Well, this is a positive development: a reader sent me a link to an article about people who originally became vegetarians for ethical reasons, but are now converting to being “ethical” meat-eaters:
A feisty vegetarian since age 12, Berlin Reed was a self-described “punk” who swore to abstain from supporting corporations that he believed profited from mistreating animals, abusing labor practices and “destroying” the environment.
“I have ‘vegan’ tattooed on my neck,” said Reed, 29. “You could say I was a little passionate about it.”
Today, however, he’s known as “the ethical butcher,” a title which might seem odd for someone whose friends once arranged a “bacon intervention” to sway him to omnivorism.
Must’ve been some party tray at that bacon intervention. Apparently the intervention worked, but I can’t help but wonder if the ethical butcher’s customers ever spot that “vegan” tattoo on the back of his neck and suspect he may secretly be handing them tofu steaks.
The article goes on to explain that “ethical” meat-eating means different things to different people, but that’s not what caught my attention. This did:
According to a recent study by Psychology Today, most vegetarians return to eating meat.
I didn’t know that. I’m an ex-vegetarian, I know other ex-vegetarians, and of course many readers of this blog are ex-vegetarians, but this is first time I’d heard that vegetarianism is a temporary condition for most who try it. Even before I checked the Psychology Today study, I could guess the reason. This paragraph gives a pretty strong clue:
For those who are physically unable to keep up with the challenges of the vegetarian life, ethical omnivorism is a liberating conscience-saver. Nutritionist Julie Daniluk, 38, was plagued by guilt when she returned to eating meat, but 13 years of vegetarianism hadn’t suited her immune system.
Okay, I have to admit: that first sentence rubs me the wrong way. “Unable to keep up with the challenges of the vegetarian life” sounds a bit like “unable to keep up with the challenges of boot camp.” The more appropriate description in my case would be “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” The nutritionist obviously found that going meatless wasn’t doing wonders for her health — somebody call T. Colin Campbell! — so she quit.
That’s what the Psychology Today article named as the number one reason vegetarians go back to eating meat: poor health.
Staci wasn’t always so fit. In her early 30’s, Staci’s health started going downhill. After twelve years of strict vegetarianism, she began to suffer from anemia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and she experienced stomach pains for two hours after every meal. “I was completely debilitated,” she tells me. “Then I changed the way I ate.”
“Tell me about your diet now. What did you have for breakfast today?” I ask.
“A half pint of raw beef liver,” she says.
Ok….Staci is a bit extreme in her carnivory — these days she prefers her meat raw, and she eats a lot of it. But the transformation from hard-core vegetarian to meat-eater that Staci illustrates is surprisingly common. Indeed, according to a 2005 survey by CBS News, three times as many American adults admit to being “ex-vegetarians” than describe themselves as current vegetarians.
This is a point I’ve tried to make to the vegetarians zealots who occasionally troll this blog and preach to me about how much healthier vegetarians are compared to population as a whole: vegetarians are a self-selected group. It’s a lifestyle that attracts health-conscious people to begin with — that’s why I tried it — but then the people who experience negative results usually give it up. Those left standing are health-conscious people who didn’t experience health problems going meatless. Of course they’re healthier on average than a population that consumes pizza, burritos, deli sandwiches, sodas, french fries, Little Debbie Snack Cakes and Chunky Monkey ice cream. Compare the vegetarians to a bunch of people who consciously chose paleo diets, then we’ll see who’s healthier on average.
The authors of the Psychology Today article gathered their own data from an online survey, so it’s hardly a scientific study. But the results are interesting:
Thirty-five percent of our participants indicated that declining health was the main reason they reverted back to eating flesh. For example, one wrote, “I was very weak and sickly. I felt horrible even though I ate a good variety of foods like PETA said to.” Another wrote, “My doctor recommended that I eat some form of meat as I was not getting any better. I thought it would be hypocritical of me to just eat chicken and fish as they are just as much and animal as a cow or pig. So I went from no meat to all meat.” The most succinct response was by a man who wrote, “I will take a dead cow over anemia any time.”
One-quarter of the ex-vegetarians said they grew tired of the hassle (whatever that means) of the lifestyle, and one-fifth said they developed an “irresistible urge” to eat meat again. As far as I’m concerned, we can add that group to those who started eating meat again for their health. Those irresistible urges were messages from their bodies … something along the lines of “Give me the nutrition I need, you dumb @#$%!”
Many of us (if not most) who try vegetarianism eventually end up feeling lousy for good reason: we evolved as meat-eaters. As it happens, another reader recently sent me a link to an article that provides yet another clue about what our ancestors ate:
Stone Age barbecue consumers first went for the bone marrow and then for the ribs, suggest the leftovers of an outdoor 7,700-year-old meaty feast described in the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The remains, found in the valley of the River Tjonger, Netherlands, provide direct evidence for a prehistoric hunting, butchering, cooking and feasting event. The meal occurred more than 1,000 years before the first farmers with domestic cattle arrived in the region.
Marrow and ribs … the good, fatty stuff. Sounds yummy.
Although basic BBQ technology hasn’t changed much over the millennia, this prehistoric meal centered around the flesh of an aurochs, a wild Eurasian ox that was larger than today’s cows. It sported distinctive curved horns.
Whaddaya mean BBQ technology hasn’t changed?! We have propane grills and aluminum tongs now. Not to mention cool aprons.
According to the study, the individuals skinned the animal and butchered it, reserving the skin and large hunks of meat for carrying back to a nearby settlement. Chop marks left behind by the flint blade show how the meat was meticulously separated from the bones and removed.
Niekus told Discovery News, “The people who killed the animal lived during the Late Mesolithic (the latter part of the middle Stone Age). They were hunter-gatherers and hunting game was an important part of their subsistence activities.”
According to a nitwit I spent part of today debating online, this means the stone-age people had high rates of type 2 diabetes. What happens, ya see, is that if more than 10% of your diet comes from animal fat, the fat stacks up against the walls of your cells and then the cells can’t absorb glucose –- which is the energy source for every cell in your body, ya see — so you become a diabetic. Yup, that’s what happens. Yes, it does. Yes, it does! It does too! Well, you’d understand these things if you’d just read The China Study!
But back to our prehistoric ancestors:
Aurochs must have been good eats for Stone Age human meat lovers, since other prehistoric evidence also points to hunting, butchering and feasting on these animals. A few German sites have yielded aurochs bones next to flint tool artifacts. The aurochs couldn’t escape extinction, though.
“It became extinct due to the destruction of the habitat of the aurochs since the arrival of the first farmers in Europe about 7500 years ago,” Prummel said. “These farmers used the area inhabited by aurochs for their dwellings, arable fields and meadows. The aurochs gradually lost suitable habitat.”
Figures … friggin’ grain farmers had to show up and ruin the natural-meat supply. Perhaps if enough vegetarians convert to being ethical meat-eaters, we can do something about that.
One of the authors of that rebuttal, Dr. Richard Feinman, has meted out another well-deserved spanking on his blog. This time the unruly children produced a piece of bad science they claim demonstrates that high-protein / low carbohydrate diets aren’t any better at managing type 2 diabetes than high-carbohydrate diets. (That would certainly come as a shock the many readers who’ve emailed or commented to tell me how much their glucose control has improved since switching to a low-carb diet.)
I’ll just give you one highlight from Dr. Feinman’s post: the “low carbohydrate” diet was, according to the self-reported intake of the subjects, 41.8% carbohydrate. That might qualify as a Zone diet, but it’s certainly not a low-carbohydrate diet. And here’s the real kicker: I read the study, which shows that the “high carbohydrate” group consumed 48.2% of their calories as carbohydrates.
So a measly 6.4% reduction in carbohydrates didn’t make a big difference? Well, I am shocked. I guess we can all stop looking at carbohydrate restriction as a possible treatment for type 2 diabetes now. Better fill those prescriptions for Metformin and be done with it.
There’s more to the spanking than that, however, so I’d urge to you read Dr. Feinman’s full post. It’s always fun to watch a real scientist discipline the children.
About a month ago, a new study warning about the dangers of “super-sticky cholesterol” made a bit of a splash in the media. I ignored it at the time, but thought about it today when I received an email from a Fat Head viewer who’s raising a diabetic child. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
The study, in case you missed it, produced headlines like this:
Super-Sticky ‘Ultra-Bad’ Cholesterol Revealed in People at High Risk of Heart Disease
When I was in journalism school, we were taught that many people don’t read much more than the headline and the first few paragraphs of a news story. That’s why student journalists are taught to write in reverse-pyramid style: get the important ideas in those first few paragraphs, then expand on the details. Here are the first few paragraphs of a Science Daily article about the study:
Scientists from the University of Warwick have discovered why a newly found form of cholesterol seems to be ‘ultra-bad’, leading to increased risk of heart disease. The discovery could lead to new treatments to prevent heart disease particularly in people with type 2 diabetes and the elderly.
The research, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), found that ‘ultra-bad’ cholesterol, called MGmin-low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is more common in people with type 2 diabetes and the elderly, appears to be ‘stickier’ than normal LDL. This makes it more likely to attach to the walls of arteries. When LDL attaches to artery walls it helps form the dangerous ‘fatty’ plaques’ that cause coronary heart disease (CHD).
CHD is the condition behind heart attacks, claiming 88,000 lives in the UK every year (1).
If you stop there, the takeaway message is that evil ol’ cholesterol also comes in an especially evil form that’s even more likely to cause heart disease. Yikes! Better go on a low-fat diet and get your cholesterol down, maybe even take a statin just to be safe. You have to read further to spot the true villain:
The researchers made the discovery by creating human MGmin-LDL in the laboratory, then studying its characteristics and interactions with other important molecules in the body.
They found that MGmin-LDL is created by the addition of sugar groups to ‘normal’ LDL — a process called glycation — making LDL smaller and denser. By changing its shape, the sugar groups expose new regions on the surface of the LDL. These exposed regions are more likely to stick to artery walls, helping to build fatty plaques. As fatty plaques grow they narrow arteries — reducing blood flow — and they can eventually rupture, triggering a blood clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.
What turns cholesterol into “sticky” cholesterol? Sugar.
In 1976 a prominent researcher named Peter Cleave told the McGovern committee that if anything in our diets causes heart disease, it’s probably sugar. McGovern sided with the researchers who blamed dietary fat, perhaps because he couldn’t imagine how sugar could produce fatty streaks in our arteries. This study describes a plausible (and likely, in my opinion) mechanism: high blood sugar produces small, dense LDL through glycation.
Glycation is what happens when sugars bind to proteins. I’ve heard various descriptions, but the one that stuck with me (pun intended) is that glycation “caramelizes” your tissues. The Wikipedia entry on glycation gives a good description of why you want to avoid being caramelized:
Endogenous (inside the body) glycations occur mainly in the bloodstream to a small proportion of the absorbed simple sugars: glucose, fructose, and galactose. It appears that fructose and galactose have approximately ten times the glycation activity of glucose, the primary body fuel. Glycation is the first step in the evolution of these molecules through a complex series of very slow reactions in the body … all lead to advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs).
Some AGEs are benign, but others are more reactive than the sugars they are derived from, and are implicated in many age-related chronic diseases such as: cardiovascular diseases (the endothelium, fibrinogen, and collagen are damaged), Alzheimer’s disease (amyloid proteins are side-products of the reactions progressing to AGEs), cancer (acrylamide and other side-products are released), peripheral neuropathy (the myelin is attacked), and other sensory losses such as deafness (due to demyelination).
Quite a horror show, eh? As the article in Science Daily notes, pharmaceutical companies may use this information to develop drugs that help prevent heart disease by reducing glucose levels.
Yes, yes, I know … you’re probably sitting there, dangerously close to banging your head on your desk, wondering why doctors don’t just tell people to stop jacking up their blood sugar with too many carbohydrates. Well, heck, they can’t do that because everybody just knows we need those carbohydrates –- which brings me back to the email I received today:
Our son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a year ago this August. Doctors told us that we should feed him whatever he wanted, even after I pushed to speak with their staff nutritionist and nailed her about their suggested carb intake. Their response to our concerns was, “He needs to grow healthier and stronger and the only way to do this is to feed him more carbs and give him more insulin injections.”
This would be to any Fat Head unsatisfactory as best. Three months after beginning our son’s insulin regimen, we noticed he began to show signs of symptoms he had never had before. The doctors again explained that he was fine in their opinion and his symptoms (while major and included loss of sight, balance, headaches, ear aches, and loss of cognitive function) were nothing more then simple effects of his disease and we would have to manage by continuing with their recommended treatment plan: injections and carb counting.
We did some research — as good Fat Head parents tend to — and found that the insulin prescribed for our two year old son was only approved by the FDA for children age six and over. We stopped use and contacted his doctor’s office. After two days all our son’s symptoms vanished and he began to function normally again. When we confronted the doctor about this issue they claimed that this drug is being used world-wide among the same age group as our son and it wasn’t uncommon or irregular.
Then about two weeks ago we found Fat Head. I have been doing research to that (fat) end for months, but I was missing the key component that Fat Head was able to deliver: Fat. In all the information I’ve pored over, it is always the same story. Stay away from sugar, carbs, processed foods, etc. But no one said anything about adding animal fat.
Just as a kind of experimental joke my husband and I took the information in Fat Head literally and began to cut out two-thirds of the carbs from our family diet. In only two days our son’s sugar levels went from spiking randomly at 480-600 and fell to 140-160. Our daughter also began to show signs of improved health — which for us meant more trips to the time-out chair. Having more energy evidently means more Fat Head mischief. You might want to make that a disclaimer for unsuspecting parents *wink* … just a thought.
Most doctors still believe high-fat diets cause heart disease, and diabetics are three times more likely to eventually develop heart disease. Put those together, and you get the standard advice for diabetics: go on a low-fat diet with plenty of complex carbohydrates, then take insulin to control your blood sugar. Following that advice, this poor kid was getting glucose spikes of 600. That’s major glycation territory.
Ignoring the standard advice, the same kid dropped his glucose to almost-normal levels. Given more time on a low-carb / high-fat diet, he may even reach normal levels. I certainly hope so.
Cholesterol isn’t the villain; “super-sticky cholesterol” resulting from too many carbohydrates is. And by recommending low-fat / high-carbohydrate diets, doctors are putting diabetics and other people prone to heart disease in a sticky situation indeed.
If you have any doubts that nutrition advice has been skewed by politics, this article ought to banish them:
Peter Atwater points us to this 1960s relic from US president Lyndon B Johnson’s own battle with inflation, as recounted on page 96 of Robert Samuelson’s The Great Inflation and its Aftermath:
Shoe prices went up, so LBJ slapped export controls on hides to increase the supply of leather. Reports that color television sets would sell at high prices came across the wire. Johnson told me to ask RCA’s David Sarnoff to hold them down. Domestic lamb prices rose. LBJ directed [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara to buy cheaper lamb from New Zealand for the troops in Vietnam. The President told the Council of Economic Advisers and me to move on household appliances, paper cartons, news print, men’s underwear, women’s hosiery, glass containers, cellulose, and air conditioners… When egg prices rose in the spring of 1966 and Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman told him that not much could be done, Johnson had the Surgeon General issue alerts as to the hazards of cholesterol in eggs.
Outstanding. Now if we can just find some way to jack up the price of wheat, we may finally hear some government warnings about the hazards of eating refined grains.
The expert behind the study said the “remarkable” findings showed an eight-week diet could prompt the body to produce its own insulin. The breakthrough suggests a dramatic drop in calories has a direct effect on reducing fat accumulated in the pancreas, which in turn prompts insulin cells to “wake up.”
Experts at Newcastle University carried out an early-stage trial on 11 people with diabetes. They each followed a diet of liquid drinks (containing 46.4% carbohydrate, 32.5% protein and 20.1% fat, with vitamins and minerals) and non-starchy vegetables.
After just one week, pre-breakfast blood sugar levels had returned to normal among the group. Over two months, insulin cell function in the pancreas increased towards normal and pancreatic fat decreased, as shown on MRI scans.
Three months later, after going back to normal eating with advice on portion control and healthy foods, seven people remained free of diabetes.
Readers sent me links to several online media articles about the study. All of them noted that the diet was extremely low in calories — about 600 per day — but the article I quoted above was the only one that listed the macronutrient percentages.
Some easy math tells us that 46.4% carbohydrate on a 600-calorie diet translates to about 70 carbohydrates per day. This was a low-everything diet, so it would be interesting to see what would happen if the researchers repeated the experiment with a higher calorie intake while still keeping the carbohydrates at 70 per day.
They’re after the fat toddlers again
The Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, has released a new report on childhood obesity, including recommendations for preventing it. Hold on to your hats, because this revolutionary advice will blow you away:
The kids need to eat less and move around more.
Okay, there’s a little more to it than that; they also recommend that mothers breast-feed babies for at least six months and make sure their toddlers are getting enough sleep. Good advice. But then they call on parents to limit their children’s portions. Bad advice. How the heck are parents supposed to know when kids have had enough food for the day? What if they’re in a growth spurt?
Feed the kids real food, restrict or eliminate the sugars and refined starches, then let their natural appetites do the rest. As I pointed out in a previous post, we never limit how much our girls eat, but they’re both lean and active. We just don’t feed them the kind of garbage that ramps up their appetites.
A reader who alerted me to the report also sent me a link to this:
Yeah, it’s funny. But give it five or ten years, and someone will probably be selling those things.
Consuming an extra helping of potatoes each day — French fried, baked or otherwise — can add an average of 0.8 of a pound to body weight per year, researchers find. Over time, that can result in substantial weight gain.
Everyone knows that people who chow down on french fries, chug soda and go heavy on red meat tend to pile on more pounds than those who stick to salads, fruits and grains.
But is a serving of boiled potatoes really much worse than a helping of nuts? Is some white bread as bad as a candy bar? Could yogurt be a key to staying slim?
The answer to all those questions is yes, according to the provocative revelations produced by a big Harvard project that for the first time details how much weight individual foods make people put on or keep off.
The edict to eat less and exercise more is far from far-reaching, as a new analysis points to the increased consumption of potato chips, French fries, sugary sodas and red meat as a major cause of weight gain in people across the United States.
I have mixed feelings about the media coverage of this study. It’s encouraging to see something other than sugar or fat getting the blame for all our ills:
The problem, said study coauthor Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, is that “we don’t eat potatoes raw, so it’s easier [for the body] to transform the starch to glucose.”
Since spuds prompt a quick increase in blood sugar levels, they cause the pancreas to go into overdrive trying to bring levels back down to normal. As blood sugar spirals down, people usually experience hunger, which leads to snacking. Over many years, this cycle can result in drastic weight gain and a fatigued pancreas, possibly contributing to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
It’s also encouraging to see the message getting out that weight loss isn’t as simple as counting calories:
The findings add to the growing body of evidence that getting heavier is not just a matter of “calories in, calories out,” and that the mantra: “Eat less and exercise more” is far too simplistic. Although calories remain crucial, some foods clearly cause people to put on more weight than others, perhaps because of their chemical makeup and how our bodies process them. This understanding may help explain the dizzying, often seemingly contradictory nutritional advice from one dietary study to the next.
“Our take-home message is what you eat affects how much you eat,” Mozaffarian said. “It’s not just a blanket message about reducing everything. Each individual lifestyle factor has a pretty small effect by itself, but the combined effect can explain that gradual weight gain.”
That’s why I don’t eat potatoes anymore, in spite of dire warnings from strange people who seem emotionally invested in convincing me I’m in mortal danger of permanently losing my tolerance for them: starches ramp up my appetite, period. They also spike my blood sugar. That may not happen to everyone, but it sure happens to me.
So I’m happy to see media articles warning people about consuming chips, fries, and other glucose-bombs. On the other hand, the study itself isn’t exactly what I’d call strong evidence. The researchers extracted their data from three large, multi-year observational studies. We all know what that means: food-recall questionnaires, which are notoriously inaccurate.
The message, at least as it’s being reported in the media, is also inconsistent. The news stories mention a plausible mechanism for how potatoes might encourage weight gain – potatoes spike glucose, which raises insulin, which drives fat storage – but then note that red meat was also associated with weight gain, while whole grains weren’t. If insulin-spiking potatoes are fattening, why isn’t insulin-spiking whole-grain bread?
Worst of all (though hardly surprising), the study is being reported as if the researchers have pinpointed cause and effect:
The researchers did find other culprits. For each additional sugary soft drink consumed per day, participants in the study gained an average of 1 pound over four years. Extra servings of red meats and processed meats did only slightly less damage.
Meats doing damage … yup, that sounds like cause and effect to me.
“I think it’s an important study,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who co-wrote an accompanying article. “It’s based on a large number of people followed over time, and it shows there are particular types of food that are contributing more than others to the obesity problem — and that some are protective against weight gain.”
No, Dr. Brownell, the study merely shows that some foods were associated with weight gain and some weren’t. We can’t conclude what’s actually protective and what isn’t from this kind of observational data. Fortunately, one expert quoted in the media made that very point:
“To attempt to isolate the effect of specific foods on weight changes is fraught with problems,” said Lawrence J. Cheskin, who heads the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. “One is that people may conclude that if they simply stop eating X, they will reduce the chance of weight gain. This is unlikely, and a false conclusion. Similarly, it is likely more a result of people who eat fruit being more health-conscious than fruit per se causing less weight gain.”
Bingo. Health-conscious people are different. They’re more likely to exercise, more likely to get enough sleep, less likely to eat potato chips, less likely to drink sodas, and – because they’ve been warned about it for 30-plus years – less likely to eat red meat, which is probably why red meat was associated with weight gain.
Yes, I believe potatoes and sodas make insulin-resistant people fatter. But I wouldn’t hold up this study as proof.