Friday, 7 February 2014

Fat is an Ecologist Issue

World Map according to Ecological Footprint

Over Christmas I shaved my bush of a beard off. Family and workmates were shocked by my naked face, as I looked so different, I was shocked by an imminent double-chin and a certain pudge about the cheeks.I knew already that my life was pretty sedentary, that I love chocolate a little too much and that I was 'soft in the middle'. My face was a wake up call though, a message that it was time to do something about it. I don't want a fat face, I don't want a fat anything - I didn't like the way that I looked, this provided impetus to an initial goal formulation along the lines of 'I don't want to be fat'.

Alongside the personal appearance issue, was how fatness placed me in social and ecological terms - this fatness is a characteristic of the west, of the first world. I'm haunted by the idea that one billion of the population are overweight, while another billion go hungry. Visual fatness was a physical indicator that not only was I not demonstrating good people care to myself, I was also not taking a fair share and it was pretty clear where the surplus was being returned to. If I was eating more than I needed to, then I was probably increasing my food ecofootprint unnecessarily too, putting more of the earth's resources in the service of my appetites, not really earth care either. My body was becoming a visual synecdoche for the swollen Britain seen in World Mapper's ecological footprint map (above).

If was going to make an effective change to this knew I needed some baseline data to go alongside my 'eyeball survey'. I headed to a Boots ('the chemists') many of which have weighing machines, that will also calculate your BMI (Body Mass Index) and the percentage of your body that is 'fat'. The data was a bit shocking and made me feel more motivated to change, now I had some numbers:

The first shock was ho short I was (actually subsequent readings when I actually stood up straight, gave a figure that resonated better). The biggest shock though was how far off optimum I was, in both weight/BMI and body fat percentage. I'm officially overweight.Being overweight means that the excess weight I'm carrying will already have silently started to damage my blood vessels, hormone system and joints, raising my risk of diseases such as:
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Infertility
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer's(?)*
All this provided compelling evidence for a need to change my personal health. An animal (like me) is among other things an energy system and the extra weight/fat I was carrying is an energy store, an unsightly energy store like an oil tank in the garden.Endless reams are written about weight loss and reducing fat, but at the basic level there are two clear areas in which the issue can be addressed: inputs and outputs.

Addressing the input part of the equation means looking at diet and the food that goes in. I hadn't done a detailed survey of what I was eating, but I already had a gut feeling that my enjoyment of such healthy foodstuffs as crisps, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, cakes, chocolate, donuts, chocolate, beer, chocolate, chips, chocolate etc, probably wasn't helping. Looking at the cold stats behind my belly I finally felt the pain in pain au chocolat.

Addressing the output part of the equation was less about liquid gold and compost loos as it was about activity levels - 'work', basic metabolism - brain/organ function, and heat. As I work a 9.45-6 day, Monday-Friday week sat largely at an office desk, with a 3 hour daily commute say mostly on a train - my life may be safely considered sedentary: low activity level.

So a shorthand for looking at inputs and outputs is diet and exercise.

I felt that there was too much confusion about what constitutes a good diet to spend too much time surveying it, I decided to just change my diet and monitor how that went, adjusting it to the feedback/ information I received and learning along the way. Somewhat randomly I chose a (s)low carb approach, based on an avoidance of sugary and simple carbohydrate foods (my nemesis) in favour of  a more protein orientated diet, combing this with a one-day a week off-day (Saturday for me) following a suggested diet by Tim Ferris. I felt the 'off-day' acknowledged the common dieting pattern of recidivism by capturing it as a controlled habit included within the diet, removing guilt, increasing the likelihood of maintaining new behaviours: the problem is the solution. Weekly monitoring of my stats would allow me to follow how effective this would be.

On the output side I similarly did not want to join the January rush to the gyms a pattern that is often quickly followed by another: people stop going to the gym. Instead I turned again to monitoring, this time measuring my activity levels. To assist this I decided to make use of some personal technology, purchasing a fitness tracking device (Fitbit Flex) that would automatically gather data and present it into a web form. While buying a piece of technology involved indulgence in consumer culture, I decided that the benefit of an automated process not dependent on personal memory and notation would be likely to make my monitoring more accurate and effective.

[See live-ish results on profile at:]

I hope that this information will allow me to better evaluate and tweak my personal health design, through a constant state of survey and analysis within which I apply self-regulation and accept feedback as I discover what works for me as I move towards my goals.

That initial Boots weighing machine result has helped me to define those goals in a SMART form:

  • Specific: I want to get my BMI in the 'ideal range' by reducing my weight to 60kg (a 16.6kg reduction); and I want to get my body fat percentage  in the 'good band'
  • Measureable: by reducing my weight to 60kg (a 16.6kg reduction) and reducing my body fat percentage to c.23.5%.
  • Achievable: I believe this reduction is realistic and attainable.
  • Relevant: These are goals important to me and essential to maintaining good personal health.
  • Timebound: I want to achieve these reductions within 6 months, i.e. by 1st July 2014.
I don't expect that it will always be easy, and it feels like a private/personal thing to be designing a way forward with, rather than a public one. However, I think that placing it in a more public space, will help my commitment, that's another personal pattern I've noticed. I'd love to hear from anyone else applying permaculture design in this way and/or interested in the 'quantified self' movement.

* A major health concern for me is Alzheimer's Disease. My mum is suffering from the disease and may be an early onset case, her father also suffered from the disease and I learnt recently from my aunt that his father 'went a bit mad at the end'. Medical knowledge about the genetic component of Alzheimer's remains in its infancy at present, but my personal family history appears to indicate some risk. Most early-onset Alzheimer's disease cases are inherited ('early-onset' is where the disease occurs in people age 30 to 60), but my Mum's condition began to become evident around reaching 60 placing her on the cusp of early and late onset. Researchers have not yet found a specific gene that causes the late-onset form of the disease, although there are some genetic risk factors that appear to increase a person's risk of developing the disease. The non-genetic factors which lead some individuals to contract the disease and not others are also unclear, but I have become increasingly convinced by the hypothesis that there is a connection between Alzheimer's and type 2 diabetes conditions. If this is the case, then being overweight may also be an contributing factor to a condition which I may already have genetic pre-disposition towards.

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