Timothy Caulfield’s new book The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness aims to set the record straight on what the latest research in food and fitness does and doesn’t show. Caufield is sick of all of the myths and hype surrounding food and fitness trends.
For the most part The Cure for Everything is a fun, fact filled exercise in debunking. I like a good debunking as much as the next philosopher. What science minded academic doesn’t?
Here are some highlights from the self described science nerd and health nut:
- When it comes to weight loss, exercise is just a tiny part of the story. 90% or more of it is diet. Caulfield thinks there is a reason so much funding for sports and exercise programs comes from food manufacturers. They’re anxious to redirect attention.
- That said, we should all exercise more than we do. It’s incredibly good for us, even if we don’t lose weight. What sort of exercise? Heavy weights and intensity. Forget “moderate” exercise, intensity is where it’s at and what makes a difference. Governments encourage “moderate” exercise because that’s where there’s the biggest bang for health improvement buck but really, it’s intense exercise that offers the most individual benefits. Governments rightly worry that if they shared this message we’d all give up, go home, and watch yet more television.
- There’s no such thing as toning and the best way to visible abs is low body fat. (That’s why heroin addicts look ripped.)
- Stretch if you want to but there’s no evidence to say it’s good for you and some evidence to show it hurts performance. (Yes! Thank you.)
- The food industry touts the ‘everything in moderation’ ideal but the truth is that some foods have no place in a healthy diet. Rather by the time you eat all the foods you need to eat, there’s no room for them in the daily calorie count.
- Don’t bother with vitamins and supplements. Eat real food.
- And there’s nothing particularly good to say about detox and cleansing diets.
- Most surprisingly (for me) was his critique of yoga. I wasn’t shocked that homeopathy isn’t medicine but I was taken aback by his claim that yoga is not very good as exercise though it is probably good for stress relief. I’ll worry less now that I’m not very good at yoga but I still enjoy it anyway. Hot yoga on a cold winter day feels wonderful. And I’ll be curious to hear what yoga buffs make of Caulfield’s claims. (Hi Tracy!)
You can read the short version here on Huffington Post, 9 Health Myths Debunked by Timothy Caulfield.
Caulfield leads the Faculty of Law’s Health Law and Science Policy Group at the University of Alberta and is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. He is also a pretty serious track cyclist (a former Canadian master’s champion in sprint cycling) and the same age as me, 48. Oh, and he’s got cool glasses.
What counts as fitness, according to Caulfied? In an interview with Healthzone he says:
In our society, fitness is about looking good, about esthetics. My definition is not tied to sexy abs. It’s tied to feeling strong and vigorous. It’s about biological markers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. You get all that from working out. If your goal is to look in the mirror for drastic changes, you’re going to be disappointed.
Some of this will be familiar to readers of Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer which I talked about here.
Both books cover lots of the same ground although I found Caulfield’s conclusions a little gloomier. Reynolds tends to sprinkle the bad news with the good. She’s also a health reporter and he’s an academic and the difference in background shows. Though both aim to be popular books sharing research in a field many of us care deeply about, if you actually want the science and some details about the studies Caulfield will be a better read.
Both books also make clear that the truth doesn’t provide much fodder for catchy motivational slogans: Exercise intensely for long periods of time and you might just stay the same! Both cite the same study showing women who exercise a lot, and regularly, still gain weight as they age. They just gain less. That’s good health news but won’t exactly make for a very good poster at the gym.
The bit that I found hard to take, though I don’t doubt he’s right, was Caulfield’s assessment of what’s required for long term weight loss and maintenance. People who lose weight and keep weight off in the long run have some traits in common. And this group, because they’re rare, have been studied closely. First, constant vigilance. They remain as focused and determined as they were when losing weight and they log and track just as carefully as when they started. Second, they exercise a lot. Third, they also don’t eat very much. Yikes.
During the course of writing the book, Caulfied himself dropped 25 lbs and went into the very lean category in terms of body fat. He did with some simple rules: no junk food, very limited quantities (he only ordered starters not entrees) and half of everything he ate had to be fruits and vegetables. He speaks in frank terms about hard this was, about hunger and resisting temptation. He’s kept the weight off but still finds it a struggle.
In the end I like Yoni Freedhoff ‘s assessment of the book. On his blog Weighty Matters he calls it an “evidence based romp.” Three words he says he’d never thought he’d string together.
You can hear Caulfield interviewed on the ABC here and his book is also reviewed in the National Post