On metabolic health
Many things in life baffle me. Things like: why do people participate in a global capitalist system doing shit jobs they hate for a system which does not benefit them? Why do so many people wear such ugly shoes? Why are there no truly revolutionary people living in the UK? Why do so many women look like drag queens nowadays? Why does no-one care about (data) privacy? All baffling stuff.
However, the Truly Baffling Thing which has occupied my thoughts most frequently over the last two years is: why, in the midst of a global pandemic which is disproportionately affecting the metabolically unhealthy, are people not making an effort to get healthy? Genuinely and truly baffling. It’s almost like people want to be ill and/or at risk.
Poor metabolic health is directly related to modern (western) diets and lifestyles. It is almost exclusively a modern epidemic of our own making as a consequence of a poor diet and lack of exercise. More importantly, metabolic syndrome (MetS) can be reversed and/or disease progression slowed down by making simple changes to our diet and lifestyle.
The five markers of poor metabolic health are:
- Carrying a lot of weight around your tummy;
- High fasting blood sugar;
- High blood pressure;
- Low HDL cholesterol, and;
- High triglycerides.
Diseases related to MetS are things like: hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis, coronary heart/vascular disease, vascular dementia, kidney disease, certain cancers, and so on. To be clear, these are all modern illnesses that are linked to a poor diet and lack of exercise. In other words, generally speaking we can stop suffering from these diseases if we eat real food and exercise (although not at the same time).
I think pretty much everyone knows what exercise is and the bazillion ways to be (more) physically active in our daily lives (if not, ask me), but I don’t think very many people grasp what a healthy diet is. This is mainly because of the proliferation of fad diets designed to address the issue of excessive weight gain, and because the government advice is so utterly wrong. Short story: calories in vs calories out is a load of nonsense, and corporate lobbying not nutritional science is why our “eatwell plate” looks the way it does.
To be clear, when I talk about diet, I do not mean something you do temporarily to “fix” weight gain. A healthy diet is part of your lifestyle: it defines what you eat for now and forever. A healthy diet has one maxim: eat real food. This generally means food that grew in the ground/sea, or ate things that grew in the ground/sea. So that’s your unprocessed meats, fish, vegetables, seaweed, nuts, seeds, dairy and eggs, legumes, pulses, beans, and (some) fruit.
You will notice that cereals and grains are missing from that list and that is because despite growing in the ground, these carbohydrates are converted to sugar by the body and sugar is a poisonous drug. A drug that you are likely addicted to and it is this addiction which is causing the explosion in weight gain and the other indicators of MetS. Think you are making a healthy choice by eating cereal for breakfast? You are not. Same goes for your crackers, and your rice, and your bread (sourdough or otherwise), and your bloody pasta. You might as well be eating a bag of Tate & Lyle instead, it would be a more honest representation of what you are consuming.
This leads me onto the current emphasis on “plant-based diets” as somehow being inherently healthier than omnivorous diets. The short response is: that’s bollocks. The longer answer is this: it is possible to be healthy on vegetarian and, to a significantly lesser degree, vegan diets, but not by eating the abundance of highly processed vegan shite that has mushroomed in supermarkets and “health food” shops over the last few years. Processed food is not food, whether it be processed vegetarian and vegan food or processed meats. It’s all poison and should not be consumed by people who care about their health.
When I was first vegetarian in the 1980s, there was very little processed vegetarian foods available (no market), so my diet was naturally very high in real, whole, healthy foods: vegetables, legumes, lentils, pulses, nuts, and so forth. By the time I ceased being vegetarian 20 years later, my diet was much more centred around convenience vegetarian foods like veggie burgers and other processed fake meats, some of the whole foods listed above, and a whole heap of carbs to fill me up. That shift in my dietary habits is why, in my opinion, when I was a kid vegetarians tended to be very lean and very healthy; whereas nowadays, I can’t even remember the last time I met a vegetarian or vegan who wasn’t overweight.
Body positivity is wonderful but not when it underpins a gross lack of health. Your curves are not beautiful if they are killing you, and the simple truth is that most overweight people are metabolically unhealthy. That said, it is perfectly possible to be thin and suffering from MetS, so that is why it is important to focus less on weight per se, and more on the five markers above. However, the more excess weight you are carrying, the more likely it is that your other markers for good health will be off.
I do think there is a certain subset of society who define themselves by their lack of health, just as there is a certain subset of society (i.e. me and my ilk) who define themselves by their pursuit of health and wellness. I think some people want to be ill because the complex management of their disease/s gives them something around which to organise their identity, just as the management of my health gives me an identity-forming anchor. In each instance, it gives the individual something to talk about and some level of meaning, structure, and purpose to their life.
I also think there is another group of people who simply do not know how to be healthy. People who feel overwhelmed by the abundance of information and the conflicting and confusing messages given out by ill-educated medics and public health agencies, and the shady fad diet industry. It is for those people I have written this post.
Everything you need to know to sort out your metabolic health is in the maxim quoted above: eat real food (and exercise regularly). However, if you want to go deeper and read more (it’s fascinating, please do), then I can highly recommend the following:
- Philip Ovadia’s Stay off my operating table.
Dr Ovadia is a cardiac surgeon and a metabolic health specialist and nutrition coach. His book is a really simple read: I got through it in less than a day. I like it because of its simplicity and because he chronicles his journey from obesity to metabolic wellness. I think it is a really good place to start if you want more information on this subject. He also has an informative podcast as well.
- Arthur De Vany’s The new evolution diet.
This is another simple, easy to read book coming from a paleo perspective. Like Ovadia’s, it’s a pretty simple ‘how to’ manual to eat and move your way to metabolic health and wellness. I also like the way he has organised his references at the end of the book, so you can easily go and read more on areas of health which interest you.
- Ivor Cummins and Jeffry Gerber’s Eat Rich, Live Long.
This book is great if you want a deeper dive into the science behind metabolic health. I personally find Ivor Cummins very annoying (based on his podcasts which I do selectively listen to) but this book is written with a medic (Gerber) and choc-a-bloc with really important information. So if you are the kind of person who needs to know the why to things (I am), then I highly recommend this book. The authors advocate a ketogenic diet (which I can’t be arsed to follow) but some of the recipes are really delicious.
- Zoe Harcombe’s The Obesity Epidemic.
This was actually my first book on the topic of metabolic health, and I found it quite revelatory. The only reason I have listed it in fourth place is because it can be a bit too detailed in parts (I suspect it is a published version of her PhD research). She absolutely demolishes the calories in, calories out model of weight loss, and goes into the history of corruption (corporate lobbying, again) which explains the current and utterly unhealthy dietary guidelines.
- Philip Ovadia’s Stay off my operating table.