My Recent Presentation at the AHSNZ Conference Wanaka October 2014

Hi all – very sorry for the lack of recent posts. Busy teaching this semester!

Recently I participated in a very cool conference hosted by the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand. As well as being in Wanaka (the best place in NZ, except for Palmy of course ;-)) it was literally teeming with interesting presentations on all sorts of subjects, from fascia (Matthew Stewart) to mental health (Dr Greg Brown) to the intricacies of endurance training (Jamie Scott). Here I post the slides and text from my presentation – please feel free to share widely.



I don’t need to tell you where we have got to with regard to body image and the current ‘acceptable’ images of body in New Zealand.

This recent example of the clothing company Glasson’s using a mannequin with visible ribs highlights the body goal of the fashion and diet industries. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently problematic with ribs – I love ribs. But the imagery and the impact are wholly understated given the context of the population frequenting the store.

In this presentation I want to talk about body mass and endurance athletes, specifically I want to trouble our society’s current understanding of the relationship between mass and endurance within the context of an ancestral understanding of body. However I want to read the term ‘ancestral’ fairly broadly. I’ll start by explaining what I mean by this…


A discontent of our current society is the tendency to read biomedical science as ‘Truth’ with a capital T (that is the only possible truth.). This naturalistic perspective privileges some things at the expense of others. For instance it privileges conscious thought over Unconscious thought. And it privileges the individual (and here I am referring to the molecular individual) over the collective. But perhaps most importantly for our concern is that it privileges biomedical scientific knowledge over what I’ll term philosophical knowledge. So, if we read this quote from a naturalistic perspective we understand certain things about our ancestors – what they ate, how they moved, what their environmental conditions were and the like. To take the ‘thinking critically’ aspect here seriously I believe it is incumbent on us to also respect our ancestor’s philosophy – their understanding of their bodies in context, as devices of physical labour, as Mothers, as leaders, as mystics and others. This vicissitude, this distinction, that sees biomedical and NOT philosophical bodies, is artificial, and in my opinion risks a simplification that threatens to undermine the emergent radical potentiality within the ‘ancestral health’ movement by sucking it into line with the ‘diet’ industry – i.e. just another fad. Which would be a tragedy. So in some ways what I have to say here is rather political, as a strident critic of the wider diet industry it is very exciting for me to be involved with a theorization of health that doesn’t want me to be losing weight.


Ok – so just one more theoretical spiel before I’ll cut to the fun bit. So what are these critical philosophical concepts that I see underpinning the ancestral movement – well thankfully, only one. This comes via Nietzsche and then Foucault – this is the concept of genealogy. Which is not the study of one’s ancestry but a form of enquiry that, and I’m quoting here “seeks to show the plural and sometimes contradictory past that reveals traces of the influence that power has had on truth”. Specifically here I present some ideas on a geneology of the BMI measure, how has this become the ‘truth’ – and what are the facets of this truth, how does it work as a device of power? I do this via what distance runners say about body size.


It isn’t difficult to find bloggers and others promoting the exploits of Scottish highland warriors (I’m not talking specifically about Braveheart here – but you get my drift!). But plumbing my own Scottish ancestry seems like a useful beginning, and a necessary intrusion, to considering what has changed in the last few hundred years with regard to perceptions of body mass.

My entire heritage is Scottish, except perhaps for a little northern English infiltration. And in my family runs a heavy mass set of genes (I say ‘set’ on purpose because so far at least ‘science’ is pretty rubbish when it comes to figuring body mass genetically). Thus I have a set of cousins and others who are all ‘of mass’ and a set who are a little littler (including my brother). Losing weight has always been a problem for this segment of my family, though it’s fair to say that I’m pretty good at it. Top weight ~140kg, lightest around 88kg now somewhere in the vicinity of 105kg (if you want to read lots about my personal experiences I’ve published three journal articles so far that tackle different aspects of this)

The odd thing about the bulky line in my family is our relative sporting prowess at least in distance running, peculiarly. My last half marathon was 1:45:00 at 107kg and 180cm.


So the science is pretty definitive on endurance running performance. The number one factor that impacts on performance (as measured by speed) is body size. The larger you are the slower you run. In fact the physics are pretty simple (read the papers if you want the detail). Age has an effect also – but it isn’t as pronounced and there are some oddities, like men often get faster between the ages of 30-50 (which tends to piss off the young men!).

Now the scientists behind this research have developed a calculator whereby you can adjust your running performance based on your body size age to allow accurate comparisons.


So here you can witness my failure. My PB half marathon is 1:35:55 posted in Manawatu in 2006 when I was 88kg or so and 30 years old – when calculated for size and age my adjusted time is 1:24:26. Fast forward 7 years, one master’s degree, one PhD, two kids including one with rare genetic disease and birth trauma, and no less than 10 fairly awesome running injuries and I run again in Manawatu and cross the line in 1:45:flat (10 mins slower, sigh). But I’m saved by the calculator – when adjusted for my then 107kg mass: 1:23:05.

Ok – so theatrics aside, what this data proves (and my two times are simply two examples of thousands used by the researchers) is that body weight makes a difference – My guess right now is that no one in this room is even remotely surprised, right?

So what happens when we asked 1000 NZ marathon runners whether they thought that endurance races should have weight divisions?


75% unsupportive or very unsupportive

10% are ambivalent

15% supportive

Ok – so the assumption must be that the 15% in support are the big heavier runners?


Yes, this is exactly what we see – as body weight increases so does support for weight categories, the correlation is 80%, which is strong.


But when we run those figures by Body Mass instead the correlation disappears, in fact it disappears because this very significant drop from generally supportive to generally unsupportive between the categories of ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’. Now please remember that those runners in the ‘obese’ category still can run 42.2km in one go – nothing to be sneezed at, they are very fit, very dedicated people, just larger than average people.

So what exactly is going on? We have this anomaly – larger people with BMIs over 30 don’t support weight divisions, whilst larger people with BMIs between 25 and 30 generally do. It seems for runners we can ignore ‘overweight’ mass but not ‘obese’ mass. In fact here we can see the power of the BMI as it determines how people understand the ‘truth’ of their bodies, regardless of how they consciously reject it.

So in the next two slides I’m going to show you two small pieces of data, separated by 20 years or so that provide a snapshot from the perspective of the endurance runner on body weight.


I’ll leave you alone to read this quietly – written in the early 1990s ‘Oversized oafs’… ‘blubberous blimps’… ‘hefty hippos’ which is your favourite alliterative genius?

In fact this type of vitriolic reaction is totally common in road running events (not in mountain running interestingly – I have a pet theory on this – but no time now to explore it). Laura Chase, a U.S. based academic interested in weight divisions in running even uncovered this as a factor in the suicide of one of the first proponents of this idea. This is what NZ runners said.


The first ‘camp’ of reasoning (and I hesitate to call this reasoning) suggests that there is a significant danger within the recognition of weight divisions, as it apparently ‘sends the wrong message’; after all we wouldn’t want them to belong!

The second ‘camp’ presents the sport as an individual enterprise, in fact so individualized that there is no competition except competing against your-self.

The third ‘camp’ recognizes that larger runners “should be allowed” (which is actually fairly representative, in fact quite a few suggest there should be checks in place to prevent larger runners from participating – due to their supposed risk profile). But that they themselves would react very very badly by being classified by weight – this is more prevalent among women, because heaven forbid there is ever an official public record of the number on the scales!!

Ok… so what how can I theorise this reaction within the philosophy of genealogy in ancestral health? More interestingly – how can a philosophy of ancestral health, or perhaps more fittingly ancestral hauora become a kaupapa for re-thinking body mass in endurance running. I have only two slides left – I’ll first tackle the theory-side and then some learnings.


So the problem with the Other is actually a feel simple one – and an ancient one. Philosophically this dates back as far as we care to go, Plato’s cave for instance. The issue that confronts us is that the Other lives in us – we are constructed from it, via the twists and turns of language acquisition. The things we fear the most are habitually part of us.

This results in people habitually resisting any mechanism which grants legitimacy to something that might empower the Other, despite their desire. The irony is that this resistance is one side of a coin – it ‘simply’ needs a flip to become reality. That flip is the movement from fundamentalism to pluralism.


What is the utility of a body? What is the function of a body? – Here we can take a steer from the demands of the environment. Having a body ‘fit’ to work is a functional demand, and one that is very easy to moralize into a particular physical environment. We also need bodies that have utility socially – what does that look like now? (I acknowledge my new found colleague Adele Hite for the image on your right – her presentation to the Ancestral Society in the U.S. in 2013 is fascinating!)

Size does not equal health. Skinny is a modern (or perhaps a post-modern) neurosis. This does not mean that skinny people are neurotic, but that the overwhelming desire for skinny creates neurotic behaviour. Thus the meme that follows Kate Moss around “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is in fact representative of our society’s discontent with body size. My challenge to that, aside from the obvious challenge posed by bacon, is a challenge for all those who think ancestrally to think in plural and allow contradiction to exist without seeking to placate this with some sort of overarching truth, a fundamentalist truth. Instead work with people, of any size, to recognize their utility and function – whatever that might be.

One thing that Adele Hite has suggested is whether this could take the form of an alliance or relationship to the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, which seeks above all body acceptance. Now, while very supportive of the respect of all bodies, I’m also cautious – due in part to some significant concerns raised by a sociologist colleague Deborah Lupton, for instance she states that HAES “reproduces the classic Cartesian duality of the mind/self as separate from the body/flesh and turns it on its head. Instead of the rational mind positioned as superior to the fleshly body, here the body is represented as ‘wise’ and all-knowing, to which the mind/self should relinquish control. Yet as theorists such as Merleau-Ponty have argued, we cannot separate ‘self’ from ‘body’: we always and inevitably experience the world as embodied selves”. But on balance I think it is a good idea. However what about an alliance with desire? A most ancient driving force I’m sure you would agree? For me at least a tenet of ancestral health involves respecting desire – which I think seems very logical within the philosophy? And certainly a significant point of departure from the diet industry.



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AHSNZ Wanaka Conference: Health of the Land, Health of the People

Originally posted on The Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand:

“Lifestyle change” is a buzz concept. It has become a glib phrase too easily rolled off the tongues of magazine health experts, weight loss gurus, personal trainers, and increasingly more doctors and other health professionals. But what do we actually mean by that term? Inevitably the advice given seems to zero in on the food that we put in our mouths. And for a good reason. What used to be mere sustenance and nourishment has become a commodity to trade, a creation of science, a product to sell to the consumer at all costs. Exaggeration? Hardly. Our own great grandmothers would not recognise the majority of the ingredients of colourful boxes on supermarket shelves. Modern hunter gatherers would probably not recognise most of these as Food.

However, it’s all too easy to just focus on the food on our plate. You get educated, you make the change from processed…

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Food Star Rating System Example Calculation – Chocolate Milk

This post relates to the star rating system that the NZ government has recently decided to support. This system will allow food manufacturers to calculate a rating (out of 5 stars) to determine the supposed ‘healthiness’ of a food. The calculations appear to be very complex, and based on some ‘interesting’ food guidelines. Below I reproduce one of the example calculations for those who are interested. This is taken directly from this document, available from this website. It does not represent my personal opinion, I really hate the idea of a star rating system – see here for more of my opinions on this.

Example 1 – Chocolate milk

Nutrition Information – chocolate milk

Component Per 100 mL
Energy 380 kJ
Protein 3.2 g
Saturated fatty acids 1.2 g
Total sugars 9.5 g
Dietary fibre 0
Sodium 45 mg
Calcium 120 mg

1) Determine the HSRC category of the food

The chocolate milk is a dairy beverage because it meets the >80 mg calcium per 200 mL reference serve requirement and is therefore a Category 1D food.

2) Determine form of food

As sold

3) Calculate HSR baseline points

Based on the nutrition information for the chocolate milk example, the baseline points obtained are highlighted below   Table 1: HSR Baseline Points for Category 1, 1D, 2 or 2D Foods*

Baseline points Average energy content (kJ) per 100 g or 100 mL Average saturated fatty acids (g) per 100 g or 100 mL Average total sugars (g) per 100 g or 100 mL Average sodium (mg) per 100 g or 100 mL
0 ≤335 ≤1.0 ≤5.0 ≤90
1 >335 >1.0 >5.0 >90
2 >670 >2.0 >9.0 >180
3 >1005 >3.0 >13.5 >270
4 >1340 >4.0 >18.0 >360
5 >1675 >5.0 >22.5 >450
6 >2010 >6.0 >27.0 >540
7 >2345 >7.0 >31.0 >630

*This table is a shortened version of Table 1 provided in the HSRC Guide above       Total baseline points=             (1) + (1) + (2) + (0) =             4

4) Calculate HSR modifying points

HSR V points The chocolate milk in this example does not contain any fvnl.   V points = 0   HSR Protein (P) and fibre (F) points Category 1D foods cannot score F points.   Based on the nutrition information for the chocolate milk example, the protein points obtained are highlighted below:   Table 4: HSR Protein (P) and Fibre (F) Points

Points Protein (g) per 100 g or 100 mL Dietary fibre (g) per 100 g or 100 mL
0 ≤1.6 ≤0.9
1 >1.6 >0.9
2 ≥3.2 >1.9
3 >4.8 >2.8
4 >6.4 >3.7
5 >8.0 >4.7
6 >9.6 >5.4
7 >11.6 >6.3
8 >13.9 >7.3
9 >16.7 >8.4
10 >20.0 >9.7
11 >24.0 >11.2
12 >28.9 >13.0
13 >34.7 >15.0
14 >41.6 >17.3
15 >50 >20.0

The foods in this example contains 3.2 g of protein per 100 ml and therefore scores 2 protein points. P points = 2 F points = 0    

5) Calculate the final HSR score

Chocolate milk   Final HSR Score          =          4 – (0) – (2) – (0) =      2

6) Assessment of the final HSR score to a rating

The final HSR score for the chocolate dairy milk example (Category 1D food) is 2. Therefore the food, for the purposes of this example only, would be assigned a rating of 3 stars.   Note: the rating of similar products may vary depending on the amount of added sugar or fibre and type of milk used.

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“Diets have never worked”: Niki Bezzant in the Sunday Star Times

“Diets have never worked” Niki Bezzant writes in the Sunday Star Times. The article is a short set of statements with three main messages:

  1. Things haven’t changed much since at least the 1960s (as evidenced by a 1966 diet book discovered at a book sale)
  2. The 1960s was a time of quaint language and odd food choices (at least by todays standards)
  3. But you can lose weight for life, but only if you:

“find a way of eating that we can live with not just for 12 weeks, but for our whole life” 

Putting aside the anecdote and hyperbole the logic perversion from beginning to end is a bit odd. Bezzant’s sense of logic appears to be completely perverted by this ‘fantasy of weight loss’. Everything she reads gets dragged into alignment with the idea that eventually everyone can and should lose weight for life, that we can all live in an (un)happy utopia hovering somewhere close to the mid point of the Body Mass Index measure. 

Discovering ancient diet books and chuckling at their peculiarities is not exactly a new thing, historians of weight loss and dieting have been making these observations for many years, see examples in this great article by Jessica Parr and Prof Nicolas Rasmussen for instance. And although the language is quaint and the food choices odd, the reality is that much has actually changed since 1966. Two things of particular note: The average New Zealander is around 8kg heavier and they also live about 15 years longer (you can figure the relationship here). 

What has also changed is the fervor with which the average weight loss focused nutritionist/dietician claims to have figured it all out. Bezzant’s final paragraph is telling: 

But the fact remains (and we have known this since before 1966) that if we want to maintain weight loss, we need to find a way of eating that we can live with not just for 12 weeks, but for our whole life. And that’s unlikely to be a diet with a long list of rules.

There is no fact here, no known knowledge about how to maintain weight loss. At best weight loss theory is highly theoretical with many factors, most of which science doesn’t really understand. At worst it is anecdote and hyperbole – the kind that Dr Oz rolls out repeatedly on his television show. (As an aside please watch this awesome destruction of Dr Oz by John Oliver, brilliance). 

Really Bezzant’s article should have the following conclusion, one that does not make a perverted logic leap. Read her original with my new conclusion, I think you will agree it is an improvement! 

“There are lots of ways to temporarily lose weight, and different things will work for different people, depending on lifestyle, lifestage, personality and willpower.


But the fact remains (and we have only figured this out in the last decade) that promoting weight loss is a fallacy, something that is done to sell books and exercise contraptions, and magazines, and that has obviously been happening since at least as early as 1966. Clearly the author of ‘The Complete Woman Book of Successful Slimming’ was not privy to what we know now; as such we can’t judge their product as an ethical failing, but simply as an artefact of the times” 

Of course, we can however judge current weight-loss books, contraptions, magazines and articles in the Sunday Star Times as ethical failings.

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Look at the illness, not the fantasy: Dom Post Op-Ed

Here is the text from a op-ed Bill Kaye-Blake from and I have today in the Dom Post. Just trying to move the debate away from the illogic and ideology of the contested term ‘obesity’.

Should sugary drinks be taxed? It’s certainly easy to see the case for doing so.

Studies suggest they increase the rate of diabetes, and that sugar-sweetened beverages are worse for diabetes than other drinks, calorie-for-calorie.

Diabetes is increasing in New Zealand and its treatment is demanding more resource from our public health budgets, so there is no doubt that reducing diabetes would save taxpayers money.

Further, it is clear that we can reduce the consumption of sugary drinks by taxation. Consumers react to higher prices by buying less – this works with New Zealand consumption data as well as when looking at the overseas implementation of similar taxes.

There is also good economic reasoning for such a tax.

Sugar-sweetened beverages create a cost for the public health system.

The person enjoying the drink and the companies profiting from it are creating costs that fall on everyone.

From this perspective taxing these drinks is just a case of “getting the prices right”, and then letting individuals make their own choices.

However, there is a deeper fantasy at work driving public health campaigns: a fantasy of perfect bodies and perfect taxes.

The economic logic for sugar- sweetened beverage taxes is unassailable by itself. Some people are creating costs for other people and should be made to pay compensation.

Of course, we are always creating costs and benefits for other people.

When we tidy our front gardens our neighbours get some enjoyment.

Perhaps we could remove a portion of the tax on the petrol used in lawnmowers because it leads to neatly manicured berms?

The fantasy is that we can perfectly account for our community debits and credits. It relies on the notion that we have some sort of personal account where our community contributions can be set against our drawings.

The fantasy is that we can fine-tune our accounting, so that no one is overdrawn and no one has to over- contribute.

In reality, this fantasy ends up being mediated in some way through legislation.

When we recognise a form of consumption that creates significant and calculable costs, we respond with taxation or some other legal route (such as prohibition).

Tobacco and petroleum products are examples of taxed products. The products formerly known as “legal highs” are examples of prohibited ones.

This process of mediation is what prevents “silly” taxation policy – such as a tax break on petrol for lawnmowers.

For sugar-sweetened beverages, the device of mediation (where fantasy becomes law) should be in the areas where they have been rigorously implicated – diabetes and dental health being the most obvious.

These conditions by themselves justify the sorts of taxes proposed.

But a major focus of the calls from many “health” campaigners is the impact that taxing these drinks might have on the contested term “obesity”.

The focus on obesity reveals the other public health fantasy: socially engineering perfect bodies.

There is no sense in attempting to tie a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, or any food consumption, to obesity.

As a concept, obesity is extremely problematic for many reasons – body composition being the most commonly accepted one.

For example, Richie McCaw is obese by the standard of Body Mass Index (BMI).

If, for instance, we decided to tax sugar-sweetened beverages and had a subsequent reduction in diabetes and improvement in dental health, would the tax be judged unsuccessful if BMI didn’t change?

In fact, diabetes and poor dental health affect people of all body sizes, who can all be healthier, regardless of BMI. But if a sugary drink tax collected enough healthcare funding to pay for diabetes and dental care, would public health campaigners still demand more just to make people slimmer?

What we must ponder is why public health campaigners and researchers feel the need to complicate a very simple relationship by dropping in the term obesity whenever possible, despite its longstanding logical and ideological problems.

Or, put differently: why are they so determined to define and control body mass when they could just target disease?


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The Evil of the BMI Calculator

Today I was trawling the web for a BMI calculator to work out Richie McCaw’s Body Mass Index measure (Richie is the captain of the All Blacks, we love Richie). His BMI is around 30 it seems, just obese – well done Richie! Anyway I came upon this calculator provided by the Australian Heart Foundation. It is notable because it also provides a useful (oh wait, I mean useless) diagram of what you must look like. So I plugged my height and weight into the boxes and here is the lovely response:

Image So I thought I would post a photo of what my body actually looks like (sorry – couldn’t bring myself to do the nude shot):



and no… I don’t do weights, go to the gym or anything else silly like that. I just run as much as I can fit into my schedule. So my message to the Australian Heart Foundation is pretty simple – take down your stupid, abusive, misleading BMI calculator with the added ‘fat bastard’ image generator. It is offensive, plain and simple.




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Modernisation not good for health: Whaaaat?

I’m sure you have all seen the headlines in the last few days about how large we all are etc… The rhetoric is pretty boring and standard, not much analysis for me to add aside from the usual, being based on the BMI measure and all that.

But I was not expecting the level of ridiculous claims that have been reported in the herald: I’ll quote one lovely section:

“Modernisation has not been good for health,” said Syed Shah, an obesity expert at United Arab Emirates University, who found obesity rates have jumped five times in the last 20 years even in a handful of remote Himalayan villages in Pakistan.

Come on Dr Shah, you are looking at a thin slice of a very large health pie. Similar to NZ the average life expectancy in Pakistan has increased about 7 years between 1980 and now and they have also got larger. In NZ for instance we live about 7 years longer than in 1980 and the middle point human (middle weight middle height) is about 7kg heavier.

The point is that Modernisation is great for health. You can’t say it isn’t,  they just want to see weight increase as inherently bad. I can’t wait for this tripe to be replaced with the far more interesting issues of commodification of culture, capital control, and security.  I imagine these are more interesting to the average Pakistani?

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