21 August 2008

Evolutionary Fitness: the diet that really works

Bryan Appleyard thinks he has found a diet that really works: it took him three weeks to shed 14lb with healthy ease. But he had to go back 5,000 years to discover the science behind it

A half-naked 71-year-old with 8% body fat and the testosterone levels of a boy of 18 greets me at the door of a large house overlooking a golf course near St George, Utah. He has the physique of a very fit young man and the springy, energetic demeanour of somebody who has cracked most of life’s outstanding problems. I am calling on him because, ever since I heard of him, I have begun to look uncannily well.

Two weeks earlier I had strolled into the office of the editor of this organ.

“You look 10 years younger. Why?” he barked, as editors do.

I was 11lb lighter than the last time he’d seen me. But he said “younger”, note, not just thinner.

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“Arthur De Vany,” I reply, “he’s this guy…”

“Well, you’d better go and see him, then,” he growled, as editors do.

And so here I am in the red desert of Utah saying hello to Superman’s slightly fitter grandad. Now, I know all you men will be wanting to know the secret of Arthur’s testosterone trick. I’ll come to that – it couldn’t be simpler. But first a word of explanation.

Feeling bloated and absurd after seven weeks in America, most lethally Texas, where the steaks are bigger than your head, I went on a diet. I do this periodically and lose up to 20lb over three months or so. Then, slowly, I put them all on again. I console myself with the thought that this inflate-deflate regime has kept me from the more severe middle-aged inflations I see around me. Many of my contemporaries are beginning to look like Sylvia Plath in pregnancy – melons “strolling on two tendrils”.

My usual diet is simplicity itself: eat too little and lay off the booze. All other dietary schemes struck me as over-elaborations or, in many cases, cunning excuses to keep eating. Calories in, calories out was, I thought, the only rational basis on which to lose weight. The body is a bag that gets lighter if you take out more than you put in. This time, however, I had a more sophisticated plan – Arthur’s – and boy, did it work.

I adopted the Arthur plan because the last time I was in America I had encountered Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He wrote a brilliant book called The Black Swan, superficially about risk in financial markets but, in fact, about life. He couldn’t stop talking about the Arthur diet. Nassim embarked on his regime after someone told him he looked like the writer Umberto Eco, a fatty. He had lost 20lb in three months after getting hooked on Arthur via his website (arthurdevany.com ). Nassim still looks a bit like Umberto, but not fat.

Now, as I say, I have never believed in smart diets. But for the first time, Nassim gave me a justification for a diet that made sense. (I’ll come back to that just before I get back to the testosterone.) And so here I am in Utah, now 13lb lighter, confronted by a half-naked Arthur.

I am early – I am always early, it’s a curse – and he has just got out of the shower. Unlike most 71-year-olds he feels no need – and has no reason – to cover his body. A good thing too. It’s 103 degrees and I, fully clad, am sweating like a thinnish pig. But it’s cool, tranquil and immaculate inside the house. The only signs of familial chaos are the bits of wire botched together in the garden to keep in their Yorkshire terriers, Django and Bela. Otherwise, Arthur’s world is disciplined and active. He listens to jazz on a stratospherically expensive Krell hi-fi, he has motorbikes and push-bikes in the garage, also a Range Rover that I assume is brand new, but which is in fact a couple of years old; he just looks after it. Arthur’s stuff, like Arthur’s body, is the best there is and all very carefully maintained.

He was always an athlete, but he has been on his regime – it’s called Evolutionary Fitness – since 1984. The first benefit is that he is never ill.

“I’m not on any medication. I had a fair number of colds before I began this programme but I’ve only had two episodes of food poisoning since then – both were in high-end restaurants – and that’s it since 1984. My insulin is unmeasurably low; insulin is the ageing hormone – it tells you to go ahead, reproduce and die. My HDL is enormously high, my triglycerides are way down, my blood pressure is perfect, scans of my carotid artery show there are no lesions there, no build-up of plaque, so my brain is getting lots of nourishment. I was just motorcycle-riding with a gang of guys in Elba, riding all over the hills. I play softball; I was the only guy in the seniors to hit them over the fence. I can hit a golf ball 340 yards. I’m fast as heck, I’m very strong…”

And the testosterone? “We do have a lot of sex for a 70-year-old couple. I had to close the door the other night, she was screaming so loud – she sings!” Perhaps luckily, his wife, Carmela, is not around to be embarrassed by this: she is in Las Vegas for the day. But on the other hand, she probably wouldn’t mind. She went on Arthur’s diet after they married and dropped six dress sizes. “You don’t see many 70-year-olds who are a size four and have such a cute, petite figure.”

This bouncy, clear-eyed, low-insulin, horny rebuke to unfit fat slobs everywhere was born in Davenport, Iowa, but his home town is really LA, where he finished high school and was signed to a minor-league baseball team. He was always fit but his sight wasn’t good enough for pro baseball. He started working out – primarily weightlifting – at 16 and has done so ever since.

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Ah, you’re thinking, he’s a fitness freak – no hinterland, no brain, all biceps; we may be slobs, but we’re smart. Sorry. Arthur studied economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now, in retirement, he is professor emeritus of economics at the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. He has written the most important works on the economics of the movie industry and he worked out the best ways of privatising the electromagnetic spectrum: broadcast frequencies. “It was the template for the establishment of spectrum markets throughout the world,” he says with charming egotism. “I am told I am a legend in Guatemala, for example.”

This isn’t just background, it is essential to an understanding of Arthur’s approach to diet and fitness. It is very rigorous and thoughtful – which is why Nassim’s advocacy got me on the diet. The first point is that economics happens inside the body as well as outside. His work is all about the dynamics of complex, adaptive systems; he calls himself a complexity scientist. Central to this is the overthrow of old statistical models. Basically, we have all been taught that events – human wealth, earthquakes, blockbuster movies – cluster round an average forming a graph in the shape of a bell curve. This is an illusion and the concept of the average leads to fatal errors.

In reality, almost all events of significance follow what are known as “power laws”. This means, to simplify, that what are thought of as rare events are, in fact, more important than any average. We think of bank crises, like the present one, as rare and the rest of the time the banks go on making money. In fact, they don’t. Bank crashes are so devastating that they wipe out all the investment profits of the banking system. Look at the average and you don’t see this; apply power laws and you do.

“The average,” says Arthur, “is always misleading and may not exist.”

The obsession with the bell curve and the average has corrupted us. We tend to think of stable models not just of the human world but also of the human body. Almost all dietary and fitness regimes are based on a homeostatic view of the body – meaning it is a self-regulating system that maintains itself in a continuous, stable condition. The average is the ideal. So we are told to eat regular meals consisting of a balance of the food groups and to take regular exercise, dominated by steady aerobic activity like cycling or jogging. This is all wrong.

But though Arthur’s economics feed into his Evolutionary Fitness regime, that’s not how he got there. He married his first wife, Bonnie, in 1957. They had three children, two of them adopted. Their biological son, Brandon, was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at the age of two. “I went down to the Chicago University bookstore and bought everything I could on metabolism, including the big, thick textbooks, and I started ploughing through all that stuff.”

Some years later, Bonnie received the same diagnosis. By now, Arthur had decided most of what they were being told by doctors was wrong. “We had to neglect a lot of advice from doctors.”

He began experimenting with diets. Prolonged high blood sugar is fatal to diabetics.

It is lowered by insulin injections. But, Arthur reasoned, why not keep the blood sugar low in the first place? “I was frustrated with the doctors. We were having reactions day after day. So I decided to start testing. Something was driving her blood sugars up, so I started systematically eliminating foods that drove them up. Beans – something as simple as beans sent her blood sugar sky-high. Pasta was disastrous. There was something wrong here, this can’t be the case, you’re shooting her blood sugar up like this.”

It was clear that carbohydrates were the problem. By removing them from the diet, Bonnie and Brandon’s need for injected insulin dropped dramatically – so dramatically that one doctor refused to believe Bonnie had diabetes. But it wasn’t enough for her. She developed a rare complication – systemic vasculitis – that was eventually to kill her. Brandon, though lapsing from the low-carb diet, has done well.

Arthur asked himself what was going on here – and, basically, decided almost everything we thought we knew about diet and metabolism was wrong. There is a parallel with his work on the economics of movies. Hollywood producers sit around in meeting rooms telling each other stories about why a film succeeds or fails – the stars, the directors, the trailers, anything. Marketing men join them and tell them more tall tales. And everybody feels good about themselves. “The stories give them the illusion of control, they reinforce prejudices and biases, and they all like to feel important.”

But the stories are all false. The reality, as Arthur discovered, is that 5% of movies pay for the other 95%, and success or failure is unpredictable. The best the studios can hope to do is find contractual mechanisms that back success after it happens and thus leverage their profits. This was what they had with distributors and cinemas, and it worked. They just didn’t realise it was these deals and almost nothing else that was paying for their Cohiba cigars. The movie industry was what Arthur loves best: “a complex, adaptive, decentralised system”. Exactly like the human body.

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The trick is to look at what happens in the real world and not listen to stories –producers’ tales or medical theories. Similarly false stories are told about diet and metabolism, the big two concerning homeostasis and the diet heavy in hydrates and low in saturated fats. It didn’t matter what stories the producers told – they went on making money. But, with homeostasis and high-carb/low-fat diets, the stories mattered because they affected the behaviour and health of ordinary people. Bombarded with the fat bad/carbs good (FBCG) advice, they just kept on getting fatter and sicker.

But why are carbs such a problem? The very persuasive answer to this is why I went on the diet. Humans evolved over millions of years, probably on the African savanna. We were, for almost all our existence, hunter-gatherers – agriculture and settlement began only 10,000 years ago. Both sides of the dietary debate agree that this means we are omnivorous – hunter-gatherers have to be – and that because of our massive brains we have unusual energy requirements. Both sides also agree that settlement and civilisation changed our diet and living conditions radically. We may live longer because we are better protected from predatory beasts and all the other traumas that would have afflicted early man, but we also have new diseases, new miseries.

“We live,” says Arthur, “like lab rats. A lab rat has a life expectancy three times that of a wild rat because it is protected from accidents or disasters… But it doesn’t live better.”

Advocates of FBCG believed that the big dietary change behind our new miseries was increased consumption of animal fats on the basis that, for early man, there were lots of vegetables and fruit lying around, but a good kill would be rare. Recent research, however, suggests that kills could be very large and our ancestors did not, as we do, carve out the best bits; they ate the whole animal. Their fat intake was, in fact, much higher than we thought.

The truth is that the big dietary change was not fat but carbohydrate consumption. Agricultural settlement resulted in the cultivation of cereals and root vegetables. Bread, potatoes and rice became the staffs of life. The FBCG people didn’t think they were a problem: pound for pound, they contained fewer calories than meat. But what carbohydrates do is stop you burning fat, so the fat you do consume gets laid down in your arteries and on your stomach. It’s not the burger that bloats, it’s the bun.

Furthermore, carbs become sugar in the body. In the case of refined carbs – white flour or sugar – the effect is instantaneous. “Some of these starches, as soon as they hit the saliva in your mouth, become sugars. Pasta is a bowl of sugar, briefly deferred.”

This produces blood-sugar spikes that stress the pancreas and put millions in a pre-diabetic condition. They develop metabolic syndrome in which fat accumulates about the midriff and fundamentally alters body chemistry. This, it is thought, may well be either a primary or secondary cause of the diseases of modernity: cancers, heart attacks, strokes and, of course, all the woes that flow from obesity.

Arthur is not alone in understanding the lethality of carbs. The whole FBCG ideology is now on the run. One very successful book, The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes, exposed how threadbare the science behind the ideology actually was. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine seemed to show conclusively that a low-carb diet was a better way of losing weight than either a low-fat or a Mediterranean diet. It also showed it reduced bad cholesterol – a clear refutation of most orthodox dietary advice. The Palaeolithic diet, meanwhile, a regime based on the diet of early man, was first advocated in 1975. And, of course, there was the most famous low-carb regime of all: the Atkins diet.

But what’s different about Arthur is, first, he is not selling anything, except for subscriptions to his website. He has long thought about writing his Evolutionary Fitness book, but he has never got round to it. In fact, until I interviewed him he wasn’t even thinking about it. He is much more interested in a financial instrument he’s invented and is now selling through a firm called Extremal Securities. He reckons it will transform, among other things, the mortgage market, which, let’s face it, needs transformation.

Secondly, he puts much more stress on vegetables, fruit and exercise than Atkins, and is convinced that, though carbs are the main problem, massive intakes of saturated fats are, at least, unwise. Thirdly, he is very smart. His reasoning is immaculate and he knows a lot more than your average doctor or nutritionist. Fourth, Evolutionary Fitness is not just a focus on weight. I feel better, not just lighter. And, fifth, as I say, he looks like Superman’s fitter grandad.

The trick he is trying to pull off is to find a way of combining the Palaeolithic and the modern lifestyles; to free us from being lab rats. People in the wild – isolated tribes – do not get fat and neither do other omnivores and predators. But, of course, they die younger. We can’t drop the comforts and protection of modernity. But we can fight its sugary seductions. So how do you live the Arthur life?

First, you free yourself of the homeostatic delusion. We are not made to eat regular meals or take regular exercise, nor are we meant to suffer chronic stress in an office. Our ancestors ate when they could and kept moving. Most of their life was stress-free, but occasionally they would be subject to acute stress in the form of an attack by a predator. So Arthur e-mailed me these recommendations. “Don’t eat three square meals a day. Skip meals now and then. Work towards an extended overnight period of no eating. This means eat sometime before you sleep and don’t be in a hurry to eat breakfast… Do not fear hunger. Nothing but good will come of it, but it must be episodic, not chronic.”

Is functional exercise better than the gym?
Our writer tries out the new fitness craze that's sweeping America and finds it is demanding, but not impossible

And on exercise: “First, everybody over-trains. Don’t do it. Don’t trudge away on a treadmill, count sets or repetitions, or work out according to a top-down Soviet model. You will hate it and it does not produce results. You must let it happen. You must have a playful, intermittent form of exercise. And you must exercise. The benefits are profound… Make it fun, intense according to your own fitness and goals, and brief. The goal of an exercise session is to promote growth-hormone release, to build muscle, and to elevate insulin sensitivity. Brevity and intensity are keys. Intensity means a little burn in the muscle, not heaving and straining. Brevity means you do not release stress hormones. So, you are favourably altering your hormone profile.” Superman's grandad, it turns out, gets by on no more than 45 minutes in the gym and only when he feels like it.

Getting the food right is hard work. Arthur shops only on the outer edges of the supermarket, where they keep the fresh stuff. And cutting carbs completely, as I did, results in a few days of hell – raging hunger and gloom. On the fourth day I woke up so depressed I could barely move. Then I ate a peach and I was fine and I’ve stayed fine, more or less, ever since.

I’d suffered an enormous drop in blood sugar, which the peach instantly corrected.

Breakfast is hell at first – no cereals or bread – but you can have almost everything else. Arthur sent me an example of his breakfast: “Four thin pork chops, well trimmed and browned in a bit of oil with rosemary and pieces of fresh apple. Some canteloupe melon with it.” Trust me, after a month or so, the spectacle of toast or a bowl of cornflakes will revolt you.

In the end, I am not qualified to say that Arthur is right. But I am qualified to say that it works for him and for me – 20lb lighter at the time of writing – and that he is the most articulate definer of a paradigm shift in our thinking about the human metabolism that is still in progress. Carbs, not fats, are modernity’s most deadly assassins. And, even if they don’t kill you, they make you feel worse. I sleep better without them and I seem to have become a nicer person; what with that and the weight loss, my friends – or were they enemies? – barely recognise me.

Arthur drives me down to the golf club in his perfect Range Rover. It is still blindingly hot; the red desert is shimmering. We sit down for lunch. I stare critically at the menu.

“The turkey wrap’s good,” says Arthur.

“Wrap! Are you mad? It’s carbs.”

“You’ve got to live in the real world, Bryan.”

We end up with salads. Mine arrives with a cigar-shaped toasted bun on top.

“He doesn’t eat bread,” says Arthur, whipping it off and handing it back to the waitress.

He’s right, I don’t. I am early man, hunting and gathering, fighting lions, treading the outer reaches of the supermarket, spear in hand, picking up armfuls of celery. Celery? Yep, that’s what I meant to tell you – it works wonders for the testosterone.

Is functional exercise better than the gym?
Our writer tries out the new fitness craze that's sweeping America and finds it is demanding, but not impossible

The good, the bad and the tasty

The fundamentals of Arthur De Vany’s diet: bin the carbs and packaged food, and delight in lean meat and at least two veg meals

- Cook by colour and texture so that meals look beautiful. If busy, skip meals with little worry. You don’t have to have three square meals a day. Snack on nuts or celery. Drink plenty of water. I also drink tea, coffee and a little wine.

Avoid bread, muffins, bagels, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, vegetable oils, beans or anything in a package — empty, high-calorie foods with a high carbohydrate content.

Spice up your food with fresh ingredients such as basil, garlic, parsley, rosemary, spring onions, avocados and nuts, and use various oils, such as olive oil, for flavour.

Celery adds texture (and is good for testosterone too).

Fresh fruits of all sorts are good; I focus on melon and red grapes. Fruit juice is out. I have one or two fruits with most breakfasts; now and then a piece with other meals.

Eat lots of fresh raw, steamed, sauteed or grilled vegetables. I never use frozen, canned or packaged vegetables.

Eat plenty of meat, such as ribs, steak, bacon, pork loin, turkey and chicken, but trim fat from the edges. Fish, seafood and eggs are also good choices.

I tend to eat last night’s leftovers: turkey with jarlsberg cheese and fruit, bacon with red grapes, omelettes with rosemary, olives and spring onions.

Usually salads, with red cabbage, romaine lettuce, spring onions, garlic, kale, broccoli or cauliflower, with salmon, tuna, turkey, chicken, pork or steak.

I sometimes eat a whole rack of ribs with salad and vegetables. Or a large steak, trimmed of fat. Almost always there is a beautiful salad and vegetables.

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