Archive for the 'illness and injury' Category

Sweet and Dangerous

A Scottish doctor today is arguing for a tax on chocolate to tackle obesity and the concomitant rise in type II diabetes. Of course some, including myself, have been labouring under the impression that chocolate might just be good for you, and that this might explain certain cravings, assuming you are eating the very high cocoa solid variety. But an empirical test this morning confirmed that it is not the chocolate I crave but the sugar. I read somewhere on the internet that if you think you crave chocolate because of a nutritional deficiency you should try eating some pure cocoa. So I did just that. It took about a quarter of a teaspoon of Green & Black’s Cocoa powder to convince me that it’s the sugar in chocolate that I’ve been craving. I’m pretty good at acquiring tastes but cocoa is nothing on its own: it needs sugar. And all that sugar does, it seems, is boost your insulin levels and leave you wanting more when your blood sugar crashes again later. Chronically, this will kill you.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes. If he is correct, the book pictured (above) by John Yudkin is from the graveyard of nutritional science. Published in the US in 1973 for a cover price of $1.95, this copy of Sweet and Dangerous appears to have left a thrift store some time later — somehow riding a wave of inflation to sell for $2.75 — before hopping the Atlantic where it would have been acquired by my late mother-in-law from a UK charity shop for 40p. By this time its bubble had finally burst, and Yudkin’s work is now well out of print. Were it not for the normal prevarication over getting rid of any books in the Knackered household, this battered edition might already have returned to second-hand bookstore oblivion; instead, it has been sitting on my desk for nearly nine months asking to be blogged about, reprieved by Taubes’ mention.

According to Taubes, the hypothesis that sugar consumption could be a primary cause of heart disease and other chronic illnesses was being taken seriously in the research community in the early 1970s. But it was in competition with Ancel Keys prevailing hypothesis that dietary fat was what mattered. This is what Taubes says:-

By the early 1970s, Keys’s dietary-fat hypothesis of heart disease, despite the ambiguity of the evidence, was already being taught in textbooks and in medical schools as most likely true. After Yudkin retired in 1971, his hypothesis effectively retired with him. His university replaced him (at Queen Elizabeth College London) with Stewart Truswell, a South African Nutritionist who was among the earliest to insist publicly that Keys’s fat theory of heart disease was assuredly correct and that it was time to move onĀ  to modifying the diets of the public at large accordingly.

Yudkin became a figure of ridicule, and further research into the sugar and refined carbohydrate hypothesis was avoided by those who knew what was good for them professionally, so says Taubes.

Taubes draws out just how dramatic has been the increase in our refined sugar consumption over the past two centuries, suggesting that Yudkin was right to be more concerned about sugar metabolism:-

But the greatest single change in the American diet was in fact the spectacular increase in sugar consumption from the mid-nineteenth century onward, from less than 15 pounds a person yearly in the 1830s to 100 pounds by the 1920s and 150 pounds (including high fructose corn syrup) by the end of the century.

A fuller review and more mentions of Taubes’s book will arrive in due course. Just to say that I’ve been wondering whether it might be the most important book I’ve ever read. The paperback edition is now out in the UK.

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sugar baddy

31Aug08

mmmm, doughnuts

This preoccupation with refined carbohydrates and their exclusion from diet may look odd, but the evidence confirming the significance of removing or moderating their intake continues to mount. Nature, via Science Daily, has published research from Dr Zane Andrews of Monash University (and others) showing that appetite-control cells are damaged over time, with carbohydrates and sugars playing an important part in that damage process:-

Dr Andrews found that appetite-suppressing cells are attacked by free radicals after eating and said the degeneration is more significant following meals rich in carbohydrates and sugars.

‘The more carbs and sugars you eat, the more your appetite-control cells are damaged, and potentially you consume more,’ Dr Andrews said.

Interestingly, the effects start to occur from early adulthood:-

‘People in the age group of 25 to 50 are most at risk. The neurons that tell people in the crucial age range not to over-eat are being killed-off…

…A diet rich in carbohydrate and sugar that has become more and more prevalent in modern societies over the last 20-30 years has placed so much strain on our bodies that it’s leading to premature cell deterioration,’ Dr Andrews said.

Full Nature abstract here. Thanks to Jess for the pointer and bunchofpants for the photo.

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Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that today Bryan Appleyard published his long-awaited interview with Art De Vany in The Sunday Times Magazine.

For new subscribers to this blog, Professor De Vany is a long-term advocate of a lifestyle that mimics that of our paleolithic ancestors, at least in terms of diet and exercise. The Knackered Hack has been echoing this approach, with increasing strictness, for well over a year now. Appleyard, who has himself adopted the diet and shed about a stone, noted how vigorous the professor was for a 71-year-old in various domains, about one of which I am myself still gathering data ;-) . If the professor’s nocturnal experience can be replicated, then this will probably be the clincher for a lot of people as they realise the value of the paleo diet in helping them with more than just weight-loss.

uncle

More seriously, you can’t help but feel pleased that De Vany’s devotion to the study, practice and dissemination of a more natural way of health is getting the recognition that it surely deserves. This is perhaps an important landmark when you consider that it was Nassim Taleb who told me in the same context that press coverage overstates the risk to society of terrorism and understates the risk of insulin insensitivity, so that we wander around with the wrong probabilistic map. Gary TaubesThe Diet Delusion gets a mention in the piece too.

One objection that could be raised is that economic pressures might now be pushing people towards a more refined-carb diet because it might appear cheaper. But in my own experience of stress — and there has been no shortage this year with a double bereavement and other tricky family matters to attend to — the cognitive benefits of the paleo lifestyle can also provide a necessary fresh energy and focus to tackle these new challenges. My basic advice would be to avoid “comfort” food at all costs.

I’m reading James Le Fanu‘s book on The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine at the moment (a tip also from Art’s early blogposts which I’m also in the process of re-reading). Like Taubes, Le Fanu debunks various post-war social and dietary theories of health, particularly with regard to cancer and heart disease. Cancer, Le Fanu says, is best understood as a disease of ageing rather than lifestyle. And yet, in contrast, it’s evident that De Vany (as Appleyard makes clear) is no quack, but someone who has applied the sciences of complexity to a rigorous examination of what we “modern lab-rats” really should be doing to forestall that process of terminal illness. Weight-loss is clearly such a central issue that a diet capable of returning you to your weight when you were 21 must be taken very seriously indeed.

Well, on my desk for a number of weeks (apart from many august tomes that I should have been reading and absorbing) one has stood out. It’s a 1936 children’s book, entitled Uncle Ray’s Story of the Stone-Age People. It looks like it came out just before De Vany was born. It belonged to my father-in-law: himself a sometime professor of mathematics, WHO health statistician, and poet. Alas, it certainly did not encourage him to follow anything like a paleo lifestyle. The one seemingly useful piece of science that the book contains is the suggestion that our ancestors broke the bones of their prey in order to consume the marrow.

Of course, while our diet may have changed a lot in the past 100,000 years (and arguably for the worse), this humble volume would indicate that casual male efforts to combine DIY and childcare have been alarming womankind for millennia with remarkable consistency. A more up-to-date orange-coloured book of Stone Age advice will soon be available here.

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apple crunch

08Aug08

Never mind credit risk, the risk of a falling tree (or a branch at least) has been on my mind for nearly five years. A large oak tree, listed by the local authority, and which I don’t own but which overhangs my front garden, has lost rotten branches with nearly every gale during that time. And I’ve worried, with each puff of wind, that one might end up hitting me/the kids/wife/milkman or the increasing number of Fed-Ex deliverers of dead-tree books for me to (not quite get round to) review.

A few weeks ago, the person responsible for the tree finally got the necessary approval and had it duly pruned and thinned. Relief. Only the goldcrests that once or twice I’ve seen flitting in and out of the branches were inconvenienced.

09052008053

But it shows that, where you focus on one risk, an even greater and less obvious risk might be creeping up on you until some kind of tipping point is reached, and it figuratively knocks your block off.

Regular readers will know that I am probably a bit too hung up on all this self-organized criticality stuff. And the scientifically-trained may scoff that this may all be a metaphor too far. But bear with me while I indulge in a little narrative fallacy; it is the first anniversary of the credit crunch after all.

Sometime around 3pm on Wednesday there was a resounding crack when half an apple tree in the neighbour’s garden shuddered and collapsed into ours (amidst a confused shower of slightly immature green fruit) landing as it fell on a recently reconstructed Bath stone wall. Bizarrely, we were able to look out of the office window, just as the sound happened, and watch it fall.

Apple Crunch

Now, it may just have been a rotten bough that gave way, and that would have happened at that moment come hell or high water (there has been a lot of rain these past two years). But I’d suggest a slightly more complex chain of events led up to this apple windfall, one that would somewhat mitigate the failure to notice (on the part of the householder) the tree’s precarious state: I’m generous that way, you know. And, there may be a useful lesson in thinking about how and when a tipping point is reached, given what happened in the markets a year ago today.

Apple Crunch

Only a few months ago, a most enormous bay tree (as tall as a house, and with multiple trunks) was removed on our side so that the wall could be rebuilt and made safe (another long-time worry). I can’t say for sure, but since the bay tree went, the two apple trees either side looked like they were yielding a lot more fruit and more quickly than we’ve seen in years before. They were certainly full of blossom in the spring.

I don’t know how much in the way of nutrients that bay tree would have drawn each day — or how much water — but it had to have had some significant impact on the relative fertility of the surrounding soil, as a not inconsiderably dominant node in the immediate ecology. Or, maybe the boughs of the apple were inclined in earlier years to lean their increasing weight on their big brother bay as their crop ripened. Who knows?

But one day, three burly men, a couple of packets of Benny Hedgehogs, a chain saw and a Bobcat came along, and pretty soon the bay tree and its massive root-structure were gone. The apple trees breathed again –perhaps their deepest breaths in twenty years — and suddenly our vulnerable, once-dwarfed friend was the dominant plant in its neighbourhood.

Bay Tree Wall Removal 001

Flushed with its new-found confidence, and benefiting from a good combination of moisture and summer sun, what was to stop it growing the largest, most numerous apple stock in its entire life?

Apple Crunch removal

In part because of my paleo diet, I’ve somehow become a bit more obsessed with things growing. Equipped with a 5 mega-pixel camera-phone I have taken to excessively recording the growth of much garden flora and publishing it for the benefit of my sole Flickr photostream subscriber. This is micro-local, social media at its most extreme and is as far out into the long tail as you can go without disappearing. But I don’t want you to think that I’m lonely. Or that my one subscriber is; he has lots of “friends”. [By the way, I subscribe to his photostream too. He does hard urban, melancholic shots through rain-drenched bus windows; I do rural/leafy suburbia.] This has been going on a while now, of course. Some of you might even remember my so-called long apple harvest from last year.

Apple Crunch removal

So what’s the point? Well, while it is always true that one thing leads to another, and so this is a banal little story of ordinary, back-garden apple trees, I’ve taken recently to enjoying a cup of herbal tea mid-afternoon on the bench immediately beneath that now-departed branch in order to soak up some Vitamin D. With the wall below head-height, that makes me very lucky indeed. Of course, I’m not one to hoard my good fortune, nor my windfall of apples, so I want to share this pertinent piece of advice from the late, great Glenn Miller. As they say, if you know what’s good for you…

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Tweet Given that there is an obesity epidemic, you might expect that when one of the world’s leading science writers, Gary Taubes, addresses the subject — challenging thirty years of official dietary advice — it would get a lot of press coverage. That the book took five years full-time to write, and has a 60-page […]


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