Several people asked if I planned to take apart the latest “meat kills!” study to make a big media splash. In case you missed it, here’s part of one of the many, many articles about the study that hit the news:
A diet rich in meat, eggs, milk and cheese could be as harmful to health as smoking, according to a controversial study into the impact of protein consumption on longevity.
The overall harmful effects seen in the study were almost completely wiped out when the protein came from plant sources, such as beans and legumes, though cancer risk was still three times as high in middle-aged people who ate a protein-rich diet, compared with those on a low-protein diet.
You just know the vegan crowd loved reading those words. But let’s keep reading:
But whereas middle-aged people who consumed a lot of animal protein tended to die younger from cancer, diabetes and other diseases, the same diet seemed to protect people’s health in old age.
So there you have it: meat, eggs and other animal protein will kill you until you turn 65. Then the same foods protect your health. Since I’m already 55, I’ve decided I’ll keep eating meat, eggs and cheese and hope I manage to hang on for another 10 years – then I’ll increase my consumption of those foods to ensure I live to age 90.
That contradiction alone – animal foods can kill you until you reach the age at which most people actually die, then protect you – should be enough to convince you this is another piece of observational garbage.
But if you want a more thorough take-down of this idiocy, Zoe Harcomb already wrote one. Here’s a bit of it (and I’d suggest you read the whole post):
This is a direct quotation from the article (my emphasis): “Using Cox Proportional Hazard models, we found that high and moderate protein consumption were positively associated with diabetes-related mortality, but not associated with all-cause, CVD [cardiovascular], or cancer mortality when subjects at all the ages above 50 were considered.”
i.e. when we looked at the 6,381 over 50 year olds there was not even an association with protein intake and all-cause mortality, or CVD mortality, or cancer mortality.
There was a relationship with diabetes mortality and protein intake, but the numbers were so tiny (one death from diabetes in one group) that this was not considered important.
And that could have been the headline – “There is no association between protein intake and mortality” – but then there would be no headline.
One of those animal-protein foods that will kill you until you turn 65 and then save your life is the humble egg. I recently received an article about the importance of a nutrient that eggs provide: choline. Here are some quotes:
Choline plays a role in multiple physiological systems from all cell membranes to the function of organs like the liver. Choline produces a neurotransmitter involved in memory storage, muscle control and many other functions.
For more than five decades, nutrition science has known that choline is an important compound in the body. However, because humans have the ability to synthesize choline and our diets generally contain significant amounts of choline, it has been difficult to definitively show that choline is needed in the diet.
One of the first clear indications that the body does not make choline quick enough to meet the body’s own needs was recently demonstrated. When healthy men were fed a diet which was adequate in all known essential nutrients but very low in choline, the men developed liver damage. This indicates that even though the body can make choline, there is a dietary requirement as well.
Foods especially rich in choline include beef liver, with about 450 milligrams per 3 ounce serving, and eggs, with about 280 milligrams per egg.
So according to the latest observational nonsense, animal foods will kill you until you turn 65 … but at the same time, clinical research shows that choline is an essential nutrient, and the richest sources of choline are beef liver and eggs.
I vote we ignore the observational nonsense and eat our eggs. That won’t be a problem here on the mini-farm. Now that the chickens in our second flock have started laying, they’re producing more eggs than we can consume. I took this picture a week or so ago to demonstrate.
Then a couple of days ago, it occurred to Chareva to check the top level of the barn, which required climbing a ladder. This is what she found.
Another 60 eggs or so. Fortunately, with the cool weather, they’re still quite edible. Oh, and Sara will be taking delivery of 25 chicks soon as part of a 4-H project. So now she and Alana and Chareva are planning to open an egg stand by the road.
And I’ll keep eating eggs and other sources of animal protein way beyond age 65.
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Someone mentioned in comments that he read The Vision of the Anointed after I talked about it in my most recent speech and it “blew my mind” … but it’s also depressing to see The Anointed following the same pattern over and over.
Yeah, I suppose. It’s like watching the same bad plot play out in dozens of movies. But I still think it’s better to recognize the pattern.
In case you didn’t see that speech, here’s a quick recap of how Thomas Sowell describes The Vision of The Anointed at work:
- The Anointed identify a problem in society
- The Anointed propose a Grand Plan to fix the problem
- Because they are so supremely confident in their ideas, The Anointed don’t bother with proof or evidence that the Grand Plan will actually work
- If possible, The Anointed will impose the Grand Plan on other people (for their own good, of course)
- The Anointed assume anyone who opposes the Grand Plan is either evil or stupid
- If the Grand Plan fails, The Anointed will never, ever, ever admit the Grand Plan was wrong
I wrote six posts recently explaining why I believe losing weight (or not getting fat in the first place) is mostly about chemistry, not character. That’s why the current Grand Plans designed by The Anointed to battle obesity are going to fail: they’re based on the belief that losing weight is a matter of character. Stop being a lazy glutton, get off the couch, go move around more, stop eating so much, and all will be well. (And don’t forget your whole grains.)
One of those Grand Plans is, of course, the Let’s Move! campaign. Just tell those kids to move more. Get some pro jocks to encourage them to move more. After all, we The Anointed know kids are getting fat from sitting around too much.
Except that’s not what the evidence shows. Kids don’t get fat after they start sitting around. They sit around after they start getting fat. Here’s what one study concluded:
Decreased physical activity may have little to do with the recent spike in obesity rates among U.S. adolescents, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Prompted by growing concern that the increase was due to decreased physical activity associated with increased TV viewing time and other sedentary behaviors, researchers examined the patterns and time trends in physical activity and sedentary behaviors among U.S. adolescents based on nationally representative data collected since 1991. The review found signs indicating that the physical activity among adolescents increased while TV viewing decreased in recent years.
And here’s what another study concluded:
Physical inactivity appears to be the result of fatness rather than its cause. This reverse causality may explain why attempts to tackle childhood obesity by promoting physical activity have been largely unsuccessful.
So telling kids “Let’s Move!” to battle obesity isn’t supported by the actual evidence. But once again, The Anointed don’t believe they should be bothered with little annoyances like evidence that a Grand Plan will work before instituting it. If their intentions are good, then by gosh, the results will be good too. So we have a national Let’s Move! campaign, and organizations like the NFL have been recruited to promote it. That’s why you see those Play 60 ads during football games now.
I respect NFL players who donate their time to what they consider a good cause. But … does anyone really believe these guys are so athletic and full of energy because they were active kids? I’d say it’s more likely they were active kids because they were athletic and full of energy.
Chareva’s not a sports fan at all — perhaps the biggest flaw in her otherwise fine character — but once in awhile she’ll plop down next to me when I’m watching football and ask how many home runs the Titans have scored. (Since she doesn’t know diddly about the game, I’ve explained some terminology to her: when a player runs the ball into the end zone, it’s called a home run. When a player catches the ball in the end zone, it’s called a fly ball. When a player kicks the ball through the uprights, it called a three-point shot or a triple – take your pick.)
Anyway, after a dramatic home run, some Titans players were running around and fist-pumping and leaping into the air to chest-thump each other in the end zone, and Chareva turned to me and said, “I bet when these guys were in grade school, they were the little boys who couldn’t sit still and drove their parents and teachers crazy.”
Yup. And I’ll bet you a year’s pay nobody had to encourage them to go play outside. Then I’ll bet you another year’s pay nobody involved with Let’s Move! or Play 60 stopped and asked themselves: Hey, if exercise is the key to battling obesity, why are so many NFL linemen fat? Does any sane person think those guys don’t exercise enough?
That being said, Let’s Move! doesn’t annoy me all that much. I don’t think it will accomplish anything, which makes it a waste of taxpayer money, but at least it’s not a case of The Anointed imposing a Grand Plan on us. But school lunches are another matter. The USDA’s “healthy” choices are being imposed on kids.
As I explained in my speech, The Anointed are so inexplicably confident that the Grand Plan will bring about The Good, they view anyone who resists having the Grand Plan imposed on them to be opposing good itself. That’s why anyone who resists the Grand Plan must be either evil or stupid. (As in: you only thought that inexpensive, high-deductible insurance plan we took away was a better choice than what we’re ordering you to buy now because you’re stupid and can’t spot bad insurance.)
It couldn’t be that people who oppose the Grand Plan are convinced by evidence that it’s a bad idea – The Anointed don’t come up with bad ideas. And of course, it couldn’t simply be that people who oppose the Grand Plan believe in that silly “it’s a free country” concept and don’t want other people’s ideas imposed on them, good or bad. Nope. Evil or stupid are the only explanations.
I didn’t want to give actual examples in that part of my speech, so I used a generic and silly version of The Anointed imposing a Grand Plan: mandatory bleeding in schools to release the bad humors that experts say are making kids lethargic. Here are two of the slides:
Now let’s take the actual example of the USDA’s new “healthy” school lunches, which were mandated by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Kids are rebelling because they’re hungry. Understandably, they don’t like the low-fat foods. Look at how this article describes the result:
More than one million U.S. schoolchildren stopped buying school lunches during the 2012-2013 academic year, after new nutrition standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama took effect.
The stunning drop in cafeteria meals came despite annual increases in the number of children who receive free, taxpayer-subsidized lunches every weekday, the GAO report concluded.
They almost can’t give the stuff away, and parents are complaining about their kids going hungry. So what should we conclude? That the new lunch rules were a bad idea? Of course not. The Anointed don’t come up with bad ideas. Take another look at part of the newspaper editorial I quoted in my previous post:
Yet here we are in 2014, grappling with a troubling childhood obesity epidemic but allowing children to reject nutritionally balanced fruit-and-vegetable laden lunches that are designed to be filling and healthy. Not only are children rejecting the food outright, parents and schools are actually complaining to elected officials about the guidelines.
The conclusion from The Anointed: those parents must be evil or stupid. Let’s update my slides.
Like I said, it’s all very predictable. Same old pattern, over and over. That’s what makes books like The Vision of the Anointed so useful. If nothing else, you learn to quickly spot The Anointed at work and can predict their next move.
The next move, as I explained in my speech, will be to blame anyone but themselves when the Grand Plan fails – which it will. According to The Anointed, when the Grand Plan fails, it can only mean that:
- The plan was good, but people didn’t implement it correctly because they’re stupid.
- The plan was undermined by people who are evil.
- The plan didn’t go far enough … in other words, we need to do the same thing again, only bigger.
So stay tuned.
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Many moons ago I got into an online debate with a bodybuilder I nicknamed “Cliffy” because his know-it-all attitude reminded me of the mailman from Cheers. As someone who’d never been fat, Cliffy was convinced fat people are simply weak-willed — unlike, say, Cliffy. In other words, they’re fat because of a character flaw.
I pointed out that there’s been a sharp rise in the number of kids and even babies who are obese and asked Cliffy if it’s because kids these days lack the discipline of kids from previous generations.
Blame the kids? Gosh no, Cliffy wouldn’t do that. After explaining that I’m a fat, lazy old man, Cliffy insisted that kids these days are obese because their parents are feeding them too much. It’s the parents who have the character flaw.
I pointed out that my girls are both lean and healthy, thus proving that my wife and I are good parents of fine character. We obviously don’t feed the girls too much, and that’s why they’re lean. So how do we accomplish this feat of parental responsibility? Do we calculate how many calories they burn per day and feed them accordingly? Nope. I have no idea how many calories they burn in a day. I have no idea how many calories they consume in a day. We keep our girls lean and healthy by feeding them as much as they want to eat every time they tell us they’re hungry. Every. Single. Time.
When Alana was having growth spurts, she’d sometimes get out of bed after midnight and tell me (because I’m the family night owl) that she was hungry. So I’d feed her. If she was still hungry, I’d feed her more. But most of the time, the girls don’t eat all that much. They usually walk away from the dinner table with food still on their plates.
While out grocery shopping a couple of years ago, Chareva and I ran into a mom whose son was in Sara’s class. The mom, who struck me as a nice lady, told us she was going to push her son to play more outdoors during summer vacation because he was getting fat. So of course I sneaked a peek in her grocery cart. You can guess what I saw: skim milk, jugs of apple and orange juice, bread, noodles, Cheerios, fat-free yogurt cups and plenty of other food-like products with “LOW-FAT!” stamped on the label.
This wasn’t a careless mom. This was a mom trying to do the right thing, buying products she’d been told were good for her son’s weight and health. But he was getting fat. That’s chemistry, not character. The boy was living on foods that made him hungrier than he needed to be.
Our girls were (and are) living on meats, eggs, seafood, fruits, green vegetables, nuts, olives, full-fat dairy foods, eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash and some rice now and then. Their appetites are naturally controlled by a diet rich in nutrients and low in refined carbohydrates. They’re only as hungry as they need to be. Once again, it’s a matter of chemistry, not character. There’s no discipline involved. They don’t restrict their calories to stay lean, and we don’t have to push them to play outside. Sara decided to talk a walk today and carry fresh water to the chickens even though it was only 20 degrees outside and school was canceled because of an ice storm. When I asked why she volunteered for the duty, she replied, “I just felt like it.”
(The same ice storm knocked out our internet service, which is why this post is late.)
When I started this series in January, I wrote that most of the weight-loss plans we impose on ourselves and others try to impose on us are doomed to fail because they’re based on the notion that losing weight is a matter of character. By impose on us, I’m of course talking about the brilliant ideas that come from various governments. Setting aside my libertarian belief that (as libertarian writer Jacob Sullum puts it) the size of your butt is none of the government’s business, would those brilliant ideas work?
I hardly think so. Let’s look at a few of them.
This official from the U.K. health system floated the idea that doctors need to stop pussyfooting around with the language and just tell fat patients that they’re too fat. A professor of ethics in the U.S. stepped it up a notch and insisted we need to start shaming fat people.
Riiiiiiiight. Because fat people don’t know they’re fat and aren’t properly ashamed of themselves. If we just shame them enough, they’ll develop some character and stop eating too much. It’s not as if appetite and energy balance at the cellular level figure into this or anything.
I’ve got news for both of these dunces: fat people know they’re fat, and most of them hate it. Most of them have tried over and over to lose weight, but failed because they were given bad advice on how to do it. To put it in terms of my last post, they expended plenty of effort, but the effort wasn’t effective.
If we start shaming them, we won’t end up with fewer fat people … but we will end up with more fat people who are depressed or neurotic. Fewer of them will visit doctors for checkups or to find out what that funny-looking lump is. They’ll avoid doctors to avoid the lectures and the shaming. That already happens, in fact. And by the way, raising their cortisol levels by shaming them won’t help the weight-loss efforts one bit.
Okay, so let’s skip outright shaming in favor of the kinder, gentler form of government meddling favored by CSPI and plenty of other do-gooders: calorie-count menu boards and can’t-miss calorie labels on food packages. In that case, we’re not assuming fat people are remorseless gluttons who need to feel ashamed. Nope, now we’re just assuming they’re stupid.
The belief here is that fat people go to fast-food restaurants and order a double cheeseburger, large fries and large soda because it’s never occurred to them that the calorie count might be too high for one meal. So let’s pass a law mandating a calorie count right there on the menu board where they can’t miss it. The menu board will then serve as a nagging parent, almost yelling “Hey, dummy! Look at all the calories in that meal! Order the chicken salad instead!”
During a talking-head-show debate about the calorie-count menu boards I saw awhile back, a skinny news anchor opined, “Well, if I see that the double cheeseburger meal is 1,000 calories and the chicken salad is 300 calories, I’m going for the chicken salad.” Yes, of course you would, Miss Skinniness. That would be a satisfying meal for you because that’s how your body chemistry works. But if an obese person ordered that meal because the menu board shamed him into it, the end result would be that he’d eat more later to make up the difference. That’s what the research shows.
Real-world studies have already demonstrated that confronting people with calorie counts doesn’t work, and it’s a wonder anyone believes otherwise. Jacob Sullum (who appeared in Fat Head) once angered Yale professor Kelly Brownell during a debate by pointing out that Brownell is very fat. Sullum’s a nice guy, and as he told me off-camera when I interviewed him, he wouldn’t normally make a point of someone’s girth. But Brownell (a CSPI board member) is all in favor of mandatory calorie counts on menus, which means he thinks people are fat because they don’t have enough information to make smart choices.
And yet Brownell is morbidly obese. Are we supposed to believe that a Yale professor doesn’t have enough information to make smart choices? Are we supposed to believe that a guy who wants to use the power of government to (ahem) help obese people lose weight doesn’t care that he’s obese himself? Are we supposed to believe that a Yale professor who wrote a book about obesity isn’t aware that even people who go out of their way to count calories rarely lose weight and keep it off as a result? If calorie-counting doesn’t work for them, why the hell would it work for people who are merely confronted with calorie counts? I’m not sure which bugs me more: the hypocrisy or the ridiculousness of believing in a theory that clearly hasn’t worked for Brownell himself.
When standardized food labels were mandated by the FDA in the 1990s, the media were full of rah-rah articles about how Americans would make smarter food choices as a result. That was millions of new cases of obesity and type 2 diabetes ago. So now the FDA is doing exactly what Thomas Sowell described in The Vision of the Anointed: holding up failure as evidence that we need to do the same thing again, only bigger. Look at these quotes from an article about the FDA’s newest labels:
The Food and Drug Administration for the first time in two decades will propose major changes to nutrition labels on food packages, putting calorie counts in large type and adjusting portion sizes to reflect how much Americans actually eat.
Millions of Americans pay attention to food labels, and the changes are meant to make them easier to understand — a critical step in an era when more than one-third of adults are obese, public health experts say. The epidemic has caused rates of diabetes to soar, and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke.
On Thursday, the Obama administration promoted the proposed labeling changes at an event at the White House. At an anniversary ceremony for her “Let’s Move” campaign aimed at reducing obesity, Michelle Obama talked about how hard it is to understand what is in packaged food, and how the changes were a way to demystify that.
Well, there you have it: people are stupid. They’re confused by the serving sizes, so they willy-nilly eat too much. Oh, and they have bad eyesight, too — that’s why we need to put the calorie counts IN LARGER TYPE. Appetite and biochemistry have nothing to do with it. Clear up the confusion over serving sizes and list those calorie counts IN LARGER TYPE, and the dummies will finally eat less and lose weight, thanks to better information – the kind of information that helped Kelly Brownell look good in a swimsuit.
Offering de-confusing information AND LARGER TYPE is about all the government can do (for now) in the case of adults who are fat because they’re stupid and have poor eyesight. But if we’re talking about kids … hey, now we’ve got a captive audience, at least for school lunches. We can by-gosh impose some discipline on the little tykes by forcing them to put the magical fruits-and-vegetables-and-whole-grains on their plates and limiting their fat and calorie intake.
If you don’t believe the new-and-improved school lunches are an attempt by do-gooders to impose discipline on parents and kids who lack character, take a gander at some quotes from an editorial in the Springfield, Illinois newspaper my mom clipped and sent me:
We hope this is not the first step in an effort to significantly weaken or do away with existing school lunch nutritional guidelines – something some Republicans are hoping for on the grounds that the rules amount to government “overreach.”
Goodness, no. Let’s not weaken guidelines that have done such wonders for kids’ waistlines and overall health in the past 30 years.
The healthy school lunch rules stem from the Obama administration’s 2012 initiative to reduce childhood obesity throughout the country.
And as we know, government programs always achieve their stated goals. The Dietary Goals for Americans, to name just one example.
Adults who grew up in the ’70s, ‘60s and earlier most likely were subjected by their parents to such homemade dinnertime delights as liver and onions, tuna casserole, beef stroganoff, meat loaf, lima beans, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. And what happened if children declined the dinner put before them? Usually they remained at the table until they ate it, cold or not, under their parents’ careful watch. No way were parents allowing finicky children to leave without eating what they considered a reasonable and nutritious meal.
Yet here we are in 2014, grappling with a troubling childhood obesity epidemic but allowing children to reject nutritionally balanced fruit-and-vegetable laden lunches that are designed to be filling and healthy. No only are children rejecting the food outright, parents and schools are actually complaining to elected officials about the guidelines.
Oh, no! You mean those stupid parents have the unmitigated gall to complain to their betters in government?! Heaven forbid.
The editorial goes on to wonder why kids and parents would complain about the fabulous fare being offered in the local schools. Here are some lunch items they offer as evidence: baked tater tots, chilled applesauce, whole-grain spaghetti, garlic bread, bananas, chilled pears, turkey corn dogs, soft-baked cookies.
And students can always get seconds on fruits and vegetables to help fill them up. Sounds good, right? Most adults would welcome such varied and nutritious lunches each day.
Fat adults who want to try yet another diet that won’t work no doubt would welcome those foods, yes.
As Dr. Mike Eades would put it, the dumbth is astounding. Painful as it will be, let’s examine just those brief bits of a long-winded editorial written by nutritional ignoramuses.
The lunches are designed to be filling and healthy. Yes, and a jackass is a racehorse designed by a government committee. Newsflash, ignoramuses: one of the biggest complaints kids have about those lunches is they’re still hungry after eating. It doesn’t matter that the lunches were designed to be filling. They’re not filling.
But we mustn’t let the kids decide if they’re satisfied … and we mustn’t let their parents (who have the gall to complain to elected officials) make that decision either, according to the ignoramuses who wrote the editorial. Parents in the 1970s and earlier were responsible, you see. They made their kids eat that nutritious food, broccoli and all, as the editorial writers reminded us. They didn’t complain to their elected officials, either. That’s why kids weren’t fat back then.
But today’s parents, unlike yesteryear’s parents, obviously can’t be trusted to decide what their kids should eat. We know that because too many kids are fat. So we need the wise folks at the USDA to step in and replace today’s parents as the responsible decision-maker. In other words, we need government to impose discipline because today’s kids and parents lack character.
Here’s what different about today’s parents vs. parents from the 1960s: parents in the 1960s hadn’t been told by government officials that fat and cholesterol are killers. Parents in the 1960s didn’t believe chocolate-flavored skim milk is a healthier choice than whole milk – and neither did school officials. More parents in the 1960s believed that sugar and refined starches make people fat, not dietary fat. No parents concerned that their daughters were screaming themselves silly over the Beatles were also trying to limit saturated fat in their kids’ diets to 7% of total calories.
In other words, the “good” parents who served liver and onions, tuna casserole, beef stroganoff, meat loaf, lima beans, broccoli and Brussels sprouts didn’t have the same dietary beliefs as government officials who order schools to serve baked tater tots, chilled applesauce, whole-grain spaghetti, garlic bread, bananas, chilled pears, turkey corn dogs and soft-baked cookies. (With unlimited seconds on fat-free vegetables!) Send a USDA official back to the family dinner table in 1960, and he’d chide the parents for serving too much beef and other high-fat food. How the editorial writers failed to notice the contradiction is beyond me.
If they did notice the contradiction – or better yet, if officials at the USDA noticed the contradiction – then perhaps we’d get somewhere. Perhaps the do-gooders would wonder why parents in the 1960s didn’t have to put their kids on calorie-restricted diets and push them to play outside to keep them from getting fat. Perhaps they’d ask themselves if the types of foods parents served to their kids back then had something to do with it. Perhaps they’d notice that in that old episode of The Andy Griffith Show I mentioned in my latest speech, Andy said he’d fill in the chinks with another bite of meatloaf while Barney told Aunt Bea he was being careful not to overdo the glucose and carbohydrates.
In other words, perhaps the idiots running the show would finally begin to realize that we have a problem with childhood obesity and diabetes because of chemistry, not character.
I think I’m done with this series. Here are links to the other posts for those who asked:
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Some years ago, Dr. Robert Lustig worked with a group of kids who had brain cancer. The cancer treatments were successful, but later the kids became obese. According to their parents, the kids had developed enormous appetites and become sedentary. They spent all day sleeping or sitting in front of the TV and eating.
Lustig didn’t inform the parents that those kids needed to just stop being so lazy and gluttonous. He didn’t urge the parents to tell their kids to just eat less and move more, for goodness sake. As an endocrinologist, Lustig knew the change in behavior was being driven by a change in biochemistry. He suspected that as a side-effect of the cancer treatments, the kids were over-producing insulin. Tests confirmed his suspicion.
So he gave the kids an insulin-suppressing drug. Here’s how he described the results:
“When we gave these kids this drug that blocked insulin secretion, they started losing weight. But more importantly, something that was even more amazing, these kids started exercising spontaneously. One kid became a competitive swimmer, two kids started lifting weights, one kid became the manager of his high school basketball team … Changing the kids’ insulin levels had an effect not just on their weight, not just on their appetites, but on their desire to engage in physical activity.”
These kids didn’t get fat because they sat around and ate more. They sat around and ate more because they were hormonally driven to get fat. Luckily for them, Lustig understood that and treated the root of the problem: chemistry, not character.
When I started writing this series of posts, I knew I’d receive (and did) a comment or two along the lines of “But telling people it’s about chemistry gives them an excuse to just give up.” Comments like that usually come, of course, from people who have never been fat and chalk it up to their superior character. I understand the appeal of that belief.
I also understand wanting to believe it’s all about character because darnit, that just feels like cosmic justice. Effort ought to yield results, period. Most of us would like the world to work like that. As kids, we were told that if you work hard and put your mind to it, you can do almost anything. So in our little pea-picking brains, the formula for success looks like this:
Effort = Success
But as we grow older, we realize everyone inherits different talents and abilities. I admired Bart Starr and wanted his job someday, but I certainly knew by middle school that no matter how hard I worked, I’d never become a star quarterback in the NFL. Or in college. Or in high school. Or in the Pop Warner leagues. I just didn’t have the physical gifts. So after swallowing the knowledge that genetics matters, we update the success formula in our minds to look more like this:
Ability x Effort = Success
That’s where we’d like the equation to stay. That “ability” part still seems a bit unfair, but we can live with it.
Well, like it or not, there’s still more to it.
Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, the last Super Bowl notwithstanding. Sure, he inherited the ability to become great from his father, also an NFL quarterback in his day, but Manning’s dedication to his profession is legendary. He spends hours and hours studying videotape of opposing defenses so he can predict their moves and spot their weaknesses. It’s Ability x Effort at work, for sure.
But wait … what if Manning prepared for games by spending hours and hours studying and memorizing the birthdays, middle names, favorite desserts and horoscopes of the defensive players he’ll be facing? Would he still shred defenses like he did in the 2013 NFL season? Of course not, because that knowledge wouldn’t be useful in guessing how to pick apart a defense. The time and effort spent acquiring that knowledge would be wasted.
Let’s suppose I want to look better in shorts. Running for 10 hours a week might put some muscle on my thighs, but not as much as one set of leg presses per week with heavy weights. Resistance training is more effective for growing muscles, period. It doesn’t matter that running 10 hours per week takes more effort and dedication than spending three minutes on a leg-press machine.
So we have to update our formula for success one more time. Now it looks something like this:
Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success
Effort matters, absolutely, but only yields good results if it’s applied effectively.
Let me offer another example: suppose twin brothers both decide to take second jobs and invest most of the additional income to make for a more prosperous middle age. One twin works extra hard, spends less, and invests $500 per month in bank CDs that pay 1.05% interest. The second twin doesn’t work quite as much and treats himself to nicer clothes and other goodies, and thus only saves $250 per month, which he invests in mutual funds that earn the S&P 500 historical average of 11.69%.
After 20 years, the twin who invested $500 per month would have just over $134,000 in his account. Meanwhile, the twin who only invested $250 per month would be sitting on nearly $233,000.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? I think we’d all agree the first twin demonstrated more character. He worked harder, he sacrificed more. And yet it’s the brother who worked less and sacrificed less who has nearly $100,000 more in his account. That’s because while his efforts were smaller, they were applied much more effectively. Working and saving was a matter of character. The return on investment was, in a manner of speaking, a matter of financial chemistry.
And of course if the twin who worked harder and saved more invested it all in the next Enron, he’d get nothing in return. He would no doubt feel royally screwed by an unfair universe, but that would be the result. I hate to break it to anyone who doesn’t already know, but the universe doesn’t reward you based on how much effort you expend or how many sacrifices you make, no matter what all the touchy-feely self-help books say. The universe rewards effort that’s applied effectively.
If we sat down and explained to the ambitious young twins that their financial success would depend heavily on the effectiveness of their investments, I doubt either of them would say, “Well, that’s it, then. If it’s about return on investment, I don’t see the point in making the effort. I give up.”
I’d expect the opposite, in fact: I’d expect them to be motivated to find effective investments so their efforts wouldn’t go to waste.
Turning this back around to losing weight, yes, there has to be some effort and some sacrifice involved. If you’re obese, whatever you’ve been doing isn’t working. Your diet will have to change. But it has to be an effective change. Switching to a diet that works with your body’s chemistry so you feel satisfied even while eating less is effective. Switching to a diet that works against your body’s chemistry and leaves you ravenous and lethargic isn’t. That’s the dietary equivalent of investing in Enron.
Making the effort to find the diet that works with your chemistry and then sticking with it – even if means giving up the donuts and bread you love – requires some character. But if you’re willing to do that, you can be like the twin who saved and sacrificed less but ended with more money. Getting results won’t require as much sacrifice, and perhaps eventually it won’t feel like a sacrifice at all. I certainly didn’t feel deprived when I went back to bacon and eggs for breakfast. I used to love pasta, but now I don’t miss it.
So let’s look at that success equation one more time:
Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success
We all know that thanks to genetics, some people are naturally lean and others tend to get fat, so let’s swap genetics for ability. The effectiveness of a diet is largely a matter of chemistry. So now here’s our equation if we define weight loss as success:
Genetics x Effort x Chemistry = Weight Loss
But wait … genetics is also a matter of biochemistry. So we’re looking at Chemistry x Effort x Chemistry.
That’s why I say weight loss is mostly about chemistry, not character. Knowing that is hardly an excuse to give up. If anything causes people to give up, it’s effort and sacrifice that isn’t rewarded. That’s why the gyms become less and less crowded the farther we get from New Year’s and all those resolutions. Understanding that chemistry is a big part of the equation and choosing accordingly is what enables our efforts to finally succeed.
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I apologize for the lengthy delay in posting and answering comments. It was a strange and sometimes stressful week with virtually zero time for blogging.
I finally had some free time over the three-day weekend, which we used to solve a couple of issues around the ol’ farmstead. The first issue involved a runaway dog. Well, not exactly a runaway dog, but a loose dog. I was looking out the kitchen window on Saturday and thought, Hmmm, that’s a big animal poking around at the edge of forest back there … almost as big as one of my Rottweilers. Hey, wait a minute!
Yup, it was our dog Misha, running happy and free, waaaay outside the backyard fence. Nobody had left a gate open, which meant she was jumping the fence. Most of the fencing is 48 inches tall, and she can’t jump that. But over on the side yard, there’s a long section that’s only 40 inches. There’s also a section that was apparently caved in a bit by a tree at some point, and it’s even shorter.
The long-term plan is to fence in the entire property, but we’re not ready to make that investment yet, so we needed a quick and easy (and inexpensive) solution. Chareva remembered that she’d used a cow panel to make the hoop part of the portable chicken coop and thought cow panels would be tall enough to keep Misha from exploring the countryside and possibly deciding to explore the highway full of fast-moving vehicles.
I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t the most aesthetic solution, but what the heck, the existing fence isn’t a charmer anyway. That’s one of the reasons we plan to get all-new fencing someday. The cow panels were easy to strap to the existing fence, and so far they’ve kept Misha from doing another remake of The Great Escape.
The other issue we solved was getting across the creek without requiring balance or long-jumping skills to avoid stepping into muddy water. The shortest route from the house to the chicken coop and the garden is across the creek. During dry months, it’s easy to just step over it. But for several days after a good rain, crossing the creek requires either a decent long jump or stepping on big rocks that may or may not be slippery. I’ve had my foot slip off a rock and plunge into the muddy water enough times to expand my vocabulary of four-letter words.
To keep our feet dry when the creek swells after a rain, I figured we needed something 12 feet long. I thought a steel bridge with handrails would provide a charming touch, but didn’t find the price on 12-foot steel bridges charming in the least. So we decided to just go buy $100 worth of wood at Home Depot and make a bridge ourselves.
For the base of the bridge, we bought 4×4 beams. For the surface, we bought 12-foot planks that are just under an inch thick and cut them into 3-foot sections.
Chareva likes this picture because (according to her) I look like a boy pulling his wagon.
She suggested pre-drilling holes before attaching the planks with 2-inch wood screws. While putting together the portable chicken coop, she apparently had a bad experience trying to drill long screws directly into the wood. I replied that in the interest of time and efficiency, I’d like to try drilling the screws directly first.
When I pushed the drill down and the screw head ended up flat against the plank, she said, “Huh … I guess you’re stronger than I am.” And here I thought – you know, with our workouts at the gym and all – she already knew that. Nice when a construction project clarifies your wife’s opinions of your abilities. She also told me several times how happy she was to see me building a bridge from scratch. I get that … my dad never did anything with tools, I never did anything with tools until we moved to the farm, and all the years she knew me in Chicago and Los Angeles, she never saw me take on a project more complicated than hanging a picture.
I thought we’d probably have to prop up at least one beam with rocks or paving stones, but nope. With a little moving and shoving and adjusting, we found a spot where the bridge settled in nicely, with no tilting or rocking. I celebrated with a round of disc golf, patting myself on the back a bit each time I used the bridge to cross the creek.
Meanwhile, the girls have decided it’s a great perch for watching crawdads.
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If you’re a regular reader, you’ve already seen these pictures. But take another look.
When people send me before-and-after pictures like these, they also usually tell me about their struggles losing weight – often covering many frustrating years — before Fat Head inspired them to try a LCHF diet. Then they finally lost weight.
If weight loss is mostly about character, then here’s what happened to these people: After years of being too weak-willed to simply eat less and move more, they finally developed the necessary discipline. The fact that Fat Head convinced them to start eating bacon and eggs and dump the hearthealthywholegrains just before they became disciplined was pure coincidence.
If weight loss is mostly about chemistry, then here’s what happened: Something about switching to a LCFH diet caused biochemical changes that allowed these people to consume fewer calories than they burned without feeling hungry and miserable. They may have even felt more energetic instead of less while reducing their energy intake.
I of course vote for the second explanation, and the research backs me up. Let’s look at just a couple of clinical studies of low-carb diets.
In this one, 10 obese subjects with type 2 diabetes followed a low-carb diet for 14 days and lost an average of 3.6 pounds. The researchers noted that the subjects consumed fewer calories than before, which completely accounted for the weight loss. Fair enough. We’re not claiming that low-carb diets make calories magically disappear. The money shot in the study’s conclusion is this:
… a low-carbohydrate diet followed for 2 weeks resulted in spontaneous reduction in energy intake to a level appropriate to their height.
Spontaneous reduction in energy intake. If people aren’t told to eat less but end up eating less anyway, what does that tell us? It tells us they aren’t hungry. That’s chemistry, not character. Character is (according to the calorie freaks) being hungry and not eating anyway.
Well, perhaps everyone enrolled in a diet study decides to eat less and lose weight to impress the investigators, eh? Perhaps we’d see the same results with any diet.
Nope … at least not in this study (and there have been several like it), which compared a calorie-restricted low-fat diet to a low-carb diet. This time the subjects were obese women who followed the diets for six months. Keep in mind that the women in the low-carb group weren’t told to restrict calories. They could eat as much as they wanted as long as they stayed within their carb limit. And yet look what happened:
Women on both diets reduced calorie consumption by comparable amounts at 3 and 6 months.
The low-carb women weren’t told to eat less, but they did. Now let’s compare the weight loss:
The very low carbohydrate diet group lost more weight (18.7 lbs vs. 8.6 lbs) and more body fat (10.6 lbs vs. 4.4 lbs) than the low fat diet group.
Now, you could argue that if the low-carb group lost more weight and more body-fat than the calorie-restricted group, they must have ended up eating less. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe their metabolisms stayed higher. But let’s suppose they did eat less, and that eating less completely accounts for the extra weight loss. So what? The point is that they weren’t told to eat less, but they did so spontaneously. Either they just happened to develop more character than the calorie-restricted group, or they weren’t as hungry.
Studies like this one say it’s because they weren’t as hungry:
Symptoms of negative affect and hunger improved to a greater degree in patients following a low-carb ketogenic (LCKD) diet compared with those following an low-fat diet. Whether these symptom changes explain the greater short-term weight loss generally experienced by LCKD followers deserves further research.
I’ve lost count of how many people have told me in emails, in comments, in Facebook posts and in person that their appetites have totally changed. They don’t crave desserts and other sweets anymore. They aren’t thinking about lunch two hours after breakfast. They sometimes skip meals because they’re not hungry. They say “no thank you” when co-workers pass around donuts or pieces of birthday cake — not because they refuse to give in to temptation, but because the temptation simply isn’t there. A piece of cake is no more appealing than a bowl of dirt. They are eating as much as they want, but they want less.
When people change the composition of their diets and suddenly find they can eat less without feeling hungry for the first time in their lives, that’s chemistry. If feeling full and happy on smaller portions then leads to a spontaneous reduction in energy intake to a level appropriate to their height, that’s chemistry.
By the same token, when people try living on 1,200 calories’ worth of low-fat Weight Watchers meals and end up ravenously hungry, that’s also chemistry. Of course, people who are on diets that leave them hungry are supposed to rely on character at that point and voluntarily suffer the hunger pangs.
Bad idea. Hunger isn’t some annoying sensation created by Mother Nature to torpedo your weight-loss efforts. Hunger is your body’s way of saying I need something … protein, nutrients, fuel — something that food could provide. If your body needs fuel and you refuse to supply it, you may end up with a slower metabolism. Or your body may cannibalize your muscles to make glucose. Or you may wind up feeling lethargic and depressed – emotions your body produces to discourage you from wasting precious fuel by being active. That’s chemistry, chemistry, and chemistry in action. But once again, people made miserable by chemistry are supposed to suck it up, stick with the diet, and use the strength of their character to overpower the urge to eat — then go to the gym to spend an hour on the treadmill despite feeling lethargic, too.
That approach rarely works. Humans aren’t supposed to voluntarily suffer. We’re not geared for it. The diet you can live with is the diet that works with your body’s chemistry, not against it. You can’t go through life in a constant state of war against your body and your appetite, not if you want to be healthy and happy.
The people whose pictures grace the top of this post all tried to lose weight by going on other diets that made them miserable. They probably stuck with those diets for a good long while even when the diets clearly weren’t working. Then they probably felt like failures when they couldn’t stand it anymore and gave up on those diets.
Then they found a diet that worked because it didn’t require them to suffer – in fact, they got to enjoy delicious, fatty foods they’d been told were bad for them. They felt full sooner. They ate less spontaneously. They lost weight – lots of it. And it happened because of a change in chemistry, not because they finally developed superior character.
Does that mean character doesn’t play into it all? Nope. It does. But I’ll deal with that topic next time.
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