Obesity, Potatoes, and Fermented Foods (Oh My)

This is yet another post that started as a lengthy email to a smaller group, that I thought I’d put up to see if anyone has any more information/links to send my way. The following is mostly just stuff I’m interested in right now, I do not consider any of the below proven hypotheses. It’s just interesting to me and I thought I’d share.

As some background, any long time reader knows I’m pretty fascinated with blood sugar. Mine tends to run high, regardless of my weight or other adjustments I’ve made. My A1C is fine, but my doctor generally does not have any good advice for me on this. Additionally, as someone who has struggled with weight for years, I am also fascinated by the study of obesity and the fact that we have pretty much no public health measures that work to reverse it. And that’s not me conceding defeat, that’s from the Lancet piece “The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments“. Key quote: “unlike other major causes of preventable death and disability, such as tobacco use, injuries, and infectious diseases, there are no exemplar populations in which the obesity epidemic has been reversed by public health measures.” Validating and depressing all at once there Lancet!

Given how much I’ve thought about this, I was surprised when around this time last year I came across a blog post series from Slime Mold Time Mold explaining how the obesity crisis was even weirder than is commonly believed. The whole thing is lengthy (though worth it IMHO), but it ends up leaving one with the impression that we have focused way too much on the “moral model” of obesity (aka “if fat people would just stop eating and love exercise, things would be better”) and that we should actually take a good look around and make sure there’s nothing actually driving this that we don’t know about yet. They have a couple ideas (lithium as a potential food contaminant/source of weight gain emerges as their top contender), but the overall idea is intriguing. If you could find some simple source of at least some weight gain, you could possibly help millions of people. Beats the hell out of telling them to all go on diets, even the most intensive of which are pretty ineffective over a long time frame.

So where do we look for something simple? Well, there’s a couple interesting leads. First, there seems to be something going on with resistant starch, particularly the kind found in potatoes. This was an internet craze back in 2013 or so, but it appears ingesting potato starch and/or cold potatoes worked really, bizarrely well for some people when it came to lowering blood glucose. A few months ago now, I got the chance to wear a continuous blood glucose monitor myself, and noted that adding 4 Tablespoons of potato starch to my yogurt in the morning absolutely improved my glucose curves to an extremely noticeable degree. The link I provided also links to some other anecdotes, and some discussion about how this failed for some people. It’s not clear why, but there’s a theory the starch might feed some gut bacteria that is good, but also might feed one that is bad, and maybe some people have one or the other.

Actual research in to this has shown that people do in fact react differently to cold potatoes (lots of resistant starch) vs things like hot potatoes or cold noodles (no resistant starch). Intriguing! On top of that, there’s a lot of anecdotes about people eating some variation of the “all potato diet” and doing great. Even healthy weight obesity researchers have tried it out and found it surprisingly pleasant. While anecdotes are not data, the anecdotes are intriguing enough that Slime Mold decided to do a crowd sourced trial on this to see if they could get some data and perhaps spur someone else to figure out what the hell is going on. They have a REALLY good round up of why the idea is so interesting here, and their Twitter feed is RTing real time updates from people who tried it. If this sort of thing interests you, I’d check it out.

I find this idea intriguing because it’s interesting to think that it may not be the foods we eat in particular that are hurting us, but the way they are cooked/eaten. That sort of information would be hidden by current nutrition research, as no one is asking if you had a hot potato or a cold potato when you ate.

This brings me to my other point of fascination: fermented foods. These are pretty trendy at the moment, and have been for a while, but they raise some interesting thoughts. First, fermented foods were a staple of many diets prior to refrigeration. It was literally how things were kept from spoiling. The idea that bacteria we ingest can have a big impact on other foods has been borne out by research. In one study, upping people’s fiber had much less impact on their health markers than telling them to up their intake of fermented foods. The theory was that the extra fiber was only minimally beneficial if people didn’t have the gut microbes to break it down. It’s also been found that skinny people have more gut microbes to break down starches.

I’ve been intrigued by this, especially because I have a lot of trouble digesting grains. Well guess what? Turns out the traditional way of eating grains (at least where my DNA hails from) was to ferment them first. This actually change the composition of grains, decreasing sugar and increasing proteins. Example for spelt here.

Other intriguing facts: in nearly every culture with a “signature” fermented food, those foods tend to be socially associated with long life. Miso, kefir, kvass, kimchi, etc. Kimchi was investigated as a reason why Korea had such low rates of SARS in 2003. I don’t buy the “it’s a cure!” part, but we do know that sometimes non-harmful microbes can edge out harmful microbes with good results for humans. That’s sort of what penicillin is based on, and there is an absolutely wild story about this happening during the Civil War here (note: no one figured out what was going on for over 150 years).

So where does this leave me? Well sadly, we don’t have solid evidence for how to proceed with any of this. Hopefully Slime Mold Time Mold will put something up about their potato results, in the meantime this book is interesting. Personally, I am continuing with the potato starch, as I do have proof that works for me. I am also attempting to eat at least one fermented food at every meal. So far I seem to have seen some positive impacts, but I’m hoping to get another continuous glucose monitor to see if I can more closely watch the effects. Kefir, sauerkraut and miso seems to be the most effective so far. Kombucha doesn’t seem to have much of a benefit, except it does seem to be a very pleasing swap out for alcoholic drinks, and with about 20% of the calories. It seems likely that’s at least partially due to it having a mild-but-still-present amount of alcohol in it.

I am also going to start trying to ferment my grains, to see if I have an easier time with them. I am practicing making my own kefir, and a few other things too. I will continue to eat some fermented something at every meal, and report back if the effects persist.

So folks, any good links or thoughts to add? I find the whole topic fascinating, so send any points of interest my way!

4 thoughts on “Obesity, Potatoes, and Fermented Foods (Oh My)

  1. Boy, I would love to see you post a lot more on this. I’ll have to track down some of your links.
    I am someone who has struggled with weight his entire life. I have studied this informally for years, and after much analysis, have come to the astonishing conclusion: IT’S COMPLICATED. Yes, calories do count (I am an engineer, so I know they have to), but the don’t count the same way for everyone, and I don’t know why. No, it’s not a simple matter of exercising a little more. Yes, some people are able to eat all they want and not gain weight, no it’s not fair, and no one knows why. I think the folks you cite might finally be getting to some answers.

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    • Glad to hear you enjoy it! I find it a little challenging to blog on because there’s not a lot of proven information, just some interesting hunches. I’ll try to do some more roundups though, as I certainly find the topic fascinating. If you follow some of the links, I certainly recommend the Slime Mold Time Mold series first. There are some critiques of some of the things they cite out there, but I think the overall gist is pretty interesting. It certainly changed my view on the whole thing. If you haven’t seen it, Elizier Yudkowsky’s post about the Shangri-La diet also goes in to some of the quirks and frustrations of this field:
      https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/BD4oExxQguTgpESdm/the-unfinished-mystery-of-the-shangri-la-diet

      I completely agree with the rest of your comment. My current thought is that calories count, but appetite seems rather malleable. I was talking about this with a friend recently, who noted that she had a McDonald’s breakfast that she knew was more calories than her regular at home breakfast, but she was really hungry just an hour or two later. It’s clear something, somewhere doesn’t always allow absolute calories to register in the same way. Would be nice if this could be figured out.

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  2. “…I am also fascinated by the study of obesity and the fact that we have pretty much no public health measures that work to reverse it.”

    That’s because the US government’s definition of a “poison” is anything that, among other things, causes rapid weight loss. The medical establishment will not approve of any “poison” being marketed to the public.(except for their patented chemotherapies which are of questionable efficacy)

    Do some Non-Mainstream research on “uncouplers” like (DNP) Dinitrophenol. When taken in reasonable doses in winter time with supplemental antioxidant vitamins,(to prevent inducing cataracts) they can be quite effective. But the government tries to demonize the stuff and make it hard to get your hands on, because nuts with eating disorders, who seemingly can’t do anything in moderation, often kill themselves by taking too much DNP. DNP seems to be able to not only lower your weight, but to also lower your body’s “set point” so that it doesn’t try to gain all the weight back after you go off of it. Most other systems of weight loss leave your body feeling like it needs to restore all of the lost fat.

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    • Interesting! I had not heard of that one, but the mechanism of action is certainly fascinating. I will likely not try it as I had an unfortunately scary brush with medication induced weight loss last year, but I’m enjoying reading about it.

      My story: I was on Topamax for migraines, an epilepsy which is known to cause weight loss and alter appetite. It was fine for quite some time, but as my weight drifted downward it appears the weight loss/no-appetite effects actually started to escalate. I was losing weight more quickly the lower my weight got, which of course is the opposite of what is normally seen. My doctor thinks what happened is that the dose (which never changed) was simply more potent the lower my weight got. They had to get my off of it quite rapidly, as my weight was actually getting unhealthily low and I couldn’t eat and was exhausted. Things went back to normal after I stopped taking it. Doesn’t have that effect on everyone, but does suggest to me I am VERY prone to side effects/the impacts of things like this.

      Reading a bit about dinitrophenol, it got me wondering if something similar could be at play for some people who take it. Many medications are dosed based on body weight, so dropping weight could inherently lead to the same dose suddenly becoming “too much”.

      I’ll keep reading, but certainly interesting! Seems like something that should be studied.

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