A Cautionary Tale: Thoughts About Lifelong Health and Fitness. Part II

A Cautionary Tale: Thoughts About Lifelong Health and Fitness. Part II

By George Gillson MD PhD CCFP

Alert readers of my most recent post will recall that I finished by saying that Take-home Messages #2 and #3, which deal with the topic of what to eat to stay healthy and fit when you are on the high side of sixty, would have to wait until this post. I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of the literature on this topic. If it were all printed and stacked in one place it would probably have the same mass as an Egyptian pyramid. (I used mass instead of weight in case some people from other planets with different gravity happen to be reading this.) Messages #2 and #3 are going to lie more along the lines of common-sense. If you’re looking for a hard-core, scientific answer, I don’t have it.

So.  Without further ado, here is some common sense:

Take-home Message #2: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The print origin of this aphorism has been traced back as far as 1892, to notable cogitator Robert G. Ingersoll, speaking about the degree of difficulty involved in getting into Heaven. He meant that there was no easy path to salvation. Other people accused of coining the “no free lunch“ saying include sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein, Winnie T. Pooh, much-loved imaginary bear and Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. I tried to find out what Friedman’s middle initial was but came up empty-handed. Such is life.

Back to the aphorism. Basically, it means that you never get something for nothing or alternatively, if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

#2(a) Nowhere else is this free lunch business more applicable than when we are speaking about diets. Plus, it fits: lunches <-> diets. Right?

There’s a reason why at least one new diet strategy book (half the book consisting of recipes) pops up about once every full moon: if there were simple eating strategies that would rather effortlessly keep everyone at a healthy weight, there wouldn’t be any appetite (!) for a continual stream of new eating strategies, now would there?

#2(b) Same for all the prescription pharmaceutical weight loss offerings that have cropped up over the years and then augered in. They’re either addictive, dangerous, have embarassing side effects (think Olestra) or their efficacy eventually dwindles over time.

#2(c) Same for sugar substitutes aka artificial sweeteners (AS). We may not be able to metabolize them but the bacteria in our colon can. These bacteria are always busy sending signals to the rest of the body about nutrient intake and they weren’t born yesterday. (Actually, they probably were.) What I meant to say is that they can’t be fooled and may ramp up signals telling us we’re not full yet and must eat more, when the intake of sugar substitutes is excessive.

Furthermore, AS can still activate the receptors that sense real sugars. These receptors send messages to the brain that would normally be integrated with insulin-glucose messages arising from the gut, the so-called post-ingestion pathway, telling us it’s time to “shut yer pie-hole” as it were. In the case of AS ingestion, the signals sent to the brain don’t jive with the signals from the post-ingestion pathway.  Once again, satiety is impaired. I can’t say anything more eloquently than this conclusion of a review article written by Pearlman et al (Pearlman 2017):

“Although AS were created as a sugar substitute to help with weight loss and insulin resistance, there is a significant amount of data suggesting that AS have a profound impact of the host microbiome, gut-brain axis, glucose homeostasis, energy consumption, and overall weight gain and body adiposity. Although AS are marketed as a healthier option to sugar, the vast majority of data does not support this claim.”

Then there’s the cancer issue swirling around artificial sweeteners. (Remember: the tobacco industry assured us for decades that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer. It seems like the manufacturers of ANY product used by humans, that makes vast amounts of money, will initially claim that the product is as safe as houses: until eventually they tell us it’s not.)

A recent paper (Debras 2022) discussing the results of a 12-year, 102,865-person study came to the following conclusion:

“This large-scale population-based cohort study suggests associations between artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame and acesulfame-K, and cancer risk, more specifically breast and obesity-related cancers. These results need to be replicated in other large-scale cohorts, and underlying mechanisms clarified by experimental studies. Artificial sweeteners are present in many food and beverage brands worldwide and are consumed by millions of citizens and patients daily. Our findings do not support the use of artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives for sugar in foods or beverages and provide important and novel information to address the controversies about their potential adverse health effects.”

#2(d) Do everything in your power to keep moving. The bane of getting older is loss of muscle aka sarcopenia. Yes, you have to eat enough protein; you must be able to digest it: and yes you must have the proper hormone balance (with the help of your Integrative/Functional Medicine practitioner!). Your muscle mass determines your basal metabolic rate. If you want to burn calories while you are sleeping, hang on to your muscles! What’s not to like? Just remember that those muscles only get there and stay there by using them consistently: until you die. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Message #3: Each of us is different when it comes to what type of diet is best for us.

I noted last post that I have been quite physically active from about Grade 9 on. At the same time, I liberally seasoned all those years of calorie-burning with a bunch of dietary experimentation: Atkins, Protein Power, low-carb, keto, time-restricted eating, Wahls Protocol, the Inert Gas Diet: you name it. To tell you the truth, none of that made any difference to my body composition. I always had at least 10 extra pounds of insulation that I didn’t need but couldn’t jettison.

Things didn’t change until my gall bladder and I got into a fight over Labor Day weekend about four years ago and we broke up. (My gallbladder moved out with the help of a surgeon.) After that I effortlessly dropped at least 10 pounds of flab. This told me that I was eating too much fat. Plain and simple. I have never regained those 10 pounds, no matter what I eat. I’m not advocating that you ask your doc for an elective cholycystectomy though. The answer will most likely be: “No.”

In the last few years my wife has many times noted that at night I’m like a “furnace.” This is a big clue that I’m burning fat while I sleep. Waking up hungry is another clue.

My point here is that everybody must find their own path to a healthy body composition/body mass. There might be some trial-and-error stumbling along the way. But there are some basic concepts that are common to all successful diets. Just ask Weston A. Price.

(Editor’s note: his word count right now is sitting around 1000 so he needs to be brief.)

Dr. Price was a small, somewhat severe-looking dentist, decades ahead of his time, who travelled to many remote parts of the world, at his own expense, to study at least fifteen different enclaves of indigenous people who still ate the way their ancestors had done for thousands of years.

Dr. Price (at left) and epic book (at right)

Dr. Price (at left) and epic book (at right)

At the same time he was able to compare the health of these people to that of some of the members of their groups who had adopted more “civilized” diets consisting of high-sugar processed foods, white flour, canned foods, etc (thanks civilized world!). Dr. Price focused on the relative incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss, the architecture of dental arches, the width and squareness of faces, the incidence of TB and rickets (Vitamin D deficiency), the duration of child labor and so on, between the two groups. He documented this with thousands of x-rays and photos and wrote an epic book on his findings. (See above.)

Basically, within the same family he saw astonishing decline in overall health (including the teeth, of course!) when comparing the older siblings raised on their traditional diets, to the younger siblings raised both pre- and post-natally on processed food diets.

These outcomes were the same in all locations he visited, despite disparate diets, the people he studied were ridiculously healthy. All these people led active lives without Orange Theory or L.A. Fitness. Or goat yoga. They had great hair, winning smiles and wide faces. The women often delivered babies in three hours flat. One woman he interviewed was awakened by her labor, had her baby and went back to sleep so as to not wake her husband. (I swear I am not making that up.)

One common thread was that these people ate no processed foods. Everything they ate was nutrient-rich. In some cases they ate/drank liberal amounts of dairy products from animals that ate grass; Price noted that the milk, butter and cheese from spring grass was especially revered for health-promoting properties; they ate organ meats and intestinal linings if available, often feeding the red meat to their dogs; they ate much seafood, both fish and shellfish if available; fish eggs were widely eaten but especially given to women planning to get pregnant; some cultures ate fruit: some not; beans, tubers and green plants were eaten where available; ditto nuts; people ate blubber and certain layers of the skin of whales; some ate flowers preserved in seal oil; some ate guinea pigs; ants and locusts were favored in some cultures. All this stuff was literally chock full of vitamins, fats and essential chemical elements.

The point you need to take from all this is that although we all have pretty much the same DNA controlling our biochemistry, how it is expressed reflects what we eat. We are highly-adaptable when it comes to food. If the food we eat is nutrient-rich and basically unmolested and if we eat a variety of foods (none in significant excess), our bodies will figure things out.

If your ears are exposed to large helpings of podcasts which keep you spinning like a top, maybe you need to step back and ask yourself how that’s working out for you. Are you over-thinking the problem? Shake your booty a lot (a few hours/week) but don’t shake it too hard or too long. If you can’t recognize the things that you’re putting in your mouth, don’t put them in there on a regular basis. Keep your saturated fat intake to no more than a third of your calories. Eat good carbs. Don’t eat in the evening if you can help it.

You might just start to burn your fat while you sleep and wake up hungry.

Editor’s note: I told him I was getting edgy at 1000 words. He wrote 1816. Some people never learn.

George Gillson MD PhD

Author: George Gillson, MD, PHD, CCFP
EvolveWell Medical Director


Debras C, Chazelas E, Srour B, et al. Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk: Results from the NutriNet-Santé population-based cohort study. PLoS Med. 2022 Mar 24;19(3):e1003950. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003950. PMID: 35324894; PMCID: PMC8946744.

Pearlman M, Obert J, Casey L. The Association Between Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2017 Nov 21;19(12):64. doi: 10.1007/s11894-017-0602-9. PMID: 29159583.