A little background into what a researcher actually does, a note on the state of the science and its terribly ironic saviours…
It was during the recent Finland seminar that the curtain on obesity was pulled back for me. In terms of a root cause, it’s fair to say, coming into that seminar I was on a fence, in that I was struggling to shake off the simple concept of calories in versus calories out. The simple poll on my Facebook page DogsFirstIreland following the seminar shows nearly half of you are in the same boat. But when you listen to the chief scientists involved in exposing the link between ultra-processed food and obesity / cancer (at least the French contingent, it was a worldwide effort, here is a summary of the groups’ findings), as well as the individual food chemists specialising in the effects of high sugar diets in children, the GP who wrote Biohacker explaining what carbs do and what they do when eaten in different forms (and times) and not to mention a multitude of people in the audience who were very well-read in the situation (in people and dogs), it became painfully clear to me I was a bit behind the research in this area. It’s why I didn’t write the promised article following the poll. I needed to get stuck in big time. So I’m taking the opportunity to explain what exactly is involved in getting such an article out to you in a form that is not only digestible but correct.
Obesity is a multi-faceted issue, one that cannot be explained adequately by calories in and out…
The problem with obesity is that so many factors are at play and each will dictate how fat you are going to get. Yes calorie consumption is one facet, you can starve a person skinny, that’s a given. However, there are a great number of other factors at play in normal everyday life that make that simple premise obsolete. One of the stand out reasons is the type of calories you are consuming. Not all carbs are equal – 2000kcal of pasta per day will have a marked difference on your body make up than say the same in amaranth (looks like a grain but is actually a little mini perrenial plant, high in protein and fibre) or chicken, over time, largely down to how these food groups release their energy. Asides the fact the pasta meal is rapidly digested so you will be hungry soon after, the real key to all this is insulin. In this case, the pasta (essentially sugar) spikes the hormone insulin in your blood while the latter two do not have the same insulin effect. In fact, using fat as energy involves an entirely different energy pathway (ketosis), which is where the science is focusing now (ketogenic diets). High shots of insulin in the blood cause problems, one of them releated to obesity (the other is cancer). Obesity, it turns out, is largely an issue of the hormones, and many hormones are at play. This is amply demonstrated by the fact spayed or neutered mice put on more weight than their intact counterparts on the same amount of daily calories. We see this effect in neutered dogs also.
But it’s not as simple as that either. There are many other key factors at play here. One is now when you eat. We are simply not meant to eat breakfast. For some of you, this will sound sacrilegious. Most important meal of the day, right? But we are simply not meant, in an evolutionary sense, to eat first thing in the morning. It’s all about your circadian rhythm. In 2017, a Nobel Prize was given to three scientists who highlighted just how important this circadian rhythm process is for us. Then there is epigenetics. We have spoken about it before but in short, you can pass on the memory of obesity to your kids. Like diabetes, obese people are more likely to have obese kids, and not just because of their diet choices. Then there is a feast of famine issue going on, it’s like your body “remembers” getting fat and wants to get back there as soon as it can, making diet plans hard to stick to. Eating while stressed likely means you will put on more weight. Then there’s gut flora – you can transplant gut flora from fat mice into skinny mice and they get fatter on the same number of calories they were on previously. In all these aforementioned instances, you will be able to find evidence where the same number of calories can be fed to two groups of test animals but one will put on significantly more body fat than the other. Thus the hypothesis that it’s just calories doesn’t hold up, and you can disregard it as a stand-alone explanation.
So I have some work to do here, soon as I have it ready, you’ll know!
What is involved in researching a topic in detail?
There are two types of research – one based on practical experiments, were you test a hypothesis with an experiment of your own and present your findings. The other is someone that works solely in theory. They use the already available data to test, accept or refute a hypothesis. Their work is more often than not produces in a “literature review” form. I began as the former with my doctorate but I am now firmly in the latter category (though hope to return to the former with a bang next year, I have BIG plans!).
Let’s take the obesity issue as an example of what I must do to get my ducks in a row. The very first thing is that ahead I have a LOT of reading to do to get myself up to speed. As an eager scientist, albeit one just focusing on canine nutrition, it almost pains me when I find myself at sea in a topic. I want to know everything about it. I don’t want to be caught with my pants down up on stage during a seminar. Many are areas are going to present this problem to me, of course, I can only do so much. Often times I can simply ready a few published, peer-reviewed (examined by two outside-scientists before publishing) articles, arming myself with enough info that I can at least direct people in the correct way, should I be asked. For most topics however, a lot more is required to get the story straight, certainly before I present a single slide on the subject. Like conventionally trained vets trying to talk about the risks of raw dog food, there is simply nothing worse than listening to someone preaching about a topic they clearly have a very poor grasp of.
Some subjects in the past have taken up significantly more of my time in this regard. For instance, 15 years ago, the information on what dogs would normally choose when left to their own devices was dreadfully confused. Some confusion stems from difficulty understanding the many confounding factors in the studies already conducted. The other is the pseudoscience of marketeers who have done their best to lead the conversation one way. However this is a field in which I’m strong, it’s what my doctorate was about. I’m a zoologist at heart. That was my degree. My doctorate examined the digestive anatomy, physiology and diet of deer. 3 years neck-deep in guts, stomach and poo samples, looking at the evolution of the animal, their biology and the available diet studies, and my own 350 samples, and comparing it to the data already available out there, taught me how to better work out the exact feeding strategy of an animal, examining sex differences, seasonal effects, body weights, gut shapes etc. Once out of college and into Guide Dogs I turned this newly honed skill on our furry friends, something that folk hadn’t done in any real way yet.
The exact process looks something like this:
- first buy every book on canine nutrition of any value, read them and take copious notes (at the same time you need to check who wrote the book to understand where they are coming from as many are produced by pet food companies, and contact said authors for a chat, if they’re up to it. You need to start forming relationships as you are going to have a lot of questions and they are best placed to answer them). In some instance these manuals can be over 1000 pages involving many thousands of references.
- using your notes, you examine the studies they mention. Some are available online via Google Scholar. You need to read them (often having to buy them first, €40 each, I use 1500 references in my forthcoming book) and fully understand them. You need to look at their data, is it saying what they say it is saying (an enormously complicated process). Each of these works will refer to numerous studies. You must follow the ones of interest. They in turn will use studies. On and on and on until you are satisfied. Other studies are not available online. Perhaps they are too old. So you need to go to the veterinary library, find the journal (they have all the hard copies), sit your ass down, read them and photocopy them.
- you now must build a word doc with the key points and studies as you see it. This can take a while as you are trying to fit enormous amounts of info into a smaller, more concise argument.
- you now take your argument back to the key players, any that will engage and ask them to find holes in your theory. They often do. This should be celebrated and back you go to remedy the situation. It’s when they can’t you know you’re on to something.
- if you want to simply present this info online in an article you need to write that article in a way Google likes. You put it together, get your images and pop it up. For the subject above you might get a good few articles, in fairness, but very often all you will receive by means of thanks will be 50 thumbs up and 10 or 20 shares.
For years, I did this out of pure love of research. For me, little beats digging up the study that provides for you that little Eureka moment. That’s the good stuff, pretty much a fix, and as such it’s addictive. Like a nerds crime novel. I have spent ten years researching the key topics of my book and even then I realise I am simply getting the elevator pitch of what is going on. The above “what do dogs eat” may have taken me a couple of years, part-time, with most of my nights and weekends dedicated to it. Scraping a living at the same time doing some dog training on the side. When I had my raw dog food company I was researching the numerous nutritional inadequacies of cereal-based dry food for dogs. That there is a VAST topic as you must come at it from all angles including protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, minerals, chemical inclusions, safety, effects of processing, and very often from every health aspect including allergy (this alone is a colossal and rapidly evolving field, one that makes an article written two years ago obsolete in parts and requiring constant updating), arthritis, cancer, kidney disease and yes, obesity. The results of that research is the second section of my book “The Issues with Dry Food”. My third section, “Corporate Influence in the Vet Sector” is essentially the best bits from my new penchant, that is following the money and exposing why the veterinary sector is in such a state, if just in nutrition. The final section is on raw feeding which is essentially everything I’ve learned in that regard over the last ten years. That one wrote itself, simple enough.
So, now you’re getting a feel of what I do and you may feel some sympathy when a subject such as obesity rears its ugly head and you realise you have not kept up to speed. Last week I bought these six books (fair enough the top one is an Allen Carr book that will teach me how to shake my insane addiction to refined sugar, it’s a self-help book which I need as I’ve already tried many times and failed, so need a little Carr magic). The next one down is Dogs, Dog Food and Dogma, and excellent read written by Daniel Schulof whom I was speaking with a few weeks ago. Still the only guy to have written a book on canine obesity, if you can believe it (and a non-vet, go figure). The other four below is where I’ll find the nitty-gritty on why high-carb ultra-processed food causes obesity in humans. It’s a little foreboding looking at them like that). Of all of them, it’s the Gary Taubs US best-seller books “The Case Against Sugar” and “Why We Get Fat” that I’m most looking forward to, they’re supposed to be staggering (find them both on Amazon).
No matter what way I look at it, I have many weeks of work ahead of me here. Many. Not sure how many. But I know I can’t really start in any real way until I get a few projects off my desk. Most importantly, my book.
The problem, as always, is…money…
The really big issue is that I really, really want to hold back the book (again) while I dig in here good and proper, and include it in this edition. But you can see now why my editor pulls her hair out. I will never stop. I will look for you. I will find you and I will research you. To death.
For me, there now comes a toss-up. I need to get this book out asap. Researching is fun, at least for me, but financial remuneration is hard to find if you’re not affiliated to a university. Today, the sad fact is people no longer pay for research that doesn’t result in some form of consumption (though you can be sure my book is going to benefit raw dog food companies, unquestionably). However, because of their affiliations with dry pet food companies, there is no veterinary department on the planet that would take me on and pay me to do this sort of work. So you’re on your own – trying to sell a few supplements from your site, monetising a few links to bits on Amazon should I think you need them for a particular health issue (something I don’t do very often as my methods generally involve avoiding products, using diet alone, likely one of the reasons Google recently destroyed my rankings three times this year, depleting my traffic from 250k users per month to just over 125k, see below during one of the worst slumps in May 2019), helping raw companies in a consultancy basis with their various issues and yes, from sales of the book (it will be available in whole, book form, but also ebooklets and very soon an audio version), all in an effort to keep the heating on at home.
So this book needs to get out or my wife is going to leave me. She has been very patient (I work at nights, best from 9pm to 3am when I’m really into something, which is very often, but I still get up 7:30am, which starts to take its toll)!
When you hear me speaking at a seminar and I pop up a slide on a subject, you can start to understand just how much research a researcher (of any value) tends to do in the background to ensure they know what they’re talking about. They should be able to field most questions with some authority. Thus, when I’m asked to do a seminar, despite having a lot of the research already done, I need to perfect my learning in the field in whatever topic I am tasked with. This alone can take me a week (wedged in and around all the other things I was supposed to be doing that week). Then I need to get the slides ready. Another few days. Then I need to practice the seminar to make sure my timings are right. Then I need to travel out, do the gig and fly home. 2-3 days away from the family. Imagine if, for one glorious moment, for this one-day seminar I asked for €600. Well, I had a call with Rodney Habib a few weeks ago and he did a little maths using exactly this figure. 3 days away – 24 working hours. At least a weeks full-time preparation? 37 hours. You have valued your time at €10 per hour, my friend. This was an eye-opener for me. And this figure does not factor in the work done to get there (college, Guide Dogs, the raw company, the years of independent research).
Of course, it’s good exposure for me, and yes I love getting in front of the people but at some stage I’m going to need to get paid or go do something else. It’s as simple as that. It’s why I can sort of sympathise when scientists go a bit…rogue…
It seems more and more scientists today are nothing more than guns for hire…
The fact is, real research, not just someone having a Google and regurgitating it in a pretty form on Instagram, is hard bloody graft. And the very worrying thing is that the really useful, enlightening research is no longer so popular. With university budgets being constantly cut (at least here in Ireland, something that will leave departments even more vulnerable to the generous cash donations of corporations) and our vet departments all but tied up by candy companies, the real research in canine nutrition is not being done. It used to be that professors were people produced a lot of meaningful, elucidating, valuable, published research in a specialised field. They were to be respected. Now, researchers are very often guns for fire. Where “meaningful” and “elucidating” are gone by the wayside. Now it must be simply “valuable” and “published”. I have to sit in vomit-inducing seminars given by professors younger than me touting the value of carbohydrates in the dog or cats diet, all without the benefit of a single long term safety study where normally-fed cats or dogs were used as a control group. They will completely ignore the raging obesity epidemic in our pets. Something we know is related to high carb, ultra-processed food in humans. Or, they will be equipped with very convincing pseudoscience to explain why it’s you the feeder not the product in questions. You are simply feeding them too much. You are loving them to death. These “scientists”, whose wages are invariably paid by a dry pet food company, produce huge amounts of “studies” for their veterinary department of choice. These studies bring fortune and fame to the researcher in question, massaging the ego. The vet department looks good getting studies out and their sponsors are very happy at the verification of their ultra-processed muck. That’s the truth of it. It’s the same with the health info you are receiving. It’s no conspiracy guys and something the raging prescription drug epidemic (drugs properly prescribed by doctors) is adequately demonstrating, it being the second biggest killer of Americans today (with full support from the governing bodies).
The sad fact today is that science is now absolutely corrupted, hopelessly so in the eyes of the world’s most important scientists. It is being used more now for marketing than any other reason. This lead one of our most eminent scientists to make the following quote (Horton is the editor of the most world’s most prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet)
much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.
Dr. Richard Horton, editor-and-chief of The Lancet
How ironic it is that science will be saved by non-scientists using very unscientific mediums…
But to end on some good news. There are many fantastic (if grossly over-worked, under-paid and thus highly stressed) researchers out there doing their thing but I’m finding that more and more of them are not actually scientists by trade (Habib, Thixton, Schulof in the case of canine obesity above).
During a recent seminar with Nick Thompson in the UK we asked everyone to write any questions down on their notepads provided and send the individual pages up to the top of the class. It’s a way of keeping the flow going and getting to the questions at the end. And boy did it work. Soon the pages were coming in like horizontally moving confetti. More importantly, the questions were really advanced. This should come as no surprise as, of the 50 in attendance for the intermediate session, 49 were already raw feeding. This was a bit of a eureka moment for me. The profile of the average attendee of these seminars differs markedly from 10 years ago. Back then everything you said was a revelation. Now you really need to be on your toes as you are speaking to some fantastically knowledgeable non-scientists, each of whom have been conducting their own research.
It’s guys driving the huge market shift away from ultra-processed food toward a normal, fresh, species-appropriate diet and NOT veterinary science or the governing bodies that were supposed to have had your back.
A recent revelation was that, terribly ironically, I think science is going to be saved by non-scientists using the most unscientific of mediums – social media.
You see, good science isn’t about degrees, fancy papers or titles. It’s much simpler than that. Science is about basic, testable truths. It’s rooted in logic, anecdotal observation (at least initially although Eastern medicine is almost completely based on them) and then experimentation, which you guys are actually doing at home. The sheer weight of these positive (and ever-exposing negative) stories up on social media, is an unstoppable, assailing force. As you guys vote with your feet the industry is now changing in response. It has to, or suffer financial loss.
To reiterate the phrase I find myself saying more and more often, they got the guns but we got the numbers (Jim Morrison, though likely nabbed from Stalin’s approach to war, saying of his poorly equipped army “there’s a quality in quantity”. We are that poorly equipped army).
It seems that you guys are actually more scientific than any scientifically-trained vet standing over dry feeding without first examining the other side of the argument themselves in any real way whatsoever. Your research is not driven not by financial reward but by a thirst to discover, to know. You want the truth and then you want everyone to hear it.
That is something we both have in common. And it’s enough.