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There’s No Right Answer

Scientific knowledge about how our bodies process food is changing rather rapidly

brunch Updated: Jan 28, 2017 20:31 IST
Breakfast,Atkins diet,Carbohydrates
Contrary to the old chestnut that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, a recent study says that people with type 2 diabetes did better when they skipped breakfast(Getty Images)

Do you know what makes us fat? Do you understand how to lose weight and, more importantly, how to keep it at bay after your diet is over?

No? Me too. I am as confused as you are.

But get this: even doctors don’t really know the answers to these questions. Normal doctors (even so-called nutritionists) have no clue. And scientists − who are honest about the gaps in their knowledge − accept that the explanations change every day.

What we do know is this: some of us are sporty, athletic and well-coordinated; and some of us are born fat. The rest of us fall under some middle category and are neither sporty nor obese.

Why are some people lean and athletic? Intuitively, it seems obvious enough that part of this is hereditary. Lean or athletic people tend to have lean and sporty children. Fat people often have children with a tendency to put on weight.

Is genetics at work here? Possibly. Tall parents usually have tall children; short people have kids who are shorter than average. So why should body type and athleticism be the exceptions?

Scientists have now gone ahead and suggested that many of us may possess a fat gene. But opinions are divided on whether it would be worth asking people to check if they have this gene. Even if you did find you had such a gene, how would it help to know? You would still have to do the same things to lose weight.

Besides, research conducted in Australia (where people tend to be sportier and fitter than say, Americans) suggests that at least 50 per cent of all cases of obesity (in medical terms, obese just means overweight, not ‘disgustingly fat’ as it does in common parlance) are due to genetic factors.

So how many people would you run gene tests on and to what purpose?

Most doctors took their medical exams years ago and have not kept up with their research. So, the usual response from doctors (especially Indian doctors) is fat shaming. Any male over 40 years, who develops the standard symptoms of middle age (slightly elevated blood pressure levels, more triglycerides in the blood etc.), will be weighed and then told that he is much too fat and that this is the cause of all his problems. “It is your lifestyle and diet,” some doctor will tell him.

Nobody denies that blood pressure, cholesterol levels and the like need to be treated. But it is wrong to put patients on the defensive and to act as though it is their fault. And frequently, the diet advice given by doctorsis based on ignorance or is just half-witted.

Doctors have convinced us that the problem is that we all eat unhealthily in this modern era and that we have abandoned the healthy diets of our forefathers. This sounds fine till you realise that your grandfather probably ate lots of desi ghee, never went to the gym and liked red meat and deep-fried foods. If he went to today’s doctors, he would get the same lecture. The truth is that our ancestors thrived on the very diets that doctors now condemn.

I looked at a British study that compared diets in 1974 with those in 2016. During this period, the consumption of eggs and bacon actually fell by 50 per cent. Sales of fish and chips have slumped by two thirds or 66 per cent. On the other hand, sales of “healthy” foods have skyrocketed. There has been a 500 per cent rise in sales of yogurt. And muesli consumption has gone up by 250 per cent.

A British study reveals that the sales of fish and chips slumped by 66 per cent between 1974 and 2016 ( Getty Images )

I am pretty sure that the same is true of urban middle class Indians. We are now so health-conscious that we eat far more healthily than the generations that preceded us.

And yet, in Britain, levels of obesity have risen as has the incidence of diabetes and other such conditions.

Clearly, there is something going on that scientists have not been able to identify. And it’s not just diet.

Each day, new research tells us things we did not know about our bodies. In the United States, carbohydrates, which were once recommended (“eat less meat and lots of grains”) as the healthy option, are now portrayed as villains.

I wrote last year about how the US government has now accepted that the levels of cholesterol in food (red meat, butter, eggs etc.) make no difference to cholesterol levels in our bloodstreams and withdrawn its low-cholesterol diet recommendation. Theories about fats in food are also being overhauled.

All that nonsense about calorie counting has also now been junked. In the old days, doctors were unable to explain that obvious anomaly. Two people, who lived in the same house and ate roughly the same diet, put on weight at different rates. One person might get tubby, while the other did not. The standard medical response was that people were ‘cheating’ or lying about how much they really ate.

In the US, carbohydrates, such as those found in white bread, are now portrayed as villains ( Getty Images )

Now, we recognise that different people metabolise calories differently, though science is still not sure how this works. In the West, a lot of attention is paid to hormones such as insulin, which are said to regulate fat conversion within the body. Whole diets (Montignac, Atkins etc.) are based on this theory, as is the fad for rating foods according to their glycaemic index scores.

Whole diets, such as the Atkins diet, are based on the theory that hormones like insulin regulate fat conversion within the body ( Getty Images )

Over the last decade, a new factor has come into play: bacteria. Research is still in its infancy, but it looks like bacteria in the gut – about which most Indian doctors know virtually nothing – play a far more important role in health than previously understood. We already accept that bacteria cause ulcers (no, ulcers are not caused by stress), and now it is believed that they may influence weight gain.

Fasting, which doctors will tell you, is a very bad thing, may actually be good for you. That idiotic hypothesis about how the human body is like a machine which must be fuelled every three hours is now in disgrace. Popular Western diets such as the 5/2 (five days of normal food and two days of fasting) successfully turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

Even that old chestnut about how breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been revealed to be propaganda spread by the big American cereal companies so asto boost sales of their high sugar products.

There is no scientific basis for the alleged benefits of breakfast, only a manipulated statistical correlation. Research in America, where the poor subsist on junk food while the better-offeat more complete diets, showed that rich people were healthier than poor people. No surprises there. But many poor people couldn’t afford breakfast, while rich people could. So the research was manipulated to claim that people who eat breakfast are healthier than those who don’t.

In one study (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)people with type 2 diabetes actually did better when they skipped breakfast and ate more at lunch. Often those who did not eat breakfast ate less overall than breakfast eaters.

The same British study also says that the sales of yogurt and muesli rose by 500 and 250 per cent respectively during the period from 1974 to 2016 ( Getty Images )

So where does that leave us? Well, more dependent on common sense than ever. As we growolder, it makes sense to eat less, to watch our weight and to do some exercise. But don’t let doctors shame you into believing that the changes caused by age are your fault. Take a good look at some doctors’ own lifestyles, their levels of stress (and their waistlines) before taking them too seriously.

And remember that most of them know even less about modern research into nutrition than a schoolboy with access to the Internet. Scientific knowledge about how our bodies process food is changing far more swiftly than most of us realise.

So do be careful how you eat. But don’t get bullied into following the now discredited diet orthodoxies of the 20th century.

From HT Brunch, January 29, 2017

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First Published: Jan 28, 2017 20:31 IST