could not enact a real-world study that would be more conclusive than this one.”

Ouch. But it gets worse. David DiSalvo wrote in Forbes:

Overeating, poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression – all have been linked in recent research to the over-consumption of sugar.

[…]Research indicates that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t form new memories and we can’t learn (or remember) much of anything.

[…]Research has also linked low BDNF levels to depression and dementia. It’s possible that low BDNF may turn out to be the smoking gun in these and other diseases, like Alzheimer’s… what seems clear in any case is that a reduced level of BDNF is bad news for our brains, and chronic sugar consumption is one of the worst inhibitory culprits.

So, eating too much sugar is directly linked to type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia and a host of other problems. It also highlights something missing in the “calories in < calories out” weight loss model that has been preached for decades. Calories are not equal. We’re not engines; although 1 calorie will give off the same amount of energy regardless of where it was obtained, the source of that energy can have vastly different impacts on your body and your health.

*Note: It has been rightly pointed out that I didn’t distinguish between type 1 and type 2 (t2) diabetes, which I have now corrected. Type 2 diabetes does have some genetic predisposition – not all people who trigger t2 diabetes are overweight or have poor diets.back

Nike keeps FuelBand only for iPhone

Disappointing news from Nike – they’ve recently announced that they’ve stopped work on their much-delayed FuelBand Android app. Android users can still review and control their band using the PC programme, but the need to physically plug the band into your own PC running their software really limits the appeal of the FuelBand as a tracking device, which is largely based on its simplicity and that it’s “always there”.

It’s an interesting move, considering the rumours that Apple is planning to launch an iWatch in the near future that would probably contain the same sort of personal tracking technology. Are Nike and Apple working together on this?

CNET: Nike snubs Google: FuelBand sticks to iOS and Web.

Calories are wrong

Foods such as muesli contain more calories than dieters think, because current labels do not take into account the calories in fibre. Photograph: Corbis


In an article
as part of its series on Obesity, the Guardian has reported that calories are counted incorrectly.

Meanwhile the system overestimates, by up to 20%, the content of some protein-rich foods such as tuna steak that can take more energy to digest than simple carbohydrates such as white bread.

When the calorie was first agreed in 1824 it was a unit of heat, not energy. The amount of calories in a food is calculated by burning it. That’s a poor approximation of how food is digested in the gut. Dense, hard-to-digest foods are therefore shown as having a higher Calorie value than the body can reasonably claim from the food – and the reverse is true for easy-to-access energy like carbohydrates.

This, of course, is not a new realisation. The calorie has been replaced in science for decades. The unit we should use is the joule, as adopted in Australia, New Zealand and most of the non-English speaking world.

What does this mean for dieters? It’s another reason to show that “calories in < calories out”, or the idea that slimming is easiest when just thought of as reducing your calorie intake, is too simplistic for the real world. Reducing your carbohydrate intake and increasing the amount of vegetables you eat fits well with these findings.

Read more: The Guardian: Food labelling underestimating calorie content of some foods, scientists say

GymPact now lets you work out at home

GymPact, one of my favourite commitment contracts, has updated to allow you to record workouts at home – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Their app update (already available on iTunes and coming soon to Android) has a new option that uses your phone’s accelerometer to check that you’re moving. Move fast enough for 30mins within a 90min period and you’ve counted another workout for the week.

This is a great addition to GymPact’s arsenal of fitness avoidance excuse-busters; Even if you’re not a runner or a gym rat you can log your activity.