What causes health? It’s such a simple question, but it’s complex. The causes are many and the direction of causality not always clear. There has been a particular challenge to dietary ideology that shifts our way of thinking. It has to do with energy and motivation.
The calorie-in/calorie-out (CICO) theory is obviously false (Caloric Confusion; & Fung, The Evidence for Caloric Restriction). Dr. Jason Fung calls it the CRaP theory (Caloric Reduction as Primary). Studies show there is a metabolic advantage to low-carb diets (Cara B. Ebbeling, Effects of a low carbohydrate diet on energy expenditure during weight loss maintenance: randomized trial), especially ketogenic diets. It alters your entire metabolism and endocrine system. Remember that insulin is a hormone that has much to do with hunger signaling. Many other hormones are involved as well. This also alters how calories are processed and used in the body. More exercise won’t necessarily do any good as long nothing else is changed. The standard American diet is fattening and the standard American lifestyle makes it hard to lose that fat. Even starving yourself won’t help. The body seeks to limit energy use and maintain energy stores, especially when it is under stress (NYU Langone, Researchers Identify Mechanism that May Drive Obesity Epidemic). All that caloric restriction does is to slow down metabolism, the opposite of what happens on carbohydrate restriction.
We associate obesity with disease and rightly so, but that isn’t to say that obesity is the primary cause. It too is a symptom or, in some cases, even a protective measure (Coping Mechanisms of Health). The body isn’t stupid. Everything the body does serves a purpose, even if that purpose is making the best out of a bad situation. Consider depression. One theory proposes that when there is something wrong we seek seclusion in order to avoid further risks and stressors and to figure out the cause of distress — hence the isolation and rumination of depression. It’s similar to why we lay in bed when sick, to let the body heal. And it should be noted that depression is a symptom of numerous health conditions and often indicates inflammation in the brain (an immune response). Insulin resistance related to obesity also can involve inflammation. When the cause of the problem is permanent, the symptoms (depression, obesity, etc) become permanent. The symptoms then become problems in their own right.
This is personal for me. I spent decades in severe depression. And during that time my health was worsening, despite struggling to do what was right. I went to therapists and took antidepressants. I tried to improve my diet and exercised. But it always felt like I was fighting against myself. I was gaining weight over time and my food cravings were persistent. Something was missing. All that changed once I got into ketosis. It’s not merely that I lost weight. More amazingly, my depression and food addictions went away, along with my tendencies toward brooding and compulsive thought (The Agricultural Mind). Also, everything felt easier and more natural. I didn’t have to force myself to exercise for it now felt good to exercise. Physical activity then was an expression of my greater health, in the way a child runs around simply for the joy of it, for no other reason than he has the energy to do so. Something fundamentally changed within my body and mind. Everything felt easier.
This touches on a central theory argued by some low-carb advocates. It’s not how many calories come in versus how many go out, at least not in a simple sense. The question is what is causing calories to be consumed and burned. One thing about ketosis is that it forces the body to burn its own energy (i.e., body fat) while reducing hunger, but it does this without any need of willpower, restraint, or moral superiority. It happens naturally. The body simply starts producing more energy and, even if someone eats a high-calorie diet, the extra energy creates the conditions where, unless some other health condition interferes, increased physical activity naturally follows.
It’s not merely that being in ketosis leads to changed activity that burns more energy. Rather, the increased energy comes first. And that is because ketosis allows better access to all that energy your body already has stored up. Most people feel too tired and drained to exercise, too addicted to food that trying to control it further stresses them. That is the typical experience on a high-carb diet, mood and energy levels go up and down with the inevitable crashes becoming worse over time. But in ketosis, mood and energy is more balanced and constant. Simply put, one feels better. And when one feels better, one is more likely to do other activities that are healthy. Ketosis creates a leverage point where health improvements can be made with far less effort.
In the public mind, diet is associated with struggle and failure. But in its original meaning, the word ‘diet’ referred to lifestyle. Diet shouldn’t be something you do so much as something that changes your way of being in and relating to the world. If you find making health changes hard, it might be because you’re doing it wrong. Obesity and tiredness is not a moral failing or character flaw. You aren’t a sinner to be punished and reformed. Your body doesn’t need to be denied and controlled. There is a natural state of health that we can learn to listen to. When your body hungers and craves, it is trying to tell you something. Feed it with the nutrition it needs. Eat to satiety those foods that contribute to health. Lose excess weight first and only later worry about exercise. Once you begin to feel better, you might find your habits improving of their own accord.
This is a challenge not only to dietary belief systems but an even more radical challenge to society itself. Take prisons as an example. Instead of using prisons to store away the victims of poverty and inequality, we could eliminate the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality. We used to treat the mentally ill in hospitals, but now we put them into prisons. This is seen in concrete ways, such that prisoners have higher rates of lead toxicity. As a society, it would be cheaper, more humane, and less sociopathic to reduce the heavy metal poisoning. Similarly, studies have shown the prison population tends to be extremely malnourished. Prisons that improve the diet of prisoners result in a drastic reduction in aggressive, violent, anti-social, and other problematic behaviors. A similar observation has been made in studies with low-carb diets and children, as behavior improves. That indicates that, if we had increased public health, many and maybe most of these people wouldn’t have ended up in prison in the first place (Physical Health, Mental Health).
We’ve had a half century of unscientific dietary advice. Most Americans have been doing what they’ve been told. Saturated fat, red meat, and salt consumption went down over the past century. In place of those, fruits and vegetables, fish and lean chicken became a larger part of the diet. What has been the results? An ever worsening epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, mood disorders, and on and on. In fact, these kinds of health problems were seen quite early on, following the fear toward meat that followed Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking journalism on the meatpacking industry in The Jungle. Saturated fat intake had been decreasing and seed oil intake had been increasing in the early 1900s, in the decades leading up to the health epidemic that began most clearly around the 1940s and 1950s. The other thing that had increased over that time period were grains, sugar, and carbs in general. Then the victims who followed this bad advice were blamed by the experts for being gluttonous and slothful, as if diet were a Christian morality play. We collectively took the hard path. And the more we failed, the more the experts doubled down in demanding more of the same.
Do we want better lives for ourselves and others? Or do we simply want to scapegoat individuals for our collective failures? If you think we can’t afford to do the right thing, then we really won’t be able to afford the consequences of trying to avoid responsibility. The increasing costs of sickness, far from being limited to healthcare, will eventually bankrupt our society or else cause so much dysfunction that civil society will break down. Why choose such a dark path when an easier choice is before us? Why is the government and major health institutions still pushing a high-carb diet? We have scientifically proven the health benefits of low-carb diets. The simplest first act would be to change our dietary guidelines and all else would follow from that, from the food system to medical practice. What are we waiting for? We can make life hard, if we choose. But why not make it easy?
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I’ve long wondered why we humans make life unnecessarily hard. We artificially construct struggle and suffering out of fear of what would happen if people were genuinely free from threat, punishment, and social control. We think humans are inherently bad and must be controlled. This seeps into every aspect of life, far from being limited to demented dietary ideology.
We are even willing to punish others at great costs to ourselves, even to the point of being highly destructive to all of society. We’d rather harm, imprison, kill, etc millions of innocents in order to ensure one guilty person gets what we think they deserve. And we constantly need an endless parade of scapegoats to quench our vengeful natures. Innocence becomes irrelevant, as it ultimately is about control and not justice.
All of it is driven by fear. The authoritarians, social dominators, and reactionaries — they prey upon our fear. And in fear, people do horrific things or else submit to others doing them. Most importantly, it shuts down our ability to imagine and envision. We go to great effort to make our lives difficult. Struggle leads to ever more struggle. Suffering cascades onto suffering. Worse upon worse, ad infinitum. As such, dietary ideology or whatever else pushed by the ruling elite isn’t about public good. It’s social control, pure and simple.
But let all of that go. Let the fear go. We know from science itself that it doesn’t have to be this hard. There are proven ways to do things that are far simpler and far easier and with far better results. We aren’t bad people who need to be punished into doing the right thing. Our bodies aren’t fallen forms that will lead us into sin. What if, instead, we looked to the better angels of our nature, to what is inherently good within us?
Here is some of what I’ve written before about the easy versus the hard, about freedom versus social control:
Public Health, Public Good
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good
Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class
Capitalism as Social Control
Substance Control is Social Control
Reckoning With Violence
Unspoken Connection: Fundamentalism and Punishment
What If Our Economic System Conflicts With Our Human Nature?
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
About imagining alternatives, I’ve been reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. It’s a utopian novel, but in many ways it isn’t all that extreme. The future portrayed basically is a Nordic-style social democracy taken to the next level. That basic model of governance has already proven itself one of the best in the world, not only for public good but also wealth and innovation.
In reading about this fictionalized world, one thing stood out to me. The protagonist, Julian West, was put into trance to aid his sleep. He was in a sealed room underground and apparently the house burned down, leaving behind an empty lot. As a leap of imagination for both author and reader, this trance state put him into hibernation for more than a century. His underground bedchamber is discovered by the Leete family who, in the future world, lives on his old property although there house was built on a different location.
The father is Doctor Leete who takes particular interest in Julian. They have many conversations about the differences between the late 19th and early 21st centuries. Julian struggles to understand the enormous changes that have taken place. The world he fell asleep in is no longer recognizable by the world he woke up in. When he questions something that seems remarkable to him, Doctor Leete often responds that it’s more simple than it seems to Julian. The contrast shows how unnecessarily difficult, wasteful, and cruel was that earlier society.
The basic notion is that simple changes in social conditions can result in drastic changes in public good. The costs are miniscule in comparison to the gains. That is to say that this alternative future humanity chose the easy path, instead of continually enforcing costly punishment and social control. It’s quite amazing that the argument I make now was being made all the way back in 1888 when Bellamy began writing it. From the novel, one example of this other way of thinking is the description of the future education system in how it relates to health:
I shall not describe in detail what I saw in the schools that day. Having taken but slight interest in educational matters in my former life, I could offer few comparisons of interest. Next to the fact of the universality of the higher as well as the lower education, I was much struck with the prominence given to physical culture, and the fact that proficiency in athletic feats and games as well as in scholarship had a place in the rating of the youth.
“The faculty of education,” Dr. Leete explained, “is held to the same responsibility for the bodies as for the minds of its charges. The highest possible physical, as well as mental, development of everyone is the double object of a curriculum which lasts from the age of six to that of twenty- one.”
The magnificent health of the young people in the schools impressed me strongly. My previous observations, not only of the notable personal endowments of the family of my host, but of the people I had seen in my walks abroad, had already suggested the idea that there must have been something like a general improvement in the physical standard of the race since my day ; and now, as I compared these stalwart young men and fresh, vigorous maidens, with the young people I had seen in the schools of the nineteenth century, I was moved to impart my thought to Dr. Leete. He listened with great interest to what I said.
“Your testimony on this point,” he declared, “is invaluable. We believe that there has been such an improvement as you speak of, but of course it could only be a matter of theory with us. It is an incident of your unique position that you alone in the world of to-day can speak with authority on this point. Your opinion, when you state it publicly, will, I assure you, make a profound sensation. For the rest it would be strange, certainly, if the race did not show an improvement. In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes. The labour required of children, and the burdens laid on women, enfeebled the very springs of life. Instead of the these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favourable conditions of physical life ; the young are care fully nurtured and studiously cared for ; the labour which is required.of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigour, and is never excessive ; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle of life, all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more. Certainly, an improvement of the species ought to follow such a change, In certain specific respects we know, indeed, that the improvement has taken place. Insanity, for instance, which in the nineteenth century was so terribly common a product of your insane mode of life, has almost dis appeared, with its alternative, suicide.”
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Here’s What Weight-Loss Advice Looked Like Nearly 100 Years Ago
by Morgan Cutolo, Reader’s Digest
I’m throwing this in for a number of reasons. It is showing how low-carb views are basically the same as dietary advice from earlier last century. Heck, one can find advice like that going back to the 1800s and even 1700s. Low-carb diets were well known and mainstream until the changes at the AHA and FDA over the past 50 years or so.
The return of low-carb popularity is what inspires such articles from the corporate media. Reader’s Digest would’t likely have published something like that 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Attitudes are changing, even if institutions are resistant. Profits are also changing as low-carb products become big biz. Corporate media, if nothing else, will follow the profits.
Here is what really stood out to me. In the article, two major dietary experts are quoted: Dr. Jason Fung and Dr. Robert Lustig. Both of them are leading advocates of low-carb diets with Dr. Lustig being the most influential critic of sugar. But neither of them is presented as such. They are simply used as authorities on the topic, which they are. That means that low-carb has become so acceptable as, in some cases, to go without saying. They aren’t labeled as low-carb gurus, much less dismissed as food faddists. No qualifications or warnings are given about low-carb. The article simply quotes these experts about what the science shows.
This is a major advance in news reporting. It’s a positive sign of changes being embraced. Maybe we are finally turning off the hard path and trying out the easier path instead. Some early signs are indicating this. The growing incidence of diabetes might be finally leveling out and even reversing for the first time in generations.
Low-Carb Diets On The Rise
American Diabetes Association Changes Its Tune
Slow, Quiet, and Reluctant Changes to Official Dietary Guidelines
Official Guidelines For Low-Carb Diet
Weight Watchers’ Paleo Diet