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Odds & Sods
The Dreaded Body Fat Chart
Thursday, 1st September, 2004  - Richard Farmer

A partner buying diet books was bad enough. A partner wielding a tape measure and insisting that you hop on the scales was worse. Watching the calculation being made on the "Percentage Body Fat Chart" was downright frightening.

The damn chart stopped at waist girths of 45 inches and I was 51. At least I fitted on the body weight axis although 249 pounds (111 kilos) was getting close to the cut-off point of 260. Fiddle around with the ruler, extend the girth axis on the graph, and hey presto - there was the calculation. A fat percentage of 40! I was 40% of fat - 99 pounds, more than 44 kilos, of it! My resistance to dieting was shattered. Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution, The X Factor Diet and Protein Power - "the nutritional primer of the nineties" - had won.

A healthy scepticism remained about my partner's chosen path. Don't worry about the fat, ban the carbohydrates indeed! I had seen too many of those National Heart Foundation ticks not to know that it was fat that made me fat. The experts kept telling me so yet their ticks were on boxes of everything in the supermarket that the low-carbohydrate gurus were instructing me not to touch. The Heart Foundation's no-no foods with fat were the go-go foods with the high protein school. How could it be that bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of cereal and fruit would see the kilos drop off?

I gently enquired about this when dragged before my good local Dr Peachey for a pre-Atkins diet check up. By now it had dawned on me that cutting down the carbohydrates meant cutting out the beer. Perhaps he would give me good reason to forget about the "Percentage Body Fat Chart" reading and call the whole thing off. Instead, like a smiling assassin, he told of his own previous weight loss with the Atkins Diet Revolution and reminded me that a heavy drinking and smoking man whose father had died of a heart attack could hardly afford to be grossly overweight as well.

And so it came to pass that Robert C. Atkins M.D., whose sales of 14 million books since 1972 had him on the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years, gained another disciple. Almost a year later, on 17 April, the day Atkins died aged 72 after falling and hitting his head on an icy sidewalk in New York, my weight was down to 96 kilos from 111 kilos. Another month, and another kilo lost, and the late Dr Atkins received a more important posthumous endorsement. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine carried two independent studies that, in the words of a New York Times editorial, "enhanced the credibility of his controversial low carbohydrate, high fat, high protein approach to weight loss."

For a man regularly denounced by the medical establishment as a charlatan and a fraud, studies in a reputable peer reviewed journal and editorial acknowledgement from The Times were indeed a turn around. For 30 years doctors branded him foolish and dangerous with warnings that eating large amounts of beef with its accompanying fat would lead to sky-high cholesterol levels. Yet in both the studies reported on in the New England Journal, the Atkins dieters generally had better levels of "good" cholesterol and triglycerides, or fats in the blood, than dieters following a traditional low fat regime. There was no difference in "bad" cholesterol or blood pressure.

When it came to weight loss Atkins looked a winner. In one study where 132 men and women started out with an average weight of 129kg, the Atkins group after six months had lost 5.8kg with the group on a low-fat diet losing 1.9kg. In the second study of 63 participants weighing an average 98kg when they started, the Atkins group lost 6.9kg and those on the standard diet 3.1kg in the first six months. At the end of a year the weight loss was less - 4.4kg for Atkins and 2.5kg for regulars.

That evidence of the danger of recidivism was something I could associate with. It brought flashing back the dreaded aftermath of the St Joseph's School raffle. First and second prizes no less. The gift wrapped basket of taste tempting chocolate that proved irresistible. And it was not just the gorging on the confectionery that caused the problem. It was the aftermath.

Once off the straight and narrow path the body seemed to demand more and more carbohydrate. There was a return to the beloved coffee with sugar and a bit of bread won't really do much damage will it? There were between meal hunger pangs that made sweet biscuits and cake irresistible. Secretly purchased meat pies. Chips with the fish. Within a month the belt went back out not one notch but two.

With the weight going up, the energy level went down. Chunky the dog noticed the difference. Our twice daily walks were slower and covered less distance. It was his frowning bark of impatience while I was puffing my way back up the hill from the beach that prompted the decision to rejoin him in the "give the man meat" camp.

It was back to the induction stage of the Atkins diet and back on the path to continuing weight loss. Now, with 17 kilos down and another four targeted, there are still no potatoes for me. I avoid the grain based foods such as breakfast cereals, bread, pasta, noodles and rice which the National Heart Foundation suggests making "the major part of each meal." No sugar and soft drinks and no beer either but I've discovered the joys of malt whisky. Wine joins green vegetables as part of my controlled carbohydrate intake and the amazing thing is I never feel hungry.

I'm still puzzled by the science of it all. I don't understand how an identical number of calories consumed by a person on a low carbohydrate diet and a high carbohydrate diet can result in we low carb people losing more weight. Something about metabolism and insulin and other such mysteries is what my books try and tell me.

But what I do know is that I'm back on the "Percentage Body Fat Chart" and that there will be some far reaching consequences now that the low-carbohydrate message is gaining respectability. For starters the National Heart Foundation will need a new means of raising revenue as people turn away from the carbohydrate laced products they recommend. It is precisely those processed grain based foods the Foundation gives a tick that the low carbo brigade suggests should get the flick. Rice and grain growers will find their domestic market shrinking and the bakers will moan while cattlemen rejoice at the sight of millions of obese Australians joining Chunky and I as we diet away on rump steak.

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