By Rod Amner
I’m a 48-year-old ectomorph with fat issues. This is curious, since I am not – nor have I ever been – especially fat.
I am six foot two inches (1.89m) and like most ectomorphs, I have a ‘linear’ and only slightly muscular body. Despite a healthy appetite – which, in the presence of a cheeseboard, sometimes verges on gluttony – I have a high metabolism and until my mid-thirties, I easily maintained a low-fat physique.
But, earlier this year I pushed the scales over the 100kg barrier for the first time, giving me a body mass index (BMI) of just under 29 (or ‘very overweight’, according to the fat experts), thereby placing me perilously close to the dreaded 30 point marker (the official entry point into ‘obesity’).
I’ve been on a low-carb, high-fat diet for two months now and am returning to the shape I was in around the time my first child was born, some 15 years ago. I now weigh 89kg, or 12kg less than my highest-ever weight earlier this year. My BMI is just over the ‘ideal’ 25-points.
While I’m grateful for the effortless weight loss (I eat a full English breakfast most days and consume a lot of high quality cheese), I am concerned about my weight-loss obsession, particularly since I have never felt unhealthy – even at my heaviest. There is surprisingly little reliable data linking ‘overweightness’ to negative health outcomes. In fact, by most measures moderately overweight people would seem to do better from a health perspective than those who are underweight.
My smug satisfaction with my own weight loss is particularly reprehensible in the light of the fact that many of those nearest and dearest to me have been profoundly affected by our culture’s obsession with fat and fasting – all negatively.
My grandmother was obese and struggled with diabetes.
My younger sister’s reaction to being sent to boarding school in Grade 8 was to starve herself. She spent a year recovering in hospital and has struggled valiantly with her eating disorder ever since. My uber-fit youngest sister, 40, still represents South Africa as a veteran swimmer, but is nonetheless dissatisfied with the size and shape of her enviably strong body.
My mother died relatively young of ovarian cancer and I can’t help wondering whether her lifelong and conscientious devotion to a futile dieting regime heightened her risk of succumbing to the disease. My mother struggled with her weight all her life: her joy at achieving her ‘target weight’ was inevitably crushed by the disappointment she felt as she inevitably yo-yoed back to her original weight and often beyond. She loathed her fat, poured her savings into diet club memberships and starved herself for much of the time in a vain effort to achieve ‘normalcy’.
Despite eating considerably less than me, my wife has been at odds with her own adipose tissue all her life, too.
Fat, then, has inadvertently saturated my personal emotional life. I love the fat people in my life, but I am on a diet. Have I betrayed them? Am I fat phobic – have I unconsciously internalized the asinine assumptions of our culture?
In defense, I like to think that this is not just about weight loss and body image. And it’s probably for this reason that I cling so assiduously to the new science of nutrition, which suggests there are myriad health benefits to be gained from a high fat, low-carb diet beyond shedding kilograms.
For example, neurologist David Perlmutter argues in Grain Brain that carbs are destroying our brains – much more high-minded than the cosmetics of fat. And he says it’s not just ‘unhealthy carbs’, but so-called healthy ones, too, like whole grains, which cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression and more. Perlmutter goes on to argue that the brain thrives on fat and cholesterol and that – counter to orthodoxy – you can spur the growth of new brain cells at any age.
Similarly, I like the tale of intrigue and villainy told by investigative reporters like Nina Teicholz, who spent nine years reading thousands of scientific papers and interviewing every nutrition expert in the USA, who proved that misguided dietary advice was driven by self-interested and dishonest scientists. Her book, The Big Fat Surprise, is a story about how an unproven hypothesis about saturated fat became immortalized in powerful institutions of public health.
For decades, we have been told that the best possible diet involves cutting back on fat, especially saturated fat, and that if we are not getting healthier or thinner it must be because we are not trying hard enough. But, she reveals instead that the low-fat diet is itself the problem. The very foods we’ve been denying ourselves are critical to reversing the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
It’s a startling history of how overzealous nutrition researchers, through a combination of ego, bias, doctored data and premature institutional consensus, allowed dangerous misrepresentations to become dietary dogma.
The new wave of researchers who are dismantling the harmful orthodoxies of the past show how people who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the high carb, low-fat diet that health authorities around the world have favoured for decades. These insights are now being reported in the New York Times and Time magazine – hardly the sorts of news organisations that routinely punt non-mainstream quackery.
Despite this, my daughter, in Grade 6 in a local public school, is still being taught the old, harmful and erroneous ‘food pyramid’. We now know – due to the forensic investigations of a number of path-breaking journalists who are themselves trained natural scientists – the astonishing story how this pyramid came to be part of public health orthodoxy, probably leading to the early death of millions of people across the globe, and possibly including some of my close relatives.
In South Africa, The Real Meal Revolution endorsed by well-known sports scientist, Tim Noakes, has become an unprecedented publishing, blogging and podcasting phenomenon. Cereal Killers is an excellent documentary on the Noakes’s popularization of the Banting ‘diet’.
But, the thing is, it’s not actually a ‘diet’ – it’s an approach to health. I haven’t counted a single calorie in two months.
And I’m questioning my personal satisfaction with the weight loss… I’m want to get over the fat thing.
Come to think of it, I now embrace the stuff. After all, I eat it in sublime quantities – which paradoxically makes me thinner.
Some bodies are naturally fatter than others – and on a properly balanced diet, they are not only optimally healthy, they are optimally beautiful, too.
In sum, I’m trying not to care about my weight loss – I’m trying to dwell instead on the fact that I haven’t felt this healthy, strong and clear-headed in many, many years.
Apart from Teicholz’s and Perlmutter’s books, a number of other myth-busting works have flooded the New York Times bestsellers lists over the past few years. Here are a few examples:
In Wheat Belly, William Davis argues that ‘healthy whole grains’ are a “genetically altered Frankenwheat imposed on the public by agricultural geneticists and agribusiness”. Autoimmune, gastrointestinal and mind effects top the list for conditions that improve to reverse with wheat elimination.
In Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes reveals the damaging ‘calories-in, calories-out’ model of why we get fat and instead explores the science regarding insulin’s regulation of our adipose tissue.