• The Fast 800

    For most of my life I’ve pursued a policy of eating a relatively healthy diet most of the time, but availing myself of most opportunities to eat fast food, gorge on the most delicious options when enjoying a restaurant meal and painting the town red when out for drinks with friends. To compensate for the excessive calorie intake I’ve always hit the gym more regularly and more intensively than most of my friends. Consequently, throughout my twenties and most of my thirties I managed to maintain a healthy weight. However, towards the end of my thirties this approach seemed to become less and less effective. My Body Mass Index (BMI) score started creeping up, from the upper region of the “healthy” values into the early digits of the “overweight” category.

    My BMI was always in the 23-24 region, but in my late 30’s it crept up to 25-26

    I responded to this worrying observation by cutting out certain foods. No longer would I perpetually have a loaf of bread, ham and cheese to hand when I was at home, so that I could munch on cheese on toast or ham sandwiches whenever the fancy took me. Out went the full fat milk and in came a 50/50 mix of semi-skimmed and soya milk whenever I ate a bowl of cereal. No longer would I habitually keep biscuits, cakes or chocolate in my kitchen cupboards. I reasoned that if it is readily available then it will get eaten, so the only way I was realistically going to win the battle against my gently ascending BMI scores was to be more disciplined in my purchasing decisions when at the supermarket. If only lower calorie foods were available to snack on then those are what will end up inside me when I find myself hunting for edible treats late at night.

    Farewell old friend

    Sadly, these simple calorie intake reduction steps were sufficient stop the increase in BMI score, but not to bring it back down to into the healthy zone. While I wasn’t overly concerned about the impact of this on my health right now, as a scientist who has read much of the relevant literature, I have become acutely aware that as a person progress from the first half of life into the second, the metabolic goalposts shift. Our organs’ innate capacity for self-repair are not what they once were when we proceed from a young adult into middle age. In my younger years a cut would heal miraculously fast, usually in less than a week. As the decades have rolled by I’ve noticed that my skin heals slower when I cut myself. These days the process is still ongoing even a couple of weeks later. The skin is an organ that is conveniently visible to the outside world so it’s possible to observe the differences in healing timelines from one decade to the next. But of course the same thing goes for every organ, even those hidden deep within our bodies. Given these insights it should have come as no surprise that a few brain hacks to reduce calories would not be sufficient to keep my aging body and brain in good nick. I needed a new regime.

    In a happy coincidence, while visiting friends who had decided to forgo their exciting, unhealthy, fast-paced life in London for a much more laid back, healthy and holistic lifestyle in the mountains of northern Thailand, Michael Mosley asked me to review his new book The Fast 800. This is what I had to say about it:

    “In this fast-paced, no nonsense, easy-to-read book, Michael
    Mosley draws upon decades of experience as a self-experimenting, expert science
    communicator to deliver a comprehensive plan for improving health; in
    plain English.
    An overabundance of food, in combination with messages from
    advertising that make overeating seem perfectly normal, means that even those
    who look healthy from the outside are often carrying too much fat around their
    organs.
    We all know that shifting fat involves a better diet and more
    exercise but most people struggle to put this received wisdom into practice on
    a consistent basis for one reason or another.
    In this book Mosley supplements
    the latest science – on which of the numerous approaches to dieting and
    exercise we hear about actually work best – with inspiring accounts into his
    and others experiences of using such strategies to vastly improve their health.

    This book is a triumph in terms of providing just the right
    balance of practical advice, scientific reasoning and ultimately hope – that
    when armed with the right information, it is completely within all of our
    powers to shift excess body weight for good.”

    Great book

    The reason it was particularly serendipitous to have been asked to review this book at that particular time is that I was staying with a good friend who happened to be doing most of the things that Dr Mosley’s book recommends. And as a guest who always tries to adapt my own behaviour to the habits and lifestyle of my host, I joined him in his intensive daily workout (see video below) and took the opportunity to eat the extremely delicious vegetarian dishes available for extremely reasonable prices throughout the nearby town. Four weeks later (and despite plenty of sunset beers) my BMI score has finally dropped into the healthy zone. Hooray!!

    Right now I am sitting in my local coffee shop having eaten nothing all morning save for a couple of black americanos. My stomach is rumbling, which normally I would deal with immediately by stuffing one of the delicious pastries I can spy up on the counter from where I’m currently sat. Today, however, rather than feeling alarmed by my feelings of hunger I’m actually thinking: this is great news, lets see how long we can keep this ketosis rolling!

    Ketosis kicks in when carbohydrates are in short supply and body fats are burned instead

    What is ketosis? Well I had always known, since GCSE biology lessons, that ketosis is a process the body uses to extract metabolic energy from fats when there are no carbohydrates swimming around in the bloodstream. Yet because my biology text books told anecdotes of the role of ketosis in causing illnesses relating to starvation in the developing world, I had always assumed it was a bad thing. Indeed, even today, if you do a Google search for “ketosis” the following result is top of the list: a metabolic state characterized by raised levels of ketone bodies in the body tissues, which is typically pathological in conditions such as diabetes, or may be the consequence of a diet that is very low in carbohydrates. Yet in the context of enduring ketosis just for an hour or two each day, the latest evidence provided by Dr Mosely’s book indicates that it is a great way to lose the excess fat that tips people into the overweight or obese BMI categories.

    Excess body fat is usually responsible for overweight or obese BMI scores

    During my time in the mountains of northern Thailand, whenever my host caught me putting sugar or milk into my coffee prior to our morning workouts I would inevitably hear something along the lines of: “What are you doing? That’ll ruin your ketosis.” For me, this was the critical part of the maintaining-a-healthy-body-weight equation that I had been overlooking all my life. I’ve spent very little time in ketosis mode because I always saw being hungry as a bad thing. Recently I’ve become increasingly aware that hunger, in short daily bursts, is not such a terrible thing after all.

    My host put me onto the idea that ketosis is desirable (in moderation) for the average person living in the developed world (whose eating habits have been carefully manipulated by a constant barrage of advertising that leaves us with the general impression that overeating is “normal”). Michael Mosley provided the scientific evidence suggesting that maintaining a healthy body weight is not just about what you eat, but when.

    It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat it, that makes the critical difference in weight loss

    The longer you go without food the greater the chance that you will have used up all your reserves of carbohydrate. Once your body has finally switched into fat-burning mode, you want to keep the ketosis burning fat for as long as possible before succumbing to the desire to end those feelings of hunger. As soon as you eat something, you stop burning body fat and start burning whatever you’ve put in your stomach instead. It really is as simple as that.

    I’ve always thought that “breakfast” was a funny word because I always thought of fasting as something that people did over many days. The concept of breaking a fast that only happened because you were asleep seemed inappropriate because I had got it in my head that fasting must necessarily involve mental discipline and conscious restraint. But it doesn’t really matter what it is that extends the period of zero food intake. If you want to maximise your fat-burning opportunities each day, the timing of your breakfast can be critical to your overall success. This is because our brain’s reserves of disciplined decision-making are limited. Consequently, it is much harder to resist the temptation of delicious foods towards the end of the day, compared to earlier on. So the average person is likely to enjoy greater success overall by delaying their breakfast until later in the morning, as opposed to starting the day with breakfast and then trying to resist eating in the evening.

    High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to burn fat

    Having kick-started the process in Thailand, I’m determined not to let my BMI score creep back up again. Having finished writing this month’s blog over the course of the morning, during which time only calorie-free black coffee had entered my stomach, I headed to the gym to do my normal hour-long cardio-stretching-cardio session (less my customary bottle of energy drink) followed by my first ever High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class. Only then did I finally break my fast. This meant that I went 14 hours without eating (since dinner last night) and now I can relaxing knowing that I’m allowed to eat what I would normally eat in the remaining 10 hours of my waking day.

    Michael Mosley managed to reverse his Type II diabetes through a combination of periodic fasting, calorie counting and high intensity interval training, not to mention eliminating the visceral fat packed in around his organs in the process which is known to be particularly dangerous to the health. For me, now that my BMI is back in the healthy zone, I’m now aiming to get back the six-pack that I took completely for granted in my twenties, but which has been mysteriously absent for a few years now!

    Exercise is REALLY good for you

    Vanity aside, my ultimate goal in keeping my BMI in check from here on is a healthy brain. Not only does a healthy BMI throughout middle age and beyond predict a lower incidence of various cardiovascular complications, but it is also associated with a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline. Add into the mix the excellent evidence that high intensity exercise can actually actively increase the length of our telomeres (found at the tips of every strand of DNA in your entire body), thereby facilitating the body and brain’s capacity to replace old cells with new ones and who knows – maybe I’ll be enjoying a healthy brain and a lucid mind right up to the age of 100!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about articles describing the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience research (@drjacklewis). The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I’ve been doing with Lliana Bird is about to launch the 100th episode. And in the next couple of months I’ll be launching a new YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity – where I showcase some of the best Virtual Reality games to hit the market for the HTC Vive and share some insights from neuroscience research that can help to how to maximise the overall experience.

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  • Next Time You See Your Parents Make Sure They Eat Their Greens

    How often were you urged to eat up your greens as a child? In my childhood this was a mantra uttered on a weekly basis. At least. I don’t know where my mum and dad got the idea that leafy green vegetables might be good for the health but, according to a recently published study, it turns out they may have been bang on the money. It never ceases to amaze me how often conventional wisdom ends up being proven true.

    A study conducted by Martha Morris and colleagues at Tufts University in Boston and Rush University in Chicago, published in January of this year in the journal Neurology detailed a prospective study of nearly a thousand participants who were followed across a period of ~5 years during which they periodically filled questionnaires about the food they ate and took a cognitive assessment. These individuals were aged 58 and upwards, all the way up to 99 years old. Analysis of the data suggested that: the more often leafy green vegetables were consumed, the slower the rate of cognitive decline.

    Those who ate at least one serving of greens per day achieved scores on the cognitive assessments equivalent to those 11 years younger. So it seems that greens don’t just help youngsters grow up into strong and healthy adults, but they can even help us hold onto our marbles during the post-retirement years.

    This study also tried to establish which of the many ingredients in the leafy greens might be responsible for these impressive cognitive benefits. Greens rich in folate, phylloquinone (aka vitamin K), lutein and kaempferol all seemed to make a big difference, as did alpha-tocopherol, albeit to a lesser degree. Let’s dig a little deeper into which vegetables contain these various goodies so you can start incorporating them into your diet pronto.

    Folate is found not just in dark leafy greens like spinach, collard greens and romaine lettuce, but also asparagus, avocado, broccoli, beans, peas, lentils, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, beetroot, berries (strawberries > rasberries) and citrus fruits.

    Similarly, Vitamin K is found in plentiful quantities in leafy greens like spinach and kale, but also in basil (get your pesto on), spring onions, cabbage, pak choi, chili (hooray!), leeks, pickled cucumber, olive oil and okra (aka ladies’ fingers).

    There’s plenty of lutein in egg yolk, sweetcorn, kiwi fruit, grapes, orange juice and courgette, as well as greens like spinach, kale and lettuce.

    As for kampferol, there’s a huge quantity in capers per 100g relative to that found in kale, and a good dose in dill, cress, chives and broccoli. That said most people will find it an easier and more appetising experience to eat 100g of kale or broccoli, than the same mass of capers, dill, cress or chives.

    The take away message here is that there’s nothing magical about the leafy greens in terms of the chemical ingredients that, once absorbed into the body and brain, lead to cognitive benefits. They do, however, serve to simplify matters. Rather than struggling to recall which of these nutritional goodies are found in which fruits, vegetables and pulses, by making sure you get a good dose of greens on a daily basis, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting most of the vitamins and minerals that will keep your brain ticking over nicely.

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  • Brain Teasers = Brain Training by Dr Jack Lewis

    Dr Jack Lewis is keen to get people motivated to get the best out of their brains, so has compiled a quick overview of brain training options:

    Brain teasers are good for you. Brain teasers include word games, number puzzles, spot the difference, Where’s Wally-type games, attention directing or splitting challenges, general knowledges quizes and so on. Brain training simply involves perfoming various different brain teasers on a regular basis. Your brain constantly adapts to serve you better. The more often you perform a certain mental function the more the brain will do to make changes so that the next time you do it, you can perform it slightly faster, with a greater degree of success and more efficiently.

    How do we know that practice increases the connections between different brain areas? Two brain imaging studies have demonstrated that when people practice a skill very hard for prolongued periods of time despite the fact that the changes happen at the ultramicroscopic level of the synapses where two brain cells meet the net effect of billions of these changes occuring over many months is that the grey matter gets larger in the part of the brain responsible for that function. The part of the brain that controls hand movements is significantly larger in professional string and keyboard musicians than non-musicians because of all the training they have done over the years to manipulate their instruments with split second precision. Another brain region, the hippocampus, creates and recalls memories particularly for geographical locations and is significantly larger in the brains of London Cabbies – who navigate around their city based on a sound KNOWLEDGE of every landmark, road and bridge – than in the brains of bus drivers – who simply drive the same route over and over again.

    The synapses connecting various different groups of brain cells together that are responsible for perfoming a certain task, say a crossword for instance, are strengthened each time to try to solve the puzzle in order that they can function slightly more efficiently next time round. If you do the crossword every day, then the net effect of many slight overnight adjustments to the brain areas involved in searching your memory for suitable words that have a certain meaning, a certain number of letters and specific letters in at certain positions within the word, become noticably better after just a few days. The same goes for number puzzles. Or games that involve prolonged concentration. Or the ability to recall trivia when it becomes relevant to conversation.

    We all know that practice makes perfect and the strengthening of connections between the relevant brain areas to enable more efficient communication between them is the reason why. Of course getting good at doing crosswords is not particularly useful in its own right, but the point is that once you become good at recalling suitable words for the sake of the crossword, you will also find it easier and quicker to bring the appropriate word to mind during conversation or when creating written documents – and that can be extremely useful.

    There are numerous websites that have compiled a large variety of different puzzles (http://www.brainbashers.com/puzzles.asp) and various others where you can try out electronic versions of classic physical puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi (http://www.mazeworks.com/hanoi/index.htm). However these all pale into comparison next to custom-designed brain training games such as those available at Lumosity (www.lumosity.com), which have not only the advantage of a much more aesthetically-pleasing look and feel of games that are genuinely fun and engaging to play, but also as you have to log in to play (they offer a free 30 day trial) you can keep track of how your performances improve over time.

    Nintendo DS were the first console manufacturer to produce and market games with the aim of improving brain function which all started with the release of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training in 2005. This predominantly involes some quite predictable tasks like the Sudoku number puzzles, simple rapid-fire arithmetic, but also some unexpected treats like the Stroop Test (naming the colour of the font ignoring the meaning of the word which can be tricky when the word RED is written in blue font!) which take advantage of some pretty nifty voice processing software. I must admit I found myself thinking “can I really speak to this machine?”

    The effect of the advertising campaign that accompanied the release of this game was quite profound as it not only encouraged everyday consumers to purchase Nintendo’s products, but more importantly sent out the message that the brain is something that you can do something pro-active to improve; a concept that has been long-accepted to be the case in children but the mantra “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” meant that this was rarely considered to be applicable in adults. Such a message is particularly enticing for people entering into old age, for whom the prospect of holding onto their marbles for as long as possible is extremely desirable and thus motivating. In this regard the key thing to remember is that, as far as the brain is concerned, it’s a simple matter of use it or lose it. Exercising brain areas involved in problem-solving by tackling word games, logical reasoning problems, memory challenges and number puzzles keeps such mental faculties in tip-top condition. If you don’t continue to use these mental abilities then they will fall into disrepair because the brain receives no indication that connections between appropriate areas should be maintained and reinforced. The upshot: it is never too late to improve your mental fitness. By emulating the lifestyles of individuals enjoying a healthy brain in their 80s and 90s, who have regular social interaction, cards games, read extensively, stay physically active and challenge themselves daily with various puzzles and quizes, the odds of being afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease are reduced by 25%.

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