Feb 042015
 
Photo: Herb Thyme

Dartington Hall – Photo by Herb Thyme

I have recently been reminded about my visits over the years to Dartington Hall, near Totnes, Devon in South-West England. The connection between it and my family is, of course, through Rabindranath Tagore.

My first visit there was with my parents as part of a small group accompanying the late Tagore singer Kanika Bannerjee, a long-standing friend of my father. It was to organise a concert with her at the Conway Hall in London in 1976 that my parents had launched the cultural organisation Prantik.

Some years later, when Dr Frances Shepherd was the music director at Dartington College of Arts, she had persuaded the late Pandit Sharda Sahai to become artist in residence at Dartington. During this period, he started giving tabla lessons every weekend at Toynbee Hall in East London. As he was from the same gharana as my original tabla teacher (Binod Bihari Sarkar in Kolkata), my parents took me there to help me to develop my tabla playing.

Before long, it was time to do my tabla exams. However, as they were only a week or so after my university finals, I had had little time to prepare. So Shardaji kindly offered to let me stay with his family for the week before the tabla exams, so that I could prepare for them with his students in Dartington. It was a memorable week.

Dartington College had been established by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, who bought Dartington Hall and the land around it in 1925. Leonard Elmhirst had been rural development adviser to Tagore in Santiniketan. Dartington College was modelled on Tagore’s educational principles (which are similar to the ‘self-organised learning environments’ that Professor Sugata Mitra was advocating at the Learning Technologies conference in London last week).

More recently, Kaberi and I visited Dartington with my father in 2004 so that she could do some research for her PhD in Tagore dance in the Elhirst archives at Hill Cross House.

To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.” – Charles Darwin, 1879

I was reminded of our connection with Dartington recently when I decided to write to the Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee to call for an investigation into the apparent problems I had come across while exploring how best to help my father’s dementia. I was fascinated to see that Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Chair of the Committee, is the MP for Totnes. Dartington falls within her constituency.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have drawn attention to these problems in my film You must be nuts! – the business of dementia.

I gave the letter I sent to Dr Wollaston last night the title ‘Doubts about dietary/medical guidance and research funding’. As you will see, it has four annexes – on dietary advice, medical guidance, medical research and chronic regulatory failure affecting the nation’s health.

My thanks particularly to those who provided me with background information for the letter, including Jerome Burne (medical journalist), Patrick Holford (CEO of the Food for the Brain Foundation), Dr Stephanie Seneff (Senior Research Scientist at MIT), Justin Smith (Producer/Director of Statin Nation and Statin Nation 2), Nina Teicholz (investigative journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise), and Dr Verner Wheelock (nutritionist). I am also grateful to Zoë Harcombe (author of The Obesity Epidemic), Dr Malcolm Kendrick (author of The Great Cholesterol Con) and cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra for their articles and blog posts.

Over the weekend, it emerged that doctors are being offered incentives to prescribe statin drugs (which Dr Stephanie Seneff described as ‘toxic’ in her interview for You must be nuts!). After sending my letter, the morning news revealed that MPs from the Public Accounts Committee had called for radical change to make the NHS sustainable.

On the last page of the fourth annex of my letter, I draw attention to a model highlighted by Frederic Laloux in his RSA talk ‘How to become a soulful organisation’. Maybe it could suggest a humanist and more cost-effective way forward for the NHS.

Dec 242014
 
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

It has been over a year since my last post here. Let me explain why.

In January 2013, I wrote about Coconut oil: after the cataclysm. Almost two years later, I have just completed the film You must be nuts! which traces the journey I’ve been on since then.

It’s my fourth feature film – the first three being film versions of the three dance-dramas by Rabindranath Tagore: Shyama, Chandalika and Chitrangada. Of course, You must be nuts! is a very different film from the Tagore dance-dramas. However, after dealing with repressive regimes, prejudice and women’s emancipation in the previous films, the theme of You must be nuts! is probably just as controversial.

You must be nuts! is more like an investigative documentary, with puppets. Here is its 3-minute prequel.

As you will realise from the film, the situation is even more sinister than I had imagined when I wrote my blog post about coconut oil almost two years ago.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with Tagore. After all, he was writing poetry right up to his death at the age of 80 on 7 August 1941 and he wrote his most accomplished stage work, Shyama, at the age of 78.

Well, here in the West, there is a convenient myth that more people are likely to develop dementia because people are living longer. Was Tagore an exception? Maybe it was because he kept himself mentally active?

In reality, there has been a surge of dementia in the last 30 years which cannot be explained simply by increased life expectancy. It was rare until the 1980s. Today, over half of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s, compared to 2% in the 1960s. In addition, 8% of people with dementia have Young onset dementia – they are between 30 and 65.

Even so, friends joke about having a ‘senior moment’ or ‘early Alzheimer’s’ when they forget a name or something slips their mind. There is a general fear that, as everyone gets older, they will get Alzheimer’s. Indeed, a recent UK survey revealed that ‘a third of people are worried about getting dementia’.

In what has been classed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2014 (The Big Fat Surprise), Nina Teicholz has provided a fascinating but tragic account of why scientists in the US and other countries started to advocate a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol 50 years ago. She summarised the story of what happened in an interview:

“It begins in the 1950s, when the desperate need to solve the heart-disease epidemic caused experts to jump the gun, launching dietary guidelines based on weak, incomplete science. As research dollars and institutions became invested in the idea, it became harder to reverse course, until, ultimately, the U.S. government’s adoption of the diet enshrined it in our federal bureaucracy. Biased science became a necessity. A once-loud group of critics was silenced … .”

When you realise that a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol may cause dementia, and that a (low fat), high carbohydrate diet increases the risk of dementia by a factor of almost 4, you start to see this seemingly harmless dietary advice in very a different light. Indeed, a study published last month concluded that, not only does eating more saturated fat not increase the level of saturated fat in the blood but also diabetes and heart disease are linked to diets high in carbohydrates.

Last week, Dr Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a feature article with the title Are some diets “mass murder”? . He concludes that:

“The successful attempt to reduce fat in the diet of Americans and others around the world has been a global, uncontrolled experiment, which like all experiments may well have led to bad outcomes. What’s more, it has initiated a further set of uncontrolled global experiments that are continuing.”

After all I have seen and heard in my research about dementia over the past three years, it seems to me most likely that the lives of millions of people, including my father, have been harmed by regulatory failure which failed to stop ‘bad science’ driving Government advice. That, in turn, seems to be costing public authorities millions, if not billions, in avoidable healthcare costs.

The clear stream of reason seems to have lost its way, whether because of corruption or complacency (the dreary desert sand of dead habit), over at least 30 years. Maybe there is even fear to admit that mistakes were made. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a full, formal investigation, possibly with criminal penalties for the individuals responsible, certainly with policies based on the latest scientific research.

As things stand, though, we in the West are far from being where the mind is without fear. At least by publishing You must be nuts! on YouTube, and by providing the underlying scientific references, knowledge is free and words come out from the depth of truth.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1912

Jan 202013
 

Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: ‘By unrighteousness man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.’ From Civilisation’s crisis – the last speech of Rabindranath Tagore, 7 May 1941.

Coconuts hanging from a tree (Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Iaminfo)

Coconuts hanging from a tree (Photo: Iaminfo)

Early last year, a neighbour in London sent me a link to a video news clip suggesting that coconut oil could help to reverse Alzheimer’s disease. It sounded like an unlikely potential solution to a fairly widespread health problem – at least two of our friends and relatives suffer from Alzheimer’s or from dementia.

The clip was based on the research efforts of Dr Mary Newport who had started giving her husband 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day after her husband was diagnosed as having advanced Alzheimer’s in 2004. It had a noticeable effect within 2 weeks. The news item followed the publication of her book What if there was a cure for Alzheimer’s and no-one knew? in late 2011. This was also the title of an article she had written in 2008 based on her experience and her research. In 2010, she had done a study of the effects of giving coconut oil/MCT oil to people with dementia.

One relative with fronto-temporal dementia, who had been advised to try alternative therapies as there is no known medication for it, started taking coconut oil after I did some research about its possible side effects. Essentially, the main side effect I’ve come across is that, for some people, it can lead to diarrhoea or stomach cramps initially unless you start with a little and increase the quantity of coconut oil gradually. Another is weight loss.

Earlier this month, a follow-up video news clip was published and the UK Daily Mail published an article entitled Can coconut oil ease Alzheimer’s? Families who’ve given it to loved ones swear by it. From what we have seen with our relative, the answer is ‘yes’ … and, since dementia can start 10-20 years before the symptoms appear, we have started to use it too.

What type of coconut oil?

There are different types of coconut oil. The main distinction is between refined and unrefined (also referred to as virgin or extra virgin coconut oil). The specific characteristics depend on the process used to create the coconut oil. Some coconut oils are refined using a chemical process involving hexane.

Virgin (or extra virgin) coconut oil is quite expensive, even if you buy in bulk. The one we are using at the moment is Coconoil organic virgin coconut oil, which costs £7.50 per 460ml tub if you order 12 tubs. We have tried other virgin coconut oils from health food shops but these have been more expensive.

We use the virgin coconut oil ‘neat’, with porridge or yoghurt, but use a refined coconut oil for cooking. The refined coconut oil we are using is KTC pure coconut oil, which is “not hydrogenated in any way and hexane is not used in the refining process“. Both Coconoil and KTC pure coconut oil come from Sri Lanka.

How much coconut oil?

In the original video, Dr Newport had mentioned giving her husband 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day. However, more recently, I came across the article Conquering Alzheimer’s with coconut ketones by Dr Bruce Fife.  According to him “The simple of act of adding coconut oil into the diet can both prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease. For treatment purposes a total of 5 tablespoons (74 ml) a day taken with meals is recommended. Add a portion of the coconut oil to each of the three meals consumed during the day. For prevention, take 2-3 tablespoons (30-44 ml) daily.”

Combining coconut oil with a low carbohydrate diet

Dr Fife insists that coconut oil would need to be combined with a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. His book Stop Alzheimer’s now! goes on to claim that this would prevent and reverse not only dementia but also Parkinson’s, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

In any case, other research suggests that the best oil for salads is olive oil while the best oil for cooking is coconut oil. Indeed we shouldn’t use olive oil at high temperatures.

Wait, but isn’t coconut oil supposed to be bad for the heart?

Miranda Kerr has had coconut oil daily since she was 14

In mid-2011, when it emerged that the then 27-year-old Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr attributed “her blemish-free skin and glossy hair”, as well as her slim figure, to taking coconut oil since she was 14, supposedly credible doctors, including at the World Health Organisation, asserted that, since coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fat and calories, it could lead to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Unfortunately, those doctors seem to have an “elementary school understanding of the subject of fats” because the “saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain triglycerides which means they are converted by the body into immediate energy, not as added weight!”

In fact, as Dr Joseph Mercola pointed out in his article Coconut Oil Benefits: When Fat Is Good For Youa study back in the 1930s found “South Pacific Islanders whose diets were high in coconut to be healthy and trim, despite high dietary fat, and heart disease was virtually non-existent. Similarly, in 1981, researchers studying two Polynesian communities for whom coconut was the primary caloric energy source found them to have excellent cardiovascular health and fitness.”

Moreover, rather than being a threat to coronary health, “the naturally occurring saturated fat in coconut oil is actually good for you and provides a number of profound health benefits, such as:

• Improving your heart health.
• Boosting your thyroid.
• Increasing your metabolism.
• Promoting a lean body and weight loss if needed.
• Supporting your immune system.”

This is a relatively short list compared to the 333 uses for coconut oil. That notes that coconut oil contains the “good” cholesterol

So where does the bad reputation of coconut oil come from?

According to this and other articles, it is the result of a campaign to discredit coconut oil which was started in the mid-1980s by the American Soybean Association to increase sales of soybean oil by eliminating competition from imported coconut and palm oils. Up to that point, coconut and palm oils were common ingredients in many foods and were used extensively because they gave foods desirable properties.

“The media started warning the public about a newly discovered health threat – coconut oil.  It was proclaimed that coconut oil was a saturated fat and would cause heart disease.  In response to this anti-coconut oil campaign, movie theaters began cooking their popcorn in soybean oil.  Food makers began using soybean oil and partially hydrogenated soybean oil (margarine) instead of the tropical oils they had used for years.  Restaurants stopped using tropical oils in favor of soybean and other vegetables oils. The ASA set out to scare people away from using tropical oils.  In 1986, the ASA sent a “Fat Fighter Kit” to soybean farmers encouraging them to write to government officials, food companies, etc. protesting the use of highly saturated tropical fats.  The wives and families of some 400,000 soybean farmers were encouraged to lobby touting the health benefits of soybean oil.  Misguided health groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPI) joined this lobby, issuing news releases referring to tropical oils as “artery-clogging fats.” By the early 1990s, the tropical oils market was only a fraction of what it once was.”

This had a fairly devastating effect on the countries which exported coconut oil. “Factories closed down, coconut farms were abandoned, the trucking and shipping industry was adversely affected, literally millions of people found themselves out of work and unable to find employment. In the island countries of the South Pacific, coconut production contributes to as much as 80% of their economy. So when coconut sales fell, these countries were thrown into an economic depression. In the Philippines, one-third of the population depends on coconut for their livelihoods. That amounts to about 25 million people. The majority of these people barely made a living as it was, now with the drop in demand for coconut oil and other coconut products the majority were thrust into complete poverty.”

The irony

As a result, the coconut oil and palm oil in people’s diets were replaced by vegetable oils. Unfortunately, “many of the domestic [US] oils are predominantly polyunsaturated, which makes them quite unstable, and subject to oxidation. To make them more stable, they need to be hydrogenated. A major portion of soybean oil, for example, is hydrogenated.”

As Dr Mercola explains, “Hydrogenation manipulates vegetable and seed oils by adding hydrogen atoms while heating the oil, producing a rancid, thickened substance that really only benefits processed food shelf life and corporate profits — just about all experts now agree, hydrogenation does nothing good for your health. These manipulated saturated fats are also called trans-fats — and you should avoid them like the plague. … And polyunsaturated fats, which include common vegetable oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower and canola, are absolutely the worst oils to cook with.”

Angelina Jolie has virgin coconut oil for breakfast

According to recent scientific research, hydrogenated vegetable oil “may be responsible for an unknown, but certainly very large, number of heart attacks”. So, ironically, having branded coconut and palm oils as “artery-clogging fats” without scientific evidence, the oils that were used to replace coconut and palm oils in the 1980s for essentially trade reasons have turned out to be “an artificially produced fat form that contains rich amounts of trans-fatty acids, or trans-fats. Trans-fats can increase your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol and reduce your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. Managing your cholesterol is important, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, because high cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries, which is associated with heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Fortunately, coconut oil has started to make a comeback over the past 10 years, as illustrated by this interesting list of The top 10 celebrities who use virgin coconut oil. Coconut oil is also widely available at health food shops, Asian groceries, larger supermarkets and even Amazon. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to read the articles linked here and suggest that our friends and relatives, not to mention ourselves, try coconut oil. Thanks to the Internet, people around the world are helping to set the record straight about coconut oil.

In the early 1900s, Tagore famously sought a “heaven of freedom” “where knowledge was free” – rather like the late Aaron Swartz, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and others. In his last speech some 30 years later, he had looked forward to a period “after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. … Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: ‘By unrighteousness man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.'”

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