I watched a documentary last night the name of which promised a great deal to anyone interested in the paleo diet: ‘The Truth About Fat’ (Horizon, BBC). Sadly, it fell significantly short of the mark.
It was presented by surgeon Dr. Gabriel Weston, who guided the audience through her journey of looking at the probable causes of the obesity crisis. She presented engagingly, and there was some interesting material – material that many students of the paleo approach will undoubtedly have some familiarity with:
- The role of hormones in controlling feelings of hunger and fullness – and the fact that they seem to work better in some people than in others.
- The role of genetic inheritance – and the factors that switch particular genes on or off
- The role of a mother’s diet during pregnancy in giving her child a tendency towards – or away from – obesity
Unfortunately, each of these areas was explored to a depth that could best be described as ‘shallow’:
- No real discussion of why or how some people are more sensitive to appetite-controlling hormones;
- No in-depth look at how an individual can proactively switch their own genes on or off in a manner that
can improve their health
- No analysis of why a mother’s diet during pregnancy has the effect it does – in other words, is it due to the transmission of information in-utero (they suggested it was) or is it just that the child of a mother who eats junk food during pregnancy is also likely to be a child raised on junk food?
Oh yes, food. You’d think that a programme looking at the science of fat would also look at the role of food in relation to obesity, wouldn’t you? Well, it appears that the BBC wouldn’t. The level of analysis – indeed, of understanding – of the effect of food on health and fatness was pitiful….
- After an enforced 24-hour fast, Dr. Weston – when given a choice of food to eat – went for the fattiest, sweetest option available (a chocolate croissant). Her only comment on the choice was something along the lines of “isn’t it strange that I went for the ‘worst’ food?” Actually, no, because it wasn’t the worst food in context. Thinking it was likely to be in starvation mode again at any moment, it’s entirely understandable that her brain made her go for the food with the highest calorie density. A starving caveman would have done the same, had such a thing as a chocolate croissant existed in his world.
- Of course, a croissant isn’t really ’food’ in the truest sense – but this wasn’t commented upon. A croissant is made from various fractionated foodstuffs: white flour (from wheat); refined sugar (from sugar cane); and – if you’re lucky, and it isn’t a fake croissant made with ‘healthy’ factory-produced vegetable oils – some butter (the most nutritious ingredient in the mix).
Indeed, much of the foods we saw participants munching their way through in the programme – cakes, ice cream, sandwiches, pastries, fizzy drinks, sweets, and commercial chocolates – were only mentioned in passing, if at all. At one point, several pairs of identical twins - in which one of each pair was fat, the other thin – were tested to find out which epigenetic factors were causing the difference. Could it be stress from early life? Could it be a genetic glitch? Could it be a hormonal imbalance? Amazingly, at no point did anyone ask – could it be a difference in what they’re eating? Is one eating food, and the other eating fodder? (And I’m not saying that this was the case – it may not have been. But it would have been nice to find out!)
Worryingly, the only example given of a ‘success’ in battling obesity was a woman whose stomach had been stapled. Much was made of the fact that, not only did she lose weight afterwards - you would, when you’re left with a stomach the size of a thumb – she also discovered that her relationship to food had radically changed. As she herself said, “the fatty isn’t appealing any more”, which is all well and good when we’re talking about ersatz fatty and sugary non-food confections – but what about healthy, nourishing, essential fats? How will she be able to get enough of them to be truly healthy in the future?
On this – indeed, on the whole notion of fat as a macronutrient – there was absolutely no comment, which is startling, given the name of the programme.
The truth about fat? No – far from it. Instead, viewers were left with a superficial dose of pseudo-scientific flim-flam which was about as easy to stomach the toxic non-foods they failed to discuss.
For those interested, the documentary’s available to view for a few more days on the BBC website.