A friend of mine linked this wonderful, delicious article by the Daily Telegraph this morning, titled “Chocolate cake breakfast could help you lose weight” [x]
It gives hope, doesn’t it? However, I think there’s more to it. I guess I am just incapable of reading something without questioning the essence of it, and I just have too much fun in delving into the meta-layer of it all, putting myself questions like, “Who wrote this; what’s their purpose, apart from gaining readership? Why can they be sure it will get read? Who has a benefit? Why would anyone read it, and why did I just read it?”
My first conclusion: the article is soothing, a hug from the inside, just like the mentioned piece of chocolate cake. It comforts the readers, announcing that their occasional sins are forgiven.
Diets and Religion
Eating is very closely linked to our very survival, our social interaction, and more, our independence, individuality, and our sense of well-being. Roundabout the same goes for sex. When I read most diet advice, forums, etc., I sense an underlying tone that leads me to believing that diet brands, or at least their communities, are not intrinsically different from most religions.
Well I’m not a sheep, can’t help it. I’m just no material for any political party or religion. Whenever I get involved too much in any community, I feel like a racing horse put in a cart-horse’s harness; I get this creeping sense of panic. Yet I enjoy skimming these forums and pages for the sociological insight they provide.
Whether it is religion or diet advice pages, I sense one thing in common: there is a distinct absence of an attitude I would summarize as “Hey, whatever works for you.” Everyone is sure to occasionally sustain their claims (quoting the Bible or mostly outdated and regurgitated science “facts” taken from the holy gospel of the fad diets in question) but the prevalent tone on diet pages is just the same as when religious authorities talk about sex: always subtly or not-so-subtly condescending, and always amounting to a binding advice how their sheep should behave.
If you read advice online, I dare you: Imagine your partner or a friend would talk to you like this or demand the same. If the same piece of advice from their mouth would result in you evicting them to a hotel for a fortnight, it’s time to reconsider.
Most advice is greatly interfering with a person’s autonomy. In fact, to yield autonomy (people share every nutrition fact and detail about what they ate a specific day at which hour online, awaiting scolding or blessing), seems to be a thing that some people even like to do. If it feels right for you, well, do it. Yet, I perceive it as trading in autonomy for a sense of belonging. Well that’s like a sect works. Or how some relationships work. Some people might really enjoy others, or a community, to have authority over their everyday decisions. Actually, I think some people are led into revealing more than they usually would, especially to strangers. (“I won’t tell my doctor I’m on Atkins.” Oh, but you have no problem with posting it online?) The internet gives the illusion of lack of consequences for the confession. Yet what some kind of posts do is they show a yearning for taking away from one’s own responsibility, which is an essential factor for being counted as an adult.
So what happens on these forums if someone confesses a sin? They are forgiven, up to an extent, of course. Yet total “failure” is not approved of. Well, that’s similar to most religions too.
Different diets in brief, only my opinions
The utmost I would give as an advice to anyone, in almost every aspect of life, really, is to experiment, and find out what makes them content and happy. There just are different people who function vastly differently. Evolutionary, it makes sense that people differ, and have different needs and preferences, too. If everyone is gorging on their joint favourite food and a whole tribe dies of food poisoning, it is not clever. So there are occasions when the people who just couldn’t stand a certain food or couldn’t digest it had the lucky draw.
Paleo – I don’t believe in Paleo or any other strict diet. The snatch with Paleo is that depending on the region you look at, the real Paleo diet vastly differed from the brand that is sold as Paleo now. Back then, people ate what was around. Also, people weren’t all happy and healthy in the stone age.
Vegan diets – I wouldn’t think it is entirely healthy on the long run. I’m also very suspicious of tofu-steaks and similar. If you don’t eat meat, then why would you want something to vaguely look and taste like it? I can completely understand the motivation not to harm animals. Yet I suppose there are some dairy products that don’t harm any animal, like goat cheese maybe, etc.. What I always marvel at is the sometimes evangelical mission some vegans seem to be on, resulting in a huge sense of superiority and a bunch of real first world problems, distracting from the good cause to not harm animals entirely. (On this and related topics, this page casts a humorous glance: [x] )
Low calorie, high carbs – I tried that while I studied, and it was the worst I ever felt. Not for me. (I mainly got my carbs from grains there though, and ate very little else.)
Low calorie – works with a lot of stubbornness, mostly for a limited amount of time.
Low carbs – the only way of eating where I don’t think of food all day, even if cutting back on calories. The fist three or four days are horrible though; who says they feel “energized” from day one is not telling the entire truth in my estimate. (Please note that protein as well as fat will affect your insulin level, sometimes just as much as carbs do. “Zero carbs” and the like is absolute pseudo-science.) Low means low; fewer than in an average diet, mostly achieved by leaving out sugar and white flour. If you’re tempted to try Atkins – don’t, would be my advice. Here are some facts why: [x]
Fasting – I’ve done that a good while back. You will lose weight. The downside: You will lose a lot of muscle, too, and it’s an extreme deprivation for your body. Your body loses muscle because muscle takes a lot of energy to maintain, and your body now tries to minimize heat loss. (You can try – if you have those – to touch a well-padded place of your body, like your butt, and your bicep after lifting for reference, and fat just feels much cooler. It is a great insulator as well.)
There are veritable myths surrounding fasting. People claim to almost achieve a spiritual clarity doing it. (That nearly all religions incorporated a week-long fasting or intermittent fasting of sorts is not surprising in this context.) Your hunger declines (because of the ketones in your blood), and you get to feel a little high even. On the upside, it gives a sense of self-control. The downside is that with a fasting of several days you trigger a response in your body that is best summed up as every cell screaming “Omg I’m going to die!” (in very low, feeble voices, you’ll have to listen closely.) You might resort to it for a transcendent experience or if you’re really desperate to see the scales move, but be aware that it might backfire if your goal is sustainable weight loss.
The glorification of fasting has a lot in common with the detox-myth. There aren’t any “toxins” in your body that can be get rid of by fasting or drinking vegetable juice for a week, I am sorry. There is detox shampoo and detox body lotion, yet no manufacturer dares to actually name one single “toxin.” It’s marketing, that’s why. Fasting and “detox” have one thing in common: after an initial big weight loss, you body will try to cling on to what it has, and your metabolism will slow. So on the long run, my guess would be it does more harm than good.
Theories why the cake-breakfast works
What goes unstated is how much of the total caloric and carb intake of a day was at breakfast, but if you want to eat a carb-bomb, then breakfast or lunch is probably the best time to do so. The advantage: to be given an official time-frame to “cheat” in relieves stress, on the person dieting and on their body as well, because the two tend to be inseparable. Stress will raise cortisol levels and will make your body cling on to what it has. So an occasional cake-hug is like saying “Sh, all is well, see? You’re not going to starve, relax.” Personally, I’d say if you want to have a carb bomb for breakfast, go for porridge (oat-flakes with hot water and a swig of milk) or similar. Traditional food tends to be underrated. In general, our ancestors haven’t all been idiots. (There’s also the universal truth that repressing all desires doesn’t do a person good on the long run. People will cheat inevitably, and apparently, more, if they are doing so in secret; that’s what the numbers in the original article hint at as well.)
My problem with industrialized foods
I only set my mind to losing weight a month ago or so, but I’ve almost been abstaining from industrialized foods some time before that, since around last November, a good half year ago, because I realized the extent to which they didn’t do me any good.
There are claims that carbs were as bad and addictive as cocaine. The two seem to trigger similar areas in your brain, specifically those linked to gratification. I’d like to take the findings with a grain of salt, yet there is one similarity for sure: cocaine (I never took it but I have occasionally worked with people who did; it’s no big fun) triggers some areas of the brain very effectively and reliably. The same is true for a piece of cake that almost always makes you feel better instantly. My problem with the claim is that it vilifies carbs in total, and this is too broad a conclusion I believe. After all, our taste, our hormones that trigger the brain reaction are there for a reason, and served us well. Yet now there’s where the snatch is exactly: Our bodies aren’t used to the excessive amounts of artificial flavours, sweeteners and, most of all, the excess sugar. And indeed there can be a “too much” of it, a point where it gets addictive.
American sugar consumption, source: Business Insider [x]
What is certain is that some processed foods breed food addictions or preferences. Bottle-fed babies who are around my age now have a preference for certain brands of ketchup. This has been linked to the vanillin that was added to the Ersatz milk, so even traces of it trigger the sense of wholeness and comfort you felt as a baby forever henceforth, so as an adult, you still prefer the brands of ketchup that have vanillin as an additive. Mean, isn’t it?
Most processed foods (and I’m talking about highly processed foods, not refrigerated vegetables or something) are a veritable curse. They taste delicious. They are designed to do so. When I had zero money I took part in every free study available for food testing here, trying 50 spoons full of different yoghurt mixes and similar (you mostly got a few bars of chocolate as a payment or a fiver). Carbs or the illusion of it in food make us want to eat it; it is the quickest accessible energy source for our bodies. Carbs are good; your body tells you they are good. Yet the carbs offered in processed food are much like the candy offered by a child molester.
To artificial sweeteners: I would say take them in moderation. A thing to consider though, and a major fun fact, is that artificial sweeteners were vastly used at first to make pigs fatter, quicker. Turns out that – unsurprisingly – pigs prefer the sweetened food over the unsweetened, and gobble more of it. Humans are no different there.
What the food industry does, and this includes artificial sweeteners as well, is misleading your sense of taste; you won’t get what your body thinks it is getting. A few spoonful of sugar won’t do any harm unless you’re diabetic, but to draw the majority of calories out of empty carbs – empty means with zero other nutritional value – is definitely not good for you on the long run. Our taste buds still love it, because historically things that tasted sweet were high in nutritional value as well as in carbs, like ripe strawberries or a melon. So, processed food perverts our instinct and renders the fantastic system of taste inutile. It’s this cheating on our instincts that I think is the worst about it.
Treats and over-supply
I have a small but cherished collection of old household-advice and cookbooks. The recipes vary a lot, following dire need, or corresponding to rural life, to places and times where some things were there in abundance and others not. One thing that goes overall though is that sweets like cake, or cookies were a real treat. Here in Germany, you traditionally bake cookies before Christmas, and every family has their handful of recipes. You make a lot of them and give them to neighbours and friends. Cake was for Sunday or holidays. It wasn’t something you eat every day; it was special, a real, well, treat.
I think that waiting for something, missing something and looking forward to something is actually not a bad thing. I love seasonal food, I love to buy whatever is fresh and local at the grocery store. To have asparagus or strawberries (flown in from Chile) all year doesn’t tempt me. Processed food is the same throughout the year, and always available. It’s the main reason people go to McDonald’s, even if they are abroad. You know what you’re going to get. (And there’s free Wi-Fi.)
I think that the over-supply of food adds to our responsibility. We’re not cut out for it by nature. So at first, the industry sells us food we don’t need and that isn’t good for us, and then it sells products again to benefit once more from people being overweight and ill.
The 80s and 90s were a time when people started to be told with vehemence that what they had been eating traditionally was bad for them and that processed food, and food that could be produced at low cost by the industry promised salvation. Almost all the claims made back then have been relativised or debunked in the meantime. Eggs are bad for your health? Maybe if you eat 10 eggs a day and nothing else, otherwise, no. Cream and butter raise your cholesterol level? If yes, then very minutely if consumed in sensible amounts. Not substantially. Oops. The occasions are many on which scientists were obviously bought and funded by the food and agricultural industry, and doctors – mostly with the best intentions – jumped on the bandwagon. (The “food pyramid” that was in fact published first by some board of American agriculture is a prime example.)
A treat should be a treat is what I’m trying to get at. It’s totally fine to eat at McDonald’s, if that is your highlight of the week, or have a slice or two of cake. Yet I would blindly guess that including highly processed foods into your diet every day is probably not a great idea, especially if you want to lose weight. Yet again, you can eat three bars of chocolate a day (est. 1500 kcal), and probably lose weight, too, whatever works, it is surely just not the healthiest diet out there.
Afternote/edit, 29 May 2015: I’d be careful to deduct anything more than a working hypothesis unless I knew the sample size of a study, to start with, meaning how many people were tested. A similar catchy claim, specifically, namely that eating chocolate would make you lose weight, has been deliciously debunked – or rather, the author of the study has disclosed his true aim: to show how quickly even respectable papers will jump on a study from an institute that doesn’t even exist: [x]
Well it proves my original point: people just want to believe. Okay, and eat chocolate.
I put a little bit of “advice” together in a separate blog note after all; here it is: [x]
Featured image courtesy of aopsan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net