Category Archives: Health & Fitness

The ‘fat-free’ revolution that made us fat – the biggest con in the food industry

In my last post, I recounted my initiation into calorie research. Like many rational and reasonably intelligent people, I arrived at the same conclusions that others do: fat eats into the calorie quota quickly, and it takes up too much space in the body, and, thus, would make me gain body fat. So, I should eat as little fat as possible, which will result in two benefits – I get to eat more, and I don’t get fat!

I soon became a pro at figuring out which foods contained fat and which didn’t, reading food labels for their fat content, looking for skimmed and low-fat options on supermarket shelves, and even cooking fat-free meals. Despite all this diligence, I could avoid neither the hunger pangs nor the weight gain. The way my requirement for larger clothes was going, I knew the weight gain was from fat, not muscle. It was definitely not dietary fat that was making me gain fat thanks to my thoughtfully crafted low-fat diet. Then what was making me fat?

Ever been through this before or know someone who has?

The answer lies in the inequality of calories. A calorie from fat will always remain a calorie from fat, and be stored as triglycerides, until it is required for providing energy. Calories from carbs and protein, however, are talented – they can change form. Carbs that are unutilised by the body are converted to fat and stored for later use. Any protein that is excess, after completing the job of growth, repair and maintenance, also converts to fat.

OK. That explained the metabolism issue, or the lack thereof. But surely the body should have been able to tolerate some amount of fat, especially if it was not getting any from my diet! ‘Some’, yes, but what about the body fat that was already sitting there and not getting used?

The human body has evolved over a couple of thousand millennia to use its resources in the most efficient way possible. For our ancestors of the Stone Age, starvation was a real situation that presented itself every so often. The store of fat in the body was what kept them going during those periods, which could very well last a couple of days or a few weeks. The reason being that the body has unlimited potential to store fat. Our ancestors, however, were different from us in that their bodies knew how to metabolise fat since they needed to do it frequently. On days that they got enough to eat, their bodies used the quick-energy providing foods, i.e. carbs, for immediate uses, and stored dietary fat as, well, fat. Obesity, hence, was a rare occurrence, if at all, since the body was adapted to burning fat.

With the advent of agriculture, about ten millennia ago, a dramatic shift occurred in the eating habits of human beings, since vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, largely carbohydrates, became far more easily accessible to wide proportions of the population. With a rise in their consumption, the body started adapting to a sugar-burning mechanism (all carbs essentially being a form of sugar, once the fibre is removed). Now, the human body can store only about 2,000 calories worth of carbs at any given time, basically enough to last a day or at most two, versus an average of 30,000 calories from fat.

The food processing industry amplified this change by an order of magnitude. And guess what types of food were processed the most? Carbs! From raw vegetables and fruits to fibre-less juices and sugar-laden smoothies, from dehusked grains to polished ones, flours and breads, from steamed, whole tubers to dried and fried snacks.

With human bodies having essentially switched over to becoming sugar-burning factories from the highly optimised fat-burning, muscle-sparing ones, requiring feeding at small intervals (mostly carbs again) is it any wonder that rates for obesity, not to mention diabetes, have broken all records in the past hundred years?

What we actually needed to do was not cut out the fat from our food but to reduce the proportion of carbs, especially the processed ones.

So, how does one switch back to the fat-burning metabolism without subjecting oneself to starvation? That story begins with understanding ‘metabolism’. And I’ll get to it soon.

For those who like to do their own research, look up The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Jeff S Volek and Stephen D Phinney.

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A calorie is NOT just a calorie! The first diet-related myth

I still recall the first time I became cognisant of food calories. I had just polished off several courses of a lavish breakfast spread at the five star hotel where my consulting team was put up during an international project. My colleague, a fitness junkie, then in the pursuit of the elusive six-pack abs, had been observing the careful consideration I had put into picking up an eclectic mix of breakfast items. He waited patiently for me to wipe off the foam from the coffee, which served as the finale of my meal, before remarking casually, “You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?”

“You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?” 

“What!” That couldn’t be right. I had understandably eaten a big meal, but surely those dainty Danish pastries, choco-chip muffins, baked beans, cold cuts, and the egg-white omelette could not add up to that many calories! I consoled myself that since I was going to have ‘just a salad’ for lunch anyway, perhaps the big splurge was justified. I vaguely recall that the lunch did not end up being ‘just a salad’.

But I clearly recall that I spent a good part of my morning looking up the calories in various foods. That was over twelve years ago. And that’s how the initiation into my self-guided study of nutrition happened. The fascination has not stopped but now I’m well guided in this matter.

I’ve heard the refrain ‘A calorie is a calorie…is a calorie’ several times. The import of that statement is that what is important in a diet, regardless of the health goal, is the number of calories. At the most basic level (we’re talking survival here), this is correct. But if one has certain goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from, i.e. the three energy-providing macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat. Water, termed the fourth macronutrient at times and an essential nutrient at others, does not contribute any calories.

If one has certain health goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from. 

While each gram of carbs and protein provides 4 calories, a gram of fat provides 9 calories, more than double the energy of carbs or protein. So we would need fewer grams of fat than carbs or protein to provide the same number of calories. As a corollary, one should be able to eat more grams of carbs and/ or proteins vs fat to fulfil their calorie requirements, isn’t it?

Now, consider this. Fat takes up more than three times the space of the same quantity of protein in weight. Hence, 1 kg of fat will occupy at least three times the space of 1 kg of protein. This is the reason why two people with the same height and weight can look slim or obese depending on the proportion of body fat. More reason to consume fewer grams of fat, because who in their right mind wants to be fat, right?

Wrong!

The reason that we have had this upside down for so long is because of the understanding that all calories are equal. In reality, one must ask what type of calories we are talking about. This is because each macronutrient has a different role to play in our body. Carbs provide quick energy – their calories can potentially be burned almost as soon as they are ingested. Protein grows, repairs and maintains the body – muscles, organ tissue, blood vessels, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, hair, skin, nails, etc. Fat provides a long-term store of energy, regulates body temperature, enables brain functioning, and allows vitamin absorption.

Just as the role of each macronutrient in our body is different, so is the manner in which each is used by the body. Carbs are used for providing energy instantly and for aiding digestion if they are fibre-rich. Protein, although used primarily for growth and repair, can be used for providing energy in times of distress, when adequate energy from other sources is not available, but at the cost of muscle tissue. Body fat, stored as adipose tissue in the body, is used for providing energy only when other sources of energy are not available or when the body is in starvation mode.

Here’s the kicker – any calories from carbs and protein that are not used by the body are converted to fat in the form of adipose tissue! So much for avoiding dietary fat, huh!

So, which calories should one consume? I’ll talk about this in the following posts.

P. S. The self-guided ones might like to pick up Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which puts to bed several arguments on calories. Will provide my own review of the tome soon.

What I gained by switching from #Uber/ #Ola to the #MumbaiLocal

 

One of the small joys of living in a metro is the ability to hail a taxi easily and go about one’s business without requiring too much logistical planning. The advent of #Uber and #OlaCabs on the Mumbai public transport landscape made this even more convenient. For somebody (like me) who commutes upwards of 50 kilometres daily, this availability is a blessing. What, then, made me give up this uber convenience (pun fully intended) and regress, in many ways, to the popular yet infamous #MumbaiLocal train?

The answer lies in yet another characteristic of modern urban living – a sedentary lifestyle and…sigh… the resulting lower back pain. I realised I needed to change something drastically in my daily routine to overcome this situation. The solution came to me easily but I still took over six months to implement it.

I’ve come to the wonderful realization that those 30 extra minutes each day have been well worth the time.

Now, the commute to and from my place of work is not a tough one, by Mumbai standards, but the workplace being located at one end of the linear public transport route map of the city means that the nearest suburban railway station is about a kilometre and a half away, a 17-minute walk (as per Google Maps). This number is not frightening for the average Mumbaikar, I know, but to somebody who had happily adjusted to the ‘no-local-train-travel-in-the-past-10-years’ status, it did seem a tad challenging, not to mention the ‘adventurous spirit’ that one has to cobble up for the local train journey itself. Add to that number, the 10-minute kilometre-long walk from the train station at the other end to my residence, and I was looking at an increase of about 60% to my total one-way commute time, an additional 30 minutes. The math should not have made sense. Yet I lumbered ahead, all in the hope that my lumbar, at least, would applaud the decision. I decided to undertake at least the return leg of my commute by local train each workday.

I’ve kept up the practice for over a month and a half, and I’ve come to the wonderful realization that those 30 extra minutes each day have been well worth the time. I’ve gained in mind, body and spirit.

Mind

I am able to use the time on the train to (finally) catch up on my reading. Books were always a close companion on the train. These days the Kindle does just as well.

I also use the time, when I don’t find space convenient enough to read, to mentally organise my to-do list and prioritise my activities for the next day.

I’ve discovered parts of the city that I never knew before in my search for the shortest/ fastest/ cleanest route to and from the train station.

Body

This was, of course, the primary reason for making the switch – to get some exercise for the limbs. The lower back pain is history. The heart and lungs seem to have become stronger. A flight of stairs doesn’t seem daunting in the least anymore. And did I mention the mildly pleasant 3-lb weight loss?…

I also get some weight training in because of the 10-lb backpack I carry since it can weather the jostles and shoves of fellow train riders better than an elaborate office bag.

I feel more agile and alert since being on any Mumbai road requires you to be mindful of the next passer-by rushing past you, the large automobile merrily threatening you even at pedestrian crossings, the stray dog that decides to leap across exactly the same puddle at exactly the same time that you are about to hop over it, or the water tanker backing into a no-vehicle one-way street.

Spirit

I am able to use the time on the road to talk to myself and go over the events of the day/ week, introspect on what went well and what needs to get better.

I get to experience and enjoy the elements, whether it is the marvellous sunshine or the refreshing monsoon shower. It reminds me of how much natural wealth we have as residents of a tropical coastal city and how much of it we miss being ensconced in our air-conditioned cars and taxis.

I also get to mingle with the ‘average consumer’ of this large economy, who often becomes the subject of my work-related study and writing. I not only get to observe their interactions but also partake in the commercial activity in daily essentials that occurs on this critical lifeline of Mumbai, away from malls, e-commerce portals, and, I daresay, GST worries…

While these are the most critical takeaways for me, there has also been a side benefit – the substantial savings in travel costs. For the cost of a single Uber ride, I get a two-way unlimited use season pass for a whole month!

What’s not to love about the #MumbaiLocal?!