Life is energy – 1

I have been slamming BigFood for convincing every one of us , with a bit of help from friendly researchers, that all calories are the same. I have been slamming the nutrition-ism in food, the reduction-ism of food science and the over simplification of the calories number game.

But, I haven’t been slamming everyone – my grandmother, our ancestors, – because I am convinced that they knew so much more, not because they fed mice in laboratories, but just from wisdom passed down from generations. They hardly experienced any food related chronic illnesses, or any lifestyle diseases because of their food habits.

It is impossible to figure out whom to believe with the hundreds and thousands of opinions related to diet and health. Is my slamming of the BigFood, and the modern concepts of nutrition, and the mumbo-jumbo of calories at all justified? Have I lost it?…you might ask.

I started upfront with the topic of ‘calories’ in my previous 3 (I think) posts because we are inundated with that word everyday. I had to set you thinking whether it is all that it is made out to be after all. At least you can ask the right questions to your gym instructor or your ‘eat less/move more’ advisors. In the next few posts, I’ll take a step back and talk about some funda issues about food so that you understand your body. You don’t need to believe me or anybody else nor get confused with the endless advises. When you understand the basics about how the human body really works, you will know why calorie counting, fat slashing, (yes , you read that right), and eating less/moving more is a one-way ticket to a black hole of frustration.

So let’s get cracking at what it is all about..

For the benefit of my friends who bunked the biology and physiology classes (me included, that’s why I had to catch up much later in life) I will just explain some simple fundas to understand what really is the role of food in our bodies. We talk about calories and carbs and proteins and fats and lipids and oils  and hormones and enzymes and micronutrients and vitamins…and…and…and, but do we really know how all of this fits into the whole concept of our being. Why is food such an important part of our lives? Is it just for that tiny little burp which escapes our lips at the end of a satisfying meal or is there more to it? What does it really do ?

SHeldonThere are many theories on the origin of life. Whether God or Sheldon’s Big Bang (take your pick) created the first energy form on planet a few billion years ago, or, as some scientists believe, that in the beginning, there were simple organic chemicals. And they produced amino acids that eventually became the proteins necessary to create single cells.  And the single cells became plants and animals. After billions of years, life on earth has evolved as we see it today. And humans have evolved to be one of the most complex, intricate multi-cellular organism if there ever was one. We have trillions of cells, each of which produce energy. We are a bundle of energy packed into skin and bones of varying shapes and sizes. Our whole existence is the energy we contain. We die because our cells die when they can no longer continue to generate energy. Life is energy.

Your ability to maintain a healthy body temperature, support your breathing, and a host of other functions to keep you alive, is called your basal metabolic rate, and you use more energy for these functions than for any other. Your body also uses energy to build new tissue, repair damaged tissue, and generate new, healthy cells. Even a simple eye movement requires energy.

Energy – our cells need to generate energy non-stop, 24/7, as long as we live. They need fuel to generate energy. This fuel comes from the food we eat. That is why we need to eat. So we see a broad level connection between food and our existence. It provides our body with stuff which keeps us alive. Cool! But why the fuss over carbs and fats and proteins and whatever….How do these different food types matter in the generation of life’s energy?

2015-lexus-ct-200h_100474240_hA beautiful red Lexus Hybrid. Our dear friends just bought this amazing car !! And I thought that if we are to talk about different fuel sources then this would be a great, though oversimplified analogy.

Think of the human body as a hybrid car. Just like a hybrid car, which can run on different types of fuel, depending on the situation, the human body can do the same. We can run on many different kinds of fuel, depending on how much of each type is available at any given time, and also depending on what kind of activity needs to be fuelled, which tissue type is performing the activity, and what messages our hormones are sending throughout our body regarding which fuels to use.

The main types of fuel the body can run on are:

  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Carbohydrate
  • Alcohol
  • Ketones


For obvious reasons, we don’t want to fuel ourselves primarily on alcohol. A little hooch now and then is no problem (hic…), but we certainly don’t want it to be our main source of fuel.

Next up is protein.  Even though protein is a source of energy, and therefore something we can consider as “fuel,” we really don’t want to use protein as our main energy source. It’s far too valuable for the myriad other purposes it has in our bodies. Besides contributing to the physical structure of muscle tissue, here’s just a small sampling of what else is made from protein: Antibodies, peptide hormones (like insulin and glucagon), neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine), organs, and blood vessels. Protein has too many other jobs to do for it to be siphoned off as an energy source under normal circumstances. Sometimes amino acids from proteins are used for this as well, but only when your body doesn’t have enough of the carbohydrates and fats available. .

We’ll table ketones for the time being. They’re actually fantastic source of fuel, but they deserve a much more detailed explanation than I can give here at the outset.  We will talk about this alternative in later posts.

So that leaves us with carbohydrates and fat. These 2 sources of fuel are the most talked about by food scientists, nutritionists, dieticians, the media, doctors, laymen, everyone…..Let’s compare carbohydrate and fat as fuel sources and see if we can tease out which one it makes more physiological sense for us to run our bodies on.

As a general rule carbohydrates contain 4 kcal per gram; proteins are about the same; fats contain approximately 9 kcal per gram. In our analogy of a car, one fuel gives us say 4 km/liter and one gives us 9 km/l. So obviously if we use the 9km/l fuel we won’t run out of fuel so easily. Assuming that we use the 4km/l fuel, we would need to stop more often to fill up the tank as compared to the 9km/l. That’s obvious.

The thing about the human body is that we don’t just burn fuel. We don’t burn “calories,” and we don’t even burn carbohydrate, fat, protein, alcohol, or ketones. You see, the body can’t actually do anything with those macronutrients, per se.  The human body can’t use carbohydrates or fats (or any of the other fuels) as they are. They have to be converted into something called ATP (adenosine triphosphate), —the “energy currency” of human physiology. Our cells can only use ATP. So we can think of pau bhaji, fish fry,  steak, ice cream, chicken, eggplant, or even a well-aged Lagavulin and everything else we might toss down the hatch not as calories, or fuel, or energy, but as potential sources of ATP ( Why potential? – we will see that just because we ingest a food doesn’t mean that food is going to be converted into usable energy). 

Mitochondria, you may remember it vaguely from your biology class, are present in nearly every cell in every organism in the world. It is the energy generating furnace in the cells. What we often call “burning” foods for energy, is really a process of breaking the molecules down piece by piece and transferring the energy that is released during this breakdown. The carbohydrate or fat is destroyed in the process. This breakdown of foods and transfer of energy in mitochondria requires oxygen, which you get from breathing, and results in carbon dioxide and water as waste products. The primary role of mitochondria is to produce ATP, which our body uses to create energy for a whole host of cellular processes. We are constantly using ATP, whether we’re sprinting, walking, breathing, pumping blood through our cardiovascular system, or doing long division. Think of a physiological process, and ATP is probably involved.Without mitochondria, then, we wouldn’t be able to get much of anything done. We simply wouldn’t exist.

Without going into the complex metabolic pathways involved in producing ATP from the food we consume, all that my non-nerdy friends need to know is that molecule for molecule, fatty acids provide way more ATP than carbohydrates do. My nerdy friends can check out the links below.

From Carbohydrates (cellular respiration) – 36ATP

From Fatty acid (ß oxidation) – 131 ATP

Energy Funda # 1: Gram for gram, molecule for molecule, fats give us more energy than carbohydrates. And not just “more,” but longer lasting, slower burning energy—the kind that can keep us feeling fine—physically, emotionally, and cognitively—for several hours without consuming more food, and without experiencing mood swings, irritability, immediate and urgent hunger, lightheadedness, dizziness, or any of the other unpleasant signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia, even if it’s been many hours since we last ate.

In some cases, our cells can also produce energy, in the absence of oxygen, from glycolysis, a fairly old biochemical pathway. This is done outside the mitochondria. It doesn’t require oxygen, which means it could have happened (and, in fact, was happening) way back when, in the very early days of life on Earth, like billions of years ago, when organisms were extremely simple, and the planet’s atmosphere was not oxygen-rich. Without a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere, it’s a good thing organisms had a way of generating energy that didn’t require any oxygen, right? And not only is glycolysis rather old, it’s also very inefficient. 2 ATP per one molecule of glucose. This anaerobic process is called fermentation. In spite of being so inefficient and primitive, this energy generating process is not all useless. For example, when oxygen levels are low, skeletal muscle cells rely on glycolysis to meet their intense energy requirements. This reliance on glycolysis results in the buildup of an intermediate known as lactic acid, which can cause a person’s muscles to feel as if they are “on fire.”

So now we know that some fuel lasts longer than the other. But what kind of fuel is the body designed to hold? If our hybrid car is designed to run on petrol and electric power, we will surely not tank it with diesel or orange juice!!

It’s the same with your body’s fuel tank. It is designed to store and use some fuels better than others.

I will reveal all in my ‘life is energy’ series. Stay tuned.






In my previous posts, we saw how easily the blame got shifted to us for being gluttons and sloths; how  we have been led to believe “ a calorie is a calorie”,  it doesn’t matter whether it comes from a broccoli or candy; how they tried to convince us about the laws of thermodynamics which basically translates to the CICO ( Calories in vs Calories out) hypothesis ( Fat = Calories in – Calories out).

I mentioned how it was almost impossible to measure our daily energy expenditure or the ‘calories-out’ part of the equation, considering the various metabolic and physiological functions that goes on all the time in our body, over which we have no conscious control. We also saw that exercise or conscious movement to expend energy is only 10% of the daily energy which the body expends. Yet we are always told to ‘eat less and move more’ in order to lose weight!! Eating less?? Well, maybe it works……

In this post we will discuss a few studies to test the CICO hypothesis in reality.

This sick-o (CICO) hypothesis tells us 2 things:

  1. balance your calorie intake with your calorie expenditure ;
  2. the energy we consume and the energy we expend have little influence on each other. That we can consciously change one (eat less) and it will have no consequence on the other (expend energy), and vice versa.

Almost a 100 years ago, the first study on effects of calorie intake reduction Entitled “A Biometric Study of Basal Metabolism in Man”, was done in 1917-18 at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Nutrition Laboratory on 12 healthy young men. They were put onto ‘semi-starvation’ diets consisting of 1400-2100 calories per day and then observed with measurements of energy expenditure taken. Their energy expenditure dropped substantially – a whopping 30%. The men complained constantly of being unable to stay warm, even with an “abundance of clothes”. Heart rate and blood pressure dropped. Men showed a marked inability to concentrate and marked weakness during physical activity. In other words, their metabolism was shutting down.

Let’s think about what is happening here. Let’s assume these people normally eat 3000 calories per day. Since they are neither gaining nor losing fat, they are burning 3000 calories per day. Now we restrict calories to 2000 calories per day. With roughly a 1/3 reduction in calories the body responds by reducing caloric expenditures (shutting down).

Calories are needed to heat the body. So, the body turns down the body heat. Result – the patients feel cold, no matter how much they try to put on clothes.

Calories are needed to pump the heart. So, the body slows that down. Result – heart rate decreases.

Calories are needed to maintain blood pressure. So, the body turns that down. Result – blood pressure decreases.

Calories are needed to think (brain is very metabolically active). So, the body turns that down. Result – inability to concentrate.

Calories are needed to move. So, the body turns that down. Result – weakness during physical activity.

In other words – the body more or less imposes an ‘across the board’ reduction in caloric expenditure.

Why does the body do this? Well, because the body is smart and doesn’t want you to die. Consider a person normally eating 3000 calories a day. Now, he eats 2000 calories a day. If he were to continue to expend 3000 calories daily, he would soon burn all his fat store, then his protein stores and then he would die. Nice. Why would he want to do that? The smart thing to do is to immediately reduce caloric expenditure to 2000 cal/day to restore balance. Why do we assume Mother Nature is so damned stupid?

Any rational person would adjust to the new 2000 calorie a day diet by reducing energy expenditure to not just 2000 calories but a little less (just in case), say 1900 calories. This is exactly what the body does. Because it is the SMART thing to do.

In the study, what happened to their weight under strict calorie restriction? The men did initially lose weight, but what happened next is probably familiar to all those who have tried to diet. After the experiment ended, they regained all of that weight and even a little bit more. The total energy expenditure- TEE- (or Calories Out) dropped so substantially that returning to a normal diet meant that the men started to regain the weight. When they lost the weight, they lost muscle and fat. When they regained the weight, it was all fat.

Moving forward several decades, the noted scientist Ancel Keys, sought to study the effects of caloric reduction in the famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment, published in 1950.

Ancel Keys estimated that these subjects were eating roughly 3,200 calories per day. They were put onto a ‘semi-starvation’ diet of 1,560 calories per day with foods similar to those available in war-torn Europe at the time – potatoes, turnips, bread, and macaroni. They were then monitored for a further 20 weeks after the semi-starvation period.

What happened to them?

Coldness, incessant hunger, weakness, exhaustion, dizziness, muscle wasting, and hair loss were some of the symptoms.

Heart volume shrank by 20%. Heart rate slowed. Body temperature dropped.

The total energy expenditure – TEE- dropped by 40%. Interestingly, this is not that far off of the previous study from 1917 that showed base energy expenditure decreased by 30%. In other words, the body was shutting down. Let’s think about this again from the body’s point of view. The body is accustomed to getting 3,200 calories per day and now it gets 1,560. In order to preserve itself, it implements across the board reductions in energy.

The heart gets less energy – heart rate slows and heart volume shrinks. Blood pressure drops.

The heating system is turned down – body feels cold.

Muscles get less energy – physical exhaustion.

Hair and nails get less energy – hair loss and brittle nails.

Not to mention the psychological effectsObsessive thoughts of food. Bingeing behavior. Extreme depression. Severe emotional distress. Irritability. Loss of libido. Interest in everything other than food vanished. Social withdrawal and isolation. Anyway, I’m sure you are beginning to get the picture.

The key to remember, though, is that this ensures survival of the individual under a time of extreme stress. Yeah, you might feel lousy, but you’ll live to tell the tale. This is the smart thing for the body to do. It is not so stupid as to keep burning energy it does not have.

Consider the alternative. The body is used to 3,200 calories per day and now get 1,560. The body still burns 3,200 calories. Things feel normal. Three months later, you are dead. It is absolutely inconceivable that the body does not react to caloric reduction by reducing caloric expenditure.

What happened to their weight after the semi-starvation period?

In the 24 weeks of the starvation period both body weight and body fat dropped. As they started upon the recovery period, they regained the weight. Actually, the weight was regained rather quickly – in about 12 or so weeks of recovery period, the weight is back to original. However, it does not stop there. The body weight continues to increase until it is actually higher than it was before the experiment started.

And body fat! It goes soaring above baseline. The dirty little secret of most dietary studies is that as weight is lost, both fat and muscle weight are decreased. But when weight is regained, most of it is fat.

eat-less-exercise-moreThink about it in dietary terms. Let’s review what happens when you go on a calorie restricted diet of 1,560 calories/day – just like your doctor tells you to do. You feel lousy, tired, cold, hungry, irritable and depressed. That’s not just because you are dieting, there are physiologic reasons why you feel so crappy. Metabolic rate drops, hormones make you hungry, body temperature drops and there are a multitude of psychological effects.  Our weight may reduce initially, but then the body would respond by reducing TEE to about 1,560 cal/day. Even after 1 year, things are exactly the same. We feel lousy and the weight is not coming off despite our best efforts to eat only 1,560 cal/day. If you have ever been on a diet – you probably know how that feels.

Discouragement sets in. We get tired of feeling so lousy so we go back to our regular diet. All the weight comes racing back with a little extra for good measure because now we are eating 3,200 calories/day and expending only 1,560. Sound familiar? Consider the last time you tried to diet by reducing calories and portion size. Does any of this sound familiar? Yeah, thought so.

But in truth, the failing was not ours. The portion control diet, the essence of the CICO hypothesis, is virtually guaranteed to fail. It has been proven over and over in the last 100 years. The only reason we think that it works is because everybody – the doctors, the dieticians, the ‘scientists’, the media – has convinced us that it is all about ‘Calories in vs. Calories Out’. Eat less -Move more and that kind of idiocy.


When you follow the advice that all the “experts” repeat over and over, in every source you see and hear, and you don’t see the expected results, it’s logical to assume you are not following the advice hard enough, or well enough, right? It’s logical to assume you are to blame, rather than stopping to question whether there might be something wrong with all that “expert advice.”

It is increasingly clear that one of the key assumptions of the CICO hypothesis, that the energy we consume and the energy we expend have little influence on each other, is incorrect.

The caloric expenditures and caloric intake are inextricably linked to each other.

We saw how our metabolism was shutting down when we reduced calorie intake, but what happens when we increase our portion sizes!

Let’s now fast forward to the modern era, and look at this study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. 

The question they wanted to answer was what happened to energy expenditure (TEE) when weight was increased or decreased. Would the body automatically compensate by increasing or decreasing energy expenditure? In other words, if we reduce or increase our Calories In, what happens to Calories Out?

In this experiment, 18 obese and 23 non-obese subjects with a stable weight were recruited. They were fed a liquid diet of 45% carbohydrate, 40% fat and 15% protein until the desired weight gain was achieved.

Well, what happened?

In response to increased portion sizes, instead of a simple calories in, calories out model where fat is deposited according to an excessive intake of calories, it appears that the body responds to excess calories by trying to burn it off! In other words, an increase in Calories In causes an increase in Calories Out.

Let’s put this into a dietary context. Suppose we increase our portions keeping our diet composition constant. Weight may increase but the body’s response would be to increase TEE – body temperature may increase, energy and sense of well being may increase. We may eat 2,500 cal/day but the body has now increased TDEE to 2,500 cal/day. No further weight will be gained and the body will attempt to reduce our weight back to the original. In the meantime, we feel great.

Rather than the simple balancing scale of calories in=calories out, it appears that our body acts much more like a thermostat. That is, the body seems to have a certain Body Set Weight (BSW). Any attempts to increase above this BSW will result in our body trying to return the body to its original weight by increasing TEE (increasing metabolism to burn off the excess calories).

Any attempts to decrease below this BSW will result in our body trying to return the body to its original weight by decreasing TEE (decreasing metabolism to regain lost calories). No wonder it is so hard to keep the weight off!

Something changes the BSW, something causes the thermostat to malfunction. We see that so often as we age. What regulates our BSW? Can we re-program our BSW to our lean mid-twenties setting?  Understanding that is the key to end our unhappy relationship with food.

Our bodies are very finely tuned with respect to what they store.  What you eat matters a lot, but much less because of the actual caloric content of the food.  The reason what you eat matters is because of the hormonal impact food exerts over your body.


You put your calories in, you put your calories out, you put your calories in and you shake ‘em all about! Hey, wait a minute, that’s not a diet funda, that’s the Hokey-Pokey.

My daughters used to do this kindergarten dance a few years back and even they have grown out of it,  yet a majority of health and nutrition gurus still cling to outdated (not to mention flat-out inaccurate) ideas when it comes to the care and feeding of the human body. Why? Maybe brainwashing, maybe herd mentality, maybe fear of stepping outside the mainstream. Or maybe fear of upsetting their corporate sponsors .

We talked about the first law of thermodynamics which became the ‘calories-in/calories-out’ hypothesis – CICO model of weight regulation – in order to lose weight, you must take in fewer calories than you expend. We saw how nonsensical the hypothesis appeared to be in the ‘tale of 20 calories’ (in my previous post). It says nothing about what happens to those calories once they’re ingested, or whether or not we even can ‘count calories’ at all.

We were also told that all calories are the same. This is a relatively new belief (remember how BigFood shaped our belief? My post ‘First do no harm’?). Back in our childhood days, it was ‘common knowledge’ that obesity was caused by sweets and starchy foods (refined carbohydrates). If you wanted to lose weight you cut those out and you lost weight. Nobody, they would argue, got fat eating vegetables or fish.

In other words, our great great great grandmothers believed that calories were not all equally likely to cause weight gain. Some foods, like sweets and breads, would cause obesity but others would not. A calorie is not a calorie.

In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock‘s wrote in his classic bible of child rearing Baby and Child Care “Rich desserts, the amount of plain, starchy foods (cereals, breads, potatoes) taken is what determines … how much (weight) they gain or lose”.

This was common knowledge for centuries and up until the 70’s.

All calories were never same. 

For the sake of stripping this down further, let’s assume that BigFood agrees to sponsor my blog (for an undisclosed sum!!) and I am suddenly convinced that ‘a calorie is a calorie’, an ice cream is the same as a salad. Now all I have to do is count the calories I consume and the calories I expend, right? That should be a breeze, so let’s do it, I need the moooneeey!!

The CICO (Calories In Calories Out) hypothesis says:

Fat = Calories in – calories out (CICO …. Sicko!)

Let us first focus on the intake of caloric energy (calories in) because it is easy. Simply measure what you eat in a day, add up the calories and presto! You have your number (which we so love to have). But, real food doesn’t have numbers (Pinggg!! Light bulb moment!! That’s why they said all calories are the same). Doesn’t matter. I can eat some numbered food for the sake of this important experiment. They are paying me, dammit!

smart phone calorie counter

We use the calculator on our smart phones, better still, we have calorie apps where you search the product – One Mars bar– and the app does the rest. It can even tell you that if your target calories is 1700 kcal and you have consumed 564 kcal then, you have 1136 kcal left to consume!! Amazing! Why did I waste all those years in school. So we have the calories-in. It really is a breeze!

(By the way, I need to clarify here that what we call ‘calorie‘ in food parlance is actually kilocalorie in reality, hence the unit ‘kcal’). I tell you, they were always confused about this calorie thingy or they did it to make you feel good – ‘imagine if I told you that you just ate a cake which had 500 kilo calories!! You would freak out right?!’

Now just for arguments sake, let us do a buffet experiment. How many times have you been to a Chinese restaurant buffet and stuffed yourselves with food only to feel hungry again within 2 hours of the feast. And how many times have you been to an Indian restaurant and after a few meat based delicacies felt like skipping the next 2 meals. Maybe, maybe just for arguments sake we can agree that how much, how often and what we are driven to eat, and how that reacts in the body could be governed by something more than just the calorific value. Maybe, just maybe no formulas or apps can possibly tell us that. Let’s freeze this argument here and move on to calories out.

Now to understand what is going on with total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) or calories out is much, much harder.

Something that I just can’t understand when I read studies about weight loss is that almost always the phrase ‘calories-out’ is used to mean some kind of physical movement that is known to expend calories: jogging, cycling, swimming, soccer, tennis, walking. Sometimes they even include thinks like fidgeting, tapping your toes, drumming your fingers, scratching your §$%”(today I was itching so much that I earned myself a Tiramisu!).

Conscious movement isn’t the only way we expend energy. In fact, we spend very little energy with all the physical activities we can do in a day. Our bodies expend loads of energy just to keep us alive, even while we sleep. Everything you do unconsciously require energy, for example; breathing, your heart beating, your eyelids blinking, the contraction of the muscles lining your intestines that help propel food along your GI tract, your renal tubules (kidney) filtering your blood, the sodium potassium pumps in your cells that pump ions and electrolytes in and out; and this is a small sample of things going on round the clock. Pretty much every teeny tiny thing requires energy, that is, it burns calories. This is your basal metabolic energy expenditure (BMEE). This is the minimum number of calories your body needs (and expends) just to keep you functioning and maintaining your current body composition.

This basic, ROCK-BOTTOM, bare minimum number of calories needed to keep you from becoming a star (as my daughters would say) or ending up in an urn or the wrong side of the ground – whatever rocks your boat – is why there are such variations in BMEE from person to person. Do you think a weightlifter weighing 150 kg – with his bulging muscles and all the extra tissues – would require the same number of calories just to stay alive as a 70 kg software engineer who sits in front of a computer 12 hours a day?

The fact that our bodies are continuously expending energy by performing various metabolic and physiological tasks over which we have no conscious control is what makes it extremely difficult to determine exactly how many calories someone requires compared to someone else, and how much deficit someone would need in order to lose weight. (That’s why the statements like ‘500 calories per day to lose 1 pound of fat per week’ are a joke, and a bad joke at that. It is misleading and it is deceitful to people who are struggling with weight).

It is near impossible to figure out just how many calories, exactly, your heart burns every time it beats, how many calories, exactly, your eyelids burn each time you blink, or how many calories, exactly, your stomach burns when the muscles that surrounds it contract to churn your food together with the stomach acid.

If you are a ‘yogi’ meditating in the Himalayas perhaps you have cultivated more conscious control over some of these ‘involuntary’ processes than the average ‘me.’

This is what Jonathan Bailor means when he says something like, “calories count, but that doesn’t mean we have to count calories”. In fact, we can’t count calories out. It’s impossible to determine how many calories a person ‘burns’ during any activity, let alone when our activity levels differ greatly from day to day.

If you remember only one thing from this post, let it be this: WE ARE GENERATING “CALORIES OUT” ALL THE TIME. Never forget this. Not just when we’ve specifically scheduled time to do some exercise, but all the time. If your heart is beating, you’re breathing, and your brain has any sort of function registering, well done, you are using energy, loads of it!! In fact 90% of your daily energy expenditure is to keep you alive and kicking. The balance 10% is what you expend by moving your butt consciously (in the fancy fitness studio).

That is why the “calories burned” feature on a fitness equipment cracks me up. It’s ridiculous, ridiculously stupid! How does the treadmill, or stationary bike or elliptical machine know how many calories I, Mr. So-n-so, burned during my session? If it uses an algorithm based on speed, intensity, and duration of my workout, it can land on a vague, vague number. If it calculates for my age, height, and weight, maybe we get a less vague number. Will I burn the exact same number of calories as a man (or woman) of the same age, height, and weight, who works out for the same amount of time at the same speed and intensity? wrist caloriePlease, please, tell me that you do not rely on those numbers. I hope you are starting to see how laughable this is. Now you know how useless those calorie counters you wear on the run really are in the context of our body as a whole. They are junk!! If you happen to have made the investment already, you could wrap it up nicely and take it to your boss’ (the one you hate) next birthday party! (Just a thought).

And those smart watches, which tell you whether you slept well or not. I mean I can tell myself whether I slept well, because I know it …. It’s me we are talking about, hello!!! As an aside from the seriousness of this post, it reminds me of this hilarious piece Rhod Gilbert did on toothbrush!

calorie countingYou can see how so many industries depend on us being stupid. They will con you into believing these ridiculous numbers. They survive because you are told that you need to know how many bites of the apple will add that extra pound of ugly fat on your belly. You need to balance 3 & ½ bites of apple with the steps you take to go to the kitchen and back (which brings me to another device, the pedometer! Ughhh!). They have a device and an app for everything now. I am so tired thinking about it. I don’t care if I am fat.

The CICO hypothesis, which requires a grade 2 maths ability to subtract 2 numbers, cannot work in the context of the human body. In the next post, I will highlight some of the studies conducted over centuries on the calorie hypothesis and the actual findings of the studies. It is important to understand what happens to the body when we reduce calories-in (consciously eat less), or whether we can consciously increase calories-out. It is important to understand why millions of people go on numerous diets and yet come out frustrated and gain extra weight as soon as the diets are over.  It is important to understand the fallacies of the CICO hypothesis before we move on to what really governs the accumulation and utilization of fat in the body. In the next post I will focus on what actually happens to our body when we try to manipulate the calories.

Stay tuned and eat real food (my experiment with numbered food is coming to an end)!

I guess my sponsor has backed out too!!



It wasn’t me ….. it’s you!!

If you are reading this right now, and you happened to read my previous posts, it means you are part of the elite group of faithful followers (my PR manager tells me there are 10 of you including 6 family members who have no other choice!!) who have an open mind about lifestyle and dietary choices. That is awesome. It is a huge incentive for me to keep writing knowing that you want to make some healthful choices. Thanks for making this worthwhile.

I promise you, it’s pretty simple. It’s pretty simple if you can filter out all the totally nonsensical stuff you have been hearing all these years. It’s pretty simple if you understand the ‘why’. Why we were made to believe what is today ‘conventional wisdom’. You got a fair idea about it in my previous post – First do no harm – BigFood throws big money to shape ‘conventional wisdom’. But there is also another ‘why’ and that is the human physiology. You need to know and understand this as well to be able to make the right choices.

It’s obvious that BigFood and the so-called ‘health’ institutions weren’t set up to be benevolent, altruistic, purveyors of sound health and diet choices, they were set up from the get go to make money plain and simple…even Not for profit business’ have financial perks for the founders. It’s like the Cali Cartel advising the ‘health institutions’ on how rock cocaine is natural and somehow good for us…

Once upon a time we had a culture of food to guide us through the increasingly treacherous landscape of food choices. Culture in this case is just a fancy way of saying “grandma”. She taught us what to eat, when to eat it, how much of it to eat, even the order in which to eat it. But ‘grandma’s’ influence over the dinner menu has proved no match for the multi-billion food-marketing dollars designed to get us to eat more and eat all manner of dubious neo-foods.

lgmp0296i-didnt-do-it-bart-simpson- (1)But then came the big problem. In spite of the ‘heart check’ certifications and the multi-billion marketing dollars spent to assure us that these neo-foods were good, the obesity epidemic was getting out of hand. People were getting fatter and sicker. Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease were becoming far too common. A culprit had to be found.

“Calories”! Calories was the perfect scapegoat. It’s not the food to blame, they said. It is not our recommendations to blame, they said. It’s you, they said. You eat too much, they said. Eat less calories, they said.

There is no company that sells calories, no brand called calories. Nameless and faceless, it was the ideal stooge. They said that ‘a calorie is a calorie’ whether it comes from cola or broccoli, it doesn’t matter. They had ‘health experts’ say the same thing again and again. In other words, they were telling you that eating BigFood was just fine. You are fat because you are greedy!!

Show me a single person who got fat eating too much broccoli.

The F.D.A said it wants to initiate a consumer education campaign, focusing on a ‘calories count’ message. ‘Those who consume more calories than they expend in energy will gain weight. There is no getting around the laws of thermodynamics. – The New York Times, December 1, 2004.

We know all about sponsored education campaigns, don’t we? The Laws of Thermodynamics?! You got to be kidding! Someone was paid s*$% load of green bucks to come up with this one!!

They have convinced us that our bodies are Bomb calorimeters. These machines — the machines they use to determine the total amount of calories (energy) in a particular food—are closed systems. They do not interact with anything. No enzymes are required to oxidize the food; hormones don’t come into play based on the type of food being burned. In a bomb calorimeter, 300 calories of Maggi are equivalent to 300 calories of fish fry, or 300 calories of Kookie-Jar chocolate pyramid, or 300 calories of steamed carrots.

Let’s first get a bit science-y here.

A calorie is simply a unit of energy. It is the energy released when certain foods are burned in a laboratory. Certain foods contain more, and some less calories. It doesn’t matter whether these foods are protein, fat or carbohydrate. We can burn them in a laboratory (or in our bodies) and determine the amount of heat released. As a general rule carbohydrates contain between 4 kcal per gram; proteins are about the same; fats contain approximately 9 kcal per gram.

The first law of thermodynamics  says that the change in energy of a closed system is equal to the energy entering the system less the energy leaving the system.  

This is so simple that the problem with how the experts interpret the law begins to become obvious. All the first law says is that if something gets more or less massive, then more energy or less energy has to enter it than leave it. It says nothing about why this happens.

If you asked me the question ‘why is this room so crowded?’ and I said –‘Well, because more people entered the room than left it’ –you’d think I was making a wise- crack, being too cheeky or was an idiot. Of course more people entered the room. That’s obvious, but why?

This is what happens when thermodynamics is used to conclude that unbalanced calories (eating more moving less) makes us fat. It tells us that if we get fatter and heavier, more energy enters our body than leaves it. Overeating means we’re consuming more energy than we’re expending. It says nothing about why we consume more calories than we expend. Why are we overeating?

Another assumption about the law of thermodynamics happens to be grossly incorrect – that the energy we consume and the energy we expend have little influence on each other. That we can consciously change one (eat less) and it will have no consequence on the other (expend energy), and vice versa. We will soon see that this is so not true!

Of all the dangerous ideas that health experts could have embraced while trying to understand why we get fat, they would have been hard-pressed to find one ultimately more damaging than Calories-in/calories-out. That it reinforces what appears to be obvious – obesity as the penalty for gluttony and sloth – makes it so alluring. – Gary Taubes, Why We Get Fat.

It shifts the blame on us. Not only is this thinking at least partly responsible for the ever-growing numbers of obese and overweight – while directing attention away from the real reasons we might be getting fat (the food) – but it has served to reinforce the perception that those who are fat have only themselves to blame. That overweight people are either greedy or lazy or both.

They are able to convince the ‘experts’ and celebrities from Michelle Obama to the FDA to virtually all of the medical professionals (including doctors and dieticians) that ‘Eat Less, Move More’ is the way to go. So convincing, you might think that it is 100% unquestionably true. But here’s a thought… if we all agree that we know the ‘cure’ for obesity, and we’ve spent billions on educations and programs, we have fitness centers all over the town – why are we getting fatter? In other words, why does this ‘cure’ suck so bad?

A tale of 20 calories!!

A pound of fat contains approx. 3500 calories worth of energy. This is why dieticians,  government literature, just about every diet book and the internet tells us that losing a pound a week requires that we create an average energy deficit of 500 calories per day. So let’s see how many calories we have to overeat daily to accumulate 2 new pounds (0.90 kg) of fat every year or 50 pounds (22.68 kg) in 25 years. That’s how it normally is, right? You were a strapping lean 25 year old weighing 62 kilos and now on your 50th birthday the scale betrays you and you are struggling to hide the 85 kilos! How much did you overeat all these years, you glutton?

Just 20 calories a day!! 20 calories times 365 makes it 7000 calories in a year – 2 pounds of excess fat per year – 50 pounds in 25 years.

20 calories is less than a single bite of a McDonald’s hamburger, it is not even one small cookie,  less than 3 potato chips, 3 small bites of an apple (remember – a calorie is a calorie – you can ditch the apple and grab a few more chips!)

20 calories is less than 1% of your daily caloric intake.

I can’t understand how anyone can stay lean if all it takes to grow gradually obese is to overeat by 20 calories daily!

In fact, even those who are overweight or obese, in spite of being fat, manage to maintain their weight perfectly for years by balancing the calories they eat with the calories they expend! Wow! Such perfection can be equaled by few mechanical devices.

Assuming that we are consciously eating 500 calories less every day, we would lose a pound a week, 52 pounds (24 kilos) a year and gradually disappear from earth in 3 years time!! I am sure even my 9 year-old daughter will think this is a really silly joke.

That’s how simple it is to lose weight. Case closed! Let me start writing a new blog…..

How easily people are sucked into this kind of utter nonsense. The unsuspecting populations try and try hard to balance these ridiculous numbers and when it doesn’t work, they blame themselves. Maybe I took an extra bite of that delicious apple! And the learned community of health practitioners, not knowing any better, will tell them to walk more and more and even more. When that doesn’t work – ‘you’re walking too slowly, try running!’ And when that doesn’t work – ‘this time you ate that ice cream, didn’t you?! Shift the blame!!

Our bodies are simply not Bomb calorimeters! In contrast, they are dynamic open systems. We interact with our external environment (think air) and, most importantly, our internal environment (think hormones and enzymes) changes based on different inputs we receive from the food we eat, the movements we perform, and even how much sleep we get, from daylight or from darkness. Considering how different the biochemical effects of those foods would be upon a human being, it’s really tragic, that we have based the last few decades of health and fitness advice on nothing but consuming fewer calories, with little regard to where those calories come from.

Why didn’t our parents, or grandparents, or the generations before them become obese in spite of never having seen the inside of a fitness studio? What the hell! They didn’t know what a calorie was!!

Half a century ago, endocrinologist Edwin Astwood suggested that perhaps the answer lies in the ‘dozens of enzymes’ and the ‘variety of hormones’ that control how our bodies ‘turn what is eaten into fat’.

 Yet the logic of Calories-in/calories-out hypothesis allows only one acceptable answer – the defect cannot lie in the body – and the entire science of obesity got caught up in this logic and it’s never been able to escape it.

My posts tend to get really long so stay tuned for the continuation of the calorie funda…..



First do no harm

Warning: This is a long post with a whole lot of links for you to read if you love details.

If you have been reading my posts, you probably realize that I am a firm believer in ancestral living (no no, I am not moving to a tree-house nor did I order a straw dress on Amazon,….. just the concept, fellows!) – eat real food, eat seasonal food and mainly traditional diets (eat according to your genetic predisposition). I talked about nutritionism, the dangers of simplifying extreme complex and dynamic processes by reducing food to nutrients.

The millions of articles and news items coming out from nutrition specialists every day doesn’t make it any easier for us.  The nature of the messages adds to the confusion: as vague as – “may help support the immune system”–, or something so circuitous as to be completely meaningless – “supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 42 grams of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” – you need special skills to convey nothing after saying so much!!

I realize now that this is not a short-coming, or a lack of ability to come across clearly. It is intentional, it is deliberate. It just means that a study was conducted by the ‘Association of Nuts’ (ha..ha) who funded an elite university in the US to do a research paper on this subject and basically found nothing worthwhile. The media coverage would read like this – “eating 42 grams of walnuts per day reduces the risk of coronary heart disease” – there you go to buy your weeks supply of walnuts!!

But seriously, these smarty-pants in the industry think that we are all stupid grass eating ruminants with a pea-sized brain. But they may be right, because we are letting them do this to us.

What led me to write this post is this article, and this one  and many others of this nature. If you have time, you should also check out US public health attorney Michele Simons’ report.

You should read some of them otherwise you will end up buying walnuts every week!! For those who don’t like to read horrific stories, you will get the message in this post anyway.

I did a bit of research, and holy smoke!! We’re talking corporate “public health” sponsorships so ridiculous your eyes will fall out of your head. I can imagine a company ‘not connected with junk food’ having a social conscience to promote public health, maybe a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or something. But McDonalds? Coca-cola? Pepsico? Kellogs? That is an absurdity so egregious that I can almost smash my keyboard and chew it up (it’s a food blog remember!! wouldn’t be that bad with some McDonald fries on the side 😉 ).

BigFood (CocaCola, Pepsico, Kellog, General Mills, McDonalds, Nestle, Kraft ………) wants to make money like any other business, that’s no secret. They created an entirely new category of food (call it snack, junk, ready-to-eat, whatever) and promoted it. They advertised on TV, print, radio, internet, movie theaters, buses, billboards,…you name it. That’s fine. Companies that sell crap will always exist because they have a right to and because there will always be people ignorant or self-destructive enough to keep them in business.

Sticking to conventional advertising was still fine, but they started to indulge in an even more insidious form of advertising called sponsorship and research funding. BigFood became sponsors of organizations such as American Society for Nutrition (ASN), Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American Heart Association (AHA), American Diabetes Association (ADA) just to name a few starting with ‘A’.

Coke-ADATypically they would sponsor seminars/programmes which would essentially ‘educate’ health professionals, nutritionists and dieticians, doctors, about how safe their products were, not just safe but beneficial as well. They would fund university research studies and publish results which were favourable to their business. Statistically we know that 90% of industry-funded food and nutrition studies or commentaries come out with results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.  Only 10% tend to disappoint the sponsor and these are obviously buried. With these dubious documents in hand the army of ‘educated’ professionals sets out to tell you that the sodas, chips, muffins, cookies and cereals are healthy for you and your children.

Most outrageous in all of this are the medical associations’ willingness to surrender even the appearance of objectivity. It defies all common sense to allow soda and candy bar companies to be credible partners in any discussion of nutrition and wellness.  The American Heart Association decided that it would be a good idea to start accepting cash to put its ‘heart check’ symbol on foods of dubious nutritional quality – so Kellogs Froot Loops and Frosted Mini-Wheats, General Mills’ Cocoa Puffs were on the ‘heart check’ list.


They became heart healthy food to be eaten every morning. Juice bottles containing 10 teaspoons of sugar started bearing the ‘heart check’! These companies pay up to buy legitimacy; they boost their image and show the public that they have the support and sanction of ‘experts’ in the medical community. What more authentication does one need?

BigFood had infiltrated the hallowed halls of medicine. Influential doctors had scientifically sold themselves to the highest bidder. Push fructose? No problem. Push obesity drugs? No problem. Push artificial meal replacement shakes? No problem. Dubious vegetable oils? No problem. Meanwhile, honest physicians read these highly circulated and respected journals and sponsored research papers. Trusting the ‘experts’, they would naively pass on these lies to their own patients. It became a belief system and it penetrated down. Someone had said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

The fox was now guarding the hen house.

I wanted to give you an idea about how such dubious products have come to dominate our shelves as health products. BigFood is not to blame. Their job is to sell food any which way to survive. They cannot betray us because we never trusted them anyway. We were betrayed by our institutions, our doctors, by ourselves.

It is not about maligning a whole community. A few bad ‘coriander leaves don’t spoil the bunch’. There were mass resignations by many doctors in AAFP after the deal with CocaCola.

It is about learning our lessons.

This message is important to us in India today. Even though we are heading full throttle towards an epidemic, we still have a chance to put the brakes. BigFood is still trying to find the right channels in India, looking for regulatory weaknesses, trying to identify the power players. There have been a few instances when BigFood did influence IMA (Indian Medical Association) to endorse Quacker oats and Tropicana juice, but I hope that was a one-off incident. In many cases marketing is targeted at children, and schools and takes place online. Fast food ads on social networking sites can manipulate young audiences – their purchasing likelihood, their views of fast food and their eating habits.

It worries me, because we are naïve, we are easily influenced by the west.

We are totally mesmerized by anything the US has to say and we feel a need to belong with them. We feel that to be seen as a developed country we must be like them. I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, I wanna talk like you…..(Rudyard Kipling surely knew that about us).

We have embraced their technological advancement in keeping substances fresh for months, our food courts will be buzzing with people gorging on all the (so-called) amazing stuff which never gets bad and in super markets people will fill their shopping carts with vegetables that never spoil, with products high in synthetic sugars and hydrogenated fats and chemicals. We finally belong with the A-listers !! We are no less than our high-nosed (now obese) cousins of ours who migrated to the West. We can eat the same burgers, the same pizzas, the same doughnuts and much more!

In India BigFood (e.g McDonalds) entered in 1996, and in 2 decades we can see an epidemic of obesity and diabetes affecting children and young people. It is not just the BigFood, even our own industries are using the same substances (Fructose syrups, trans fats, preservatives, chemicals) to create our local fast food products. What we are seeing today is only the tip of the iceberg in the sense that these products have reached only the big cities. Can you imagine what will happen when the market expands to rural India!

There are lessons to be learned. Our regulators should be aware that India is the new market for the same US companies which destroyed the lives of millions in US and many developing economies in South America (Mexico, Brazil…..). BigFood is finding the going really tough in the west. Consumers in US and Europe are moving rapidly away from fast food to more nutritious and natural food.  We are a soft target and the huge market.

Do we still believe that our authorities and regulatory bodies will look after us?….. hah!! Do you still believe that? Seriously?

I would seriously like to believe that we will not allow corporate-capture of the regulatory apparatus in our country.

I seriously believe that the BigFood companies (both Foreign and Indian) will not be allowed to manipulate our system, nor will they be allowed to influence regulatory decisions. To our nutritionists, dieticians, food writers and health professionals – please don’t let the BigFood companies control your thoughts, or your writings or your opinions. The 1.2 billion ordinary people of your country trust you. Don’t gloat about the fact that the processed food/fast food industry in India is set to grow @ a phenomenal rate. It is disgusting! It is the equivalent of celebrating an impending health epidemic.

On the contrary, show concern. Show serious concern. Use your expertise and reach to guide the unsuspecting victims, our children, down the right path. At least give them an unbiased opinion and let them take a call. You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink……… Would you in your right mind proudly buy the first pack of cigarettes for your child?

Today we have the power of information. BigFood could use so much influence in the earlier decades because people had access to only what they read on magazines and what was told to them by their ‘sold out’ medical advisers. Today each one of us can pull out all the information we want. We can question our ‘health advisors’ if we feel we are being mislead. Our children are smart enough to find the right information for themselves. They just need to be guided.

We must formulate mechanisms to propagate information about the different classes of food. Our media must play an active role. It is all good talking about planting trees and having ‘jhaaru’ sessions to clean India, because you are not hurting any corporates. It is a completely different ball game to take on the companies that pay for your existence in many ways. The media needs to take this on. Our superstars need to be responsible for the products they endorse. We, as parents, need to stop feeding our children the food that is making them obese and sick, and then blame them for not doing enough exercise.

I have hope because there are people who are doing some amazing work.

And my humble request to the people in power: ‘first do no harm’.

‘Nutritionism’, Dal, Chawal and Methi Saag!

My last post may seem like a ‘good old days’ versus the ‘bad new world’ rant from a geriatric, but it’s not that. All I am saying is that eat real food and food which agrees with your evolutionary heritage, with your genetic make-up and not ‘edible-substances’ that are being sold as food because none of us know what those substances are doing inside our bodies.

Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Imagine how baffled your ancestors would be in a modern supermarket: the epoxy-like tubes of Frubes, the preternaturally fresh Twinkies, the vaguely pharmaceutical Vitamin Water. Those aren’t foods, quite; they’re food products.

‘When did it all change?’….

It was in the 19th century, when the English doctor and chemist William Prout identified what came to be called the ”macronutrients”: protein, fat and carbohydrates. It was thought that that was pretty much all there was going on in food, until in 1912 (yes! As late as that!), Casimir Funk, a Polish biochemist, discovered the ”essential nutrient” in rice husks that protected against beriberi and called it a ”vitamine,” the first “micronutrient”. Vitamins brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition, and by the late 20th century nutrients managed to push food aside in the popular imagination of what it means to eat.

The birth of nutrition-ism; In the words of Michael Pollan, “The first thing to understand about nutritionism is that it is not quite the same as nutrition. As the ”ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology. Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us.”

Prior to 1977, no government agency told us what to eat.  Our mothers told us what to eat and what not to eat.  If we were obese, they told us to lay off the sweets and the starchy foods (bread, pasta, potatoes).  And hey, guess what – usually that was enough to control the weight problem. It was in 1977 that the first US dietary guideline came into being; remember the ‘infamous’ food pyramid we had to study in school? It has probably led to the biggest health disaster in humanity!

In the 1980s food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by ”nutrients,” the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were old-fashioned and unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.

A potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus is on quantifying the nutrients they contain.

This was a great boon for the industry of processed food, and it helps explain why they have been so happy to get on the nutritionism program. The food industry set about re-engineering thousands of popular food products to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed the good ones and less of the bad, and by the late ’80s a golden era of food science was upon America. Any food could be redesigned to add that something special – whether Fiber, or Omega-3, or Vitamin D, or Calcium. Remove the ‘harmful’ dairy fat – no problem- low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese, low-fat milk. You name it – it could be made. That’s why when the Atkins mania (high protein) hit the food industry, bread and pasta were given a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the protein), while the poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the cold. The poor potatoes can’t be starch free all of a sudden even though we are trying hard through our genetics programme.

So, depending on the reigning nutritional trend, real foods like the avocado might be either a high-fat food to be avoided (1980s Think) or a food high in monounsaturated fat to be embraced (2014 Think). The fate of each whole food rises and falls with every change in the nutritional weather, while the processed foods are simply reformulated.

Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, as Marion Nestle the New York University nutritionist points out – ”The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science, is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another.

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, what nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops!!

That was not supposed to happen?? Could it be the vagaries of human digestion. Maybe the fiber in a carrot protects the antioxidant molecules from destruction by stomach acids early in the digestive process. Or it could be that we isolated the wrong antioxidant. Beta is just one of a whole slew of carotenes found in common vegetables; maybe we focused on the wrong one. Or maybe beta carotene works as an antioxidant only in concert with some other plant chemical or process; under other circumstances, it may behave as a pro-oxidant.

To look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:
4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.

This is part of what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavoured with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.

Guys, don’t get taken in by the reductionism of food science. Every day you will see new headlines “Eating fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, blueberries, strawberries, radishes and red peppers — high in a compound called flavonoids — can help prevent weight gain,” (Times of India, 31.01.2016) or something about catechins, or resveratrol. They are all probably doing something good to our bodies, but through highly complex processes and in combination with a hundred other chemicals all working like a perfected symphony. And science doesn’t know how, yet.

It is impossible to explain in numbers today why some of our ancestors tempered the yogurt with ghee, mustard seeds, ginger and curry leaves or why in the blistering heat of summer we would be given raw/green mango juice or why we would brush our teeth with the stem of the neem tree.

You can’t oversimplify a dish such as dal chawal (lentils & rice), a staple in India for centuries as a carbohydrate rich, nutrient poor recipe for diabetes. If you add a methi saag to the meal, whoooaaa… now it begins to get complicated. I need my worksheet !! Methi saag has xxx nutrients, xxx vitamins, maybe anti-oxidants, rice has xxx carbs, dal xxx proteins……..

When we now are told by ‘nutrition science’ that rice, a staple in the east for centuries, has a high glycemic index (this indicates food’s effect on blood glucose….will talk about it in later posts) and therefore it is bad; it is almost laughable. Why? Just a simple example: It is a known fact that vinegar reduces glycemic index of rice by 40%! (For those interested check out the study. It is really informative.) Ever wondered why China, Japan never got obese eating their traditional meal? Pickles, lentils, yogurt and various condiments we eat on a regular basis also have similar effects on rice. Is it so difficult to understand that societies all over the world never got sick eating their traditional diets.

Guys, firstly we don’t eat rice alone……then after it is digested, the dal……then after those have been digested, the methi saag, then a pinch of salt, maybe a few drops of ghee after an hour! It’s a mixed meal you morons!! And with it Ms. X might add a pickled mango, Ms Y might squeeze some fresh lemon, Mr. Me (yours truly) will probably bite raw green chillies with every spoonful. By the way, I forgot to add that the dal was cooked with a pinch of turmeric, some garlic cloves and tempered in ghee with ‘panch-phoron’ (5 spices comprising seeds of fenugreek, nigella, cumin, black mustard and fennel) and some dry red chillies! (oopps, I had said no recipes!!)


Now how does that work in my body Mr. NCFSFD (Number Crunching Food Scientist with a Fancy Degree) when you still have to figure out what is in a thyme leaf?

And by the way, that is a simple mixed meal.