The Fasting Experiment: Part II


Got food? Nope.

Back in May I discussed Michael Mosley and his PBS special called Eat, Fast, and Live Longer.  It motivated me to try out fasting. This is an update.

Fasting can take on various different forms. We often think of fasts in terms of total abstinence of food and drink but that’s not the only way to fast.  Fasts may be undertaken for several days at a time, for 24

hrs, or during part of a day.  Reasons to fast include medical instruction, weight loss and other health benefits, or religious devotion.  I’ve employed two types of fasting for weight loss and the various other health benefits discussed in the previous post and below.

Types of fasts

– Intermittent Fasting: Intermittent fasting has days of fasting alternated with days of non-fasting. I’m not doing a full-on fast but rather I’m extending my nighttime fast and reducing my calories on these days.  This pattern has been popularized by Michael Mosley’s FastDiet aka the  5:2 Diet.  (As I’ve said, I find Mosley’s work compelling, but to be fair, the Wiki entry on the 5:2 diet mentions a lack of evidence for its efficacy.  Make your own decision.)  I typically take two rest days throughout the week on Wednesday and either Monday or Friday.  These have been my fasting days.

The strict version of intermittent fasting has men consuming about 600 calories on the fast days, women about 500 calories.  That ain’t much!  I’m training for some athletic events so this isn’t necessarily the ideal time to fast as I need all sorts of nutrients, fuel, and protein in order to engage in and recover from workouts.  My modification simply has me waiting to eat (more on that right below) and generally trying to consume fewer calories.  I actually sort of look forward to trying this very low-calorie fast though.  When I’m ready…

– Restricted Feeding Window: This process is the other component of my fasting project. Essentially, this has you restricting the time during which you eat.  Typical suggestions are to eat only during an 8-hr. time period of the day and to fast the other 16 hrs.  Eating programs such as the Perfect Health Diet and the Warrior Diet advocate the restricted eating window.

Research in mice has indicated favorable benefits of the restricted-feeding window.  The Salk Institute for Biological Studies released a study last year in which a researcher said:

“It’s a dogma that a high-fat diet leads to obesity and that we should eat frequently when we are awake,” says Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor in the Regulatory Biology Laboratory and senior author of the paper. “Our findings, however, suggest that regular eating times and fasting for a significant number of hours a day might be beneficial to our health.”

Further, an article by Brownen in Ageing Research Reviews discusses evidence that both caloric restriction and intermittent fasting may have potential to combat age related illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  This type of information supports my efforts.

My early experience

I’ve combined intermittent fasting with the restricted feeding window for about a month now.  I reduce my calories two days per week and I take in very few calories (about 230) in the morning. This comes from the coconut oil and grass-fed butter in my version of Bulletproof coffee.   The idea is to prolong the overnight fast. Then sometime around noon or later I start eating. I typically do this on Wednesday and Friday which are my rest days.  I’ve fasted on Mondays as well.

Besides the likely health benefits of fasting, I’d also like to lose some weight and get down to 195 lbs.  I’m training for both the Triple Bypass bike ride and the Continental Divide Trail Run and both of those efforts would be a little easier if I were a little lighter. Therefore I’m tracking my caloric intake and expenditure with My Fitness Pal (  It’s a fantastic tool for anyone wanting to lose weight.  (If you want to lose weight then you must track your food intake.  If you’re not willing to track your food then you’re not serious about losing weight–and that’s OK.  It’s just not going to happen unless you decide to do it.)  I started using it in conjunction with fasting.  It seems to be a very good combination.  I’ve consistently weighed anywhere from 202 lbs. to about 207.  Now, I’m consistently weighing anywhere from 195 lbs. to 198 lbs.  My body composition has improved as well from about 18% to about 15%.  These changes came about very quickly

My Fitness Pal has you filling out a profile that includes such data as age, sex and activity level.  You then enter in how much weight you’d like to lose and how quickly you’d like to lose it–1 lb. per week for example.  I started off using My Fitness Pal by only tracking my calories and not tracking my exercise expenditure.  At times it was really tough to keep my calories within the prescribed range.  Once I started entering my exercise data My Fitness Pal adjusted my caloric intake and allowed me to consume quite a bit more which was very helpful.  It looks like my rapid weight loss was probably due to my adhering to the recommended caloric intake of a sedentary person.  This while I was exercising quite vigorously and staying below the recommended calories on my fasting days.  Quick weight loss indeed.

More information

If you’re interested in learning more about fasting, I’ve listed some resources below.  I’m new to this and there’s a lot more you can learn.

Depriving yourself: The real benefits of fasting – This comes from the Chicago Tribune. The evidence of the benefits of fasting are discussed:

“When it comes to treating cancer, Valter (cq) Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, thinks that short-term complete fasts maximize the benefits. He’s found that a 48-hour total fast slowed the growth of five of eight types of cancer in mice, the effect tending to be more pronounced the more fasts the animals undertook (Science Translational Medicine).

Fasting is harder on cancer cells than on normal cells, he says. That’s because the mutations that cause cancer lead to rapid growth under the physiological conditions in which they arose, but they can be at a disadvantage when conditions changes. This could also explain why fasting combined with conventional cancer treatment provides a double whammy.

Clinical trials assessing the impact of fasting in people with cancer are ongoing. Early results are promising, says Longo, and patients in the advanced stages of cancer, who cannot wait for the results, might find it worth discussing fasting with their oncologist.

Could fasting prevent cancers developing in the first place? Evidence is scant but there are ‘very good reasons’ why it should, says Longo. He points out that high levels of IGF-1 and glucose in the blood, and being overweight are all risk factors for cancer, and they can all be improved by fasting. Another risk factor is insulin, says Michelle Harvie at the University of Manchester, UK.

Studying women whose family history puts them at high risk of developing breast cancer, she put half of them on a diet that involved cutting calories by about 25 percent, and half on a 5:2 fast. After six months, both groups showed a reduction in blood insulin levels, but this was greater in the fasting group. Harvie’s team is now analyzing breast biopsies to see whether this translates to fewer of the genetic changes associated with increased cancer risk.

High insulin is also associated with type 2 diabetes, so perhaps it is no surprise that fasting shows promise here, too.”

Ready, Set, Fast: How Strategic Meal-Skipping Can Help You Lose Fat, Gain Muscle and Get HealthierDr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition wrote this for The Art of Manliness.  It’s his account of his own fasting experiment.  He gives a good rundown of fasting basics, different types of fasts, links to fasting research, and his take on how to get started.

The UK’s Hot New 5:2 Diet Craze Hits The U.S. – Weight Loss Miracle? – We haven’t discussed the drawbacks of fasting.  This article from Forbes discusses several aspects of fasting including intermittent fasting which the 5:2 Diet is based on.  Some of the downsides of fasting are mentioned here too.

“The main drawback of intermittent fasting that has drawn many vocal critics is that it’s really, really hard to do. There’s no question, you’re going to be pretty hungry – and pretty grumpy – on your fasting days. And when dieting is miserable, people tend not to stick to it. And when they don’t stick to it, they get discouraged, often eating even more once they give up. Other than that, experts cite side effects including dehydration, irritability, anxiety, sleep problems, and bad breath.

Like many fad diets, intermittent fasting is likely to work really well for some people, discourage many more. But you won’t know which group you fall into until you try. So get ready to start coordinating your fast days with family and friends; the 5:2 FastDiet is going to be around for awhile.”

The writer makes a good point.  Fasting isn’t all that easy or fun.  But neither is cancer, diabetes or being overweight.  What’s your health worth to you?


The Fasting Experiment: Part I


Even if calorie restriction does not help anyone live longer, a large portion of the data supports the idea that limiting food intake reduces the risks of diseases common in old age and lengthens the period of life spent in good health.
– Scientific American

The second of Michael Mosley’s PBS series on health is titled Eat, Fast and Live Longer.  A significant portion of the program is devoted to the health effects of fasting or caloric restriction.  (He does not suggest that you actually consume your food at a rapid pace.)  I’ve read and heard about some of the benefits of fasting and I’ve played around with it a little bit.  After understanding the results of Mosley’s self-experiment with fasting, my wife and I both were very motivated to enact some form of fasting in our lives.

Michael Mosley PBS

Watch Eat, Fast and Live Longer with Michael Mosley on PBS. See more from Michael Mosley.

Benefits of caloric restriction

There seem to be several noteworthy benefits to fasting (aka caloric restriction.)  I’ve written before that hunger actually seems to stimulate movement and alertness.  The idea being that a hungry animal must go look for food.

Also, caloric restriction seems to extend the lifespan of various organisms and reduce incidence of various diseases. (Many studies have been done on animals, others in humans.) Caloric restriction seems to improve insulin sensitivity, heart function, and seems to improve memory in the elderly and may help in epilepsy treatment.  Fasting seems to make brain tumors more vulnerable to radiation treatment, and calorie restriction–particularly carbohydrate/sugar restriction–appears to be an effective treatment for other cancers.  (To be fair, there are other studies finding few benefits to calorie restriction.  A recent study in monkeys suggests that the type of calorie matters more to lifespan than the amount of calories consumed.)

In this episode of Mosley’s show, he discusses Insulin-like growth factor or IGF.  I won’t go into all the details of this compound, but it seems that it plays a key role in the development of several cancers and diabetes.  In a study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, subjects with breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer and ovarian cancer had higher levels of various types of IGF compared with controls.  The study says:

“Evidence suggests that lifestyles characterized by a high-energy diet may affect the IGF system, which may, in turn, connect such lifestyles to high rates of cell proliferation and predispose cells to risk of malignant transformation.”

An article in the Harvard Gazette discusses studies with similar findings.

Why is this important?

Fasting decreases levels of IGF.  Beyond just cutting calories, protein needs to be reduced as well. Watch Mosley’s special or read his BBC article The Power of Intermittent Fasting for more discussion on fasting and IGF.

I’m not a true academic researcher and I don’t claim to have found all the definitive evidence of this whole IGF/disease relationship, but from what I’ve read and heard it sounds like too much food may push us towards some types of diseases including various cancers.  Periodic caloric restriction seems generally like a good, healthy idea.

If you look at the Wikipedia entry for fasting, you’ll see that the practice has been around all over the world for thousands of years, often for religious purposes. I tend to think though that if a practice hangs on for that long, our organism must on some level see something beneficial in it. Further, as noted in the Scientific American article How Intermittent Fasting Might Help You Live a Longer, Healthier Life, ancient humans were often forced to fast due to availability of food.  A reliable supply of three (or more) square meals a day is a very recent addition to humanity.  It’s possible that this pressure in evolution helped select for healthier genes that survive today.

In the next entry, I’ll discuss various types of fasts and my early experience in toying with caloric restriction.


PBS’s The Truth About Exercise


“The chair is a killer.”
– Michael Mosley, PBS, The Truth About Exercise

Attention all exercise geeks and anyone fond of learning about the ins and outs of regaining or maintaining your health: You must check out the new series from PBS called The Truth About Exercise with Michael Mosley.  (Actually, it seems that each episode has it’s own title “… with Michael Mosley.”)  I watched the first episode and it’s tremendously interesting.  The second episode is titled “Eat, Fast and Live Longer.”  I just started it.

(Thanks to my mom for telling me about this show.)

Mosley uses himself as an experimental subject as he delves into some of the following topics:

  • How to reduce your insulin response with 3 minutes of (very) intense exercise per week.
  • How and why exercise can help remove fat from the blood stream.
  • The very deadly perils of sitting too much.
  • Why some people are “non-responders” to some aspects of exercise (and why exercise is still healthy for “non-responders.)

I know very little about Mosley but that he seems to be a fairly common sort of guy who’s not in particularly good shape.  He has the questions about his health that many of us have.  He talks to various exercise physiologists, nutrition scientists and coaches as he searches for answers and examines several exercise myths.  I love it because much of what he discovers is informed by the latest science.  He’s not rehashing the “common knowledge” (which is commonly stale and fairly inaccurate.)  It’s a very entertaining show that moves quickly and isn’t overly science-y.  It has a pretty decent soundtrack as well.  I highly recommend it to anyone reading this right now.  Previews of each episode are below.  Go here to watch the full episodes.

Watch The Truth About Exercise with Michael Mosley – Promotion on PBS. See more from Michael Mosley.

Watch Guts with Michael Mosley – Preview on PBS. See more from Michael Mosley.

Health & Fitness News: Cooked Food Grows the Brain; High-Carb Diet Contributes to Alzheimer’s; Lifting Weights Helps the Brain and Protects Against Metabolic Syndrome; Lactose Tolerance & Evolution; Tighten Your Left Fist to Perform Better


A wide range of interesting things have popped up in health-and-fitness news. You should know about this stuff!

Cooked Food Grows the Brain:

“If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain.  We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking.”
– Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, neuroscientist, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

The human brain has far more neurons than our primate relatives such as apes and chimps. Relative to our body weight, we carry far more brain mass than our ape relatives, and we use far more energy to run our neurology than apes. Why? And how have we managed to acquire all the energy to manage this process over the past several hundred thousand years? It seems that the answers lie in humans cooking their food. An article from the Guardian titled Invention of cooking made having a bigger brain an asset for humans discusses the issue further. The article is informed by a study from the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

High-Carb Diets May Contribute to Alzheimer’s:

“Older people who load up their plates with carbohydrates have nearly four times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a study out Tuesday finds.”
– USA Today

There’s more news regarding food and neurological function. USA Today reports on a recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease indicates that a high-carbohydrate diet (as is suggested by the FDA) may contribute to early-onset dementia. Medline also reported on the study saying:

“Those who reported the highest carbohydrate intake were 1.9 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest carbohydrate intake. Those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake.

Those whose diets had the highest levels of fat and protein were 42 percent and 21 percent less likely, respectively, to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake of fat and protein.”

The Medline report also makes the following important observation saying, “While the researchers found an association between sugar-laden, high-carb diets and mental decline, they did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.”

I personally have lost weight by cutting carbs–particularly processed carbs such as cereal, bread, crackers, tortillas, muffins, etc–and replacing those calories with fibrous vegetables, fat and protein.  I’ve become convinced that an FDA-type high-carb diet is probably not the ideal way to eat for most people.

Lifting Weights Helps the Brain:

“Where previously we had seen positive associations between aerobic activity, particularly walking, and cognitive health, these latest studies show that resistance training is emerging as particularly valuable for older adults,”
Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association

Of course I love any evidence that suggests lifting weights is good for you. I have particular interest in evidence that weights help us beyond simply building muscle and bone mass. Mind Your Reps: Exercise, Especially Weight Lifting, Helps Keep the Brain Sharp comes from Time. The article reports on four studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver.

I’d like to know what loads are best used in preventing Alzheimer’s. Does any type of strength training prevent Alzheimers or are certain exercises better than others? What’s the minimal effective dose to derive the benefits? I hope someone is looking into these questions.

Lifting Weights Protects Against Metabolic Syndrome:

“Research has linked greater muscle strength and muscle mass to lower rates of metabolic syndrome. Since lifting weights increases muscle strength and mass, it might also help to decrease the development of metabolic syndrome.”

Such a wonderful thing this weight training!  Science Daily discusses research by the National Strength & Conditioning Association that indicates lifting weights protects against metabolic syndrome. What is metabolic syndrome? The article says:

“Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors linked to increased rates risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. People with at least three out of five risk factors — large waist circumference (more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women), high triglyceride levels, reduced levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), elevated blood pressure, and high glucose levels — are considered to have metabolic syndrome.”

The proof keeps on stacking up. Lifting weights is a staple of healthy living.  Are you currently on a strength training program?  If not, why?

Lactose Tolerance & Evolution:

“Everywhere that agriculture and civilization went, lactose tolerance came along. Agriculture-plus-dairying became the backbone of Western civilization.”
– Slate

Humans are the only animals that consume milk beyond the age of infancy. (Not all humans actually. Two-thirds of us are lactose intolerant. Still, there are a lot more humans that drink milk in their adulthood compared to other mammals.) Why is this? What makes so many of us so different from other mammals? Are there advantages to lactose tolerance? The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History is from Slate Magazine. The article discusses the speed with which this genetic mutation spread and possible theories on why it ever happened at all. There are no solid answers to the questions here, but it seems that in much of the world, civilization and lactose tolerance have gone hand-in-hand:

“The plot is still fuzzy, but we know a few things: The rise of civilization coincided with a strange twist in our evolutionary history. We became, in the coinage of one paleoanthropologist, ‘mampires’ who feed on the fluids of other animals. Western civilization, which is twinned with agriculture, seems to have required milk to begin functioning.”

There clearly seem to be some advantages to a lot of people in consuming milk and/or other dairy products. There also appear to be some real disadvantages. Read the New York Times article Got Milk? You Don’t Need It for another view of milk consumption. The article states:

“Osteoporosis? You don’t need milk, or large amounts of calcium, for bone integrity. In fact, the rate of fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries, and it turns out that the keys to bone strength are lifelong exercise and vitamin D, which you can get from sunshine. Most humans never tasted fresh milk from any source other than their mother for almost all of human history, and fresh cow’s milk could not be routinely available to urbanites without industrial production. The federal government not only supports the milk industry by spending more money on dairy than any other item in the school lunch program, but by contributing free propaganda as well as subsidies amounting to well over $4 billion in the last 10 years.

I think the Times article raises some valid points. Clearly many of our fellow humans do fine without consuming milk as adults. The FDA guidelines insisting that we drink milk are a bit bogus, and completely influenced by the dairy industry. However, in lactose tolerant adults, I’m not sure milk is a bad thing. I haven’t been completely convinced one way or the other. I drink milk sometimes but not often. More often I consume cheese and yogurt which are fermented versions of milk.

Make a Fist to Perform Better:

“Athletes who made a fist with their left hand did better under pressure than when they made a fist with their right hand…”
– “Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure,” Journal of Experimental Psychology

I find this article from the Atlantic enormously interesting. The results are in the quote above. In this study, right-handed athletes (Righties only were tested.) performed better when they made a fist in the left hand. What’s going on here? The article states:

According to the researchers, freaking out is primarily associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the right hemisphere deals more with mechanical actions. Meanwhile the cortex of the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. So they figured that if you can purposely activate the right hemisphere — in this case, by making a fist or squeezing a ball with your left hand — it will improve physical performance and draw focus away from the ruminating left hemisphere.”

Interestingly, anyone who’s learned the RKC Hard Style of pressing has learned to make a fist in the opposite non-pressing hand. The effect is powerful. You get stronger when you do this! Maybe this study indicates why.


Are All Calories Created Equal?


“Put most simply, the fewer carbohydrates consumed, the more energy these weight-reduced people expended.”
Gary Taubes, author, Good Calories, Bad Calories

A recent Harvard University study has produced some interesting results as regards various types of eating patterns, calories, and how these all affect weight loss maintenance.   The study is discussed in two New York Times articles; one titled What Really Makes Us Fat, the other titled In Dieting, Magic Isn’t a Substitute for Science is a Q&A with a veteran obesity researcher. ABC News also analyzes the study in For Calories, It’s All About Quality Over Quantity, Harvard Study Says.

There are two main points of consideration in this discussion.  First, there’s the question, “Are all calories created equal?”  Are carb calories the same as fat and protein calories?  Are refined sugar calories the same as calories from vegetables or beans?  The second question is, “What’s the best way to stay lean once we’ve lost the weight?”

(The country is full of people who’ve lost weight but can’t keep it off.  The big secret is this: Any diet will work.  If you follow the directions, you’ll very likely lose weight no matter what diet you chose.  From paleo, to the Zone Diet, to Weight Watchers to any of the vast number of other diets, if you follow it you’ll probably lose weight.  Done and done?  No. The most difficult part has just begun.  Keeping the weight off is typically very difficult.)

What about the study?  Researchers studied 21 overweight and obese adults, starting each on a diet that helped them lose about 12-13% of their body weight. Then, to help them maintain that weight loss, the researchers put the participants on a cycle of three diets, each lasting four weeks.

One diet is of the low-fat/high-carbohydrate variety as advocated by the FDA and the American Heart Association.  This diet suggests among other things that we eat a lot of grain products, both refined and unrefined; and that we seek to reduce fat consumption at all opportunities.

The other diet was a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet similar to the Atkins diet.  This is almost the total opposite of the previously mentioned diet.  This diet encourages fat and protein consumption and discourages grain consumption–particularly refined grains.

The third diet was based on low-glycemic foods.  This diet was sort of in between the other two. Fewer refined grains were found here and more vegetables, beans, fruit and the like.  Plus there was less fat and protein than the Atkins-type diet, but more than the low-fat diet.

What were the results?  This is from the ABC News article:

The results weren’t good news for low-fat diet aficionados. When dieters followed that plan, their bodies burned fewer calories than when they were following the low-carb or low-glycemic index diets. And the low-fat diet changed certain metabolic factors in their bodies that typically predicted weight regain.

The low-carb diet seemed to help participants burn the most calories. But it also increased certain markers of stress and inflammation in the body, such as the stress hormone cortisol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

(I’m quite curious about this.  What’s causing the inflammation?  Is it high fat?  Is it high protein?  Is it low carbohydrate?  Is it a combination of some or all of these factors?  The Perfect Health Diet discusses research indicating that limiting protein intake can help with immune function, and that too much protein can lead to ammonia toxicity.  So that leads me to think it’s the protein that may be causing the inflammation.  Would someone please do a double-blind placebo study on this?  And please make it a long-term study while you’re at it.  Thanks in advance.)

In the end, the researchers found that the low-glycemic index diet struck the right balance for the participants. It helped the dieters burn more calories, though not as many as the low-carb diet, but didn’t seem to increase disease-causing stress markers in the body.

I like this observation as well:

“Remember the old food pyramid, with six to 11 servings per day of bread, pasta or rice at the base? In light of this article, it would seem to provide an efficient prescription for weight gain,” said Dr. Jana Klauer, a doctor in private practice in New York.

Gary Taubes, says in What Really Makes Us Fat:

The results were remarkable. Put most simply, the fewer carbohydrates consumed, the more energy these weight-reduced people expended. On the very low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, there was virtually no metabolic adaptation to the weight loss. These subjects expended, on average, only 100 fewer calories a day than they did at their full weights. Eight of the 21 subjects expended more than they did at their full weights — the opposite of the predicted metabolic compensation.

(Please note that Taubes is the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories.  He essentially proposes some of what is suggested by this study, namely that a high-carb diet–particularly one high in refined carbs–is bad and that a high-protein/high-fat diet is good for us.  His article for the NY Times highlights the good of this diet.  He doesn’t mention the following information.  Perhaps there’s a conflict of interest.)

Now, here’s a wrinkle.  Dieting, Magic Isn’t a Substitute for Science is the other NY Times article. It’s a Q&A with Dr. Jules Hirsch, emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University, who has been researching obesity for nearly 60 years, about the state of the research. With regard to the benefits of high-fat diets, he says:

They report that people on the Atkins diet were burning off more calories. Ergo, the diet is a good thing. Such low-carbohydrate diets usually give a more rapid initial weight loss than diets with the same amount of calories but with more carbohydrates. But when carbohydrate levels are low in a diet and fat content is high, people lose water. That can confuse attempts to measure energy output. The usual measurement is calories per unit of lean body mass — the part of the body that is not made up of fat. When water is lost, lean body mass goes down, and so calories per unit of lean body mass go up. It’s just arithmetic. There is no hocus-pocus, no advantage to the dieters. Only water, no fat, has been lost.

The paper did not provide information to know how the calculations were done, but this is a likely explanation for the result.

So the whole thing might have been an illusion? All that happened was the people temporarily lost water on the high-protein diets?

Perhaps the most important illusion is the belief that a calorie is not a calorie but depends on how much carbohydrates a person eats. There is an inflexible law of physics — energy taken in must exactly equal the number of calories leaving the system when fat storage is unchanged. Calories leave the system when food is used to fuel the body. To lower fat content — reduce obesity — one must reduce calories taken in, or increase the output by increasing activity, or both. This is true whether calories come from pumpkins or peanuts or pâté de foie gras.

To believe otherwise is to believe we can find a really good perpetual motion machine to solve our energy problems. It won’t work, and neither will changing the source of calories permit us to disobey the laws of science.

So Dr. Hirsch draws a different conclusion from the researchers and the reporters.  I don’t have a solid enough command of statistics to advocate in either direction.  Both Dr. Hirsh and Gary Taubes suggest that more useful information would come from a long-term study of this type.

What seems clear though is that we should steer well clear from processed foods.  A high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet seems to best best for weight loss but also may cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.  The study suggests that making an extra effort to avoid fat may not be very helpful in the battle to rid our bodies of fat.  The third and possibly healthiest eating strategy revolves around a healthy intake of low-glycemic foods.  The Wiki entry on low-glycemic foods states (emphasis is mine):

There are some specific factors to look for in foods that can indicate their glycemic index: Low glycemic foods contain: Fat, Whole grains, Protein, Raw Starches, legumes, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. High Glycemic Foods contain: Refined grains, refined sugars, increased amylopectin: amylose ratio, and often high sugar fruits have a high glycemic index.

Finally, we’re often told to eat more of this that and the other.  “Eat more healthy fat.”  “Eat more fruits and vegetables.”  “Eat more whole grains.”  We’re rarely told to “Eat less” of anything. Therefore I like what Dr. Hirsch has to say about the matter:

What would you tell someone who wanted to lose weight?

I would have them eat a lower-calorie diet. They should eat whatever they normally eat, but eat less. You must carefully measure this. Eat as little as you can get away with, and try to exercise more.


The Mathematics of Obesity


” … the conventional wisdom of 3,500 calories less is what it takes to lose a pound of weight is wrong. The body changes as you lose. Interestingly, we also found that the fatter you get, the easier it is to gain weight. An extra 10 calories a day puts more weight onto an obese person than on a thinner one.”

– Dr. Carson C. Chow, MIT mathematician

The New York Times Science section has a fairly interesting conversation with Dr. Carson Chow, an MIT-trained mathematician who works for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).  The article is titled A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity.  He’s worked with other researchers in applying a mathematical model to help describe and answer questions related to our national obesity epidemic. Several key findings are important to note in addition to the quote at the top of this page:

Also, there’s a time constant that’s an important factor in weight loss. That’s because if you reduce your caloric intake, after a while, your body reaches equilibrium. It actually takes about three years for a dieter to reach their new “steady state.” Our model predicts that if you eat 100 calories fewer a day, in three years you will, on average, lose 10 pounds — if you don’t cheat.

Another finding: Huge variations in your daily food intake will not cause variations in weight, as long as your average food intake over a year is about the same. This is because a person’s body will respond slowly to the food intake.

Dr. Chow was hired to answer the question of what caused the obesity epidemic.  He suggests that food overproduction is the culprit.  And if we have too much food then we wind up eating too much food.  He also says that changing our weight takes a very long time.  He says:

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a change in national agricultural policy. Instead of the government paying farmers not to engage in full production, as was the practice, they were encouraged to grow as much food as they could. At the same time, technological changes and the “green revolution” made our farms much more productive. The price of food plummeted, while the number of calories available to the average American grew by about 1,000 a day.

Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it! This, of course, is a tremendously controversial idea. However, the model shows that increase in food more than explains the increase in weight.

Dr. Chow was asked about practical advice.  His answer:

One of the things the numbers have shown us is that weight change, up or down, takes a very, very long time. All diets work. But the reaction time is really slow: on the order of a year.

People don’t wait long enough to see what they are going to stabilize at. So if you drop weight and return to your old eating habits, the time it takes to crawl back to your old weight is something like three years. To help people understand this better, we’ve posted an interactive version of our model at People can plug in their information and learn how much they’ll need to reduce their intake and increase their activity to lose. It will also give them a rough sense of how much time it will take to reach the goal. Applied mathematics in action!

Dr. Chow’s final words regarding obesity may come as dreary news for people trying to lose weight and keep it off.  He says, “It’s so easy for someone to go out and eat 6,000 calories a day. There’s no magic bullet on this. You simply have to cut calories and be vigilant for the rest of your life.”

That is a very honest observation from a well-trained scientist.  Remember that the next time you see an ad for some sure-fire trendy diet or supplement.

Less Sleep = More Eat


A recent study from the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University indicates that lack of sleep contributes to overeating and thus obesity.  Here is the conclusion:

The findings of this study link restricted sleep and susceptibility to food stimuli and are consistent with the notion that reduced sleep may lead to greater propensity to overeat.

What’s happening here?  Researchers found that, “Overall neuronal activity in response to food stimuli was greater after restricted sleep than after habitual sleep. In addition, a relative increase in brain activity in areas associated with reward… in response to food stimuli, was observed.”

So it seems that sleep restriction caused subjects to like food more.  They found it more rewarding.  Weird!  The take home message is obvious: Get some sleep!

In this study subjects either slept about nine hours or were restricted to only four hours.  How much sleep should you get?  Ideal sleep time may vary from person to person.  WebMD says, “Most adults need seven to eight hours a night for the best amount of sleep, although some people may need as few as five hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day.”  If you’re a hard-training athlete then you probably need to be on the high side of those numbers.

Retraction on the last article


My previous post, the Skinny on Fat, contained some information regarding fat and cholesterol from Dr. Joe Mercola.  Someone contacted me regarding him and some of his very questionable practices and beliefs.  Among other things, he’s been ordered by the FDA to stop some illegal claims for his products.  If nothing else, some of his business practices are on the shady side.  Beyond that, he’s an advocate of homeopathy, which is non-scientific quackery at its finest.  Most disturbingly, he has participated in a “vaccine awareness” public service announcement.  He helps play up unfounded fears of vaccines which no one in the serious scientific community find plausible.  For this reason I’m deleting the section of my last article in which he’s referenced.

The Skinny on Fat



I call this portrait "Health Food."


I grew up in the years of the low-fat craze.   We were told that reducing dietary fat and cholesterol—particularly animal fat—was the best way to lose weight and improve our health.  We saw wide scale proliferation of fat-free and reduced-fat food products.  These products were then stuffed with sugar and weird chemicals that were and are very detrimental to our health—but hey!!—there wasn’t any fat.  Ironically, this low-fat era saw an exponential expansion of  American’s waistlines and all the associated chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Now we’re seeing that a lot of our dietary guidelines were way off the mark. Turns out in fact that a lot of those guidelines were based on very shaky evidence and that researchers of the time were not in agreement on the data.  A very thorough look at this evolution of our dietary guidelines can be found at the City Journal in an article titled The Washington Diet. Here’s an excerpt:

“As science writer Gary Taubes notes in Good Calories, Bad Calories, Senator George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, in coming up with its diet plan, had to choose among very different nutritional regimes that scientists and doctors were studying as potentially beneficial to those at risk for heart disease. Settling on the unproven theory that cholesterol was behind heart disease, the committee issued its guidelines in 1977, urging Americans to reduce the fat that they consumed from 40 percent to 30 percent of their daily calories, principally by eating less meat and fewer dairy products. The committee also advised raising carbohydrate intake to 60 percent of one’s calories and slashing one’s intake of cholesterol by a quarter.

Some of the country’s leading researchers spoke out against the guidelines and against population-wide dietary recommendations in general. Edward Ahrens, an expert in the chemistry of fatty substances at Rockefeller University, characterized the guidelines as ‘simplistic and a promoter of false hopes’ and complained that they treated the population as ‘a homogeneous group of [laboratory] rats while ignoring the wide variation’ in individual diet and blood chemistry. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences released its own dietary suggestions, which saw ‘no reason for the average healthy American to restrict consumption of cholesterol, or reduce fat intake,’ and just encouraged people to keep their weight within a normal range.”

Practical information

The very strong and very thoughtful lads at give us a simple and worthwhile article on fat titled Fats Made Simple.  This article goes into the various attributes of different fats and oils, which are best to cook with, which ones are best used as a topping, and which ones to avoid altogether.  The issue of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids is discussed.  I won’t go into every detail but here are some key points from the article:

— Use saturated fats for cooking.  These are less likely to become rancid and toxic during the cooking process.

— Use unrefined oils.  DON’T use refined oils.

The author’s top 6 oils are:

–red palm

— coconut

— macadamia nut

— extra virgin olive

— hemp seed

— walnut


— safflower

— sunflower

— canola

— corn

— sesame

— peanut

— pistachio

— pumpkin

— soybean
(Next time you’re looking at ingredient labels, see if you spot any of these oils–particularly corn, canola and soybean.  Chances are you’ll find at least one if not several.  They’re in everything!)

An eating plan

The Perfect Health Diet is an example of a a diet that’s high in healthy fat.  It was developed by two scientists who wanted to address some of their chronic health issues.   This plan has adherents eating about 2/3 plant foods and 1/3 animal-based food.  Besides a high fat content, the diet is further characterized by complete avoidance of sugar and cereal grains such as wheat, corn and oats; this due to their inflammatory nature.  (If you cut out the processed food then you’ll cut out a lot of sugar, wheat, corn etc).  Legumes such as soy and peanuts are also to be avoided as well. Here are more details of the diet.

Please take note, dietary animal fat should come from free-range grass-fed sources.  Most of the mass-produced grocery store meat is chock full of garbage such as added hormones and antibiotics.  Plus the animals are fed stuff they’re not meant to eat.

I’m currently on this eating program.  Admittedly, I haven’t followed it 100% but I’m working in that direction.  I definitely feel more energetic having reduced my grain intake.  I realize when I do consume grain, I tend to get a bit bloated.  The odd thing is eating and really enjoying a lot of foods that for years I thought were really bad for me: butter, bacon, whole eggs, chicken with the skin on it, organ meats.  I’m quite interested in sticking with this plan, further “perfecting” my eating, and seeing where it takes me.

More Questions About Supplements: Athletes, Antioxidants & Recovery Methods


“Hopefully now you understand that damage and soreness are not necessarily bad things, but instead are essential triggers for the adaptations we all seek to improve performance.”
– Steve Magness, Running Times

The previous post on supplements got me thinking about various articles I’ve read recently on the possible negative effect that antioxidants may have on endurance training.  Here is some information to consider.

Alex Hutchinson writes a blog called Sweat Science.  He also writes a column called Jockolgy for the Toronto Globe and Mail and he’s written articles for the New York Times, Runner’s World and Popular Mechanics.  Beyond that he’s your ordinary, every day physicist and elite-level distance runner.  Seems like a smart guy to me.  I listen to what he has to say.

He recently wrote a piece titled The case against antioxidant vitamin supplements.  It’s of a similar theme as an earlier post called Does Vitamin C block gains from training? Both posts suggest the idea that supplementing with antioxidants may inhibit the training effects we want from strenuous workouts.  This may seem counter to what many of us have been told.

Science tells us that antioxidants protect us from cellular damage done by free radicals.  Free radicals are produced by strenuous exercise.  So recent conventional wisdom says that we can protect our bodies by taking antioxidant supplements such as Vitamins C and E.

New research though is telling us that our supplementation may be interfering with the cycle of stress and adaptation that a workout provides.  Hutchinson refers to research in the latest issue of Sports Medicine that supports this concept.  He cites the following (The ROS mentioned are free radicals.):

“The traditional theory goes like this: strenuous exercise produces “reactive oxygen species” (ROS), which cause damage to cells and DNA in the body. Taking antioxidant supplements like vitamins C and E helps to neutralize the ROS, allowing the body to recover more quickly from workouts.”

“The new theory, in contrast, goes like this: strenuous exercise produces ROS, which signal to the body that it needs to adapt to this new training stress by becoming stronger and more efficient. Taking antioxidant supplements neutralizes the ROS, which means the body doesn’t receive the same signals telling it to adapt, so you make smaller gains in strength and endurance from your training.”

“The new paper comes down firmly on the side of the latter view:”

“The aim of this review is to present and discuss 23 studies that have shown that antioxidant supplementation interferes with exercise training-induced adaptations. The main findings of these studies are that, in certain situations, loading the cell with high doses of antioxidants leads to a blunting of the positive effects of exercise training and interferes with important [reactive oxygen species]-mediated physiological processes, such as vasodilation and insulin signalling.”

The researchers conclude with the following statement:

“We recommend that an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals through a varied and balanced diet remains the best approach to maintain the optimal antioxidant status in exercising individuals.”

All of these ideas and observations are similar to the views expressed by exercise scientist and running coach Steve Magness in his article When Damage is a Good Thing in Running Times.  His article discusses not only antioxidant intake but also ice baths, anti-inflammatories, and carbohydrate drinks.  If you’re an endurance athlete then you should definitely read the article.  Magness sums up things well with the following statement:

“Hopefully now you understand that damage and soreness are not necessarily bad things, but instead are essential triggers for the adaptations we all seek to improve performance.  The goal should not necessarily be to minimize them automatically, but instead to work with them–this means allowing for enough damage to take place to initiate adaptation and then allowing for the body to go through its natural recovery response before trying to aid recovery.  The goal should be to work with the body, not against it.  So keep in mind the goal of each training session and the goal of whatever recovery methods you use, and plan things accordingly so your recovery efforts help you to improve performance, not hinder it.”

Incidentally, all of this has caused me to rethink my recovery strategies.