Interview Part II: The obesity cure

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In Part I of yesterday’s interview with British nutritionist Zoe Harcombe, she detailed the causes of the developed world’s ominous epidemic of obesity.

Obviously, the genesis of the contemporary increase in overweight adults, teens and even babies is multi-faceted. But if there’s one reason that explains most of it, she argues that it’s the make-up of our modern diets, coupled with the misleading dietary guidance governments and food companies want us to follow.

Contrary to conventional wisdom—and diametrically opposed to the vegetarian mantra of “no more meat”—Harcombe insists that overconsumption of carbohydrates, so-called “healthy” plant-based nutrients, is the real culprit. Ever since government, nutritionists and anti-industry activists all ganged up on the saturated fat found in meat, poultry and dairy as the cause of heart disease, the exhortations to choose “whole-grain goodness” and switch to vegetable oils have resulted in a slew of processed foods that trigger a cascade of physiological reactions leading directly to the growing girth and added pounds many of us lug around for much of our lives.

In this second installment of a wide-ranging discussion with Vance Online Networks Contributing Editor Dan Murphy, Ms. Harcombe shares her thoughts on how to reverse this curse—and it sure doesn’t involve giving up animal foods in any way, shape or form.

[Caution: The following transcript is rated “M” for Mature audiences. Contains frank use of language and provocative arguments.]

Q). So how do we overcome obesity? How do we get back to having leaner bodies and healthier weights?

Harcombe: Simple: We need to be eating meat, fish, eggs and dairy—the fat of the land—to avoid getting fat. The empirical evidence is conclusive that the prescription to “eat less/do more” does not work.

Q). You make a compelling case for choosing “single ingredient foods,” even high-fat items like butter and cream, versus processed foods. But the convenience of microwavable, heat-n-serve foods is equally compelling for today’s time-stressed families. How can people be convinced to choose natural over processed foods, when it often requires a time commitment they don’t feel they can make?

Harcombe: I have zero tolerance for that excuse. We take our health for granted—until we don’t have it. We shouldn’t. Health should be our No. 1 personal value; our No. 1 priority in life.

It takes 10 minutes to boil some brown rice pasta and knock up a tomato sauce with a bit of fried onion, garlic and a tin of tomatoes. It takes 2 minutes a side to chargrill a steak (rare is healthier) and you can add some salad on a plate in seconds. Stick a joint in the oven, leave it on low for a few hours and then boil some vegetables 8 to 10 minutes before you want to eat. That’s fast food in our household.

If you spend time watching TV, you’ve got time to eat healthily. If you spend time on Facebook or YouTube, you’ve got time to eat healthily. If you read newspapers or magazines, ditto. You may not have the priorities, but you’ve got the time.

Q). Okay, what about regular exercise? The human body doesn’t thrive on processed foods, and human physiology isn’t adapted to desk jobs, drive-thrus and slouching on the couch. Doesn’t exercise matter?

Harcombe: Relative to what people put in their mouths—and I mean “what,” not “how much”—exercise has a negligible impact on obesity. We can’t exercise away the appalling diets most people consume.

I believe humans should eat naturally and move naturally. By eating naturally, I mean meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fruits in season, vegetables, nut and seeds. By moving naturally, I mean walk, talk, sing, dance, cook, clean and tend the land (and if there were a polite verb for sex, that would be in there, too!).

Running marathons is not natural. Getting up at 4 am to spend an hour or two in the artificial light of a city gym is not natural. Spinning on a stationary bike is not natural. Natural movement is vital and there is a serious lack of it in today’s lifestyles. Sedentary human behavior has taken on a whole new level and it is to our detriment—physically and emotionally.

One other thought: The exercise card is the main one played by the food industry, and since I loathe those companies, I will do nothing to support their cause. Coca-Cola, Mars, Pepsi, Frito-Lay—the message is the same: They want us to believe obesity has nothing to do with their products, that it has everything to do with the fact that we’re too damn sedentary.

Anyone who says we need to exercise more to solve obesity plays right into the hands of these disgraceful company executives making money at the expense of human health. To stop obesity we need to stop consuming these products.

Q). As the world’s population approaches 9 or 10 billion people, it’s controversial whether a wholesale shift to “natural” meat production would be the most sustainable option. Is there really such a huge difference between natural meat and “conventional” meat, as you suggest in your books?

Harcombe: Yes. Real meat comes from animals not just grassfed but living outdoors. [Grazing animals] are what perpetuates topsoil, and that’s what gives humans optimal nutrition. Cattle and sheep are able to process grass as a “pre-digestive” for humans. We get the benefit of the nutrients and fat-soluble vitamins—especially vitamin D—by consuming such animals. The soil is replenished by the animals grazing, on the land and the microorganisms transferred from animals to soil and back to animals is the circle of life that keeps the planet fertile.

Can we feed the world on grass-grazing animals? We’d better hope we can, because the dietary path that we’re on at the moment leads to Armageddon.

Q). So the bottom line is to eat naturally—especially animal foods—and avoid the processed products that comprise a big part of modern diets?

Harcombe: Let’s remember that the only reason that we have a population of seven billion and rising is because man invented processed food. Grains were the first large-scale processed food, and these “agricultural revolutions” were hailed as marvels that set humans free to read, play music, be artistic and so on. And for generations we did that. Only now, we don’t go to Shakespeare plays in open amphitheatres to laugh and cry with friends, we watch talk-show drivel on TV alone with a packet of corn chips. We don’t go to art galleries and concerts to develop ourselves culturally, we post “look at me” photos online and then lose sleep when trolls attack our fragile self-respect.

As a sweeping generalization, we’re not a happy, educated, fulfilled population. The average inhabitant of the so developed world is fat, sick, stressed and depressed. The average inhabitant of the developing world is hungry, overworked and underpaid. Processed food has not made the world a better place; it has made the world an overcrowded and sicker place.

In the end, we need to trust Mother Nature, not the Pillsbury Doughboy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator, and Zoe Harcombe.


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TJ    
Wisconsin  |  May, 10, 2013 at 09:49 AM

This fanatic Zoe woman surely must have a cure for all the lamentable overpopulation and overfeeding she sees in this world. Whatever her genius plan may be, it will not make the world a "better" place for anyone. Starving out half the world's population isn't going to be a popular campaign. If these alarmist anti-human race, anti-agriculture, anti-food, anti-modern civilization snake oil salesmen would just shut up, that would make the world a better place, much better. Even their vague concept of "processed" food is bogus as a three dollar bill. Virtually every food is "processed" to some extent unless you are swallowing dirt without chewing it. Fools. Silly maniacal self-deluded fools. Someone should force this Zoe woman to eat dirt before she runs her mouth again.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  May, 13, 2013 at 02:09 PM

TJ, she's opposed to the relentless demonization of meat eating and you're calling her a fanatic? She supports the guilt-free inclusion of animal foods as a staple -- not just an occasional dies dish --in the optimal human diet, and you think she's maniacal? I don't get it. The snake oil salesmen in our midst are the ones who maintain that there's nothing wrong with guzzling gallons of soda a month, who insist that highly sugared cereals are "part of a nutritious breakfast," and who routinely add lots of refined carbs in the form of corn syrup and sweeteners to virtually every edible product in a box or a bag, then pretend that the reason so many of us are all growing obese is because we're lazy. The one variable that has changed dramatically in the last 35 years isn't meat-eating; that's actually declined. It isn't consumption of fat; that's also declining. And it isn't exercise; certain segments of the population don't stay all that active, but that's not a new development. What's changed -- the ONLY variable that's changed -- since 1980 is that we're eating way, way more calories in the form of refined carbohydrates. When that happens, unfortunately, our bodies are programmed to store the excess as fat. That was a terrific survival mechanism and a useful evolutionary asset back in the caveman days. Now, it's a curse that we can only overcome by changing what and how we eat. The reason Harcombe's views are useful isn't because she's some back-to-Nature zealot -- though she may well be -- it's because she's managed to put her finger on the cause of obesity, which is our No. 1 public health problem, one we'll be paying for big-time if nothing changes in the next couple decades.


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