Sunday, January 31, 2010

Calorie Counting Dinner

Calorie counting is a futile exercise. Can you imagine yourself to be meticulously noting down every single thing you put into your mouth throughout the day? Even if you are able to count Calories with the accuracy of an accounting auditor, you will still never get exact numbers. Our food just do not come in standard calibrated units that happily lend itself to exact, precise calculations. Therefore is there any merit in such an exercise at all?

The science behind the Glycemic Index tells us that food is not digested at a uniform rate, and by similar reasoning, it is not unlikely that not all food is absorbed uniformly too. So even if 'a Calorie is a Calorie' seducively sounds like a single reducible truth, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we believe that food can be cut down to a single number alone. While I won't argue against having a rough ballpark number to work with, there should be some sensibility on not relying on it too specifically.

To the avid hard-core Calorie counters out there, let me satisfy you a little with my own Calorie counting exercise. Here is a snapped picture of what I normally have for dinner:

All the food is cooked in a steamer, seasoned with some salt, plus pepper on the trout that I was having. There are no cooking oil or any other added ingredients to what you are seeing, so what you see is what you get. I'll go through the breakdown of what was in my dinner:

Onion, whole
Beetroot, whole
Carrot, 1 stick
Sweet potato, 1/2
Asparagus, 8 tips
Coriander, 2 sprigs
Leek, 5 slices (not visible, under trout)
Rainbow Trout, 250gm

Let's try to calculate the total Calorie intake. It will not be accurate, but I'll give higher numbers on all my estimates just for argument:

Onion (94gm) - 41 Calories
Beetroot (87gm) - 37 Calories
Carrot (61gm) - 25 Calories
Sweet Potato (84gm) - 72 Calories
Aspragus (120gm) - 26 Calories
Leek (26gm) - 15 Calories
Rainbow Trout (250gm) - 387 Calories

Total Calorie Intake: 603 Calories

That's typical dinner, and sometimes with an additional fruit or cheese as dessert after. That is usually all for dinner, and I do not consume any more after I cleaned up my kitchen. If I make a simplistic projection of these numbers to a full day (x3 for breakfast, lunch and dinner), then I'm consuming less Calories than the standard daily requirement! So if the standard is to be believed, then by definition I must be starving!

Our environment is a complex one, and our bodies are miraculous complex organisms that have to deal with this complexity. We have many bodily functions that regulate themselves autonomously without conscious thought or control, and our body constantly adjusts itself based on the feedback it receives; we feel sleepy when we are tired, our bodies ache and stop us from hurting ourselves when we over-tax it, we get thirsty when we are dehydrated. Shouldn't that mean it is naturally correct that we eat only when we are hungry?

There is no reason not to trust our bodies to do the right thing. If I am not feeling hungry from my food intake, then my body is telling me that I am not in energy deficit. And I trust that my body is right. Who do you believe, your body or the standard conventional wisdom out there?
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Food and the meaning in life

I have not been writing for a while, you may have noted. What have I been doing with my free time?

These days I have been researching on a number of quite arbitrary and seemingly unfocused things, but even with all that arbitrariness, it still has much to do with my philosophising on life. If there is one notable aspect that has consumed my more of time these days, it will have to do with researching about nutrition. So how is that to do with philosophy? If you think about how much food actually affects your quality of life, then the answer is 'a lot'.

Food has always been an on-and-off topic between colleagues and friends, and it is still surprisingly a subject area that I can't seem to be able to form an objective opinion upon. There is a bewildering number of conflicting literature on the science of food, and nobody, not even medical specialists, seem to be able to come to an agreement of what actually is good for you. What we have out there today is mainly unquestioned conventional wisdom, versus various splinter food cultures with their advocates and strong opinions to boot.

One aspect of food nutrition that I am interested in has been the topic of weight loss. For those who know me, you will be challenging on why this would even be my subject of interest, given that I have no personal stake in dealing with any weight issues. True, but I have always been curious to why I'm a perpetual a non-gainer no matter what I eat, while others seem to put on weight on even the most minuscule of calorie intake.

Sometimes people blame it on genetics. It makes sense from an evolutionary aspect since some people are more efficient at storing extra energy than others, given that food supply was inconsistent in the past. It would have been beneficial for humans to store surplus energy, but I have my doubts that this is the key reason, given that the obesity problem has only surfaced within the last century - I'm willing to bet my money that it's more likely that the problem comes from the composition of our food itself.

Recently, one of my colleagues had completed his weight-loss regime. He had been going on a low carbohydrate diet, coupled with a sachet of weight loss formula, which he had good results in losing around 10lbs (4.5kg) within 3 months. The talk about a 'low carb' diet became a talking point as it reminded me of the Atkins diet that had been associated with a reputation of varying between effective and crazily faddish.

Given my current interest in food nutrition, I decided to offer some interesting, counter-intuitive opinions on his diet. Basically, I told him that his 'low carb' diet was essentially a 'high fat' one! Obviously he didn't seem happy with my explanation, since it flies in the face of conventional wisdom - you gain weight consuming fat, not lose it. My explanation was relatively simple, if not immediately obvious.

There are only 3 categories of energy sources we derive from food, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It is not possible for someone to sustain himself purely from a protein only diet, as he would have suffered from a condition called 'rabbit starvation'. Proteins at high amounts is essentially toxic, aside one symptom that protein poisoning will have caused is ravenous, insatiable hunger. If that were the case, it would have been impossible for him to diet, since it is not an issue that can be subdued by willpower alone. Dieting in such condition is as futile as trying to stop yourself from breathing. Unless he's starving himself literally, his only viable energy replacement would have to be coming from fats.

I have no idea what he was eating during the diet period (hardly anything from my observation), but it was obviously likely that in the absence of any energy input through food consumption, his body would naturally utilise its fat reserves, causing him to lose weight. But I believe that weight loss through dieting is orthogonal to the real problem of keeping it off permanently. You do get quick and good results during short dieting binges, but it is equally likely that you'll regain it back as quickly as you have taken it away.

This is because the urge to over consume on your food has not decreased. It has been shown that willpower is a limited resource, and when you go on a diet, you are essentially pushing your willpower to overcome your urges given by your brain to consume (more) food. A diet is hardly anything natural or sustainable if you can only maintain it for a limited of time. Eventually your willpower will break down, and you'll go back to your normal eating habits again, so whatever loss you are seeing will be temporary.

The impetus to tackle weight gain is really to be addressing the real issue behind the problem over-consumption. The current science of blaming fats as a bogeyman to tackling the real problem, like any dismayal science, really isn't helping. It willfully ignores that fact that any food you eat will cause you to become fat when consumed in excess - it is just restating the laws of thermodynamics. Not besides the fact that I've seen plenty chubby friends despite being on a low fat diet for perpetuity.

I've recently watched this video titled, "Sugar: a bitter truth", by Professor Robert H. Lustig which has strengthened this belief. He labels sugar as the key cause of obesity, and presents a clear cut explanation of how sugar intake increases appetite:

Generally when a doctor puts his neck out against conventional wisdom, he is either convinced he is right or a crackpot out for fame and notoriety. I can only suggest to do your own research and make your own conclusions. There are good literature out there to suggest that obesity isn't the result of a high fat diet, but a high sugar one. Some might nitpick that it's very specifically high fructose, I don't disagree, but do remember that sucrose (table sugar) is one part glucose and one part fructose.

Sugar isn't categorically the culprit for obesity, but if it is a cause for driving your up brain signals to consume, then it stands to reason that an increased sugar intake will lead to over-consumption. And if willpower is expendable, the only sustainable way to ensure a permanent weight loss is to cut down on sugar intake.

I suggested to my colleague that the easiest solution to weight loss is to simply stop consuming all forms of added sugar. He was aghast.

"If I can't have my lollipops and cookies, what would be the meaning in life? I much rather be fat and lose a few years of my life than to stop eating sugar at all."

Which means to say that sometimes the most obvious solutions aren't always the easiest.

Isn't it remarkable that seemingly trivial things like food choices can be difficult when you have to make conscious, rational choices? Now isn't that worth philosophising about? Food for thought anyone? :)