How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food – Chapter 3

The [Grow] Network is pleased to publish Colin Austin’s 10 part series, How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food. This article is Chapter 3 of 10. You can read the other chapters here:

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

Chapter 3 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy, Continued
To recap the story so far, in the first episode we focused on Why you should seek out healthy food. In the second chapter we discussed the big picture about statistics, including how they are interpreted and what they mean. We discussed how one might try to unravel the opposing views on dietary recommendations, which required me to be a bit tedious on the statistical information upon which much of our health advice is based.

I have just started to introduce the idea that the nutrients in the soil play a critical role in health.

What’s to Come in Chapter 3
I want to debunk the view that our bodies are just dumb machines, and the view that we can control our weight and health by simply restricting our calorie intake. Our bodies have a highly sophisticated control system based on hormones. We need to eat the type of food which will change our hormone balance. Instead of depriving ourselves of food, so that we run around craving more food, we need to eat the type of food which makes us feel satisfied so we no longer want to keep on eating.

The China Study

One of the most important studies on diet and health was the China study which came to the uncontested conclusion that a diet high in vegetables leads to better health. Now this was a well conducted, proper scientific study and I am not suggesting that the results are in doubt. But, there is one interesting anomaly that the computer analysis completely missed.

The Himalayan Plateau
In the high Himalayan plateau, in the West of China, live tribes of people who eat virtually nothing else but meat, yet these people are still very healthy with long and active lives. The numbers of these people are so small compared with the size of the study that they are not seriously significant – just a statistical anomaly. Now, this small anomaly may not be very significant in the statistical sense of the word, but to me – a thinking human – this could be highly significant, in the popular sense of the word.

The climate in this region is very adverse and cold, so it is virtually impossible to grow vegetables. So people live off the meat of animals that forage in the wild. The animals just freely roam over the mountains, eating whatever they can find, until the time comes for them to be eaten – how cooperative.

Apart from its climate, this region has two other notable features – the soil is young volcanic rock full of minerals and trace elements, and the region supports the widest variety of vegetation in China. Now, the statistics don’t prove this, but a possible explanation for this anomaly is that what really matters in the human diet is the quality of the soil and the variety of plants eaten by the wild animals. It might be irrelevant whether we eat the healthy plants directly, or we eat them indirectly by eating the wild animals that feed on those plants. Perhaps what matters is eating a wide variety of plants grown in nutrient rich soil – directly or indirectly.

As I try to understand the relationship between diet and health, this seems very significant (in the popular sense of the word – not the statistical sense of the word).

The Sausage Factory
In a previous chapter, I expressed my concern about the sausage factory approach adopted by our dietary adviser. In part, this was because the approach resulted in too many carbohydrates. But another problem with a standardized diet is that everyone gets the same food – with no attention paid to how each individual reacts to that food.

So now I want to tell you about how we approached this problem. This is purely personal, and you are welcome to follow along, but know that this is not a scientifically based recommendation.

Hormones and Hunger
The human body is a sort of heat engine, converting energy into movement. Given the state of our modern diet, we definitely do not have a problem with a shortage of energy. But, we do have a problem with our control system. We have a highly sophisticated control system with a whole array of hormones that control our appetite. Given a chance, this control system will regulate how much food we eat and how we process that food – whether it is converted to energy, stored as fat, used to rebuild our bodies, or simply disposed of (as in poop).

This highly sophisticated control system has evolved over millions of years, and when it is given a chance, it works quite well. But we have totally screwed it up. Many experts try to convince us that we manage our weight by regulating the amount of food we eat – one cup of this, two cups of that. Sorry, but that is just wrong. We need to select our diet to manage our internal hormonal control system.

The Diesel Car Analogy
What really matters is the quality of the food we eat, and how it reacts with our body – this is much more important than the quantity of food we eat. Imagine that a friend was complaining to you that his diesel car was not running well. In chatting, he told you that he was running it on aviation fuel. You told him that his car was not designed to run on aviation fuel – the energy content is way too high! You recommend to him that he goes back to filling it up with diesel automobile fuel (or at least re-tunes the engine). He thinks about this and says, “Too much energy, huh? Thanks for that. I will still use aviation fuel, but next time I will only fill the tank up half way full.”

This is a bit silly, but it is perfectly analogous to what many professional dietitians are recommending. They know that we have screwed up our internal control system by eating foods like high fructose corn syrup. But instead of fixing the control system – the real cause of the problem – they try to solve it by rationing the amount of bad food we eat. One cup of this, two cups of that. This simply does not work. It never has, and it never will. We have to get to the root cause of the problem, and fix our internal control systems. Some calorie-restricted diets may actually work, but these work because they include more healthy foods – not because they restrict calories.

Our aim here is to learn how we can fix our internal control system. We can do this by allowing our bodies to tell us what to eat, and how much of it we should eat.

Another aim is to learn how to regenerate our bodies. When an engineer designs a thing, she knows that some part of it will wear out over time, so she must provide a system of replacement parts. Our bodies are full of parts which need replacing. Our cells are continuously being replaced, and we need to eat the right sort of food to enable this process – regeneration food. Again, our bodies have evolved to do this very well without any interference from us – but they do depend on us supplying them with the right ingredients. Providing these raw materials is about more than just saying, “eat more kale,” or whatever. We have to look at the total process, going back to the soil in which the plants were grown.

The Calorie Myth – The Balance of Energy in a Human Body

The first law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system, energy remains constant. It is just as basic as the law of conservation of mass. Unless you are in the business of atomic power, which blows both of these principles away, it is one of the fundamental laws of nature.

There is, however, a second law which dates back to a couple of hundred years ago when the French were concerned that the English may be making a technological jump with their steam engines. To get to the bottom of things, the French sponsored one Monsieur Carnot – a singularly smart cookie – to figure out how steam engines really work. He understood that energy has a quantity but also a quality, which can be described by a technical term called entropy. But this is just a chatty article, so I will simply call it the quality of the energy. If you want to know about entropy, ask my good friends Mr. Google and Mr. Wikipedia – they will be happy to tell you all about it.

Monsieur Carnot described the way we should analyze a heat engine. Humans are basically heat engines that turn chemical energy into mechanical energy. By following Carnot’s instructions, we can attempt a proper thermodynamic analysis of our bodies. We should look at the amount of high quality energy we eat, the amount of energy we convert to mechanical energy, and the amount of stored energy (fat) that we store in our bodies. We should also look at the amount of low quality energy we breathe out as carbon dioxide and water, and the low quality energy we excrete as poop and pee.

I have yet to see any analysis which considers the amount of energy we excrete. I live in an eco-village with a composting toilet, and I have to use a tractor to empty the steaming mass periodically – so I know this energy is significant. No one seems to be the least bit interested in the calorific value of poop.

Coming Home from Shopping
But let us not get bogged down in poop – let me tell you about my last trip home from a shopping trip.

My car has a gauge which tells me how much fuel I am using. When I am driving 100 kph, I am using about 7.5 liters per 100 kilometers. More simply, it takes about 750 ccs of fuel, about the size of a can of Coke, to push my car 10 kilometers. Now for me to push my car 10k would be quite an effort. I am not sure exactly how much energy would be expended, but I would guesstimate about 5 man days of human energy. That little can of fuel packs a lot of punch.

But when I carry the shopping goods from the car to the house, I feel that there is quite a lot of weight – probably about 20 Kg. I can do a few quick back-of-the-envelope calculations and it is obvious that the amount of energy food I am eating is far more than I am using up in mechanical work. Not just by a little bit – by a lot.

So, if I wanted to cut down my weight by eating less and exercising more, it is totally pointless to just cut down the calories by a little bit. I would have to make a dramatic reduction in food intake to accomplish this. I would virtually have to starve myself.

Eat Right, Not Less

I am not going through the numbers here because the “eat less exercise more” brigade have made an even bigger mistake than getting the thermodynamics wrong. They have assumed that our bodies are some simple energy device which converts food into energy. If I wanted to be technically correct I would say that our bodies have evolved an adaptive control system. But I am going to be a bit technically sloppy and just call it intelligence.

Over millions of years, our bodies – and the bodies of most animals – have evolved to keep us living through challenging circumstances. So when our bodies sense a lack of food they go through a sophisticated shut down procedure which will keep us alive for as long as possible – on the hope that food may just arrive before we die.

There have been experiments on rats to prove this (I am glad I was not born a lab rat). They started off with grossly overweight rats that were reasonably active (many people are fat, active, and healthy too), and they progressively cut down on the rats’ food intake. While there was enough food, it really made no difference; the rats just carried on normally and they did not lose weight. When the food intake dropped to the level where there was not enough energy (a serious reduction in food intake), the rats simply became less active. They were real couch potatoes and they remained fat – they just got fat and lazy.

The control system protected the rats’ bodies by saying, “slow down and have a rest,” rather than burning the available stores of fat. Those stores of fat were conserved by the body to protect the rats’ lives. As the food supply continued to be cut even further, the rats’ control system progressively sacrificed bits of the body to stay alive. As they were no longer active, they could afford to sacrifice muscle mass, but they hung onto their fat storage for as long as possible.

Now these are rats, not people, so I am a little cautious about transferring the findings. But there was a period in my life when I was looking for ways of providing sustenance food in drought times, in Ethiopia. I could not help seeing what happens to the human body as it slowly starves. At first, people become lethargic and just hang around conserving energy. Then their legs and arms become very thin as they lose muscle mass. But their stomachs begin to bloat. If they are fortunate, by this time the NGOs show up with emergency relief to save their lives.

Believe me, you don’t want to try to make a permanent reduction in weight by cutting down on calories. It simply does not work, and it causes a great deal of harm. You just end up “yoyo eating,” lose a bit of weight, get hungry and put it back on again, diet again, and so on. We need to stop this silly idea that the body is some simple machine, and learn how the body really works as an intelligent system.

Coming Up in Chapter 4
In the next chapter I will make the rather obvious point that our bodies react differently to different diets, and how it is possible to experiment to find out which foods activate our hunger and full hormones so that we don’t have to force ourselves not to eat, but rather leave it to our bodies to control how much we eat.

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

© 28 July 2015 Colin Austin – Creative Commons – This document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged. Information may be used for private use but commercial use requires a license.

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This post was written by Colin Austin


  • Alice J Haslam says:

    The author is correct. I lost 100 pounds a few years back by changing my eating to a nutrient dense regime and eliminating HFCS, artificial sweeteners, MSG, and other strange chemicals that did not used to be in our food supply. I have kept the weight off for 7 years by continuing to eat this way. I never counted a single calorie, fat gram, or anything else. I eat minute amounts of food compared to most folks because my body automatically regulates my intake to match my energy expenditure. I am 70 years old and in the best health of my life.

  • Gary says:

    Terrific, I have been in the same quandary listening to paleo, vegan etc. Can’t wait for the next addition. Thanks

  • Bonnie says:

    The facts stated here are very important to me. I have found that certain things I eat that are “good for you” do not do well in my body. I eat healthy all the time and for years. Lately the big news has been fermented food. The news is that we need fermented foods to become healthy and stay healthy. Now I love sauerkraut, and sour dough, so I began to ferment the foods from my garden. I also made kefir water and milk and kombuchu tea. Not only did I begin to gain weight, from all the sugar in the tea and kefir, but I would bloat up like I had wind in my sails. I thought okay, there may be a reaction time to get over, but after 2 months I still had the same difficulties, so I gave up the fermented food and now am losing the weight and the bloating. So I agree with you. A person has to find out what their body can work with and go that route. Also the route does change along the way. Thank you for the articles. Very good points.

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