90% of people seem to believe that if you eat too much food you put on weight, or conversely if you want to lose weight you need to eat less. This is a linear understanding, or if you like a linear misunderstanding. It goes by the rubric CICO: calories in, calories out. Food consumed and energy expended in exercise. Even sophisticated medical professionals get caught up in such rubbish, because it is a natural mode of “logic” for most people.
We have a parallel notion for soils. If we grow a “hungry” crop such as members of the cabbage and kale family, the soil will become depleted in nutrients and need to be “fed” before growing another crop. This is an instructive fallacy for us because if you act on it, the fallacy become relatively true. If we work on the basis of linear thinking, some of the world will respond in linear ways. And of course we all love to be proved right by “evidence”.
There is a much-quoted saying that there is nothing as practically useful as a good theory. That insight plays here: our theory helps us select what to pay attention to: it will control to some degree what we find that will validate what we believed to start out with. Louie Gardiner in her ongoing PhD thesis can show how the world responds to our intention. The observer effect is much subtler than we typically give it credit for.
Sideways views of food
The most-mentioned number describing food is its calorific content, how much “energy” it provides. But energy is not the key aspect of food in several ways. We can do the simplest experiment to find out about the calorie theory. We can eat food that is dominated by one of the main food groups to the exclusion of the others, and merely see what happens. I am eating large amounts of meat: far more than what a GP would advise based on the allowance of calories for a day. My weight is stable or falling.
People who eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) or follow the UK Eatwell Plate advice are eating mainly carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes. They typically look unhealthy, put on weight and develop chronic long-term illnesses. They form the bulk of the so-called epidemics of diabetes and cancers, of CVD and inflammatory conditions. If you took two groups of people and put half on a meat diet and half on a bread diet, both with exactly the same number of calories, you would see a dramatic difference between the two groups. The calorie number is not a good descriptor of food if you are concerned about achieving a stable weight pattern.
One theory to give insight into this is nutrient density. There is a view that we eat to get the nutrients our body needs, and as with the stories about pregnant women getting cravings, will eat until our needs are met. But that would mean eating a vast amount of bread or potatoes or broccoli to meet our bodies’ needs. That vast amount of bread would have an awful lot of calories. If we concentrate on how much of a food we would need to eat to meet our needs not for “energy” but for nutrients, we would never eat the foods advised by Public Health England. We would eat liver and other offal and we would eat grass fed beef and outdoor raised pork.
Another useful theory is to study what actually satiates our hunger. It appears from the research that hunger is controlled by fat consumption. When we have had enough fat we feel satiated and our hunger does not return for a long time — twelve hours or more. This makes sense because many of the nutrients we need are soluble in fat and present in foods that have a high fat content. I saw a comment recently that we will never solve our health problems while we have an aversion to fat.
A third useful theory is called the hormone theory of obesity. It looks at a major switch in our bodies, and such switches are typically controlled by hormones. The hormone in focus is insulin which is secreted by the pancreas to deal with glucose in the bloodstream. Too high a concentration of glucose over time is a problem for many organs, and indeed the insulin itself is a problem if levels stay too high for too long. Insulin switches between the body using glucose for energy and using fat for energy. It is a no-brainer actually that if we want to lose weight we had better be in fat-burning mode. And insulin causes the body to deposit fat.
This last theory gives us another view of “feeling hungry”. The body’s capacity to store glucose for use as energy is very limited — the energy store is fat. If we burn the glucose we have in the blood, the glucose low that we experience gives us a craving for food. People who live off carbohydrates experience food cravings and need to snack all the time. It is this dynamic of oscillating glucose levels in the blood, going both too high and too low that defeats most peoples’ attempts to diet.
The oscillation and the high levels of glucose and insulin in the blood cause a wide range of severe problems over time. A key aspect of all this is insulin sensitivity or conversely insulin resistance. In diabetes the insulin secreted no longer controls the blood glucose properly. The standard blood test HbA1c measures the number of red blood cells that have died and is essentially a measure of aging. My own HbA1c was the highest the specialist had ever seen! But conversely it seems that insulin sensitivity is the best predictor of longevity.
I hope this is enough detail to show that the linear theory of CICO is not only useless but positively misleading. Intelligent people say “but this is basic physics and energy balance” but it isn’t. It is a highly sophisticated self-regulatory system that we abuse and destroy even though it is our own bodies. We do that because we don’t understand non-linearity and we are misled by abysmally criminal official advice.
Even though good gardeners know they must look after their soil if they are to grow anything, we still don’t know anything like enough about soil to do that looking after effectively. In aggregate around the whole world and in detail in our own fields and gardens we destroy the soil that we depend on for life itself.
First of all we need to understand the cycle that builds soil. Although there are variants in different climates and ecosystems the pattern is as follows. Plants colonise the land. They put their roots down into whatever mineral particles are available. Fungi develop that are symbiotic with the plants, using plant sugars for their own growth and supplying the plant with nutrients. Dead matter from the growing plants is digested by another class of fungi. Bacteria play a myriad of important roles. This intensely living and diverse ecosystem builds a soil structure that can hold water and which can cool the microclimate above the surface. In the large, the sun’s energy is used to build a balancing system that can sustain a vast variety of life forms.
Animals play a role in soil development, sometimes a completely crucial role. They eat and trample vegetation, making room for new growth. They digest the plant material using bacteria in their guts and distribute both digested residues and bacteria over the soil. Note that despite the known fertilising properties of both urine and dung, the nutrients can only come from the soil where the plants grew. This is still a cycle, and one we need to collaborate with and not disturb or interrupt.
Protecting the soil amounts to a series of prohibitions. Never expose the soil to the sun and air. Never disrupt its life forms by digging or ploughing. Never add chemical fertilisers or spray against pests. Don’t water. In fact don’t do any of the things we normally do. Some people have an issue with going against what people have always done to “look after the soil”, but again this is a matter of having theories that can lead to a beneficial interaction with it.
So what about feeding the soil? How do we compensate for what we take from it? Well actually we need to do something a bit closer to nature: we need to make sure that at all times there is the maximum amount of active plant growth capturing the maximum amount of sunshine and supplying sugars to the rest of the soil life. We can help achieve that goal by getting some animals to remove some existing plant matter and supply some key bacteria.
Some of that is tolerably close to doing some composting and to rotting down some manure to add to the soil. But actually we don’t need to add anything. When we do we risk displacing the organisms in the soil from playing their symbiotic roles. It is so hard for us not to intervene in ways that give our precious vegetables a short-term boost at the expense of damaging their long-term support mechanisms and the role they play in the overall cycle.
What else is hard for us is to move gradually from a conventional system that keeps the soil passive and needing input to a radical system that will look after itself if we let it. That move takes a few years not a few days. Soil biology needs to develop into a balanced ecosystem when what we normally do disrupts the balance in many ways.
One more comment about diversity. The soil needs a wild diversity of plants growing in it. Different plants have different root systems, different symbiotic bacteria (such as the nitrogen fixing plants), different habits of concentrating particular soil minerals, different tolerances for heat and cold and water and its lack.
Playing our role
Humans have a role in healthy ecosystems, but it is not the one we have abrogated to ourselves. Our population as a whole is getting sick — very sick — and that has to indicate that we have misunderstood our place in things. The world’s farmland is turning to desert (over millennia, centuries, and accelerating in the last decades) and that has to indicate the same thing. This is not me pouring cold water, it is the bare bones observation of the status of humans on the planet. Becoming seriously unstable we would have to say. And in general we are in serious denial of our status.
We could simply say that we fail to live practically with the non-linear systems we are part of. We keep thinking we are meant to be control, not that we have to be sensitive to the ways of other parts of the ecosystem. We think we can’t afford to look after the planet when in fact we can’t afford NOT to. There is no sign of better thinking becoming more widely available or more valued. I think we need to accept that we have largely fluffed our chances.
Doctors are largely practical and kind people. Farmers and gardeners are intensely practical. That immediate practical focus leads to some great results, but great results in the context of a more comprehensive failure. I find it so painful when people feel a need to celebrate the great results while using them to deny, implicitly, the scale of the disaster. And this all comes down to our ability to see when we need better theory.
In particular we need to be circumspect about technology which tends to amplify our ability to do the wrong thing. Drugs to treat the health effects of eating the wrong foods. Sprays to counter the effects of growing the wrong plant combinations. Irrigation to allow us to pretend we haven’t wrecked the climate. We would do better to analyse technology to find where our thinking mistakes lie.
The non-linearity of both these life systems comes from the same place: an overwhelmingly complex interaction between bacteria and other microbiota that have a vast genetic diversity and a huge capacity to adapt and evolve. These systems could never have linear responses because they learn even in the face of us trying to wipe them out.
 With some sympathy, naturally, that it can be difficult to explain the underlying complexity to people, so a certain number of fairy tales may well be necessary. It’s when those simplifications and metaphors are taken literally and to extremes that problems occur. Back to CICO, even some of my most intelligent and ‘rational’ friends take this to be fact. Of course, it’s not
 The same of course becomes true if you artificially support just about anything. Add physical support and muscles or plants don’t grow to support themselves. Add insulin and the body produces less insulin itself and tries to cope with the episodically massive influx. Use stronger soap and your hair/body responds by generating more oils to protect itself against having those oils stripped away.
 In focus group ‘research’ it’s well known that the questions drive the responses. A product team that wants to demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) the likely existence of a market for a new product can engineer the results that they want to find. Even in space, your preconceptions matter. Astrobiologist Abigail Wood notes that “the chances of finding something on Mars that’s interesting are high,” but “if you go with preconceived notions of what you need to find, then you’ll be blind to what is there.”
 Many of the spices that make for tasty food worth eating are also fat-soluable. My own cooking took an uptick when a colleague who makes his own chili oil talked about the process. Lightly frying spices to unlock the flavor and transfer the yummy goodness is a fine metaphor — by leaving out the fat in food, we inhibit the transference of healthy goodness within ourselves.
 A balancing system, rather than a reinforcing one that spirals out of control. Remember at the outset of this and other articles that using pesticides and herbicides only seems to work at first, and then you find yourself applying ever increasing amounts of the stuff, just to keep still. The red queen problem. An example from a completely different domain — the neater your environment, the more out of place and irritating small inconsistencies become, as followers of Marie Kondo might discover.
 Radical system, geddit? Lovely linguistic connection to ‘root’, the base of things, as well as the more conventional meaning of far-reaching and fundamental shifts…