Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Appendix : Atkins and Paleo

I quite like having this section as the appendix, as I had my own removed as a result, I suspect, of eating too much animal protein. Anyway, I wanted to talk about about the Atkins/Paleo/High protein/Low carb diet, not least because I subscribed to it myself for a while. There's a lot about it that's very attractive. I thought I was so clever, eating tasty food and cocking a snook at the establishment. I knew something they didn't! Unfortunately, what I knew was a) what I wanted to hear and b) garbage.

I don't want to be too glib about it and in the interests of being fair, I may be over-simplifying the Atkins message. One the other hand, I'm sure that the explanations given were designed to sound simple, to be interpreted in a very simplistic way. The basic rationale that I inferred from the books I read went something like this.

Fat isn't the enemy. Sugar is the enemy. Sugar is the modern day curse - here's a graph showing sugar consumption vs chronic disease since 1900 ZOMG IT'S A LINE. Furthermore, when you eat starch (potatoes, pasta, bread etc.), do you know what happens to that starch in your digestive system? It's converted to sugar. THAT MAKES IT THE SAME. And what's diabetes? Too much sugar in the bloodstream! QED. Don't eat sugar, don't eat carbs, fat is fine and protein is even better.

Superficially, there's some truth in those points. Let's break them down one by one. Increase in sugar consumption does indeed correlate with the increase in chronic disease over the last 100 years. However, so do increases in fat consumption, animal protein consumption, meat consumption, dairy consumption and so on [1]. You could almost say consumption of everything (except fruit and vegetables). For most of this time, high sugar foods were also high fat foods [2]. Fast food, cookies, chocolate, ice cream and the rest. High sugar but also high in saturated fat. Correlation is not (necessarily) causation, when many other substances that have also seen increased consumption in this time.

Starch is indeed converted to sugar during digestion. But that's the key word, digestion. If you swallow a spoonful of sugar, or drink a Coca-Cola, that sugar goes into your bloodstream very quickly. This causes an insulin surge as the body tries to deal with this influx of sugar, with associated strain on the liver and potential for exacerbating diabetes or pre-diabetes, more of which below. When you eat a potato, however, it takes time to digest that starch, to disassociate it from the fibre. The sugar is released gradually into the bloodstream, and there's no surge that's difficult for the body to handle. Similarly with fruit, it contains sugar, but it's bound up with fibre that takes time to digest and there is a more controlled release of sugar into the bloodstream.

That sugar needs to be transferred to the muscles where it is converted to energy. Insulin plays a key role in this transfer process. When this process isn't working properly, sugar can't be transferred into the muscle cells, the body tries to produces more insulin to lower the blood sugar levels, but it doesn't work - basically this is Type 2 Diabetes. When you have Type 2 Diabetes, you have to be very careful about eating sugar because your body can't send it where it needs to go.

However, we now know that high sugar levels don't CAUSE Type 2 Diabetes. The problem is caused when fat is absorbed into the muscle cells. This interferes with the process of extracting the sugar from the blood (it starts to get complicated here) but the upshot is that excess FAT consumption causes the problem. Once the problem is there, you can manage it by not eating sugar, but excess sugar accumulating in the bloodstream makes the symptoms much worse. It is complicated and I hope I have made that point without over-simplifying too much, but the thrust is that too much saturated fat essentially causes initiation of Type 2 Diabetes, not sugar. See Dr Barnard's presentation, which also convincingly argues that reduction of fat intake can reverse the disease.

So the main points of the Atkins argument, as I interpreted them anyway, were based on over-simplifications and half-truths. However, most people would find that Atkins brought short-term results. After all, cutting out sugary processed foods is definitely a plus. In addition, when starved of carbohydrates, the body burns its own carbohydrate stores, which are bound up with water. When the stored carbs are burned off and the water is passed, there's an associated initial weight loss. Weight loss though, while it's a very good bio-marker, it still only a marker. Studies cited by Atkins diet proponents were able to show short-term weight loss but could give no information on medium or long term effects on health. Indeed, many had to admit that there were short-term adverse health effects, constipation being common.

In fact, the diet isn't sustainable in the long or even medium term. Diets based on calorie restriction (see below) never are. Carbohydrates are your body's most natural energy source. Provided you're not going full Man Versus Food, your body can burn off excess carbs as body heat or simple nervous twitching, like that restless leg thing people do when they're sitting down (as anyone ever seated next to me at a poker table can confirm). Fat is stored most efficiently as, guess what, fat. Converting that fat to energy is something that your body can do, but it's an inefficient process. Keto diets are supposed to work this way, sending the body into ketosis by depriving it of all carbohydrates and forcing fat to be converted to energy. This is an emergency mechanism for the body, not a normal mode of operation, and as I said fat -> energy is an inefficient process. It's far more efficient to simply eat carbs for energy and cut down on fat because we don't need the fat store any more.

When you're consuming calorie dense food like meat and dairy, it's very easy to overeat. A full stomach three times a day equates to far more calories than you need. So you have to calorie restrict, and physiologically you often feel hungry for the simple reason that your stomach isn't full. On top of that, your body is craving carbs for an efficient energy source. So, inevitably, most people give in and eat some chips or bread. When my attempts at the diet didn't work, I blamed it on the carbs I ate in those "moments of weakness", which were in fact my body demanding what it needed.

That's the long way round but I did want to cover it. Paleo is really just Atkins rebranded, based on an idealistic and naive idea of what our ancestors actually ate. Now we're better at analysing small particles of food remains from archaeological sites, we've found that our ancestors used to eat more grains and starches and less meat than we previously thought. Even though we didn't have agriculture, we still ate the grains and root vegetables that we could find. Meat was more of an occasional luxury, and as I mentioned in the section on evolution, something we devoured for its high caloric density and saturated fat content. We weren't eating 180 pounds of meat a year though [3]

In the end, the Atkins diet was a failure of reductionist thinking, and also to some degree a way of extracting money from people. Dr.Atkins himself died in an accident, but the coroner's report noted that he had a history of heart attacks, congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. He was 6 feet tall (the same height as me) and weighed 258 pounds (91 pounds more than I do). It was (and still is) also remarkable how many expensive supplements you were supposed to take with this "great diet". Fat good carbs bad was far too simple, and also wrong :) but if I said carbs good fat bad that would be an oversimplification too. It was telling people good news about their bad habits, and that's always a big seller.

[1] As specific examples, US per capita chicken consumption has increased 6x since 1909, and cheese consumption 8x.

[2] Recently, processed food has reached the point where the two are often separated. As a good rule of thumb, anything marked "Low Fat" is loaded with sugar, and anything marked "Low Sugar" is loaded with fat.

[3] Average US adult consumption, and bear in mind that's average, many people are well north of that.

Further Watching :

Milton Mills : What's Wrong With The Paleo Diet?

A New Nutritional Approach to Type 2 Diabetes – Dr Neal Barnard

The Starch Solution – John McDougall MD

Low Carb Keto Diet – Debunking 7 Misleading Statements

Sunday, 18 February 2018

What Should We Do?

A top-down solution to this problem is going to be a long time coming. Eliminating subsidies would be difficult enough, let alone implementing a tax along the same lines as tobacco and alcohol. Meatonomics presents a framework for doing the latter, but fighting all the lobbying and advertising money would be very difficult. It may happen, it may even happen within my lifetime, but my best guess is that there will be some kind of global collapse before it does. Cape Town is the first major city suffering serious problems with a lack of water, but it won't be the last, and that may well be the issue that brings the whole edifice down.

Bottom up is the best way to attack this, and the recommendation is very simple. Follow the EXSALUS food chart shown in What Is A WFPB Diet. Simple, unfortunately, isn't the same as easy. I personally have found it fairly straightforward, but that's largely because I was sick of eating meat anyway. I took it in stages. First the meat ; a couple of weeks later, dairy ; a lot of experimentation within that framework and then took out the processed foods like the oils, “replacement foods” like quorn steaks, even the bread ; and that's worked out well for me. Cold turkey, so to speak, may be more difficult for others.

If you think that might be the case, just start swapping in plant-based meals every now and then. Oatmeal for breakfast is a great start, it doesn't have to be dull, you can add in fruit – frozen berries are great for this – and top up with some seeds. Try some curries. Experiment with some different ways of cooking potatoes (without oil!), I find that simple steaming works very well, optionally browned a little under the grill ; or make oil-free oven chips by just cutting into chip shapes (LDO), seasoning a little and baking on a grid (not a tray) for 25 minutes or so. Potatoes how you like them, frozen vegetables steamed or dry-fried (just cover the veg and fry for 5 minutes or so, the water from the frozen veg effectively steams them), some leafy greens on the side and there you go.

Check the internet for all the recipes you could possibly need. Just remember that “vegan” isn't sufficient – I saw one the other day for “Vegan Caramel Shortcake” which sure, looked delicious, but it was basically half sugar and half oil, remember the basic principles we're working from! Swap in a few WFPB meals. If you like them, swap in a few more. Reduction in meat and dairy intake is still a positive, although it's a lot like smoking, cutting them out entirely is what really pays off.

When you're out and about it can be difficult, although most restaurants have plenty of vegan options and are happy to cook without oil if you ask. Pack some fruit or snack bars when you're going to be out and about for a while and you might crave a Starbucks muffin or something! And don't beat yourself up if you indulge once in a while, just dust yourself off and start again.

From a health point of view, make sure you are simply eating enough. I covered some of this earlier, to recap, salads are great for nutrients but not so much for calories. Don't be afraid of using starches as your main energy source. Potatoes, rice and oatmeal work for me – whole wheat pasta is good too, anything whole wheat should be OK. If you have any existing medical problems, check with your GP, especially if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. This diet should work very well in that case. It might work so well you need to reduce your medication! Finally I'd advise everyone to have a blood test, even if you have no intention of taking on this diet at all. It's free on the NHS and while biomarkers aren't everything, it can pick up any vitamin deficiencies that need to be addressed – anyone on any diet can find themselves deficient in vitamins B12 or D.

And that's it! Just try it. If you don't feel better in a month, you can have your money back :). Please let me know if you do give it a try, all and any questions are welcome. I will probably add an appendix next time just to talk about the Atkins/low-carb diet, and it does strike me reading back that I haven't devoted a lot of time to dairy. For the moment, trust me, it's just as bad as meat, if not worse. On top of the cholesterol and saturated fats, dairy contains all sorts of growth hormones that are designed to help a baby cow grow from 60lbs to 600lbs in 6 months. Rapid cell growth is essentially what cancer is, and studies have clearly shown that dairy consumption is associated with a significant increase (around 3x) in breast and prostate cancer risk. If there is demand for a separate dairy section, I'll put one together.

Whatever you're going to do, please take responsibility for your own health. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. Keep it Whole Food Plant Based!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Bad Science

If you received all your scientific information through the medium of our (er) media, you'd be excused for giving up. A few months of sensationalist headlines over vague stories that poorly interpret an already poor study and end up contradicting or nullifying the headline in paragraph 22 anyway will wear you down. Check out Kill or Cure [1]. The media misreport and exaggerate every claim and when their own misrepresentations are contradictory they start with "why oh why can't these so called experts make their minds up".

It would be easy to conclude that "studies can prove anything". This is a big win for the industries and organisations who want to keep the truth obscured. "Doubt is our product" as they used to say in the tobacco industry. However, studies can't prove anything. It's very hard for a study to prove the opposite of the truth without flat out lying. There's no study in opposition to Esselstyn showing that the SAD can reverse heart disease, because it can't. What people can do is produce studies that basically give a zero result, that show there's no correlation at all.

This is quite easy to do. Suppose I wanted to show that smoking cigars is not unhealthy. I could take a group of people who all smoke 30 cigarettes a day, and give half of the group a cigar a day as well. After 3 months, I'd find that there was no significant health difference between the two groups. Bang, cigars aren't bad for your health. You'd think no one would fall for this, but it's common practice.  The 2007 Qureshi study on egg consumption did exactly this. “To make [the] analysis representative of the US population” they chose subjects who were overweight (BMI >25) and had cholesterol levels of 220mg/dl or higher (10% higher than the recognised safe level and 50% higher than the vegan average). They took those people, added one egg a day to their diet and found that this did not significantly raise their risk of heart disease - because they already had a high risk of heart disease due to their diet.

Another example is the 2010 Siri-Tarino study which claimed that consumption of saturated fat did not cause heart disease. The study, trumpeted in the press and much loved by the meat industry, did this by comparing a high fat, high animal protein, high cholesterol diet against a low fat... high animal protein, high cholesterol diet. Essentially comparing  steak and pork versus chicken and salmon, finding that each diet was as bad as the other, and “concluding” that saturated fat didn't cause heart disease [2].

Observational studies track the health of large populations and try to correlate the differences to diet, among many other factors. Interventionist studies take a smaller group of people suffering from, or at risk of, a particular disease and see if dietary changes have an effect. Both of those can be expensive, difficult to attract funding for, and suffer from the complexity of unravelling correlation from causation (and additional statistical complexity as detailed below, which can be deliberately exploited).

Reductionist studies, however, are much easier to run. They try to isolate variables by concentrating on biomarkers (such as blood pressure or cholesterol level). The problem is that while we know, for example, that higher cholesterol levels are associated with increased risk of heart disease (and other chronic illnesses), assuming that raising cholesterol levels (or not) is the same as increasing risk of heart disease (or not) is not valid. It's just a marker. As. Dr Campbell points out, it's like noticing that your lawn is going brown and trying to fix the problem by painting it green. It's a gross over-simplification of a very complex system.

The problem is, even with the best of intentions, biomarkers are easily measurable but disease less so. It's much easier to show that a drug reduces blood pressure by 5 points than it is to show that it reduces risk of (or successfully treats) the underlying problem(s) that caused the high blood pressure in the first place. This reductionist approach is the path of least resistance. The experiments are easier to perform and your results are concrete. They just might not be relevant. There is endless research to be done along the lines of does chemical X affect biomarker Y, and considerable profits to be made marketing the drug with the apparent benefit. Statins are a great example. They reduce cholesterol levels by a few points but there's little or no evidence of long-term reduced risk. These studies aren't performed badly, or even badly intentioned, but they're almost always pointless without accompanying research into the bigger picture.

Now, it's also true that broader observational and interventional studies are open to the valid question, more often phrased as a statement, “correlation is not causation”. While I understand that this is colloquially brief, it would be much better with an extra word - “correlation is not necessarily causation”. It could be though. Ideally a combination of broad studies and more reductionist attempts to zero in on the root cause would be best. However, the balance has shifted much too far towards the reductionist, to the point where reductionism and study of complexity for its own sake dominates. Just look at the tens of billions spent on genetic research, the ultimate attempt to find out exactly how many angels dance on the pinhead [3].

Going back to what you read in the papers, you need to do your own homework when evaluating a study. First of all, ignore the media report and go straight to the source. Secondly, check for conflicts of interest in the funding section. If you see an Egg Council or anything like that in there, be very suspicious. Studies that contradict the interests of the people paying for them tend to be quietly buried rather than published. After that, there's nothing for it but to dig in and make your own evaluation of the sample sizes and the methodology. Read the conclusion and check it matches up with what the article or headline said (all too often it flat out doesn't). You can't rely on whoever's telling you about the study - and that includes me! Go and check out all the studies I reference and see what you think.

I had a specific example of this, a story that came out a few weeks ago claiming that “one third of vegans admit to eating meat when drunk”. It was a stupid story based on a “study” that turned out to be a telephone survey run by a coupon website. A better example popped up only a couple of days ago. You may have seen the headlines about how eating cheese reduces risk of heart disease. It was a scam. This was a meta-analysis with at least these notable problems. 1) the studies were mostly dairy industry funded, 2) People reported what they ate themselves, a notoriously unreliable method, 3) as above comparison was made with people already on a high saturated fat diet, they were in effect replacing meat with cheese and 4) it was a cross-sectional observational study, a study type which cannot work for this kind of relationship, for technical reasons which are explained in the sources below. You can bet that the people running this study knew these problems very well, but the studies were run out of a Dutch [4] University funded by the Chinese Dairy company Yili, and you do the math.

A lot of people love to read good news about their bad habits, our right-wing media is particularly keen to bash veganism given its (perceived) left-wing connotation and animal agriculture is more than happy to provide puffed up PR masquerading as research for the media to parrot. Doubt, remember, is our product.

[1] Kill or Cure, "Help to make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it."

[2] Source for both of these is Meatonomics by David Robinson Simon. Properly interpreted, the Siri-Tarano study actually confounds one of the bigger meat industry myths, that “lean meats” like chicken and salmon are healthier options. If that was true, their study really would have shown that higher fat consumption caused more heart disease.

[3] Particle physics might run it close. I hope that the penny might be dropping there though, as people face the realisation that it might well be turtles all the way down, and all the time and effort devoted to finding new kinds of spuons might be better focused on something more practical, like fusion energy.

[4] The Netherlands is the 3rd largest milk exporting country in the world, quite remarkable given its size.

Further Reading :

Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by T. Colin Campbell

Meatonomics : How The Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much and How To Eat Better by David Robinson Simon

Viewing :

Exposed : Media Claims Cheese is Heart-Healthy (Part 1)

Exposed : Media Claims Cheese is Heart-Healthy (Part 2)

The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Books and Sources

I considered a few ways of presenting the evidence for what I'm saying. I could pick out a few studies and explain what they did and what conclusions they reached, I could try to condense what I know into 1000 words or so - but I'm concerned that this would not do justice to the breadth and depth of the research that has been done. What I have decided to do instead is to tell you where I found the information in the first place. I'm going to link to some of the books I have read, give a quick summary of each and encourage you as strongly as I can to check them out! They're not expensive and if you end up switching to a WFPB diet you will save the money back in no time,  as I haven't even mentioned yet that eating a WFPB diet is also significantly cheaper than the SAD. Finally I'll point you towards some internet resources, mostly on YouTube &c.

How Not To Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger. Kindle edition £6.64 from Amazon

Dr. Greger looks at the 15 leading killer diseases and explains how a plant-based diet may help prevent, treat or reverse every one of them! As he says in the introduction "Adhering to four simple healthy lifestyle factors can have a strong impact on the prevention of chronic diseases : not smoking, not being obese, half an hour of exercise a day and eating healthier... If you can tick off all four, you may be able to wipe out more than 90% of your risk of developing diabetes, more than 80% of your risk of having a heart attack, cut by half your risk of having a stroke and reduce your overall cancer risk by more than one-third". Dr. Greger also goes into detail about what particular foods are healthy for which reasons and gives plenty of case studies of patients he has helped to turn their health around.

Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession With Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It by Garth Davis, Kindle Edition £6.99 on Amazon

Dr. Davis was a bariatric surgeon - that's the procedure where the patient's stomach is effectively reduced in size to aid weight loss. He became increasingly frustrated with the lack of long-term results from his procedures, combined with the Atkins style high-protein low-carb diets he was recommending for his patients. He was also having his own health issues due to eating the same diet. After considerable research, detailed in this book, he changed his position entirely and now is a strong advocate for the WFPB diet. This book is an in depth answer to the question anyone on this kind of diet will be familiar with - but what about protein?

Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by T. Colin Campbell, Kindle Edition £6.79 on Amazon

Dr. Campbell conducted the China Study, a huge observational study of diet and disease in rural China. While his book on the study is also worth reading (you'll see it in the recommendations on the same Amazon page), Whole details the science behind the WFPB diet and also looks at Dr Campbell's struggle to gain acceptance for his ideas in the face of strong opposition from the medical, pharmaceutical and supplement industries among others. If this diet is so great, why aren't governments and doctors recommending we follow it? This book answers that question (spoiler : because there's no profit to be made).

The Starch Solution: Eat the Foods You Love, Regain Your Health, and Lose the Weight for Good! By John and Mary McDougall. Kindle Edition £7.12 on Amazon

Dr. McDougall explains why carbs are not the enemy  and shows how a starch rich diet can help you lose weight, prevent a variety of ills and even cure common diseases. This is more of a practical manual with plenty of meal plans and recipes. Looking back at this book it occurs to me that I've been emphasising how the WFPB diet prevents and in some cases reverses chronic diseases, but should also point out that it can help a great deal with non-fatal but nonetheless painful and embarrassing conditions like constipation, indigestion, heartburn, arthritis, IBS, erectile dysfunction and many more!

Merchants of Doubt : How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes  and Erik M. Conway. Kindle Edition £5.89 on Amazon.

This book isn't about nutrition at all. It is, however, about the tricks used by industry to obscure the truth and corrupt our political system in the name of profit. There are many parallels between what the food and pharmaceutical industries are doing now and what tobacco industries did in the 50s and 60s, but with time the techniques have become more subtle and insidious. This book will help you to spot the misdirection.

Internet Resources

There are a lot of great videos on YouTube related to the WFPB diet. For a start I recommend all the authors above, anything by Drs. Greger, McDougall, Davis and Campbell is well worth a look, from bite-size clips about a particular topic to presentations made at conferences and nutritional seminars. I also strongly recommend anything by Neal Barnard, who has a long career of research into treatment of diabetes and other chronic diseases ; Caldwell Esselstyn, one of the leading US heart surgeons, particularly his remarkable interventionist trial on patients with serious heart disease [1] ; Milton Mills who does some excellent talks on evolutionary biology ; and you'll see a few more pop up in the sidebar recommendations, check them out for yourself.

While not presented by medical or scientific professionals, I have found the channels Mic the Vegan, Happy Healthy Vegan and Plant Based News to be excellent resources for current news on the topic.

Finally there are three documentaries you may have heard of, all worthwhile in different ways. Forks Over Knives is my number one recommendation, this focusses strongly on the health aspect. What the Health is a touch sensationalist but still very good, devoting about equal coverage to the health, environmental and animal welfare aspects. Cowspiracy doesn't have too much about health as it's more about the latter two topics, but is still well worth watching.

Next time I'll look at the less reliable sources that are, unfortunately, all too available.

[1] Dr. Esselstyn took 198 patients who had had a very serious cardiac incident (heart attack, stroke etc) and put them on a strict WFPB diet. 13 patients couldn't stick to the diet, and 8 of them suffered another serious incident in the next 12 years . Of the 185 patients who did stick to the diet, only one suffered another incident in the same period.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

What Is A Whole Food Plant Based Diet?

Here we go with definitions, not for the last time :). Nonetheless, we have to start somewhere. Cornell University's EXSALUS Food Continuum is a good place to start.

I hope you can read that clearly enough. The basic idea is that the "A" foods, to the right of the line, are foods you can eat as part of a WFPB diet. Sure, A+ is better than A-, and B- is better than F, but anything A is good, anything else not so much. It doesn't list every kind of food in the world (obviously), but you should be able to figure out where everything fits in without too much trouble. I personally think they should have included fish in Group D just for clarity, but as I said, hopefully it's intuitive that Group D is where fish would go.

While everything in the A groups qualifies as vegan, there are also vegan products in groups B and below, which is why it's important to clarify the difference between the WFPB diet and a vegan diet. Processed vegan foods found in categories B- and C should also be avoided. Oil in particular is consumed in large quantities by many vegans, which is a bad idea, as oil is virtually pure fat and just about the most calorie dense food imaginable.

It's also a continuum below the line, but note that all animal products that aren't fried are contained within the same Group, D. One way we have been fooled by advertising is the idea that there are "healthy" meats and dairy. I have to break this to you, your organic grass-fed beef is essentially no better for your health than any other kind of meat. It's the animal protein and the saturated fats that count, so the extra cost, both to your wallet and the environment, isn't buying anything in health terms. "Low Fat Cheese" generally means lower than the 50-70% fat content of regular cheese, which isn't much to shout about.

Similarly, "lean" meats like chicken and fish are anything but. Fish, indeed, might be worst of all because on top of the saturated fat and animal protein, they contain toxins that we pump into the sea (directly or via the atmosphere) to work their way up the marine food chain. By toxins I don't mean toxins in the sense of hippy dippy oh I must detoxinate my chakras, I mean poisons. Mercury, arsenic, PCBs and dioxins - not to mention all the "agricultural run-off", better known as shit, pumped out by the 70 billion livestock animals currently populating our farms.

That's basically it. While our body is a hugely complex system, and the various diseases brought upon us by consuming animal protein and saturated fats are more complex still, the solution is simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. Eat what our bodies are adapted to eat - whole, unprocessed plant foods. Keep processed foods to a minimum and animal products to preferably zero - although of course if you do fall off the wagon every now and then, just start again and do your best. There's no need to beat yourself up or drop the whole thing.

I'll come back to practical advice on adopting this diet in the final section, but there are a few points definitely worth making in brief. Firstly, this is not a calorie controlled diet. Eat as much as you like, as long as you're eating the good stuff. If you're hungry, eat. You will need to get used to having bigger portions on your plate for the simple reason that this food is less calorie dense than the meat you've been eating before. I recommend the Alan Partridge Big Plate Plan. If you think you're eating a lot but you still feel hungry/weak/tired, it's entirely possible that you're not getting enough calories. Green salads are great for nutrients, not so much for calories. Lose that fear of carbs and tuck into your starches. I usually have oatmeal for breakfast, one rice-based meal and one potato-based meal in a day.

Avoiding temptation when you're out and about can be a problem, so it's a good idea to pack some fruit or wholefood snack bars [1]. When eating out, don't be afraid to ask about vegan options not cooked in oil, at the least. Chefs are usually happy to knock something up within your requirements. That's about it. The internet is chock full of recipes and suggestions - have at it!

Finally a word about supplements. You should be able to get all the vitamins and nutrients you need from a WFPB diet. Have a blood test all the same. Everyone should probably have their Vitamin B12 and D levels checked, as it's difficult to get enough of both whatever your diet. Personally my B12 is fine, but I am deficient in Vitamin D (the only deficiency or problem with my recent blood test). I'm taking simple supplements for that - they're very cheap and are not lining the pockets of WFPB advocates!

Next time I'll share some of my sources with you, the (cheap) books and (free) videos that have informed me on this topic.

[1] These snack bars are particularly good .  Many others are over-processed and contain added sugars - check the label!

Monday, 5 February 2018

The V Word

Am I a vegan? Initially, I said I was. However, the answer is, of course, entirely dependent on the question "what is a vegan?". The answer to that depends on whose definition you use.
Donald Watson coined the term "vegan" in 1944 when he founded the Vegan Society, a breakaway from the existing Vegetarian Society. His initial definition was simply dietary. A vegan was someone who did not eat animal products. However, in 1949 Leslie Cross suggested an alternative definition, "the principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man".

Now, while in my opinion there's no reason why diet should have any political connotations, in practice veganism has long been associated with the left. In a story that will be all too familiar to anyone with left-wing affiliation, the Vegan Society followed, and still follows, a continual cycle of growth under moderates - takeover by hardliners - shrinkage under hardliners - virtual collapse – re-takeover by and growth under moderates - rinse and repeat [1]. The Judean Peoples' Front and the Peoples' Front of Judea turn on each other, occasionally uniting against their true enemy - The Judean Popular Peoples' Front.

By now there are many more than two definitions. Apocryphally, I read that there are at least 8 definitions of vegan that allow consumption of honey, and 7 that don't. The label is now basically unhelpful. It's not worthless, but it is unhelpful. For a start, it's perfectly possible to eat a very unhealthy diet that still qualifies as vegan. Drink Pepsi and eat Pringles all day and you'll be a vegan, but not a very healthy one. On top of that, absolutist definitions that extend to using no animal products at all make it very easy for opponents to cry hypocrite. A "discussion" of veganism on a British morning TV show degenerated into the host shouting over the guest about the latter's leather watch strap as though that rendered all argument moot.

That's why I'm dropping the label for myself. I eat a Whole Food Plant Based Diet. I don't care if that makes me a vegan or a martian, feel free to argue that amongst yourselves. I haven't thrown away the wool sweater that my mother gave me, but I don't think that's relevant to my views on diet and health.

I can decline the label but it's still in very common use, so there are a few things you need to know when evaluating the information you receive. Firstly, vegan and vegetarian are two very different things. Vegetarians eat dairy (some even eat fish), and the whole thrust of the WFPB movement is that dairy, as well as meat, is bad for your health. If a study relates to vegetarians without mentioning vegans at all, or lumps vegetarians and vegans into the same category, it's basically worthless for the purposes of evaluating a WFPB diet.

Studies that do split off a pure vegan category also have to be handled with care. After all, our man living off soda and crisps is going to be categorised as vegan. While there is certainly value in a large scale study like Adventist-2 [2], which splits vegetarians into 3 categories [3] and vegan into a fourth, we have to bear in mind that the true effects of a WFPB diet might be diluted or lost entirely in the wash.

Finally and unfortunately, there are significant elements of the vegan community whose strident and judgemental activism probably does more harm than good (I'm looking at you PETA). That, as I say, is why I don't use the label myself even though I technically am vegan by some of the definitions. Of course there are also many vegans who do great work without alienating people too. In general, arguing about who's a vegan and what vegan means exactly is yet another example of the labelling and reductionism that has, to some extent, brought us here in the first place.

So if I'm not a vegan, what am I? Don't answer that. Next time I'll be looking at exactly what following a WFPB diet entails.

[1] You can read more about this in an account of the history of the Vegan Society here

[2] - Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts

[3] lacto-ovo-vegetarians who eat dairy but no fish or meat, pesco-vegetarians who also eat fish, and semi-vegetarians who also eat a small amount of animal meat. Again we get into trouble with labels, as that last one doesn't sound vegetarian to me, but the thrust of the study is diet and health, not the labels themselves.

Further Viewing :

You're Not Vegan! Full Documentary

Friday, 2 February 2018

How Did We Get Here?

Evolution is powerful, but it's not perfect. Evolution is driven by reproduction. Successful organisms survived long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes, unsuccessful ones did not. Hence hummingbirds, hippopotami and humans. Evolution is not driven by survival after reproduction, at least to the same degree [1].

Our brains today are remarkably similar to those of our ancestors 100,000 years ago. We're not actually much smarter than them (if at all), but we stand on their shoulders in terms of accumulated human knowledge. Our brains and bodies are adapted to survive in the savannah, not the city.

When making it through the winter was by no means certain, some adaptations were key to surviving long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation. If you could immediately recognise calorie-dense food by some mechanism - let's call it taste! - you'd know that was the good stuff. If your body was good at storing fat as a long-term energy source, you'd have a better chance of making it to the spring. Dropping dead at 50 of a heart attack (even if that were possible on stone age diets) wouldn't bother evolution - had kids, genes passed on, job done.

Our physiology makes it very clear that we are herbivores. Check out Milton Mills for a full discussion, but in brief, actual omnivores are very rare in nature. Some carnivores adapted to eat small amounts of plants (for example bears and raccoons), while some herbivores did the opposite (gorillas and chimps sometimes eat small handfuls of insects). Carnivores have sharp claws and teeth, their jaws are structured to rip flesh, their stomachs are large [2], their esophaguses are wide to swallow bone and gristle without choking, their stomach acid is very strong to dissolve that bone and gristle and their digestive tracts are short to pass out the nastier undissolved bits of animal as soon as possible. Herbivores are basically the opposite. No claws, jaws and teeth grind rather than tear, smaller stomach, narrow esophagus, weaker stomach acid and longer digestive tract. By every one of those measures (and many more), we're herbivores.

Clever monkeys that we are though, at some point we figured out that while we struggle with raw meat, and can't eat rotting meat at all - unlike an actual carnivore which has no problem with rotting meat, that stomach acid again - cooked meat tastes great and stays down. Maybe someone came across a burned carcass from a forest fire and thought "mmm, barbecue". Technological innovations like fire and the stick (image below, Gary Larson of course) helped us to occasionally consume an excellent source of calories and saturated fat that could make the short-term difference between survival and extinction - for both the individual and the species.

I do say occasionally though, and that's what I mean. Our Hollywood picture of organised caveman hunts providing racks of mammoth ribs three times a day is off the mark. Even for true predators, hunting is an inefficient way to sustain yourself (hence the large stomachs and ability to eat rotted meat). Early men most likely couldn't do much more than pick off the occasional sick animal that predators didn't find first, and then had to face significant danger protecting their prize from those predators. Modern notions that hunters actually ran their prey down in marathon jogging sessions are rightly ridiculed by Dr Mills using the simple comparison of energy in and out.

I'm sure you can tell where this is going so I will, to use a hunting metaphor, cut to the chase. Even 300 years ago, most people ate very little meat. It simply wasn't in great supply, and such as there was ended up on the plates of the kings and aristocracy. So it was the kings and aristocracy who looked like Henry VIII and keeled over aged 45 after a lifetime of gout. The rank and file had shorter lifespans than we do now, but that's largely down to high infant mortality and deaths from infectious diseases and accidents.

When the Industrial Revolution kicked in, meat (and dairy) was soon much more readily available. Our brains, the same brains that lit up like pinball machines when tasting that calorie dense, fatty meat on the savannah, still lit up in exactly the same way. We wanted more, and we could have more. More and more and more. On top of that, we worked out how to add even more of these chemicals to our food, the ones that really hit the spot. Sugar and fat, with salt for taste. Evolution simply hasn't had time to catch up. The same foods that, in small amounts, helped us survive to 30 are, in large amounts, killing us by 60.

Next time I'll be looking at The V Word - why following this diet may or may not make you vegan, and who cares?

[1] Yes, grandparents who survived long enough to help with child care or pass on learned knowledge would help humanoid species to survive, but it's very much a secondary effect compared to the drive to reproduce.

[2] Lions and hyenas can eat up to 30% of body weight at one sitting, the equivalent of me necking 200 quarter-pound burgers.

Further Viewing :

Milton Mills, MD - Are Humans Designed To Eat Meat?

Alan Goldhamer - Escaping the Dietary Pleasure Trap