Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Rice Experiment

My daughter recently moved to Japan for school and discovered the Freshman 15. For folks who are not familiar with that phrase, it's used to describe what happens to people when they first go away to college and start eating in the cafeteria all the time.
"Cafeteria Diet Is a Robust Model of Human Metabolic Syndrome With Liver and Adipose Inflammation"
So the Freshman 15 refers to the 15 pounds you gain when you go away to college.

Except in Japan. There it refers to the 15 pounds that everyone loses when they first go on the Japanese diet in the cafeteria at school there. (Western food is basically not available.)

My daughter was not overweight, so I was surprised I started getting panicked texts from Japan about the fact that she now had "nothing to wear" as she'd leaned out so much that her jeans were too big. She's been on and off the Paleo diet over the last seven years, so she pretty much knew that it worked for her, and worked in the short-term.

But she was in Japan...

"So, what are you eating?"

"Rice. I've never eaten so much rice. I got a rice cooker, and all I'm eating is rice."
Obesity Among Adults, 2015 or Nearest Year


The Question
"Adult obesity rates are highest in the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Hungary, while they are lowest in Japan and Korea."
If you buy the carbohydrate/insulin-causes-obesity model, this is a major paradox. The Japanese diet has long been predominantly carbohydrate-based. Obesity has been increasing over time (although obviously not by much), but it's been doing so as carbohydrate consumption has gone down from historically high levels.

If carbohydrates caused obesity, Japan would be one of the fattest nations on earth, not one of the thinnest.

Nevertheless, patterns of health in Japan have changed since WWII with the adoption of a more American-influenced diet. "Western" diseases have emerged, although they have been largely protected from much of the obesity epidemic affecting the rest of the Industrialized Nations.

Japan: Calorie Consumption and Breakdown by Type of Nutrient
So I got curious. When my daughter moved to Japan, she left behind her rice cooker, as it was too expensive to ship it over there.

So I had a perfectly nice, functional rice cooker sitting there gathering dust on the kitchen counter.

And I had a daughter in Japan who increased her rice consumption (along with a bunch of other changing variables) and leaned out.

I've also been doing a fair bit of reading about the Japanese diet and the changes thereto since the end of World War II. While I initially found the whole low-carb argument to be pretty compelling as a primary cause of obesity, there are a number of problems with it as a hypothesis. A hypothesis that generates paradoxes typically has some fundamental flaw. The most famous example of this is the French Paradox, where you have a hypothesis that says that saturated fat causes heart disease, and you have these French people who eat much more saturated fat than Americans, and yet have less heart disease. This led to the silly resveratrol fraud, to explain away the paradox.

The carb/insulin-causes-obesity hypothesis has an even worse paradox in Japan.

The Experiment

I was kind of inspired by Stephan Guyenet's recent expirment:
"Where the praties grow: My seven-day potato diet experiment"
In which he noticed that very little happened. Sounds good!

I've been eating low-carb for almost eight years now. I'm not religiously low-carb, as I'll have some rice or potatoes now and again, but I'll often go a week or so with no carbohydrates at all aside from what's in milk.

I've been weight-stable for that entire period, after a two-month initial weight-loss period, in which I went from about 185 to 168. I'd been at 168 until about a year ago, when I stopped going to the gym and lifting weights regularly, at which point I dropped to about 160, primarily (if the mirror is any indicator) from losing muscle mass in my upper body.

I used to weigh myself almost everyday, so I'm quite familiar with the ups and downs of my body weight, although it's frankly gotten quite boring, as I'm totally weight stable, absent muscle gain or loss. So for the last 18 months I've just been going by my belt, which is, at the end of the day, the best indicator. As a confounder, I've been lifting weights again, and my weight (and results in the mirror) have been increasing. This should not affect the belt.


Rice. Made in California.
Diet is my usual diet paleo/primal diet. I avoid wheat and seed oils, eat a fair bit of beef and the occasional pork, fish, and chicken, in that order. I eat fruit and vegetables in small quantities on a regular basis, but not every day. I eat some sugar, in the form of a candy bar or a bowl of ice cream one or twice a week. I recently tracked my calorie consumption for a day to prove a point, and it was about 2,700 kilocalories (kc). Counting calories was a horrible experience, and I won't be doing it again.

Cuisinart Rice Cooker. Don't buy this model.
It leaks and seems like it's going to explode.
I exercise consistently, running 3.3 miles at an aerobic pace 5 days a week, and trail run 8.25 miles one day a week. I do some minor weight lifting and body-weight exercises six days a week, as little as needed to see an effect.

Rice Bin. Optional
Rice was mostly the Nishiki sushi rice you see in the picture. I got some other rice at the beginning, but prefer this since Grace yells at me if I'm not sufficiently Japanese in these things. I don't know that it makes a difference, as starch is starch, basically. Most days I made one meal with rice, typically 3/4s of a cup dry, which, after adding 1 cup of water, yields about 3 cups of rice cooked. That's 241 kc/cup, or 723 kc total. That's 27.6% of my daily calorie intake, mostly from carbs, as there's about 9% protein in rice and a little bit of fat. So, technically, still low-carb, but far above my average daily intake for the last many years.

Meal with Rice, Beef, and Vegetables.
So I mostly ate the rice as my morning meal, after I'd done my run. Most days I did not have a second helping, but on a few I did, same amount, but with my evening meal. In keeping with the Japanese theme of things, I tried to make some Japanese-style meals, as seen at the right. Meat, mostly beef, some vegetables such as the red peppers and pickles you see to the right, tamari (gluten-free soy sauce), and daikon radish (a Japanese radish) were typical. Sometimes I added a fried egg, cooked in butter.

In keeping with my philosophy that if you eat a healthy diet you should not need to obsess about it, I didn't, and didn't track closely. I started in late October, about at month after my daughter had arrived at school, and continued until the middle of December, at which point I stopped the experiment. See results.

Measurements were performed when I got dressed. As it happens, one of the very best measurements of the health of your diet is your waist, and your waist-to-height ratio.

J. Crew Black Leather Belt
The belt I used for this purpose is actually a terrific indicator of my overall health. I bought it at J. Crew back in the 1990s in my 20s, in my hipster phase (I've been told), and had to stop wearing it as my waist expanded in my late 20s. As I'm stubborn, and cheap, I put the belt and the pants I owned at that point in a box and kept them, with the goal that I would one day figure out why I was gaining weight and fix the problem. Having solved it, that belt is now again a standard part of my wardrobe.

If you look closely at the belt you'll see that the only worn hole is the second one. So buckling my belt to the second hole will be my measure, and it's clearly a long-term one.


So from late October to early December I had a helping of rice per day, infrequently two. Something had to go in this experiment, as and protein consumption tends to remain somewhat constant, my increase in rice calories caused a decrease in consumption of calories from dairy. Yogurt and milk (both full-fat) consumption went down dramatically.

I found a number of things surprising about this experiment.

I experienced "idiopathic postprandial syndrome" (IPS, aka hypoglycemia or "hangry") for a couple of days at the beginning. This was a regular part of my life prior to fixing my diet, and one of the main reasons I stay low-carb. Main symptom is the shakes and anxiety a few hours after a carb-containing meal. Oddly, however, this went away after the first few days, never to return.

Satiety increased. IPS is typically accompanied by carb cravings. Oddly, after the initial IPS and carb craving passed, I found the rice diet to be insanely satiating. Much more so than fat. I was pretty much done for the day after that rice meal in the morning. Most days I would have a second, smaller meal in the evening, or a large snack.

I really came to enjoy the rice! You'd think it would be pretty bland, but I came to quite enjoy the smell and taste, and to look forward to it.

Athletic performance remained the same. I didn't change my routine there, continuing to do my runs fasted in the morning, and noticed no difference, no change in carb cravings, and no problem with stamina when I was on my runs except for the first couple. I noticed no change in the increases I was seeing in my running pace and in my weight lifting routine, and the weight gain I was seeing continued as I would expect it to. I put on three pounds after starting to lift, and prior to starting this experiment, and I'm now up to 169. Mr. Mirror tells me it's going into my upper body (see below).

I do not test ketones, so I have no idea what those were doing. The fact that my fasted runs were unaffected suggests my metabolic flexibility was pretty good, as runs were still fueled by fat, as they took place typically about 22 hours after my rice meal.

Heart palpitations got pretty severe. I've experienced these for a long time, typically after eating carbs, especially sugar. It's usually in the form of skipped beats, and as at one point I went in for a stress test and they found nothing, I've not worried about it. The confounder here is that I have been pursuing a Maffetone Method fitness program for some months, and my max and resting heart rate have come down dramatically, and my running pace at a fixed heart rate has gone up quite a bit. The palpitations started before the rice experiment started, and ended (mostly) before it finished. But it was kind of annoying for a while there, although it never cause any interruption in my routine. So the palpitations may have been my heart restructuring as a result of the training.

So why did I quit? Well, after the middle of December I started putting on weight in my middle, and went from the second hole in my belt to the first. My recently-acquired jeans no longer fit.

Abort! Abort!

That happened suddenly in about a week.

I have no desire to put non-muscle weight on, and the fact that it hit the belt tells me that's what it was. So I've now been off rice for about a week an a half, and the belt now buckles on the second hole again, but still a bit snugger than before. As I mentioned, I've been weight-stable for a very long time. Two things will reliably cause me to add fat: salted pistachios and egg nog. (For me, two of the highest-reward foods going.) So when I suddenly start adding fat, and I'm not eating either one of those two foods, something is up.


Around the same time I decided to abort I talked to my daughter and she relayed that she was cutting back on the rice for the same reason. [P.S. I clarified this point, she's been gaining weight but it's muscle as she's been working out, so it's still working for her.]

Based on my reading about the Japanese diet, I figured this might actually work. But clearly I'm doing something different than they are.

My primary thought going into this was that the omega-6 fats were the primary cause of obesity, and that as I am very diligent in not eating them, that I would not experience any weight gain. That didn't work. There's some evidence that the omega-3 fats prevent obesity, and the fish-heavy Japanese diet would provide a lot of those, whereas mine does not. Stephan's potato experiment may have been too short to notice this, as it took about six weeks for the fat accretion to commence in my case.  I've always thought that carbs were a co-factor to omega-6, and I still think that's the case, but they may also be a stronger stand-alone factor than I had thought. Although we still have the Japanese paradox to account for...

In the short term, I'm going to let my waist get back to what I'd like it to be, and then I'm going to try it again. There may have been some other factor that I didn't notice that caused the sudden fat accretion, and I'm kind of curious to see if that's the case.

Since this is an n=1, the only way to account for such things is to remove the experimental substance, let conditions return to baseline, and then re-commence the experiment.

Plus I still have a couple pounds of rice in the pantry.

P.S. 1/8/2018: 

The rice experiment is back on. I I think that the slight increase in waist size is more a function of my increased training load than the rice consumption.

I ditched the rice for a bit, and saw no change, but have noticed that I'm getting noticable abdominal muscles, and have gotten some cramps in the abs. My glutes and hip flexors have also increased in size.

So I think this is a fine lesson in not doing two things at the same time when you're trying to conduct an experiment.

The belt is on the second notch still, it's just a bit snugger than before. Body weight was 175 (!) when I last measured it a few days ago. Again, from the mirror and my pants, the weight seems to be muscle.

So I'm back on the rice...

We shall see.