Back in August 2013 the BBC followed up their series on the food industry, The Men Who Made Us Fat, with a series on weight loss, called The Men Who Made Us Thin. It turned out that they weren’t all men and they haven’t really made us thin – but nobody wanted that to get in the way of a good title!
The one-hour documentaries covered an extraordinary range, moving quickly through the history of diets, exercise, diet-food, and government legislation – or lack of, to be more accurate. Watching all four episodes again, I became confused and quite overwhelmed, and it took me a while to figure out why.
One way of explaining my reaction is that, although the series seemed to be educational, it was really much more like entertainment. Which is fair enough, given that this was TV. There was a great deal of fascinating information, but it didn’t lead us anywhere because the programme didn’t take a clear enough stand on anything at all. Dieting and exercise were emphatically shown not to work, but there were no alternatives offered that anybody could use – not even a glimmer of hopeful light at the end of a long tunnel. So the end effect was to contribute to the very gloomy notion that successful, long term weight loss is an unrealistic goal that only provides benefit for those who make money in the ‘weight-loss’ industry.
It was this that left me knocked back, and the hopelessness about it was so strong I even started to wonder if I had in fact dropped three dress sizes and maintained that for decades. Was I kidding myself? How in the world did I do that?
There were clues in some brilliant points made over the four hours, but they were expressed in fleeting seconds, and then we moved on to something else. Then, instead of building on the helpful insights, the programme ignored or even contradicted them.
An example came from Professor Traci Mann, whose research into the appalling ineffectiveness of dieting was described as “the most comprehensive study of weight loss ever taken”. After declaring that diets do not produce any long-term weight loss results, she said,
“If we could get people to focus on health instead of weight we’d be better off in every way.”
This is an important idea, but it’s difficult for many people to make it a reality. I discuss this quite a bit in my book, EATING LESS, especially in Chapters 2, 3, 4, 7 and 11. It’s not that excess weight doesn’t matter at all; it’s just that it’s one of the many effects of overeating. It’s prioritising weight that gets in the way, but it was weight that was discussed throughout the series.
The presenter, Jacques Peretti, repeatedly confused the terms ‘eating less’ and ‘dieting’, using them as identical, interchangeable concepts. I can understand why he thinks this way, but to me there are huge differences: the primary motivation of health that Professor Mann mentioned, and, most importantly, the quality of autonomy (self-government) which is actively discouraged by diets of all kinds, almost by definition.
A CALORIE ISN’T A CALORIE
The series contradicted itself on a very important issue, that of ‘energy balance’. This is the idea that you lose weight when you eat fewer calories than you burn off; for example, by exercising. It was made very clear in the second episode that although exercise has a lot of benefits, weight loss isn’t one of them. It’s true that there are no published studies at all to show that exercise alone results in lost weight. Peretti asked why the notion of exercising to burn off calories is an idea that’s become so very deeply entrenched in our culture.
A good question, and the answer was, almost single-handedly, the Jane Fonda exercise video, launched in 1982. If you’re old enough to remember, you’ll know it was a massive hit, and it revolutionised the way we thought about burning calories. This was where the ‘exercise to lose weight’ notion took its firm hold.
It was based on an illusion. Fonda had never been overweight, so she wasn’t losing any by bouncing around for an hour or so every day. And it wasn’t until many years later that she spoke publicly about her bulimia. But if exercise doesn’t ‘burn calories’ and make us thin, or at least thinner, this calls into question the notion of energy balance: that you lose weight by burning more calories than you consume.
Peretti told us that ‘calories-in-calories-out’ is an idea that continues to be promoted by those in the food industry, who want us to believe that manufactured food is harmless – so long as you exercise. If their foods are basically okay, all people need to do to lose weight is to control their portions and to exercise more. This is a very important point.
So people are often encouraged to assume that calories are what matter, and Peretti pointed out that this is a very tough idea to shake off. But he didn’t manage to shake it off either, because in a later episode he gave us what he described as crazy examples of healthier options with more calories than junk food alternatives. In dismay, he explained to us that,
- an Innocent Smoothie has more calories than a can of coke;
- a Prêt salad with rocket and lentils has more calories than a Big Mac;
- an EAT granola yoghurt has more calories than a Krispy Kreme donut.
Surely these examples alone would cause us to question the theory of energy balance, whether you’re looking at health, weight loss or both. But even after all this, Peretti still didn’t question it!
The only way to see how calories-in-calories-out can be invalid is in terms of systemic inflammation, and sadly this wasn’t mentioned once in the whole series. The crucial information is that the sugars, artificial sweeteners, grains and trans fats in the junk food options cause considerably more inflammation in the body. Keep that level of systemic inflammation going and you get some degree of insulin resistance, which stores fat, along with leptin resistance, which makes you hungrier. Job done.
However, if you singled out those ingredients as the primary cause of excess weight, you’d be targeting just about every manufactured product on the supermarket shelves, not to mention the fast food outlets.
The real challenge with this is our great fondness for them. Use terms such as attachment or addiction if you prefer, but none of this was mentioned. The more addictive a food product is, the more it will sell, so manufacturers spend inordinate amounts of time and money on precisely those qualities that I refer to as addictive. (1)
GOOD FOOD AND BAD FOOD
The last episode of the series told the story of the UK governments’ Public Health Commission, which met to discuss the regulation of such ingredients in response to our obesity epidemic. This Commission received advice from scientists, but as it was chaired and mostly composed of food industry leaders, the recommendations it gave were as weak and vague as they could possibly be.
The current UK government policy with regard to the obesity crisis is to aim to reduce the nation’s intake by 5 billion calories a day by 2020. So, quite apart from the fact that there’s nothing you could possibly make use of in that, we’re still thinking purely in terms of counting calories!
Professor Simon Capewell made hugely important comments on the dangers of trans fats, calling it “insane” that our government has not regulated them. But, again, the programme moved on very quickly to another topic and we didn’t learn very much about it.
For example, it could be helpful to know that trans fat, chemically speaking, is virtually indistinguishable from rubber, and there is said to be no safe level of consumption. In some places they’re banned outright, and in many at least regulated and very clearly labelled. In the UK at least, they can be in food without mention on the label, or can be on a label in disguised terms such as ‘shortening’. (2)
Studies have demonstrated that trans fat creates abdominal fat “even in the absence of caloric excess“. Let me say that again. Studies have demonstrated that trans fat creates abdominal fat “even in the absence of caloric excess“. How it does this is through its effect on inflammation and insulin resistance. (3, 4)
Sugar and grains too have been shown to support the accumulation of fat to a far greater extent than their caloric content alone would suggest. Again, the mechanism is inflammation and insulin resistance. (5)
Not only does eating in an inflammatory way cause the body to store fat, but it blocks the ability of the body to lose it. Which is why the theory of energy balance is inadequate. And, in case I’m getting too focussed on weight, just about anything that can go wrong with your health comes from this systemic inflammatory response, from loss of energy to heart disease. (6)
The official Food Pyramid nutritional advice was never brought into question, either by the presenter or those he interviewed. Of course, it’s now been turned into a Plate, with a few adjustments. But no matter what shape it takes, it’s still created by the US Department of Agriculture, influenced by the food industry, and flagrantly ignores research on nutrition. (7)
A strong advocate of the conventional Plate-Pyramid advice is Yale food researcher Dr Kelly Brownell, and in his interview with Peretti he looked very seriously (even morbidly) obese. I rest my case!
A SAD ENDING
The final words at the end of the last programme were,
“Eating less, for most of us, doesn’t work, so we are left in the hands of the weight-loss industry.”
Understand that the only part of the weight-loss industry that had been shown to work was gastric surgery, and you can see why I found the series created such a profound sense of hopelessness.
The point completely missed is that you can learn how to eat less – but only if you do it in a way that’s fundamentally different from dieting. The crucial question is how to eat significantly less of stuff we very much enjoy, without feeling deprived, stressed, crazy, obsessed and rebellious. Diets evade that question because they can’t even begin to address it.
1. “The End of Overeating” David A Kessler MD (Rodale, 2009)
2. “Not on the Label” Felicity Lawrence (Penguin, 2004)
3. Trans fat diet induces abdominal obesity and changes insulin sensitivity in monkeys. Kavanagh K, Jones KL (2007) Obesity (Silver Spring) 15(7); 1675-1684
4. Effect of trans fatty acid intake on abdominal and liver fat deposition and blood lipids. Bendsen NT, Chabanova E (2011) Nutrition and Diabetes Jan 31;1:e4
5. Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance. Ebbeling CB, Swain JF (2012) Journal of the American Medical Association 307(24);2627-2634
6. Atherosclerosis – an inflammatory disease. Ross R (2012) New England Journal of Medicine 340(2); 115-126
7. “Wheat Belly” William Davis MD (Rodale, 2011)