The Alternative Oven

During the Second World War, the RAF pioneered the use of radar to detect the presence of the incoming Luftwaffe raids. One of the key pieces of equipment used in the construction of the radars was called a magnetron, which uses a magnetic field to propel high-speed electrons and generate the kind of high-powered radio waves needed for such a technology to be successful over long distances. After the war was over, the British government felt it could share such technology with its American allies, and so granted permission for Raytheon, a private American enterprise, to produce them. Whilst experimenting with such a radar set in 1945, a Raytheon engineer called Percy Spencer reached to the chocolate bar in his pocket; and discovered it had melted. He later realised that the electromagnetic radiation generated by the radar set had been the cause of this heating effect, and thought that such technology could be put to a different, non-military use- and so the microwave oven was born.

Since then, the microwave has become the epitome of western capitalism’s golden age; the near-ubiquitous kitchen gadget, usually in the traditional white plastic casing, designed to make certain specific aspects of a process already technically performed  by another appliance (the oven) that bit faster and more convenient. As such, it has garnered its fair share of hate over the years, shunned by serious foodies as a taste-ruining harbinger of doom to one’s gastric juices that wouldn’t be seen dead in any serious kitchen. The simplicity of the microwaving process (especially given that there is frequently no need for a pot or container) has also lead to the rise of microwavable meals, designed to take the concept of ultra-simple cooking to its extreme by creating an entire meal  from a few minutes in the microwave. However, as everyone who’s every attempted a bit of home cooking will know, such process does not naturally occur quite so easily and thus these ready meals generally require large quantities of what is technically known as ‘crap’ for them to function as meals. This low quality food has become distinctly associated with the microwave itself, further enhancing its image as a tool for the lazy and the kind of societal dregs that the media like to portray in scare statistics.

In fairness, this is hardly the device’s fault, and it is a pretty awesome one. Microwave ovens work thanks to the polarity of water molecules; they consist of one positively charged end (where the hydrogen part of H2O is) and a negatively charged end (where the electron-rich oxygen bit is). Also charged are electromagnetic waves, such as the microwaves after which the oven takes its name, and such waves (being as they are, y’know, waves) also oscillate (aka ‘wobble) back and forth. This charge wobbling back and forth causes the water molecules (technically it works with other polarised molecules too, but there are very few other liquids consisting of polarised molecules that one encounters in cookery; this is why microwaves can heat up stuff without water in, but don’t do it very well) to oscillate too. This oscillation means that they gain kinetic energy from the microwave radiation; it just so happens that the frequency of the microwave radiation is chosen so that it closely matches the resonant frequency of the oscillation of the water molecules, meaning this energy transfer is very efficient*; a microwave works out as a bit over 60% efficient (most of the energy being lost in the aforementioned magnetron used to generate the microwaves), which is exceptional compared to a kettle’s level of around 10%. The efficiency of an oven really depends on the meal and how it’s being used, but for small meals or for reheating cold (although not frozen, since ice molecules aren’t free to vibrate as much as liquid water) food the microwave is definitely the better choice. It helps even more that microwaves are really bad at penetrating the metal & glass walls of a microwave, meaning they tend to bounce off until they hit the food and that very little of the energy gets lost to the surroundings once it’s been emitted. However, if nothing is placed in the microwave then these waves are not ‘used up’ in heating food and tend to end up back in the microwave emitter, causing it to burn out and doing the device some serious damage.

*I have heard it said that this is in fact a myth, and that microwaves are in fact selected to be slightly off the resonant frequency range so that they don’t end up heating the food too violently. I can’t really cite my sources on this one nor explain why it makes sense.

This use of microwave radiation to heat food incurs some rather interesting side-effects; up first is the oft-cited myth that microwaves cook food ‘from the inside out’. This isn’t actually true, for although the inside of a piece of food may be slightly more insulated than the outside the microwaves should transfer energy to all of the food at a roughly equal rate; if anything the outside will get more heating since it is hit first by the microwaves. This effect is observed thanks to the chemical makeup of a lot of the food put in a microwave, which generally have the majority of their water content beneath the surface; this makes the surface relatively cool and crusty, with little water to heat it up, and the inside scaldingly hot. The use of high-power microwaves also means that just about everyone in the country has in their home a death ray capable of quite literally boiling someone’s brain if the rays were directed towards them (hence why dismantling a microwave is semi-illegal as I understand it), but it also means that everyone has ample opportunity to, so long as they don’t intend to use the microwave again afterwards  and have access to a fire extinguisher, do some seriously cool stuff with it. Note that this is both dangerous, rather stupid and liable to get you into some quite weird stuff, nothing is a more sure fire indicator of a scientific mind than an instinct to go ‘what happens when…’ and look at the powerful EM radiation emitter sitting in your kitchen. For the record, I did not say that this was a good idea…

3500 calories per pound

This looks set to be the concluding post in this particular little series on the subject of obesity and overweightness. So, to summarise where we’ve been so far- post 1: that there are a lot of slightly chubby people present in the western world leading to statistics supporting a massive obesity problem, and that even this mediocre degree of fatness can be seriously damaging to your health. Post 2: why we have spent recent history getting slightly chubby. And for today, post 3: how one can try to do your bit, especially following the Christmas excesses and the soon-broken promises of New Year, to lose some of that excess poundage.

It was Albert Einstein who first demonstrated that mass was nothing more than stored energy, and although the theory behind that precise idea doesn’t really correlate with biology the principle still stands; fat is your body’s way of storing energy. It’s also a vital body tissue, and is not a 100% bad and evil thing to ingest, but if you want to lose it then the aim should simply be one of ensuring that one’s energy output, in the form of exercise  exceeds one’s energy input, in the form of food. The body’s response to this is to use up some of its fat stores to replace this lost energy (although this process can take up to a week to run its full course; the body is a complicated thing), meaning that the amount of fat in/on your body will gradually decrease over time. Therefore, slimming down is a process that is best approached from two directions; restricting what’s going in, and increasing what’s going out (both at the same time is infinitely more effective than an either/or process). I’ll deal with what’s going in first.

The most important point to make about improving one’s diet, and when considering weight loss generally, is that there are no cheats. There are no wonder pills that will shed 20lb of body fat in a week, and no super-foods or nutritional supplements that will slim you down in a matter of months. Losing weight is always going to be a messy business that will take several months at a minimum (the title of this post refers to the calorie content of body fat, meaning that to lose one pound you must expend 3500 more calories than you ingest over a given period of time), and unfortunately prevention is better than cure; but moping won’t help anyone, so let’s just gather our resolve and move on.

There is currently a huge debate going on concerning the nation’s diet problems of amount versus content; whether people are eating too much, or just the wrong stuff. In most cases it’s probably going to be a mixture of the two, but I tend to favour the latter answer; and in any case, there’s not much I can say about the former beyond ‘eat less stuff’. I am not a good enough cook to offer any great advice on what foods you should or shouldn’t be avoiding, particularly since the consensus appears to change every fortnight, so instead I will concentrate on the one solid piece of advice that I can champion; cook your own stuff.

This is a piece of advice that many people find hard to cope with- as I said in my last post, our body doesn’t want to waste time cooking when it could be eating. When faced with the unknown product of one’s efforts in an hours time, and the surety of a ready meal or fast food within five minutes, the latter option and all the crap that goes in it starts to seem a lot more attractive. The trick is, therefore, to learn how to cook quickly- the best meals should either take less than 10-15 minutes of actual effort to prepare and make, or be able to be made in large amounts and last for a week or more. Or, even better, both. Skilled chefs achieve this by having their skills honed to a fine art and working at a furious rate, but then again they’re getting paid for it; for the layman, a better solution is to know the right dishes. I’m not going to include a full recipe list, but there are thousands online, and there is a skill to reading recipes; it can get easy to get lost between a long list of numbers and a complicated ordering system, but reading between the lines one can often identify which recipes mean ‘chop it all up and chuck in some water for half an hour’.

That’s a very brief touch on the issue, but now I want to move on and look at energy going out; exercise. I personally would recommend sport, particularly team sport, as the most reliably fun way to get fit and enjoy oneself on a weekend- rugby has always done me right. If you’re looking in the right place, age shouldn’t be an issue (I’ve seen a 50 year old play alongside a 19 year old student at a club rugby match near me), and neither should skill so long as you are willing to give it a decent go; but, sport’s not for everyone and can present injury issues so I’ll also look elsewhere.

The traditional form of fat-burning exercise is jogging, but that’s an idea to be taken with a large pinch of salt and caution. Regular joggers will lose weight it’s true, but jogging places an awful lot of stress on one’s joints (swimming, cycling and rowing are all good forms of ‘low-impact exercise’ that avoid this issue), and suffers the crowning flaw of being boring as hell. To me, anyway- it takes up a good chunk of time, during which one’s mind is so filled with the thump of footfalls and aching limbs that one is forced to endure the experience rather than enjoy it. I’ll put up with that for strength exercises, but not for weight loss when two far better techniques present themselves; intensity sessions and walking.

Intensity sessions is just a posh name for doing very, very tiring exercise for a short period of time; they’re great for burning fat & building fitness, but I’ll warn you now that they are not pleasant. As the name suggest, these involve very high-intensity exercise (as a general rule, you not be able to talk throughout high-intensity work) performed either continuously or next to continuously for relatively short periods of time- an 8 minute session a few times a week should be plenty. This exercise can take many forms; shuttle runs (sprinting back and forth as fast as possible between two marked points or lines), suicides (doing shuttle runs between one ‘base’ line and a number of different lines at different distances from the base, such that one’s runs change in length after each set) and tabata sets (picking an easily repeatable exercise, such as squats, performing them as fast as possible for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, then another 20 seconds of exercise, and so on for 4-8 minute) are just three examples. Effective though these are, it’s difficult to find an area of empty space to perform them without getting awkward looks and the odd spot of abuse from passers-by or neighbours, so they may not be ideal for many people (tabata sets or other exercises such as press ups are an exception, and can generally be done in a bedroom; Mark Lauren’s excellent ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ is a great place to start for anyone interested in pursuing this route to lose weight & build muscle). This leaves us with one more option; walking.

To my mind, if everyone ate properly and walked 10,000 steps per day, the scare stats behind the media’s obesity fix would disappear within a matter of months. 10,000 steps may seem a lot, and for many holding office jobs it may seem impossible, but walking is a wonderful form of exercise since it allows you to lose oneself in thought or music, whichever takes your fancy. Even if you don’t have time for a separate walk, with a pedometer in hand (they are built into many modern iPods, and free pedometer apps are available for both iPhone and Android) and a target in mind (10k is the standard) then after a couple of weeks it’s not unusual to find yourself subtly changing the tiny aspects of your day (stairs instead of lift, that sort of thing) to try and hit your target; and the results will follow. As car ownership, an office economy and lack of free time have all grown in the last few decades, we as a nation do not walk as much as we used to. It’s high time that changed.

Why the chubs?

My last post dealt with the thorny issue of obesity, both it’s increasing presence in our everyday lives, and what for me is the underlying reason behind the stats that back up media scare stories concerning ‘the obesity epidemic’- the rise in size of the ‘average’ person over the last few decades. The precise causes of this trend can be put down to a whole host of societal factors within our modern age, but that story is boring as hell and has been repeated countless times by commenters far more adept in this field than me. Instead, today I wish present the case for modern-day obesity as a problem concerning the fundamental biology of a human being.

We, and our dim and distant ancestors of the scaly/furry variety, have spent the last few million years living wild; hunting, fighting and generally acting much like any other evolutionary pathway. Thus, we can learn a lot about our own inbuilt biology and instincts by studying the behaviour of animals currently alive today, and when we do so, several interesting animal eating habits become apparent. As anyone who has tried it as a child can attest (and I speak from personal experience), grass is not good stuff to eat. It’s tough, it takes a lot of chewing and processing (many herbivores have multiple stomachs to make sure they squeeze the maximum nutritional value out of their food), and there really isn’t much of it to power a fully-functional being. As such, grazers on grass and other such tough plant matter (such as leaves) will spend most of their lives doing nothing but guzzle the stuff, trying to get as much as possible through their system. Other animals will favour food with a higher nutritional content, such as fruits, tubers or, in many cases, meat, but these frequently present issues. Fruits are highly seasonal and rarely available in a large enough volume to support a large population, as well as being quite hard to get a lot of down; plants try to ‘design’ fruits so that each visitor takes only a few at a time, so as best to spread their seeds far and wide, and as such there are few animals that can sustain themselves on such a diet.  Other food such as tubers or nuts are hard to get at, needing to be dug up or broken in highly energy-consuming activities, whilst meat has the annoying habit of running away or fighting back whenever you try to get at it. As anyone who watches nature documentaries will attest, most large predators will only eat once every few days (admittedly rather heavily).

The unifying factor of all of this is that food is, in the wild, highly energy- and time-consuming to get hold of and consume, since every source of it guards its prize jealously. Therefore, any animal that wants to survive in this tough world must be near-constantly in pursuit of food simply to fulfil all of its life functions, and this is characterised by being perpetually hungry. Hunger is a body’s way of telling us that we should get more food, and in the wild this constant desire for more is kept in check by the difficulty that getting hold of it entails. Similarly, animal bodies try to assuage this desire by being lazy; if something isn’t necessary, then there’s no point wasting valuable energy going after it (since this will mean spending more time going after food to replace lost energy.)

However, in recent history (and a spectacularly short period of time from evolution’s point of view), one particular species called homo sapiens came up with this great idea called civilisation, which basically entailed the pooling and sharing of skill and resources in order to best benefit everyone as a whole. As an evolutionary success story, this is right up there with developing multicellular body structures in terms of being awesome, and it has enabled us humans to live far more comfortable lives than our ancestors did, with correspondingly far greater access to food. This has proved particularly true over the last two centuries, as technological advances in a more democratic society have improved the everyman’s access to food and comfortable living to a truly astounding degree. Unfortunately (from the point of view of our waistline) the instincts of our bodies haven’t quite caught up to the idea that when we want/need food, we can just get food, without all that inconvenient running around after it to get in the way. Not only that, but a lack of pack hierarchy combined with this increased availability means that we can stock up on food until we have eaten our absolute fill if so we wish; the difference between ‘satiated’ and ‘stuffed’ can work out as well over 1000 calories per meal, and over a long period of time it only takes a little more than we should be having every day to start packing on the pounds. Combine that with our natural predilection to laziness meaning that we don’t naturally think of going out for some exercise as fun purely for its own sake, and the fact that we no longer burn calories chasing our food, or in the muscles we build up from said chasing, and we find ourselves consuming a lot more calories than we really should be.

Not only that, but during this time we have also got into the habit of spending a lot of time worrying over the taste and texture of our food. This means that, unlike our ancestors who were just fine with simply jumping on a squirrel and devouring the thing, we have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting stuff out of the fridge, spending two hours slaving away in a kitchen and attempting to cook something vaguely resembling tasty. This wait is not something out bodies enjoy very much, meaning we often turn to ‘quick fixes’ when in need of food; stuff like bread, pasta or ready meals. Whilst we all know how much crap goes into ready meals (which should, as a rule, never be bought by anyone who cares even in the slightest about their health; salt content of those things is insane) and other such ‘quick fixes’, fewer people are aware of the impact a high intake of whole grains can have on our bodies. Stuff like bread and rice only started being eaten by humans a few thousand years ago, as we discovered the benefits of farming and cooking, and whilst they are undoubtedly a good food source (and are very, very difficult to cut from one’s diet whilst still remaining healthy) our bodies have simply not had enough time, evolutionarily speaking, to get used to them. This means they have a tendency to not make us feel as full as their calorie content should suggest, thus meaning that we eat more than our body in fact needs (if you want to feel full whilst not taking in so many calories, protein is the way to go; meat, fish and dairy are great for this).

This is all rather academic, but what does it mean for you if you want to lose a bit of weight? I am no expert on this, but then again neither are most of the people acting as self-proclaimed nutritionists in the general media, and anyway, I don’t have any better ideas for posts. So, look at my next post for my, admittedly basic, advice for anyone trying to make themselves that little bit healthier, especially if you’re trying to work of a few of the pounds built up over this festive season.