“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer”
– Albert Camus
Lighthouse Staircase. Buxton, NC
I know, I know; this is an ongoing saga. And “the Mainstream” is as easy a scapegoat to target as “the government”, but damn…
Anyway, I’m sure that by now everyone has read this Time Magazine article, Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin (byline to John Cloud). And I’m sure, as well, that you’ve already read every manner of critique (both good and bad) currently floating the web. Allow me though, to throw in my 2 cents worth of critique; this after having taken a few days to let the article swish around a bit in my mind. Letting it “breath” so to speak, and giving me a tequila-like hangover.
First off, kudos to the people at Time for at least broaching this subject (hold your hats, I’ll explain). Secondly, shame on them for not telling folks the entire story — and worse yet, for obfuscating the truth. No wonder most folks just throw up their hands in utter despair and run for the nearest carb fix when the subject of “diet and fitness” is raised. No wonder why they’re such easy marks for the flashy, loud and ill-informed hucksters (particular government agencies and various PhD’d “authorities” included) out there. And no wonder the nation as a whole gets fatter with each passing day. I’m not done wrestling yet with the philosophical question of the difference in moral implication between promulgating a half-truth and an out-and-out lie, but I’d say both ought to register pretty damn high on the “shameful” meter.
So,where to begin with dissecting this? In the words of Anne Lamott, dealing with this particular hot potato is a bit akin to putting an octopus to bed — lots of unwieldy tentacles to tame and cover. Ok, so how about let’s just jump in and begin here: One problem in particular, and one that is perpetuated in the mainstream — and once more here in this article — is the compartmentalizing of “diet” and “fitness”, rather than taking into account the yin-yang nature, the direct inter-relatedness, of these two subjects. Another is the blanket association in the mainstream between “thin” and “healthy”. Ironic that this article came out as it did, on the heels of the completion of the Tour de France, and the re-emergence of Lance Armstrong into the public eye (in fact, check out Lance in some of the featured Time ads). John Q. Public reads this Time article, then considers Lance’s ripped physique, and (quite rightly) calls bullshit on the notion that physical energy expenditure does not have a remarkable affect upon the body’s ultimate appearance. This would then be a perfect opportunity to branch into a discussion of the body’s hormonal response to food intake, and proper application of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Or, in the words of Dr. Robert Lustig, MD, UCSF:
“You are not what you eat; you are what you do with what you eat.” (Hat tip to Brent Pottenger, of healthcare epistemocrat)
Ah, but therein lay the rub. The mainstream consumer’s eyes gloss-over at this point, and Time looses said consumer to — I don’t know — name the most recent brain-dead reality show on the market.
Let’s face it, most people are not willing to do the mental work/investigation required to truly “get” this subject. I mean, how many people to you know who have actually read Good Calories, Bad Calories? Now, no doubt Taubes’ work is not an easy read — but c’mon, it’s not Joyce for Christ’s sake. It’s just so much easier I suppose, as Richard Nikoley points out, here, to follow the herd.
And yet, this subject most certainly can be cut down to easily-digestible, “lay-person” bullet points. How tough is this to understand?
- Overall calorie intake and physical caloric expenditure do matter, however, the affect of /control of these factors is well beyond the average person’s ability.
- The body’s hormonal response to a particular food (fat, carbohydrate and protein) is the hub about which all else diet and fitness related rotates. This notion is easily understood, and its application easily controlled, even by the average person.
- Proper exercise is essential for the maintenance of good health. Exercise increases appetite, however (how can it not, at least eventually?). The answer to this is not “not to exercise“, but to (1) exercise properly (sporadic, short bursts of intense work) and (2) couple this with a proper, low carbohydrate, moderate fat, moderate protein diet.
- The most effective thing the average person can do today, right now, to begin shedding fat and improving health is to eliminate all forms simple carbohydrates from the diet (especially sugar, HFCS and the like), and substitute these calories, when hungry, with good fats and proteins. See bullet point #2.
Just when I thought all hope was lost, though, my friends over at NPR came through with a timely interview (Dispelling Myths About Exercise) with Dr. Timothy Church, a physician, researcher and the current chair in health wisdom at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. Whoa, “health wisdom”; to be sure the good doctor would now connect all those dots that the Time article had just flung about so haphazardly. And NPR prides itself on addressing the “smartest listenership in the nation”; surely now we’ll hear truthful discussion of thermodynamics as it applies to the human body and the body’s hormonal response to food; why Lance is ripped even though he consumes vast quantities of carbohydrates and why 100 grams of HFCS will be treated by the body in a totally different manner than 100 grams of fat (or protein).
Uhh, not so much.
Although, to his benefit, the distinguished current holder of the chair in health wisdom does speak to the notion of exercise for its own sake (mobility, independence, cognitive function, etc.) he never couples this with the idea of building/maintaining muscle mass, and the benefits, both in fat loss and in overall health, of maintaining a high percentage of lean mass. In fact, he goes out of his way to deny the importance of lean mass vis-a-vis reduced body fat levels. He even implies that to lose weight, one will, by definition, lose muscle as well — unless (in his words) we were to engage in extreme bouts of weight-bearing exercise. Not that lean body mass affects the ol’ thermodynamics equation one way or the other, right doc.? Apparently, all other things being equal, two people of the same weight, but of vastly different lean mass percentages, will burn the same amount of calories at rest. WTF???
This after he makes mention of weightloss (I hate that term) being all about “basic thermodynamics”. All well and fine. Now, how about let’s speak to what kind of things can be done to affect the input side of the equation. What things can I do to set up a hormonal cascade that will shunt calories away from storage? We in the Paleo community know; unfortunately, even the chair of health wisdom is still in the dark. And if he’s still in the dark, what hope do we have for the masses coming around any time soon. Note: the good doctor, with his vast credentials and “mainstream” views, would be a perfect fit for “Health and Fitness Czar” under a single-payer healthcare system. Try sleeping well at night now.
It seems that the only idea that the “mainstream” grabbed hold of from Tuabes’ GCBC is the notion of exercise not being a necessary factor (and even a possible determent) in weightloss efforts. Ironically, this is the one area where Taubes misses the boat, so to speak. He doesn’t fully flesh this idea out in GCBC, and relate exercise to building/maintaining lean body mass, and the affect that lean body mass will ultimately have on body fat percentages. He never differentiates between the long and slow (aerobic) version of exercise, and the preferred sporadic, high-intensity, short-duration version. And unfortunately for the masses, the “mainstream” jumped all over the “exercise is not necessary for weightloss” idea.
And the notion, while “correct” in one sense, is not totally true. It’s not a black-and-white issue, and requires a more in-depth, thorough discussion. The kind of discussion that the “mainstream” won’t prompt (hardlines beget wild-eyed controversy, beget increased sales), and that the general public has no patience for.
For now it seems, the American weight control diet will consist on no exercise (it increases appetite! And it’s no fun anyway) and smaller portions, i.e., half a big gulp — and limited super-sizing.