Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Where My Diet's At (and Why it Matters for my Research)

I've struggled with body image and eating since I was around 15. I used to want to look like a skinny emo band member, because I thought that was what people found attractive. I'm 6'4". At my lightest I weighed 70kg.

Then I got into weightlifting around the age of 18, and I faffed around with programmes like Starting Strength whilst trying to take in all of the protein my body needed by consuming a solid 4 or 5 pints of milk every day. I learned - after one incident in which I shotgunned a litre and a half of milk in about a minute and then spent the rest of the day feeling profoundly ill-at-ease whenever the slightest hint of flatulence reared its head - that this probably wasn't so great for my guts. 

I tried calorie counting. Every time I went on a bulk, I ended up gaining what I thought was a disproportionate amount of fat, getting scared, and stopping. When I cut, I was miserable the entire time because I was so hungry. More importantly though, I couldn't stop thinking about food. Trying to estimate my Total Daily Energy Expenditure and then plan a diet around it was debilitating. Every moment of the day was consumed thinking about how many calories I'd already consumed and how many I still had left, how many grams of protein I needed to get inside me, how hungry I was, when my next meal was going to be. 

Recently I discovered the concept of intuitive eating, through my girlfriend*. I've also been spending a lot of time reading up on nutrition in order to try and ensure that my research can be as high-quality as possible, and had decided to try and cut back reasonably drastically on my sugar intake. Richéal (the aforementioned partner) advised me not to think of sugary foods as a substitute for meals, but instead to consider them as things that you eat when you really feel like you want them - not just when you feel like you ought to (like at the end of a meal, which you'd habitually follow with dessert) but when you think about how they would taste and feel, and the way you'd feel afterwards, and you genuinely think the pleasure of the experience would outweigh any of the guilt or negative body feelings you'd suffer as a result.

Intuitive eating markets itself as a method of creating a "healthy relationship with food", and whilst the linked page provides ten different principles, the underlying premise is that the body is exceedingly well-adapted to homeostasis (that is, to regulating its internal conditions regardless of external inputs) and therefore if we eat based on intuition rather than based on some conception of what we think we ought to eat, then it's difficult to go wrong.

I'm uncertain that this is always going to be true, particularly given that it's common wisdom that sugar in particular is highly addictive. But combined with an attempt to cut back on sugar as a means of sustenance, I think it's something which is working for me. I essentially try to listen to hunger signals, and then eat until I'm full, without worrying about how many calories are in the thing that I'm eating. I try not to consume too many refined carbohydrates, based in part on the general consensus which seems to exist in the nutritional literature that they are literally Satan, but also because I've noticed that since I cut back on them I've had far fewer problems with feeling bloated, gassy and lethargic after meals. 

As part of my research on primary texts in low-carb movements (and paleo in particular) I've been reading Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories (The Diet Delusion in the UK) and Why We Get Fat. I admittedly went in with some preconceptions: I expected to find quite a lot of fetishisation of the scientific method as a trans-historical arbiter of objective truth, a lot of idolisation of Karl Popper and falsification, and some reasoning that I would likely find fault with. I found all of the above, but my mild annoyance was tempered both by a lack of surprise and also by my discovery that the books were really good.

Taubes' argument effectively says that the nutritional and medical establishments made a wrong turn in endorsing the "calories in/calories out" theory of weight gain and loss. This, combined with the fact that fat is twice as calorically dense as carbs and proteins, as well as Ancel Keys' influential propagation of the idea that dietary fats (and saturated fat in particular) directly increased the risk of heart disease, means that we've ended up with a situation in which people try to lose weight by cutting calories, and they do so primarily by cutting fats. The problems with this are multiple: fats appear to suppress our appetite after consumption (though this is not something which Taubes appears to mention)**; carbohydrate intake stimulates insulin production, which sequesters fatty acids and literally fattens us; and chronic overconsumption of carbohydrates leads to insulin-resistance, which means that we can't remove glucose from the bloodstream but that fatty acids continue to be sequestered in cells at an ever higher rate.

Whilst I'm uncertain as to the primacy of insulin in the fattening process, his argument is certainly compelling with respect to the deleterious consequences of disproportionate carbohydrate consumption. I intend to look into the former claim further, but suffice to say his arguments have pushed me epistemically towards believing that a lower consumption of carbs is, ceteris paribus, likely to make it easier to eat intuitively without having to worry about overconsumption or undesirable weight gain.

I think this is the first time in many years when food - how much of it I'm eating, when I'm going to eat it, whether I'm getting the right macros, when I'm going to be able to cook it - hasn't been constantly in the back of my head like a stone in my shoe. Moreover, I've noticed that my weight has become quite stable since I started eating in this way. In spite of the fact that some days I will literally consume an entire packet of nuts containing around 1000 calories in addition to all of my other meals (which are not insubstantial), I'm still maintaining weight at around 91-92kg. I'm doing strength training ~5 days a week, and this should hopefully mean that the bulk of any weight I do gain is likely to be muscle rather than fat, but the fact that eating good food until I'm full seems to be allowing me to maintain weight without much anxiety is a huge relief.

What does this mean for my research? I probably need to be careful not to become overly credulous towards claims made by low-carb proponents, but by the same token hypercriticality is also unlikely to be helpful. I was initially concerned about dishonesty, because I didn't want to enter or write about a community from the perspective of someone who was detached but skeptical, because that skepticism was likely to wax cynical. Overall, I think this is likely to be a positive development, because if I find the claims made by this one particular author persuasive enough to contribute towards me changing my mind, then an analysis of the kinds of claims he makes and how he makes them should be helpful in understanding how people decide who to believe and who to call an expert.

 

*This is a bit of a lie - I'd previously encountered intuitive eating in places like fat acceptance blogs, but I'd always thought of it as nonsense because I believed the "calories in/calories out" paradigm to reign supreme, and intuitive eating seemed to fundamentally hang in tension with this theory, so I discounted it as in conflict with an important belief I held about the world.

**It's worth noting that this is contested, as with almost everything in the field of nutrition science. Some studies have found that fats exhibit the weakest effect on satiety when compared to proteins and carbohydrates, and therefore posit that passive consumption of fats is likely to lead to overconsumption and therefore obesity. The problem is that studies on the effect of fats on satiety are few in number, and the latter studies in particular don't appear to have controlled for palatability and energy density. Moreover, the presence of lipids in the small intestine appears to suppress later appetite (the claim I am making above). The fact that even a simple claim like "fats make you feel full" is so deeply problematic is part of what makes the field of nutrition such an excellent topic for the exploration of the attribution of authority and expert status.

What I Research and Why I'm Doing It

Steroids, Lies and Natural Limits