Skip a meal and your body will begin to hold onto fat. We should eat frequently to keep our metabolism up (ugh-I said this all the time). The most important meal of the day is breakfast. I’m not getting all sciency today. I will ramble a bit. We’ll talk at a much higher level. There’s been a lot of reductionism in nutrition and metabolism and it is spreading fast. While the internet has provided unprecedented access to information, it’s also allowed a lot of science babble to infiltrate every subject and diet has to be the gold medal champion. Everyone eats so we all must be experts.
I hear of quantum physics and love from people that don’t know the schrodinger equation or a microcanonical ensemble exist. Their “frequencies resonate.” It’s widespread co-opting of science terminology to make things sound more well thought out and factual than they really are. In science, we celebrate the unknown. We don’t know how to define the emotional and it’s handled in the soft sciences. They see trends, but science looks for fundamental rules that govern how things work. 2 + 2 = 4 is a mathematical relationship and as amazing as may sound, it’s true whether here or on voyager spacecraft that’s left our solar system. If you have two marbles and your travel mate has 2 and put them in a bowl there will be 4. We have other scales and mathematical tricks that can make this equation an inequality, but in normal counting, it’s true and can be verified.
In 1996 Carl Sagan wrote a fantastic book, Demon-Haunted World. In it he warned (foreshadowed) a reality of the future:
” I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
He went on to say,
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
While that sounds all a bit cynical, I really am using it to give us a nudge. We need to be skeptical, but sifting and sorting through the blogs, diet books, media, and social discussions is a daunting task for even the best educated. There’s a saying that a specialist knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. Conversely, a generalist knows less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything. We all fit this to a degree in some aspect of our lives. Clearly the internet and media echo chamber has spoken on starvation mode and it’s doom and gloom if you don’t eat.
A Closer Look
Here is one example quote I found with a Google search that is quite interesting:
“Quite simply, your body goes into ‘starvation mode’. This mechanism, which is thought to have evolved as a defence against starvation, means the body becomes super efficient at making the most of the calories it does get from food and drink. The main way it does this is to protect its fat stores and instead use lean tissue or muscle to provide it with some of the calories it needs to keep functioning. This directly leads to a loss of muscle, which in turn lowers metabolic rate so that the body needs fewer calories to keep ticking over and weight loss slows down. Of course, this is the perfect solution if you’re in a famine situation. But if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s going to do little to help you shift those unwanted pounds.”
Let’s talk about basics. Fat is a storage organ. It is there for times of famine. The body constantly taps into this storage organ when we enter the fasted state (~4-6 hours after a meal). So here is what they are saying, in a nutshell – if you don’t eat the body holds onto the back up reserves. That’s backwards thinking. Further, it’s posited that the body will instead use lean tissue (from muscle/organs) and accelerate that loss – all to preserve our fat storage organ.
Reflect on that for a minute.
Why would the body hold onto this precious fat storage and instead cannibalize our vital organs and muscle tissue, because of food scarcity? How might that helped the evolutionary process? Seems to me that those who digested their heart or leg muscles before using fat reserves when there wasn’t any food wouldn’t have jumped into the gene pool with all the vigor as those of us that actually lived on our storage organ. Don’t you think? I’m imagining the number of people it took to build the pyramid stopping 3-6 times a day for a quick pick-me-up. Don’t you think they tossed them some water and said, “keep chiseling! pull the rope” and perhaps they ate some bread etc… a little later?
Now, the body absolutely has some adaptive changes to accommodate food reduction. There are metabolic shifts and changes in how we use fuel. I learned last year that even after 30 days of a VLCD followed by a medically supervised 14 distilled water fast I wasn’t deficient in anything. I don’t want to cloud the discussion with ketosis, fat adaption, etc… as it’s all somewhat tangential to the main point. Let’s for a minute put aside the debate over metabolism havoc. Let’s acknowledge we can’t explain everything and yet our bodies managed to get you right here staring at a screen from a single cell without help and perhaps in spite of what we swallowed. It’s remarkable.
When in the fasted state we use reserves. That’s why they are there. Fat and glycogen are long and short term (respectively) storage organs. You’ll be fine on the 4 hour flight without peanuts.
Last year when I was coming home from the self-experiment, my daughter and I decided to stop in Vegas and visit with Penn & Teller. I have known them for over 20 years and we hung out after the show. I’ll leave the bigger story for Penn to tell in his spring 2016 book, but he called me later and asked for help. Maybe you’ve seen the news by now, but essentially he lost a little over 100 lbs, most of it in a three month period we worked together. He’s off 8 BP meds and in fact his medication is down to almost nothing now. You can listen to us discuss this on his Penn’s Sunday School podcast here or download it on iTunes.
He’s looking and feeling great. While the media likes to toss around “1000 kcal/day” diet (or gastric bypass), he has no idea how many calories were consumed. I don’t either and as I will be explaining there are much better ways to think about food energy conservation that are not only predictable, but also repeatable. Then there is the echo chamber – read this article and imagine that this otherwise well-educated physician makes all these WRONG diagnoses based on information in People Magazine. What physician or scientist uses People Magazine as a primary source and then does an analysis? This is how the echo chamber works. I’d challenge his notion that nutrients are somehow deficient because he was at a caloric deficit. I wonder how Dr Ayoob would explain the successful results of this 382 day water fast (and btw, he didn’t gain it back)?
Speaking of Fast…
Today happens to be the 5 year anniversary of my TEDMED talk that slipped me into this entire world of food. I had no idea this was coming and if it hadn’t been for Tim Ferriss urging, I wouldn’t even have a website. I didn’t do this for a business. It was an intellectual curiosity. My friend Tim Jenison had an amazing project I helped on back in 2009 that became the inspiration for my research. If you haven’t seen Tim’s Vermeer, it is a REALLY great documentary.
I was staying with him and beside the bed on a shelf were stacks of history and art books about Vermeer. Tim, as you will see, was obsessed with how this artist did these incredible paintings. Vermeer captured on canvas that which the eye can’t see. The movie tells the rest of the story and I have my tiny appearance with our 2am decision to start building walls for the room – look for the forklifts scene. After The 4 Hour Body came out there was a little backlash about the veracity of my work. Keep in mind, I did the cold stress work, because I was desperate to lose weight. It wasn’t a research project, but I did jot down notes as it’s habits for me. That was the seed that went into 4HB and you can read the rest elsewhere on this blog.
What puzzled me was still the Calorie and the apparent contradictions. I wasn’t buying the Good/Bad or even the “high fat/low carb” (or any variation thereof) dogma. I wanted to understand it. Well, I did as my budget would allow to dig into this project like Tim. Having a midlife crisis calorimeter in a lab adjacent to the kitchen is a great way to test anything you want about food. I learned a lot and especially that most of the older studies were easy to reproduce. I don’t think they are wrong, but I believe a lot of things we repeat, that I repeated, aren’t correct. You all know very well by now that I don’t think “protein, carbohydrate, or fat” serve us anymore as food groups/categories. We need a new paradigm.
Today is day 16 of a medically supervised 21 day water fast for my book. I feel fine and perfectly normal (as normal as I get). Hanging out with new and old friends here, reviewing 5 years of research and writing. I may have to go out to 24 days depending on how some tests turn out at the end (more in future blog or book). As I mentioned, I wasn’t deficient in anything last time at day 14 and I performed a midpoint blood panel (~$1500 each) to see how well that tracks my last fast. Of course I will do a blood panel at the end.
This time I am focused on “muscle loss” particularly urinary nitrogen. As we learned in Passing the Protein (part 1, part 2), urea is the metabolite of amino acid metabolism and so one can track loss by collecting 24 hour urine samples. We need the indispensable amino acids (~9 of 20 depending how one counts them – not 2 +2), the rest we make. It’s been 2 weeks of drinking water and peeing in a jug. This will supplement the dexa results from last year and give a more complete picture. If all else fails, I guess it’s training for the reality show, Naked and Afraid.
Take a look at my results above and what you’ll see, like last year, my metabolism is fine. It’s not crashed, but scaled with my mass and my fat burn is through the roof. Yes, as evolved, our body actually uses our fat STORAGE organ in times of no food. That’s not a difficult concept, but wow, is there a lot of confusion. I want to try to nudge this. I’d like to change the dialog.
Cool not Cold
I don’t want to sound opportunistic, but you may have read about the recent tragic death in a Las Vegas cryotherapy spa. It is a horrible loss to her family and they have my condolences. This is probably an isolated incident, but nonetheless it’s an opportunity for me to reiterate my position. As anyone that follows this blog for a while knows, I am an advocate of mild cold stress not extreme. One does not need to go to extremes to get the benefits of cold therapy. If you are new to the blog, use the tags at the side and you’ll be able to navigate to the many posts that discuss this. Mild cold stress begins in water temperatures below 80F (26C) and air temperatures below 60F (15.5C). There is no reason to go below 60F(15.5C) water or 32F (0C) air. Generally speaking one can get all the benefit they need from just a 10 degrees or so on the thermostat or to carry layers and use as needed.
Ideal temperatures are 75F (24C) water and 55F (13C) air. These are the most comfortable and are likely plenty to get the beneficial impacts. Remember the “reverse ski layering” strategy – take them along and wear as needed instead of leaving the house bundled and losing layers throughout the day. A quick walk from the office parking lot to the front door won’t likely result in hypothermia. It’s fall in the northern hemisphere and we are naturally adapting to the cooler temperatures. The photoperiod is also getting shorter. These are all biological cues that signal winter is coming (wow has that phrase changed meaning in 5 years). As we explain in the Metabolic Winter Hypothesis, the combination of sleep, dietary restriction and mild cold stress may have a synergistic effect with activation of the sirtuin genes – those that we have shown in animal models to increase healthspan/lifespan. Contrast showers can aid in this adaptation process and it’s helpful in sleep.
As well my close friend, Wim Hof, has been on many blogs lately and I don’t want this to sound contradictory to what Wim teaches. His main message is what our body is capable of doing with training and that he’s not a unique superhuman (I’m still impressed). In fact, when I visited him a few years ago in Amsterdam, he noticed one day that he wore a jacket on our walks to the grocery store and I had a t-shirt and gloves. In his warm laugh and great accent he said, “look at that. The iceman has a coat and you are in a t-shirt.” We opened the windows that evening and slept amazing. He was grateful for reminding him that he’d been locked up in the apartment. Wim is pushing science to go past the handed down dogma on extremes and human limits and he’s doing amazing work with the autonomic immune system. I don’t want this to be misunderstood.
Kickstarter- Our Broken Plate
In the next week I will be launching a kickstarter campaign for my book, Our Broken Plate (update: Campaign went live on November 1st and closes on December 13th). I’ve had a lot of requests over the years to write one and so it is now a “done deal.” I’ve had some discussions with publishers, but feel that I can be more true to my message if I at least write it first as a cohesive story. Honestly, they all want me to write a diet book and that may be way more successful, but I don’t want to write a diet book. My goal was to examine how our social relationship with food changed over the last two centuries. It’s been fascinating to pile my own shelves full of old books and especially be emerged in the the 19th century when all the fun happens. By 1920s we are on a trajectory to where we find ourselves today. It’s surprising that many scientists predicted, and even warned about this situation.
There are no villains. It’s not an evil government conspiracy as many of the recent books have put forth. There’s no greedy corporate America that is just trying to kill us all with genetically modified food. We don’t discuss big pharma or big farms. It’s not a “fat vs carb” or eat meat/don’t eat meat story. It’s not a textbook as we’ve already made food way too complicated. The book is more of a history-mystery with my self-experiments juxtaposed on some of the great science on metabolism and nutrition. I’m going to stretch it a bit in places with new explanations for old data. I find it ironic that many of the players of the late 19th century would be perfectly comfortable, and to some extent know more, in a discussion today about metabolism then as it plays out in the blogosphere. We’ve forgotten so much and this valuable data is lying fallow on university bookshelves and used book stores around the world. I’ve collected some of the best and for me holding that 170-200 year old book in my hands and reading it is incredible. I don’t think we are all broken as is so widely claimed. To me it’s our relationship with food that’s broken.
I plan to finish the book in the coming months and hope to have it published by April 2016. We’ll have a crowd-sourced cover design and many other activities. I’ve learned so much from the people here and on the various Facebook groups. The questions have been fantastic. Having worked now with over 100 people one on one has been a real eye opener. If there are any subjects that you’d like to see covered (the book is pretty far along at this point) please comment below. I may not be following up as closely as normal as there’s lots of testing to do and I have my kickstarter campaign staring me in the face.
I appreciate your support and thank you for hanging in here even when there were extended times I had nothing to say. Perhaps this research project will make up for it.
In addition to the kickstarter (there are a couple of high end rewards, but most are books) I’d like to immediately raise $5,000 to help defer the costs of the testing and travel associated with this test and as a jump start to the writing project. I appreciate your support! You can use this link or the one above near the goal donation meter.
As always I am grateful to all of the regular donors, emails, FaceBook friends, and commenters for allowing me to pursue this passionately for the last 6 years. It’s been such an unexpected adventure and there’s much more work to get done. I’m going to get back to my water now.