Archive for April, 2011

This will be a short post.  I’m giving a speech on the Fourth Annual Low-Carb cruise in a couple of weeks, and I’m still putting it together.  I pretty much have the text written, but for some reason my wife doesn’t like it when I give her a list of 100 graphics to produce with only a day or two to spare, so now I have to think through all the slides.

The speech is titled Science For Smart People, and the premise behind it is that even we lowly non-scientists can learn to spot the difference between worthwhile studies and nonsense studies if we just apply some basic logic and understand a little about how science works – or how it’s supposed to work, anyway.  One point I’ll be making is that researchers who are more interested in pushing an agenda than in pursuing the truth sometimes make statements in the conclusions section of a study that have little or nothing to do with the actual data.

I’ll be giving a few examples, but this one is my favorite.  It was a short clinical trial with the objective listed as follows:

To compare the efficacy of a low-carbohydrate/high-fat versus a moderate-carbohydrate/low-fat diet for weight loss and cardiovascular risk reduction.

Simple enough.  We want to know if low-carb or low-fat produces better results.  So the investigators divided a randomized population of overweight adults into three diet groups:  the two diets mentioned above, plus a control group.  Here are the results:

Both the Low and Moderate Carbohydrate groups lost significantly more weight as well as inches from their waists and thighs than the Control group, while the Low Carbohydrate group lost a greater percentage of body fat. Although the Moderate Carbohydrate group showed significant reductions in serum cholesterol, the Low Carbohydrate group showed the greatest improvements in serum cholesterol, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein, low-density lipoprotein, and very-low-density lipoprotein.

Couldn’t be more clear.  The low-carb/high-fat diet wins hands downs.  The low-carb dieters lost just as much weight as the low-fat group, more of the weight they lost was actual body fat, and they showed the greatest improvements in all the usual cardiovascular risk factors.

So what was the conclusion of the researchers?   Here it is:

Moderate approaches to weight loss such as a moderate-carbohydrate low-fat diet may be prudent.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, based on data that clearly showed a low-carb/high-fat diet to be superior, we are recommending low-fat diets for weight loss.  We think it’s prudent.  And by “prudent,” we of course mean we’d like to remain eligible for future research grants.

Speaking of cardiovascular risk factors, you may recall that when Gary Taubes appeared on the Dr. Oz show, he refused to have one of those quick-and-dirty cholesterol tests, which of course made many viewers suspicious.  “Meat Boy,” as Gary was introduced, must have something to hide, doncha know.

But in his most recent blog post, Gary explains that he did recently go in for a full metabolic panel, partly at the urging of his wife and partly to answer his critics.  You can read the full details on his blog, but here are some interesting numbers:

Total Cholesterol:  204
HDL:  68
LDL:  116
LDL Pattern:  large buoyant
Triglycerides:  64

The most reliable predictor of heart disease you can calculate from a lipid panel is Triglycerides/HDL.  Anything below 2.0 is considered excellent; 3.0 is so-so, and above 5.0 means get your affairs in order.  Gary’s ratio is below 1.0.  (Last time I had a lipid panel done, my ratio was 1.1)

There are several other lab results listed that all add up to very low cardiovascular risk.  As Gary wrote before revealing the numbers:

Keep in mind as you go through these that I do indeed eat three eggs with cheese, bacon and sausage for breakfast every morning, typically a couple of cheeseburgers (no bun) or a roast chicken for lunch, and more often than not, a ribeye or New York steak (grass fed) for dinner, usually in the neighborhood of a pound of meat. I cook with butter and, occasionally, olive oil (the sausages). My snacks run to cheese and almonds. So lots of fat and saturated fat and very little carbohydrates. A deadly diet, according to Dr. Oz.

But Gary, Dr. Oz is up to his elbows in people’s chests during heart surgery, so he knows what causes heart disease.

Back to the speech …

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When I was in college, a psychology professor told our class about a phenomenon called selective blindness – the inability to perceive things that are right in front of you.  He described experiments conducted on kittens:  some were raised in environments where everything was painted in horizontal bars; others were raised in environments where everything was painted in vertical bars.  When the “horizontal” kittens were placed in a box with vertical barriers, they couldn’t perceive them and couldn’t find their way around them.  They would ignore vertical toys, but play with horizontal toys.  Same for the “vertical” kittens, only in reverse.

I thought about selective blindness last week when some researchers announced that, much to their surprise, well-to-do ancient Egyptians apparently suffered from heart disease.  Check out the opening paragraph from this story in the Los Angeles Times and see if you can spot the selective blindness:

CT scans of Egyptian mummies show that many of them suffered from hardening of their arteries, researchers said Sunday. Cardiologists have generally believed that atherosclerosis is a byproduct of the modern lifestyle, caused by eating foods that are too high in fats, lack of exercise and smoking. The new findings indicate that “we may understand atherosclerosis less well than we think,” Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a cardiologist at UC Irvine, told a New Orleans meeting of the American College of Cardiology. It may be that humans “are predisposed to atherosclerosis,” he said, “that it is part of our genetic makeup.”

I give Dr. Thomas credit for admitting he and his colleagues may understand less about atherosclerosis than they previously supposed.  But later in the article, it becomes clear he was raised in an environment full of horizontal bars labeled fatty meat causes heart disease!

The Egyptians ate more fruit and vegetables and less meat than we do and their meat was leaner. They also led a more active lifestyle and were not thought to have smoked. Given that they developed atherosclerosis anyway, Thomas said, it becomes even more important to take measures to forestall development of the disease as long as possible, including stopping smoking, eating less red meat and losing weight.

Got that?  The Egyptians ate more fruit and vegetables than we do, ate leaner meat and less of it, and were more active — but they were prone to heart disease, so this proves we should cut back red meat and try to be more active.  Oh, and don’t forget to eat your fruits and vegetables.

Head.  Bang.  On.  Desk.

Here’s how the diet the experts tells us will prevent heart disease worked out for the wealthy Egyptians:

Thomas and his colleagues reported 18 months ago on a study of 16 mummies, in which they found hardening of the arteries in nine. Eight of those nine were older than 45 when they died.

In the new study, Thomas and his colleagues in the U.S. and Egypt expanded the study to 52 Egyptian mummies dating from about 1981 BC to AD 364.  They were able to identify arteries and heart tissue in 44 of the mummies and observed calcification — a clear sign of hardening of the arteries that is also seen in modern patients — in nearly half of them. That included 20% of those who had died before the age of 40 and 60% of those who were older than 40 when they died.

In their horizontal world, the doctors are confused by these findings.  They’re bumping into vertical bars and not even seeing them.  The vertical bars are sugar and starch in the form of honey, wheat and beer.  Here’s how one site describes the diet of the ancient Egyptians:

Bread was the staple diet of most Egyptians. The average kitchen was usually situated at the rear of the house, or on the roof. Mostly it was in the open, but may have been partially shade. Egyptian food was cooked in simple clay pots, using wooden utensils and stored in jars.

Beer was the national drink and was also made from barley. To improve the taste the Egyptians would add spices and it was usually stored in labeled clay jars. The importance of beer to the ancient Egyptians should not be underestimated as it was esteemed so highly that it was regularly offered as libation to the gods.

I understand.  I’ve been known to talk to God after indulging in beer myself.  But apparently, the real crowd-pleaser (and deity-pleaser) in ancient Egypt was honey, which was too expensive for the peasants, but a favorite among the royals.

Honey and beekeeping were very much part of the daily lives of the Egyptian people in ancient times.    Records show that it was used as a symbol for Egyptian royalty.   It was sought after by Pharaohs, who used it as gifts for their gods.  Honey was also found to be used when the ancient Egyptians died.   It was one of the materials used in their embalming.   Honey has been found in pots next to Pharaohs in their tombs to be used in the after life.

You’ve got to really like honey to carry a pot of it into the next life.  But I’m guessing all that honey, along with the bread, beer and the other tasty treats, punched the Pharaohs’ tickets to the next life a little sooner than they hoped.  One description I found online of a meal from “the king’s table” listed bread, beer, meat, vegetables, fruits, honey, cakes, wine and oils.

Ah, there you go:  meat was mentioned.  This, of course, proves we should all cut back on red meat to avoid the kind of heart disease that afflicted ancient Egyptians who didn’t eat much red meat.

No, that doesn’t make any sense.  But in a horizontal world, it’s the best we can do.

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Some years ago, my fellow comedian Tim Slagle and I produced short comedy bits for a libertarian talk show.  In one bit, the health-care police arrested a man for sneaking coconut oil into a movie theater to put on his popcorn.  (I’ve embedded it at the end of the post.)

The trouble with using comic exaggeration to make fun of nanny-state busybodies is that reality keeps catching up.  What starts as parody ends up sounding like a straight news report some years later.

Just look at what the nanny-staters have been up to lately.  First, a councilman in New York City proposes banning toys from Happy Meals that don’t meet his definition of “healthy.”  Some commenters on the blog suggested I find a picture of that councilman.  So I did:

This is the guy who considers himself qualified to stand between me and McDonald’s so I don’t let a cheap toy lure me into buying meals he doesn’t think my kids should eat.  And he’s doing this (as Jacob Sullum would say) apparently without embarrassment.

Amazing.  The councilman should get together with Kelly Brownell and form a two-man comedy team called Morbidly Obese Men Who Know What You Should Eat. I’ll volunteer to be their opening act. I bet the back-stage spread before shows would be terrific.

Note to nanny-state busybodies everywhere:  if you’re tempted to legislate other people’s food choices and you happen to look like a character from a bad Eddie Murphy movie, it might be wise to just keep your mouth shut.  Yes, I mean that in more than one way.

On the heels of The Nutty Professor vs. Ronald McDonald in New York, today we learned that a public school in Chicago is banning lunches brought from home.  (This story produced an all-time record for the number of emails I received from blog readers.)  I’m sure you can guess the reason:  the school is just trying to make sure the little tykes are eating nutritious meals, doncha know:

Principal Elsa Carmona said her intention is to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.  “Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school,” Carmona said. “It’s about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It’s milk versus a Coke. But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception.”

Well, Ms. Carmona, it’s really generous of you to allow parents to decide what their kids will eat if there’s a medical issue involved.  But for everyone else, here’s how it works out:

1.    Your child is required by law to attend school.
2.    Your child is not allowed to bring lunch from home.

Therefore …

3.    Five days per week, nine months out of the year, the government will decide what your kid will eat for one-third of his meals.  If the government wants to stuff your kid with gluten, lectins, vegetable oils and fructose, that’s how it’s going to be – unless your kid is willing to skip lunch entirely.

What amazes me – and frankly scares me, too – are the people who don’t have a problem with this policy.

Parent Miguel Medina said he thinks the “no home lunch policy” is a good one. “The school food is very healthy,” he said, “and when they bring the food from home, there is no control over the food.”

Slamming.  Head.  On.  Desk.

Mr. Medina, if you think the school food is “very healthy,” here’s what you do:  tell your kids to eat the school food.  Then you’re making a choice as a parent … cool concept, eh?  In fact, it’s such a cool concept, perhaps we should extend it to other parents as well – including those who would rather pack a lunch for their kids, whether you approve of that lunch or not.

The pervasiveness of the “I think it’s a good idea, so let’s impose it on everyone” attitude in some cities these days just blows my mind.  It’s as if hardly anyone has ever heard the lovely phrase “It’s a free country.”  (Perhaps because in so many ways, it’s not anymore.)

In its never-ending quest to impose its dietary preferences on schoolkids, the USDA placed even greater restrictions this year on saturated fat, salt, and other nutrients that actually make a meal worth eating.  Here’s the result:

At Little Village, most students must take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both. During a recent visit to the school, dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten. Though CPS has improved the nutritional quality of its meals this year, it also has seen a drop-off in meal participation among students, many of whom say the food tastes bad.

I can’t quite figure out if the reporter actually sees the connection between “improved the nutritional quality” and “drop-off in meal participation.”  No matter, though.  The school is going to impose participation, so problem solved.  Nutty Professor vs. Ronald McDonald in New York, followed by a remake of The Shawshank Redemption in Chicago.

“Excuse me, are you Red?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Well, I heard you’re the guy who can get things for people.”

“Maybe.  What are you lookin’ to get?”

“The red ones … Red.”

“I don’t got any red ones.  I can get you uppers, downers, coke, smack or weed.  Take your pick.”

“No, not those red ones.  Red spicy ones.  You know, the corn chips.”

“Corn chips?  Look, newbie, I can get you all the drugs you want, but I’m not a magician, okay?  The principal catches you with a salty snack, we all wind up in the hole.”

Last year, when my daughter’s preschool informed us (reluctantly) that we had to pack a government-approved lunch on the day state inspectors were visiting, we decided to go ahead and put those oh-so-important grain products in her lunchbox.  The alternative was to stick a four-year-old in the middle of a fight she didn’t start.  But if the local elementary school even thinks about requiring my daughters to eat their awful cafeteria lunches, I will raise holy hell.

Fortunately, given the culture in this part of Tennessee, I’d probably have plenty of other parents joining me.  Some of them might even be packing … and I’m not talking about a lunch.

The Slagle-Naughton Report bit from long ago:

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You may have seen the amazingly popular Epic Meals videos on YouTube.  If not, here’s a sample:

Awesome stuff. As over-the-top as a meal can get. But why should the vegans be left out of the fun? They shouldn’t. Here’s one for them:

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Salt and Stress

On the news this morning, I saw a quick report that salty foods may reduce stress.  No details given.  So I looked up an article about the study online.  Here’s the opening:

If you’re the kind of person who turns to comfort food when you’re under pressure, what type of food do you instinctively choose: sweet or salty? If the only thing that makes you feel better is chips, crisps, salted nuts or other savoury snacks, scientists think they know why.

Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, psychiatrists from the University of Cincinnati suggest high levels of salt in your bloodstream helps to lower the levels of stress hormones. Not just that, but it raises your levels of oxytocin too – a feel-good hormone that scientists believe we produce when we fall in love, for instance, or when a mother bonds with her baby.

All right!  Pass me the salt shaker!  I need to calm down!

Turned out, however, it was just a rat study:

The researchers carried out tests on lab rats to find out how they responded to stress. The animals that were fed salty foods prior to the tests were found to have less activity in the parts of their brains associated with processing stress compared to those who had eaten food with a normal salt level.

The animals with high levels of salt recovered faster after being stressed too. Brain scans also showed they had higher levels of oxytocin when they had more salt in their systems (a condition known as hypernatremia).

I don’t think we should make too much of a rat study … but still, it got me thinking:  Mayor Bloomberg in New York City has been waging war against salt, demanding that restaurants and food manufacturers reduce sodium levels.  Sure would be fun to watch if the end result is an even higher level of stress among New Yorkers.  Just what the Big Apple needs.

Interview in Muscle & Strength

I was interviewed this week for Muscle & Strength online.  I have to admit, that request surprised me.  I work out, but I’m not exactly a poster boy for bodybuilding.  Regardless, I enjoyed the interview, which you can read here.

Slob Song

A musician named Steve Far immortalized the Fat Lazy Slob theory of weight gain in a song:

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I’ve come up with an idea to solve the nation’s obesity issue:  outlaw all newspapers and magazines, including their online versions.

As the experts behind Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign have informed us, too many Americans are fat because they spend too much time just sitting around — and let’s face it, reading newspapers and magazines is a sedentary pursuit.  Those greedy publishers, thinking of nothing but their own profits, are encouraging people to sit on their fat butts when they should be outside taking a walk or playing with their kids.

Predictably, the publishers will condemn my plan and insist that I haven’t produced any proof whatsoever that taking away newspapers and magazines will solve the obesity problem.  That may be true, but any measure that incentivizes consumers to spend less time reading and more time moving can only help.

I came up with my plan while reading an online article from TIME magazine explaining how some nanny-state politicians in New York City plan to follow the lead of nanny-state politicians in San Francisco by banning Happy Meal toys.  (I was, of course, jogging in place while reading the article, but I know better than most magazine readers.)

Well actually, they’re not banning all Happy Meal toys — only toys accompanying Happy Meals that don’t meet with the nanny-state politicians’ approval:

New York City Council member Leroy G. Comrie Jr. of Queens is leading the charge to ban kid-friendly toys from any fast-food meal that doesn’t meet certain nutritional standards, arguing that the plastic playthings serve to reward children for making poor food choices and undermine parents’ attempts to steer kids toward healthful options.

Mr. Comrie’s bill, which he is to introduce in the City Council on Wednesday, would restrict toys to meals that contain fewer than 500 calories and 600 milligrams of sodium, and in which less than 35 percent of the calories come from fat (making exceptions for nuts, seeds, peanut butter or other nut-based butters). In addition, the meal would have to contain a half a cup of fruit or vegetables or one serving of whole-grain products.

Awesome.  Fabulous.  Terrific.  Let’s use the coercive power of government to remove more brain-building saturated fat from Happy Meals and replace them with more gluten and lectins — and of course, some vegetables the kids can enjoy throwing in the garbage.

As a parent, I still haven’t figured out how including a toy with a Happy Meal undermines my attempts to steer my kids toward healthful options.  When my girls whine for a treat I don’t think they should have, I employ a technique passed down from my grandparents, to my parents, to me:  I say no.  I thought that’s what most parents do.  But apparently I was wrong about that:

“I think it’s important to find a way to make a healthy lifestyle palatable and exciting,” Comrie told the New York Times’ City Room blog, acknowledging that he was motivated to write the bill out of guilt for “grabbing Happy Meals” for his own kids.

Ah, I see.  Mr. Comrie wasn’t intelligent or disciplined enough to make smart choices for his own kids, so naturally this qualifies him to make decisions for mine.  Clearly the best way to prevent McDonald’s from undermining my parental authority is to have the government beat them to it.  Please, Mr. Comrie, stop me before I engage in another voluntary exchange.

The proposed law is a tribute to the idiocy of nanny-state politicians, but the article itself is also a tribute to the idiocy of the rah-rah journalists who cheer them on.  As evidence, I present these closing sentences:

Predictably, McDonald’s condemned the proposed measure. An executive for the company’s New York region said: “Taking away toys from kids’ meals won’t solve childhood obesity.”

That may be true, but any measure that incentivizes food makers to offer healthier options for consumers can only help.

Got that?  Taking away toys may not solve childhood obesity, but it can only help.  That’s all you have to say to convince a rah-rah journalist that restricting freedom in a supposedly free country is a good idea:  By gosh, it might just help … even if it probably won’t.

Outlawing newspapers and magazines may not make people leaner, that’s true … but anything that incentivizes them to be more active can only help.  Let’s get ‘er done!

While reading the article (and trying very hard not to bang my head on my desk), I followed a link to another article about a new report that ranks the nation’s counties in terms of health.  Here are some choice paragraphs:

A comprehensive survey of overall health county-by-county in the U.S. confirms a few things we already know to be true: being poor is bad for your health. So is having low education, not having a job and having less access to grocery stores and farmer’s markets for fresh food.

The County Health Rankings report, available online, ranks the health of more than 3,000 counties based on a wide variety of social, physical and environmental measures including but not limited to: adult smoking and obesity, premature death, numbers of uninsured, violent crime, car accident deaths, single parenthood, mammography screening rate, sexually transmitted disease, air pollution, numbers of low-birthweight babies born, income and education.

“It’s hard to lead a healthy life if you don’t live in a healthy community,” Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which collaborated with the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute on the report, said in a statement. “We hope that policymakers, businesses, educators, public health departments and community residents will use the Rankings to develop solutions to help people live healthier lives.”

Oh, I see … people engage in unhealthy behaviors because they live in unhealthy communities.  Glad we got the cause and effect straightened out.  Now the policymakers and public-health departments can jump in there and develop solutions to help people live healthier lives.  Maybe they’ll start by outlawing Happy Meal toys.

Out of curiosity, I followed the links to the county-by-county rankings in California and Tennessee.  In California, we lived in Los Angeles County, which is ranked number 26 out of 56 in the state.  Well, that explains a lot … I still have painful memories of my mediocre health back then.  Fortunately, we now live in Williamson County, which is ranked number 1 out of 95 counties in Tennessee.  Man, has my health ever improved.  As soon as we moved here, I started adopting the healthy habits of my new neighbors.

Strangely, though, there’s no shortage of McDonald’s restaurants around here that sell Happy Meals.  We’d better do something about that.  I’d hate to lose our number 1 ranking.

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