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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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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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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