THE BLUE ZONES REVISITED

I have ruminated in the past on the fascinating topic of Dan Buettner’s decades-long obsession with the cheerful folks in the so-called ‘Blue Zones’ regions around the world who live freakishly long and productive lives that put us all to shame here in our self-absorbed financially prosperous nation.  Here then are a few random thoughts on some of the less commonly discussed longevity ‘secrets’ of these amazing centenarians and super-centenarians:

  • Exercising daily, preferably swimming in cold water, as do the Abkhasians, which not only improves circulation and muscular function but also activates SIRT1 longevity genes via cold thermogenesis. Caveat: a senior with a heart condition should probably refrain from jumping into freezing water if they want to avoid a heart attack!

 

  • Retirement is an unknown concept amongst Abkhasians. This one is huge!  Personally, I have never understood the logic of retiring from being a productive member of society, unless you are holding down a job that you have hated your entire adult life, in which case you could still “retire into” more fulfilling work, instead of transitioning to an unproductive vegetative state in which you “retire” your sense of purpose and meaning.  In other words, why would any sane person choose to stop working altogether if they are healthy and vital, unless they wish to become no longer being healthy and vital?  I myself chose nutrition science as my livelihood specifically because I am so enamored with the subject/profession that it is something I would do for free, as a hobby, were I independently wealthy.  The point is that the Blue Zones illustrate the reality that retirement is a virtual death sentence.

 

  • Eating real food, mostly plants, not too much.  Thank you, Michael Pollan!

 

  • Vilcabamba is known as “The Valley of Peace and Tranquility“.  Enough said.  With peace and tranquility in your life, your HPA (Hypothalamic/Pituitary/Adrenal) axis is never dysregulated, your immune system is strong as a bull, resistant to infections and cancer, and you are virtually “bulletproof” to chronic and acute disease states precipitated by stress that are the bane of modern Westernized societies.

 

  • Trading a preoccupation with material things for laughter, pure and simple.  People who laugh and live in a state of almost perpetual joy, independent of less-than-ideal external circumstances tend to live longer and with higher quality of life, regardless of how much money they have in their bank account, or even if they don’t have a bank account!

 

  • Viewing aging as a natural transition in life, something beautiful and joyous, instead of dreading growing old, as we do here in America.  Elderly people are held in the highest respect in the Blue Zones.  I can assure you that a wrinkle-removing skin cream company would not do well if they set up shop in the Blue Zones regions!

Please note that, although this is a nutrition blog, I have not once brought up the topic of diet in this particular post, because I am trying to emphasize the critical point that factors such as one’s state of mind and priorities, emotional well-being, a sense of purpose and meaning, are at least as important in the healthful longevity equation (if not more so) as diet and exercise.  You are not just what you eat, you are who you love, how deeply you love, how often you laugh, and whether or not you have the disposition to expect nothing, accept everything, and celebrate all that is pure and good in your life!

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LEGITIMATE AGING VERSUS AVOIDABLE “WEAR & TEAR”

Oddly enough, the topic of healthy aging first became an interest of mine in 1981, at the “tender” age of 19, mostly because my best friend at the time was 60 and I wanted to help him stay vital and robust and stave off the inevitable decay of the aging process.  I therefore took it upon myself to read and digest a voluminous treatise on this subject, first published that year, “Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach” by researchers Dirk Pearson and Sandy Shaw.  My good friend did eventually survive mostly intact to the impressive age of 94 (he passed 3 years ago), so I would like to think that my efforts to assist him in preserving his health were at least partially successful.  However, in the 37 years since the publication of that groundbreaking book, I have learned that much of the information contained therein was either scientifically presumptive or completely erroneous, based upon fresh data gleaned from thousands of new studies.

All these years later, as I myself creep up on the Big 60, I have discovered that age-related research itself is subject to what I like to call intellectual senescence, hence it is with a skeptical but open mind that I approach fresh scientific conclusions on the mechanistic nuances of the aging process in mammalian physiology.  Most importantly, I think that it is crucial to exercise critical thinking if one’s intention is to differentiate between ‘normal aging’ (cellular senescence and extreme age-related organ failure), as opposed to avoidable chronic conditions that compromise quality of life and longevity caused by decades of accumulated cellular/DNA damage resulting from the ravages of a harmful diet and self-destructive lifestyle factors, i.e. the “exposome“, as opposed to the genome.  I get a bit tired of people complaining to me about their various chronic conditions and ailments that they are dealing with as they grow older, blaming it all on their age, instead of on their own accountability and lifelong neglect of their health, namely every alcoholic beverage and cigarette they smoked, every cheeseburger and slice of pizza they shoveled down their gullet, every opportunity to exercise that they traded for couch time binge watching their favorite TV show, every night they went to bed late and woke up sleep-deprived, etc.  Age is “only a number” for folks who made the effort to care for and respect their bodies as the birthdays piled on, instead of indulging every opportunity for hollow fleeting pleasures that damaged their health and shortened their lives.  Indeed, having worked as a Clinical Nutritionist treating elderly people who had trashed their bodies through neglect, it took a concerted effort on my part to demonstrate compassion for them, often having to remind myself that I too had not always taken good care of myself and was once 80 pounds overweight!

Aside from the aforementioned lifestyle choices which influence our longevity, there are 3 particular focal points that I find remarkable about recent findings in gerontology, all of which revolve around the compression of morbidity principle, e.g. the surprising fact that middle-aged mothers live longer and the genetic variants that appear to play a role in longevity:

  • ‘Compression of morbidity’ is just another way of defining that superior quality of life preceding one entering the super-elite centenarian club is, metaphorically speaking, a “bridge” that a person must cross in order to survive to their 100th birthday and is the most notable reason why some individuals make it to the age of 100 (aside from, obviously, favorable genetics), because they incurred the least amount of cellular/DNA damage in the first 80-90 years of their lives, i.e. epigenetic influences on longevity.

 

  • Genetic variants (alleles) are a good starting point for investigations, but one must keep in mind that genes are only a blueprint.  It is good to have a great blueprint before you begin to build a house, but if the construction workers are lazy and neglectful as the house is being built, it will be in a state of disrepair long before a house that was well-built and well-maintained over the years.

 

  • I have a theory about the middle-aged mothers as well, from an evolutionary biology perspective. I would posit that once a woman (or even a man) passes the customary age of reproduction, dispassionate Mother Nature has no further use for us, since our primary genetic purpose is to reproduce and pass on our DNA.  Nature cares little about the individual.  Propagation of the species is everything!  Some of my friends who are around my age sometimes joke that the reason they think I have aged slower than them is because I never had kids.  They may indeed be right, but that too is an oversimplification.

In the final analysis, I would guesstimate that living to 100 is 80% lifestyle, 20% genetics.  Lifestyle defined as diet, exercise, sleep, stress resilience, hormonal health, social connections, life purpose, and even how much we laugh.  Genetics defined by a panoply of known alleles, most of which can be turned “on” or “off” by the previously mentioned lifestyle factors.  You are what you eat, what you do, how much you love, and your attitude toward life, and ultimately those are the factors that can gently nudge you toward a happy healthy 80-100+ years on Earth.  Live long and prosper!

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THE CHINA STUDY: A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF RESEARCH BIAS

You may or may not be aware of a notorious book published back in 2005 that was authored by a staunchly vegetarian “scientist”, Dr. T Colin Campbell.  The book came to many dubious conclusions about the “ideal” human diet, which was founded on the goal of demonizing animal protein as an essential component of healthy eating.  The book is named after a massive 20-year observational study that Campbell conducted in the rural Chinese population, replete with cherry-picked data sets and wildly distorted conclusions.  This type of study generates correlations between variables, but cannot provide evidence of cause and effect.  The scientific method, as unanimously agreed upon by the global community of scientists, delineates that correlations only constitute observations and that those observations later need to be tested and verified with experiments, including clinical trials, which has not occurred in respect to the China Study.

All in all, Campbell studied 367 variables and made about 100,000 correlations, out of which only 8,000 were statistically significant.  With those kinds of numbers, we would expect to find at least 5,000 correlations that are “statistically significant” just by random chance, so the study provided Campbell with ample means to mine the data however he wanted.  In his book, Campbell used the data generated from this study to support his hypothesis that animal protein causes cancer, without any clinical trials backing up this claim.  As observations, correlations do not by default equate with causation.  Had I constructed my Master’s thesis with this same level of scientific credibility, I would have received a failing grade from my professor!  Campbell had to make the connection with six surrogate blood markers that he claimed to be reflective of animal protein intake.  His method is buried deep in a footnote, he provides no references supporting his use of these markers, and most of them did not even correlate with animal protein intake within the China Study itself.

At this point, it is pertinent to point out that Campbell serves on the advisory board to the “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine” (PCRM), an advocacy group of doctors and researchers with strong ties to PETA and animal rights groups.  It would certainly not be a stretch to name the author and this group ‘militant vegetarians’ who are in denial of human evolutionary biology based on selective ethics, not science.  Also, Campbell openly admits to having examined the data gathered by the China Study with the express intention of seeking to find associations between animal food consumption and disease.  In academia, we call such perversion of data ‘confirmation bias‘.  When attempting to establish an association between animal foods and disease risk, the only scientifically-confirmed argument which emerges is that processed CAFO meat from animals fed an unnatural pro-inflammatory grain-based diet and administered hormones and antibiotics during their miserable confined existence is the only context within which one can find a valid causal association between meat consumption and chronic disease states such as cancer, which has been identified via both epidemiological and clinical data.  On the other hand, the consumption of humanely raised grass-fed cattle, for example, has not been shown to pose the same health risk as processed CAFO meat.  The proverbial ‘devil’ is indeed in the details, once again.

So, in conclusion, the true underlying intent of my post today is not to go off on the China Study (I chose it merely as an example), but to encourage us to engage our critical thinking skills whenever we’re confronted with the latest bombshell science news that lands in the laps of our sensationalizing media outlets, social media, or bookstore shelves.  Whenever I read or hear of a new study, the very first questions I ask are “Who funded the study?”, “What potential bias is lurking behind the study’s research methods?”, and most importantly: “Who stands to gain the most from broad public acceptance of the study’s conclusions?”.

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The tragically mislabeled “Caveman Diet”

Today, I would like to present a fresh perspective on the popular but vastly misunderstood “Caveman Diet”, aka Paleo, Primal, Ancestral, Evolutionary Biology diet, a way of eating that has been around for approximately 200,000 years, or about the age of the most recent genus of humans, homos sapiens.  It’s kind of hard to label this a “fad diet” if it strives to follow a pattern of food consumption that has sustained our species for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the development of agriculture.  Although I myself generally adhere to most of the concepts built into this diet, I shall nonetheless refrain from injecting observer bias into my observations and keep this conversation firmly grounded in solid science, presenting both the pros and cons of the theories upon which this diet is based.  My intention is to present an objective alternate point-of-view and avoid the temptation of “cherry-picking” studies that support my hypothesis, focusing instead on investigating criticisms in respect to this diet through the lens of evolutionary biology.  It also strikes me as noteworthy that calling this diet the “Caveman Diet” is akin to calling the wild game consumed by lions on the prairies of Africa the “Lion Diet”.

The basic premise of the Paleo diet is to focus on consuming only foods similar to what our hunter-gather ancestors had access to prior to the advent of farming and processed foods, i.e. fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, and nuts.  The foundational logic underlying the evolutionary biology diet is that, by following the aforementioned nutritional guidelines, we are choosing a diet that is more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our genetics, which in turn may positively influence health and wellbeing.  This diet lessens the body’s overall glycemic load, has a healthy ratio of saturated-to-unsaturated fatty acids, increases micronutrient density, and contains an optimal balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that helps preserve a healthy body weight and sufficient metabolic flexibility to support an active lifestyle.  As is the case with all efficacious diets, much of the success of the Paleo Diet can be identified as exclusionary in nature, i.e. attributed not as much to what it includes but rather what it excludes: fast food and junk food, hybridized grains, pro-inflammatory cooking oils, additives, preservatives, and generally anything produced by Monsanto!

In contrast to the “hunter-gatherer” diet, which dominated for 98% of human evolution, modern agriculture does indeed produce 10 to 100 times more calories per acre than the foraging posited by the Paleo diet, hence a more realistic solution (if not the healthiest) for feeding over 7 billion humans.  Over the period from 10,000 BC to AD 1, the world’s population increased exponentially about a hundredfold; estimates range from 40 to 170 times.  An accelerated rate of evolution may be a direct result of the much larger human population.  More people will of course have more mutations, thereby increasing and accelerating the opportunity for evolutionary change under natural selection, far beyond the speed at which such changes occurred in the pre-agricultural era.  The spread of rapidly expanding populations eventually outpaced the spread of favorable mutations in populations, thus for the first time in human history favorable mutations could not fully disperse throughout the species.  Two excellent examples of this are regional adaptations of salivary amylase transcriptors for starch digestion and the relatively recent ability to produce lactase in adulthood for the digestion of lactose found in cow’s milk.  In addition, natural selection pressures changed once farming was adopted, favoring distinctive adaptations in different geographic areas.  For example, farming, rather than merely reduced sunlight in Northern Europe has been hypothesized as having helped trigger pale skin in modern Europeans.  As illuminated by a 2007 study, almost all Africans and East Asians have one allele of the SLC24A5 gene, whereas 98% of Europeans studied had the alternate allele.  These data suggest that a “selective sweep” of evolutionary adaptations occurred as recently as 5,300 to 6,000 years ago, replacing darker skins with light skins at an astonishing speed.  This implies that Europeans had been dark-skinned for tens of thousands of years prior to this “emergency adaptation”.  Several decades ago, a researcher at Stanford argued convincingly that European hunter-gatherers, herders and fishers could have survived from the vitamin D content of their diet alone.  Only after farming took hold did it become necessary for Europeans to absorb more sunlight to produce vitamin D in their skin, having mostly replaced meat and fish with grains.

As for what these findings suggest about the evolutionary premise behind the Paleo diet, they clearly show that we are in fact complex combinations of both ancient adaptations and recent adaptations to global changes to traditional diets in the past 10 millennia.  Picking a single point in human history and trying to conform our diet to that particular time period, e.g. Paleolithic, may not be realistic, nor reflect our complexity.  That said, I still consider it a far safer choice to reach for an organic non-GMO apple than a bag of Doritos, regardless of any recent genetic adaptations to highly processed junk foods.  If we were fully adapted to consuming Doritos, we would not be currently mired in a global pandemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, chronic diseases which were notably absent in our Paleolithic ancestors.  Speaking for myself personally, I’d much rather be eaten by a saber-toothed tiger than suffer for decades with debilitating health problems that could have been easily avoided had I respected the dietary and environmental inputs that my genes expected of me.

For further exploration of this fascinating topic, I encourage you to click on the link below to access an in-depth article published in “Scientific American” a few years ago:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/

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What the government tells us we should eat

My topic today is the USDA’s highly suspect 2015-2020 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, which is clearly far more influenced by politics and economics than it is by science or a genuine concern for public health.  I admit that public health policy occasionally elicits positive real-world change, such as the Hunger-Free Act, but I believe that people in general will only eat healthy when it is forced upon them by dire personal circumstance, not when it is suggested to them, especially by the government.  If the recent election cycle has highlighted anything fairly incontestable, it is that folks on both the Left and the Right are pretty distrustful of the government’s true motivations when it comes to most every issue, so I seriously doubt that this wariness does not extend to dietary recommendations.

First of all, the government is heavily invested in agricultural and livestock production via a complex web of price guarantees, subsidies and tariffs aimed at increasing production and decreasing competition.  Next, the federally-funded USDA runs a series of “check-off” programs that collect funds from the concerned parties in order to manage industry-wide marketing campaigns.  In addition to this, the dietary recommendations proffered by the FDA and USDA place the financial interest of partner industries above public health.  Also, the claims advertised on the front of product packaging falls under the jurisdiction of these same federal entities and they are notorious for favoring measures that benefit partner industries while discouraging measures that may indirectly affect their bottom line.  Finally, the government agencies responsible for mandating health and safety measures to ensure product quality are hesitant to adopt production and packaging standards that may interfere with a concerned company’s ability to generate the desired yield output and, therefore, profits.  It is evident when scrutinizing any independently funded study pertaining to the modus operandi of the USDA and FDA that the government is only concerned with creating and maintaining a food system that best serves their individual agenda, rather than that of consumer health and resource welfare.  Marion Nestle did a wonderful job of delineating this point in her groundbreaking book, “Food Politics”.

Processed food companies and fast food chains are well aware of the economic implications of reversing the obesity epidemic and the comorbidities associated with it, as are the FDA and USDA.  Economists at the USDA have calculated that “costly adjustments” would occur in the large-scale agriculture and processed food industries if people ate more healthfully.  That threat is just one reason why Big Food contributes generously to congressional campaigns, and why federal agencies have failed to take the obvious first step, i.e. a fully-committed national obesity-prevention campaign in response to the Surgeon General’s 2001 “Call to Action”.  Such a campaign would have to address economically-impactful dietary considerations and include emphatic messages to eat less, as well as the far less controversial “be more active” campaign, although it has been well-researched that nobody can exercise their way out of a bad diet, no matter how hard they try.  Weight loss and health start in the kitchen, not in the gym!

Oddly enough, no other federal health agency has stepped in to lead the nation on dietary issues, including individual states’ Department of Public Health, which explains why the USDA is left in charge of national nutrition policy, while at the same time protecting the business interests of Big Food.  There is a famous adage from outside the secular sphere: “One cannot serve two masters”.  The USDA’s primary mission is to promote U.S. agricultural products (“eat more”), whilst also dispensing contradictory advice on diet and health (“eat less”).  This notorious ongoing conflict accounts for the ambiguity of federal dietary guidelines, e.g. “aim for a healthy weight”, “choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars”, etc.) and the confusing nature of the USDA’s “Food Pyramid” and “MyPlate”, both of which are antithetical to human evolutionary biology.  To read more on this subject, I highly recommend Denise Minger’s bold treatise on this topic, “Death by Food Pyramid”, for an in-depth look at why and how the US government is duplicitously killing off its own citizens for the sake of economic prosperity.  Do the means justify the end?  Certainly true in an amoral society that worships money!

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EXERCISE FOR YOUR HEALTH, NOT TO LOSE WEIGHT!

Get healthy for the sake of getting healthy and you will lose weight as a side effect.  That is the primary message of my blog post today.  Exercise viewed merely as a vehicle for weight loss is a flawed premise.  As the new year is still very young and brimming with resolutions for many people, my initial posts of 2018 will be focused on dispelling the myths underlying common New Years’ resolutions associated with health.  In that spirit, I’m going to talk about exercise and its numerous benefits that do not directly pertain to weight loss.

Let’s start by reverse-engineering exercise as a component in heart health and the etiology of cardiac impairments, since how we look standing naked in front of a mirror is rendered quite irrelevant if we can’t keep our ticker ticking!  A sedentary lifestyle is one of the 5 major cardiac risk factors, along with high blood pressure, abnormal values for blood lipids, smoking, and obesity.  Evidence from numerous clinical and epidemiological studies have clearly shown that reducing the abovementioned risk factors decreases one’s chance of a heart attack or experiencing other cardiac events, such as a stroke, and reduces the possibility of requiring an invasive coronary revascularization procedure, e.g. bypass surgery or coronary angioplasty.  Regular exercise has been found to have a favorable effect on many of the established risk factors for cardiovascular disease.  For example, exercise promotes weight reduction and can help lower blood pressure, lowering the strain on one’s heart.  Exercise can also reduce so-called “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood (LDL in general and VLDL specifically), as well as total cholesterol, although I would posit that reducing systemic inflammation, as identified via a blood marker known as HS-CRP, is an even greater cardiac benefit of exercise, especially aerobic exercise, and can also raise “good” cholesterol (HDL).

Although the isolated effect of an exercise program on reducing any specific risk factor may be relatively small, the cumulative effect of continued moderate exercise on overall cardiovascular disease risk, when combined with other lifestyle modifications such as proper nutrition, smoking cessation and moderating alcohol intake, can be dramatic indeed.  There also exist a number of corollary physiological benefits to regular exercise, e.g. improvements in muscular function and the strength of both muscle and bone, as well as a significant improvement in the body’s ability to take in and use oxygen (maximal oxygen consumption or aerobic capacity, aka VO2 max).  As one’s ability to transport and use oxygen improves, regular daily activities can be performed with less fatigue, improving overall quality of life, tangential to the reduction of cardiovascular disease risk.  This is particularly important for patients with known genetic risk factors and a family history of heart disease whose exercise capacity is markedly lower than that of healthy individuals.  There is also a wealth of clinical evidence that long-term exercise training improves the capacity of the blood vessels to dilate in response to vigorous physical activity, consistent with better vascular function and an increased ability to supply oxygen to working muscles.

Individuals with newly diagnosed heart disease who participate in an exercise program report an earlier return to work and improvements in other measures of quality of life, such as self-confidence, lowered stress, and less anxiety.  Most importantly, as confirmed by meta-analyses of controlled studies, researchers have found that for heart attack patients who participated in a formal exercise program, the death rate is reduced by a whopping 20% to 25%!  This is strong evidence in support of physical activity for patients with heart disease.  Although the clear benefits of exercise are unquestionable, it should also be noted as a caveat that exercise programs alone for patients with advanced heart disease, as an independent variable, have not convincingly shown improvement in the heart’s pumping ability or the diameter of the coronary vessels that supply oxygen to the heart muscle due to confounding variables such as the patient’s extent of atherosclerotic plaque accumulation and arterial blockage concomitant with the narrowing of arteries that deliver oxygenated blood throughout the body.  If the heart itself does not receive adequate amounts of oxygenated blood during exercise, that in itself can be a risk factor for heart attack, thus cardiac patients should check with their cardiologist first before engaging in vigorous aerobic exercise, which might involve a prudent physician-supervised exercise stress test prior to the commencement of a structured exercise program.

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Finally, the truth about weight loss!

I’m finally back from the holidays, as I’m sure are most of you.  I put on a few pounds in the past month, so sue me.  I may be a nutritionist but I’m also human!  We all want to lose a little or a lot of weight at this time of year (a boom time for health clubs and gyms), as our holiday indulgences eat away at our guilt, pun intended.  In my last post of 2017, I promised to address the pertinent issue of how to lose weight and keep it off, and I shall now make good on that promise.

First, it seems apropos to first discuss the economics of weight loss and the multi-billion-dollar industry built around this ubiquitous ambition that pervades the very fabric of our society, personally, economically, psychologically, sexually, and even politically.  Weight loss is not just a personal goal, it’s a big business, one which promotes financially lucrative modalities, not science.  The metabolic biology of burning adipose tissue as a fuel source has nothing whatsoever to do with Jenny Craig, Nutrasystem, or Oprah Winfrey!

So here’s the skinny on weight loss (I have many more bad puns where that came from!).  At its most fundamental level, weight loss is simply about the laws of thermodynamics and E=mc2.  Matter converts to energy.  That matter can either come from food or from stored adipose tissue.  Any questions?  Good.  Let’s move on.

Now one might posit, based on what I just said, an overly simplistic notion of weight loss.  Eat less food, burn more calories than you consume, and you will lose weight.  Seems simple, right?  I wish it were.  For indeed there are numerous confounding variables embedded into the metabolic equation.  In fact, there are circumstances in which one can actually consume fewer calories than one burns and still put on body fat, such as when we consume foods that spike our insulin levels, such as high-glycemic carbohydrates.  Insulin is an energy storage hormone.  If you are a Tour de France cyclist riding 100+ intense miles/day, insulin will tell your body to store circulating glucose as glycogen in your hard-working muscles.  But if you’re a sedentary sloth binge-watching Game of Thrones, that same quantity of circulating glucose will be converted to triglycerides and stored as body fat, even in the context of a caloric deficit.  Bummer, isn’t it?  Here’s one more thought that will blow up your brain.  We are ALWAYS, throughout the day, either in a state of fat burning (lipolysis) or fat storage (lipogenesis), like it or not.  When in fact you do lose weight, all it means is that you spent more time in a state of lipolysis than lipogenesis within any given 24-hour period.  But this also does not mean that our bodies operate on a strict 24-hour cycle of fat burning and fat storage that is partitioned from one day to the next.  In fact, recent studies have shown that caloric deficits and excess span a quantifiable period of 5-7 days in terms of metabolic impact.

So now let’s bump this up another level and talk some more about hormones.  The laws of thermodynamics are great but our bodies are not steam engines.  The main thing that differentiates us from steam engines is hormones.  Hormones can do some weird stuff to our bodies.  They can become schizophrenic and sabotage our efforts to lose weight.  A few that are worthy of mention include insulin, as mentioned previously, leptin, which tells our fat cells to stop taking in triglycerides (such as when we try to starve ourselves), stress-induced cortisol, which increases blood sugar and carb cravings, grehlin, which tells our brain that we are satiated (broken in most overweight folks), adiponectin, which lowers blood sugar and burns body fat, and Hormone-Sensitive Lipase (HSL), which in adipose tissue is normally inhibited by low levels of insulin.  Catecholamine, cortisol, growth hormone and glucagon activate this enzyme.  Fasting and an energy deficit tend to progressively reduce insulin and elevate the abovementioned counter-regulatory hormones, which triggers lipolysis, i.e. weight loss.  Confused yet?  Don’t worry.  I’ll break it down for you in a moment.

The proverbial bottom line is this.  Burning body fat is not about eating less and exercising more, although that does create a favorable environment in which our hormones can communicate with each other.  Mostly it’s about telling our hormones that we are not starving to death, because our body’s Number One priority is always self-preservation, but when we don’t quite have enough to eat to sustain our daily activities, we must discretely tap into our precious reserves of body fat to keep us going.  Now please keep in mind that this all needs to be viewed through the evolutionary lens of our ancient ancestors relying on stored body fat to get them through harsh winters when food sources were scarce, so stored body fat is not a biological aberration, it is in fact a survival mechanism.  These days, our higher brain functions compel us to look like lean mean fitness models, however our hormones are still stuck in the Paleolithic era.  But please don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating the wildly popular “Paleo Diet”.  I’m merely saying that every organism on Earth evolved to survive and thrive within a specific ecosystem, be they insect or human.  When we screw with our millennia-old ecosystem by putting up a McDonald’s on every other street corner, we have created the equivalent of stuffing a pride of lions into a hockey rink filled with Snickers bars.  How long do you think those lions would survive?

So what should you do to lose weight and keep it off in this new year?  Reread this blog post and use your critical thinking skills to come up with an action plan that is consistent with your genetic blueprint as a homo sapien!

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Obesity is itself a disease!

Why is obesity so out of control in our country?  Is it just that people are pounding down too many calories?  Should we blame it all on McDonald’s?  Is it due to lack of exercise and physical activity in general?  Is it genetic?  Are some of us just born to be overweight?  A loaded topic for sure!  The epidemiological etiology of obesity on a population level is an enormously complex issue on which a book of 1000 pages could easily be published and would barely skim the surface of this subject.  We know that obesity has been around, albeit in scarcity, for at least 25,000 years, but today it has morphed into a pandemic of epic proportions, especially here in the United States.

We could analyze to death the biochemistry and endocrinology of obesity, but we cannot blame it all on genetics either, i.e. the so-called “thrifty gene”, since the human genome has only infinitesimally changed over the past 25 millennia.  I therefore propose an alternate hypothesis, from an ecological perspective, which examines the causality behind obesity as mostly a product of behaviors and environmental inputs consistent with cultural norms reflecting a modern lifestyle dominated by convenience and technology, a “disease of affluence” if you will.

My argument is best served by a bullet point list of what I believe are the top 10 factors underlying the ongoing proliferation of obesity and the chronic comorbidities associated with it, collectively known as ‘Metabolic Syndrome’ within the culture of enlightened clinicians and nutritionists:

  • A sedentary lifestyle overrun by electronic distractions.

 

  • Highly processed ‘Frankenfoods’.

 

  • Excess carbohydrate and refined sugar intake, especially the dreaded High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

 

  • The obesogenic consequences of a long-term energy imbalance, i.e. the Laws of Thermodynamics driving hyperplasia and hypertrophy of human adipocytes.

 

  • Hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance.

 

  • Modern modes of transportation that encourage sedentary habits.

 

  • ‘Convenience foods’, e.g. pizza, fast food and “TV dinners”, emotionally-driven snacking of comfort foods throughout the day, i.e. eating disorders as a form of self-medication for undiagnosed psychiatric disorders.

 

  • Too much stress and not enough sleep, causing ‘fight-or-flight lipogenesis’ via HPA axis dysregulation, and excessive cortisol production in particular.

 

  • Prediabetes and Type II diabetes propagated by visceral adiposity/NAFLD (Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease) and perpetuated via hormonally-induced metabolic derangement, e.g. insulin and leptin resistance. This means that an individual can appear thin superficially, yet still be carrying dangerous visceral fat around their internal organs, sometimes referred to as “skinny fat”.

 

  • Excess alcohol consumption and smoking.

It is because of all the aforementioned that nothing irks me more than “quick & easy” diet plans such as Jenny Craig (sue me, Jenny, sue me!) or Oprah’s latest fad diet, as she keeps climbing on and off the obesity rollercoaster like a gleeful kid at a theme park.  So what is the best way to lose weight and keep it off?  I’ll be covering that topic in my next blog post.  In the meanwhile, be happy and healthy, folks.  You can’t be one without the other!

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Revisiting the “Blue Zones”

For my topic today, I wish to propose an incendiary hypothesis on the “Blue Zones” diet, which has gotten a lot of press lately.  For the purpose of this discussion, I plan to compare the diet and lifestyle choices of two out of the five long-lived cultures examined by Dan Buettner in his iconic book, i.e. the Ikarians and Okinawans.  After reading about the diet/lifestyle of the Ikarians, I noticed right away that the staples in their diet comprised mostly wild greens, potatoes, feta cheese, black-eyed peas, chickpeas and lemons, Mediterranean herbs, coffee, honey, occasional meat and poultry, and of course fish, whereas the Okinawan diet consisted mostly of bitter melons, tofu, sweet potatoes, garlic, turmeric, brown rice, green tea, shiitake mushrooms, seaweeds, and of course fish as the primary protein source.  With the exception of the commonality of potatoes, we can see that these two long-lived societies are not consuming any particular “magic foods” common to both that are getting them to their 100th birthday.

I therefore propose that the true success underlying both diets and lifestyles is in fact exclusionary in nature.  The Ikarians and Okinawans are not surviving happily and healthily into their tenth and eleventh decade only because of the foods that they are eating, but even more so because of the foods that they are not eating, i.e. highly processed “edible food-like substances”, as I call them, such as Twinkies, Big Macs and Papa John’s pizza.  Neither do these folks sit around all day on their rear ends glued to the television or a computer.  They are not stuck in rush hour traffic and smog inside cars or texting and obsessively Tweeting or Facebooking.  They don’t sweat the small stuff.  They are mentally strong and resilient, without having to take antidepressants.  They don’t drink too much alcohol or swallow a dozen pharmaceuticals every day to deal with the symptoms of a lifestyle that is an evolutionary mismatch.  They abide in close-knit communities in loving relationships.  As they grow older, they are treated with affection and reverence by younger members of their community.  They live in harmony with nature.  Their exposome is not polluted with carcinogenic toxins.  They are not obsessed with the accumulation of objects and material wealth.  In other words, they live lives that are pretty much the complete opposite of our Western debauched consumerist culture that so many of us arrogantly declare is the “greatest country on Earth”.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I love the indomitable spirit and tireless innovations of Americans.  I owe this country an immeasurable debt of gratitude, after she took me in as a refugee from Communist Hungary back in 1969.  But let’s not kid ourselves!  We Americans could learn a great deal from “Blue Zone” cultures like Ikaria and Okinawa, as previously delineated in this post.  We have a tendency here in the West to confuse economic prosperity with genuine happiness and contentment, and most of us do not attend to our mental and physical wellbeing.  If you want to live to see your ninth or tenth decade, in good health, you should start by first eliminating the specific foods and environmental inputs that are clearly harmful to your health, before obsessing over exactly which healthful foods are better than others.  Chickpeas or sweet potatoes?  Just set down the bag of Doritos and you’re already halfway to where you need to be!  By taking this simple exclusionary approach, I guarantee that the foods which will be left in your diet are all good for your health.  I would welcome some feedback on my ‘exclusionary hypothesis’.

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Getting to the heart of the matter

Sorry that I’ve been away for so long folks.  The past few weeks have been a trying time for me, as I recently lost a close family member to the ravages of heart disease, and so it is in his honor that my thoughts logically turn to the subject of atherosclerosis and it’s etiology.

Of course, we have all heard ad nauseum the standard condescending diet and lifestyle recommendations for preventing heart disease peddled by our esteemed FDA and AMA, both of whom are promoting an archaic outdated paradigm to the general public, in fact increasing instead of decreasing the pandemic of heart disease, which is now the number one killer of both men and women in America.  Conventional wisdom on how to address the underlying cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease in general is propagated as a plea to “avoid cholesterol, eat more fruit and so-called healthy whole grains”, “exercise and watch your saturated fat intake”, “replace butter with margarine” (worst advice ever), etc.  I wish to posit an alternate, albeit less discussed, hypothesis of heart disease, one that does not benefit the coffers of the pharmaceutical giants but does address this chronic disease state illuminated by cutting-edge scientific data.  I propose that, at its heart (pun intended), atherosclerosis is not so much about how much fat, or even saturated fat, that an individual consumes, unless they are one of the unlucky few born with a genetic predisposition toward heart disease, such as my aforementioned family member, a condition referred to in medical nomenclature as familial hypercholesterolemia.

Heart disease is essentially a by-product of systemic inflammation triggered by excess blood glucose and triglycerides driven by the over-consumption of refined sugars and atherogenic fats such as trans fat and an excess of Omega 6 oils, in the absence of sufficient Omega 3, especially highly-inflammatory atherogenic hydrogenated oils such as palm oil and vegetable oil, which are now ubiquitous in most modern processed foods, instead of using healthier oils such as olive and avocado oil that are more expensive to produce, but healthier nonetheless.  Which leads us back to the corporate mantra in America: profits first, people second.

Did you happen to notice that almost every food that is labeled “low fat” has had the fat calories replaced by sugar calories?  I maintain that sugar is the true enemy of the heart, not healthy fats!  We have known this academically since the 1980s and yet our government continues to demonize fat instead of sugar as the progenitor of heart disease, which only benefits the sugar and corn lobbies, not the health of the general public.  Special mention goes to corn lobbyists in particular, the most prevalent and profitable crop in the United States.  And why is this, I wonder.  Is it because folks are eating a record amount of corn on the cob these days?  I think not!  In four words, the single most common toxic ingredient found in processed foods and sodas: High Fructose Corn Syrup.  Decades of low-fat dieting have done absolutely nothing to reduce the incidence of obesity, heart disease and Type II diabetes.  In fact, they have only gotten worse, and now even many children have diabetes and heart disease, which are basically just two sides of the same coin.

We have all read the alarming statistics, e.g. 1 in 3 Americans is now either obese or overweight.  I think that the time has come to arrest the true “criminal” at the scene of this crime, sugar, instead of the innocent bystanders, healthy fats and cholesterol.  The demonization of cholesterol is especially tragic, in light of the fact that there is not a single cell in the human body that does not require cholesterol to survive.  If we don’t get enough cholesterol in our diet (howdy Vegans!), the liver will actually manufacture its own cholesterol and circulate it throughout the body, bathing every cell in this critically important hormonal precursor.

Bottom line?  If you’d like to learn more about this controversial topic, I recommend a specific book that is an easy read (also available as an audiobook) and gets right to the heart of the matter!  See link below:

http://www.cholesterolclarity.com/

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