The Good Diet Quest

One does not become fat on one mouthful.
—Chinese proverb.

The Confucian diet

The blessing of many mouthfuls

My first thought with that damn proverb is “aw, stuff it,” yet somehow that doesn’t seem to be in the right dietary spirit. Thanks a lot, Confucius; I know how I got here. The question is how to get out.

The New York Times reports that we get fat because our friends get fat. That’s comforting. Dietitians say we eat too much of the wrong stuff. Duh! Some biologists blame bacteria. Ugh. Fitness gurus blame our sloth, anthropologists blame history, sociologists blame lousy parenting and geneticists blame lousy parents. That’s right: your mom made you fat!

While nobody really knows why the world is rushing to join the chubby club, they all agree with one thing: fat is bad.

But is it really? Turns out, fat is an important biological buffer. Without it, our organs would bloat in times of plenty and shrivel in times of lean. When it comes to your internal organs, you want them neither bloated nor shriveled.

Can Fat be Good?

Fat has recently been upgraded to an organ in and of itself, complete with its own hormones. Things are looking up! Biologically speaking, a certain amount of fat is good – even necessary. Hooray for me, I officially have a big organ – some would even call it a Wurlitzer! Alright, probably not the big organ most guys hope for (a huge spleen), but still, don’t I get bragging rights?

Not according to my doctor, who is a major buzz-kill. She says fat can be a killer. Sooner or later excess fat will, ironically and revoltingly, eat away at us, clogging our vessels and strangling our organs. So what’s a gravitationally attractive person to do? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is to switch doctors. No, really (my wife is poking me now), I suppose we may have to lose a little weight. I’ve gone a few miles down this path and I won’t lie to you. This is pretty much a pain in the derriere. Even my extravagantly upholstered derriere is apprehensive.

It is, I think, doable. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’m feeling better already, even though it’s only been a couple of weeks and I’ve lost all of three ounces. I’m writing this semi-regular progress report to keep myself focused. And, perhaps, to keep my fingers too busy to dive-bomb the cheese-dip. These musings may help you on your own journey.

A Healthy Diet?

This is no fad (or, sadly, fast) diet. I want a permanent loss, not a brief trip to Skinnyville and back. The goal is as much to get healthy as to lose weight. That sounds serious, but I’ll try to keep it light-hearted. Maybe we can lighten up some other organs as well (except, of course my magnificent spleen).

I’m not a dietitian, just a lowly science journalist. To most scientists, I rate a tiny notch above pond scum (which is still several notches above a politician). But I have a degree in physics, which helped me calibrate my BS detector. Plus I studied probability and statistics, so I can understand what scientists are actually reporting, which is usually in stark contrast to the sensationally cheesy overstatements of the lay press and which is also super unhelpful.

As I said, I’m not nearly as interested in losing weight as I am in gaining health. Unfortunately, if you are in the obese category, your health may be in danger. Weight and health are inextricably combined, but hopefully we can find some guidance from the latest studies. I’ve followed research in cancer, diabetes and heart disease for many years and I know that diet can play a significant role in these maladies. But there is also a large amount of malarkey out there and some of it is dangerous. In pursuit of the truth (or at least plausibility), I have a lucky circle of scientists I consult, who continue to tolerate my annoying questions. Some terrify me with stories of fat gone bad and others try to soothe me with reasonable ways to ditch the lard. I’ve tried to distill their cranky advice into something that is as interesting as it is conflicting. And yeah, there is a lot of conflict.

Although I may be crazy enough to try the latest crash diet, for my analysis I will try to stick to peer-reviewed journals. Even so, get real: science is an ever-evolving and ever-correcting fishing expedition. Who knows where or when we will land the big truth? The most I can offer is an unflinching and honest appraisal of the current evidence, even if I hate where it takes me. Like broccoli.

A cantaloupe diet? Really?

Cantaloupe? Really?

How bad are these diets? I won’t lie. There are certain aspects – like exercising and eating vegetables – that are truly horrifying. But on the upside, I think anyone who isn’t bedridden should be able to follow my progress and get some good from it. Actually, even if you’re bedridden, you should at least get a warm glow from my endless, and apparently amusing, agony.

A Spicy Diet?

In my gastronomic peregrinations, I stumbled across spices and my world suddenly became a brighter, richer place. But wait, you say, spices taste good … won’t that make us eat more? We’ll see! Spices encourage us to savor our food, which in turn slows down our eating. That is supposed to be a good thing, although I remain suspicious of anything that makes dieting more tolerable. It just doesn’t seem right, so I continue to research.

Spices are purported to help burn calories, grow hair, lower blood pressure, improve sex, ease arthritis and extend your life. Some of these wonderful claims have actual scientific backing, and some are simply the fevered speculations of the current celebrity diet guru. Looking good and having money confers a legitimacy on the world stage that no honest authority could ever aspire to. In this blog, I intend to advocate for the underdog scientific opinion on these various claims so we can all save ourselves a bunch of pain and embarrassment. I can’t (yet) tell you what diet is perfect for you, but I can certainly report critically on wild-ass claims and try to verify or debunk them.

One way or another, I’m going to shed my fat suit and expose that lean, sexy (and well-spleened) machine underneath it all. If you want to join along, I guess I can’t stop you – even though I know you’ll be snickering at my expense as I endure the countless humiliating levels of diet hell.

I can’t even blame you. It’s like trying to look away from a train wreck. Or, perhaps closer to home, a kitchen fire. Oh well, misery loves company, I guess, so you can stick around. But this fat has got to go. Even if it kills me, I’m going to cinch this belt up, notch by notch.


REFERENCES

Hutley L, Prins JB. Fat as an Endocrine Organ: Relationship to the Metabolic Syndrome American Journal of the Medical Sciences: December 2005 – Volume 330 – Issue 6 – pp 280-289.

James PT, Leach R, Kalamara E, Shayeghi R. The Worldwide Obesity Epidemic. Obesity Research (2001) 9, s228–S233; doi: 10.1038/oby.2001.123.

Hofker M, Wijmenga C. A supersized list of obesity genes. Nature Genetics41, 139 – 140 (2009). doi:10.1038/ng0209-139

Ley RE, Turnbaugh PJ, Klein S, Gordon JI. Microbial ecology: Human gut microbes associated with obesity. Nature 444, 1022-1023 (21 December 2006) | doi:10.1038/4441022a.

Lejuene MPGM, Kovacs EMR, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Effect of capsaicin on substrate oxidation and weight maintenance after modest body-weight loss in human subjects. Brit J of Nutr. (2003), 90, 651-659.

Shepherd JT. Circulatory response to exercise in health. Circulation. 1987 Dec;76(6 Pt 2):VI3-10.

Calle EE, Rodriguez C, Walker-Thurmond K, Thun MJ. Overweight, Obesity, and Mortality from Cancer in a Prospectively Studied Cohort of U.S. Adults. N Engl J Med 2003; 348:1625-1638April 24, 2003,

Hubert HB, Feinleib M, McNamara PM, Castelli WP. Obesity as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease: a 26-year follow-up of participants in the Framingham Heart Study. Circulation. 1983; 67: 968-977. doi: 10.1161/​01.CIR.67.5.968


5 thoughts on “The Good Diet Quest

  1. Your writing and all that I’ve read previously is well, Brilliant. I am one of your biggest fans (not necessarily in height and weight) but I thank for approaching topics with humor and wit.

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