Archive for November, 2014

Last night Chareva and I watched two episodes of the National Geographic series EAT: The Story of Food.  One was on sugar, the other on wheat.  If you’re looking for information on the health effects, look elsewhere.  The episodes were mostly about how these foods changed societies – and how much we love them!  The only warning about sugar was that it might cause diabetes, and the episode on wheat may as well have been written by the grain industry, with sections on The Miracle of Bread (the staff of life!) and The Magic of Beer.

I’ve mentioned in several posts that I’m a grammar grump, so I suppose this description in our on-screen cable guide should have served as fair warning that I wouldn’t like the episode on wheat:

My own grammar went immediately downhill when I read that one.  Good thing the girls weren’t in the room.  The expletives were out of my mouth before I checked the whereabouts of young ears.

I was hoping, of course, that the episode on wheat would be another example of the Wisdom of Crowds overwhelming the official dietary view of wheat as a health food.  Oh well.  I guess the crowd hasn’t crowded its way into the production offices at National Geographic just yet.

Nonetheless, it’s obvious the grain industry has seen the writing on the wall and is now fighting a defensive battle.  A reader alerted me to an article in the U.K. Daily Mail with the headline Wheat-free diet could be WORSE for your health, new report warns.  Take a look:

Stick-thin celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Victoria Beckham, and Gwyneth Paltrow rave about their healthy ‘wheat-free’ lifestyles. 

Note to journalists:  if you want to scare people away from grain-free diets, it’s not an effective strategy to refer to grain-free celebrities as “stick-thin.”  There are millions of people out there who look nothing like a stick and would like to give it a shot.

Devotees claim going gluten-free can alleviate everything from tiredness and bloating to spotty skin and hair loss.

I’m a fan of wheat-free diets, but trust me on this:  if you’re bald, giving up wheat won’t resurrect your hair follicles.  Best you can do is compensate by growing a beard that some readers like and some readers don’t.

But wheat-free diets ‘lighten the wallet and not the waistline’, according to a scientific report due to be published later this month.

The report comes as a poll by Weetabix found 32 per cent of British people avoid wheat because fad diets like the Paleo Diets and Wheat Belly diet warn against gluten.

There’s that Wisdom of Crowds effect that has them scared witless.  Paleo?  Wheat Belly?  Has either ever been given a stamp of approval by the official experts?  Hardly.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  And yet both are catching on for the simple reason that people are telling each other how much better they feel after giving up the grains.

In a report due to be published by Warwick University, experts will argue that there is little evidence behind the claims made by popular wheat-free diets.

Good luck with that argument, you wild ‘n’ crazy experts.  Because here’s the cold, hard truth:  when people ditch wheat and find relief from arthritis, gastric reflux, asthma, psoriasis, etc., etc., they tend not to give a rat’s ass what the (ahem) experts say.

Dr Robert Lillywhite, senior research fellow at Warwick Crop Centre, said: ‘The scientific evidence behind many of the most popular wheat free diets is surprisingly thin. It may perhaps be the case that most will only lighten your wallet, rather than provide longer-tern health benefits, by encouraging you to switch from low cost cupboard staples to specialist foods intended for those who genuinely need to avoid gluten.

Yeah, yeah, yeah … only 1% of the population has celiac disease, blah-blah-blah.  I don’t have celiac disease either – I had the lab test run out of curiosity, since wheat was causing me problems.  Those problems went away when I ditched the wheat (although the baldness stubbornly refused reverse itself).  Thanks to the Wisdom of Crowds, people are learning that you don’t have to be officially diagnosed with celiac disease to be damaged by wheat.

‘We are delighted that Weetabix are investing in a review of the science in this area but of course we won’t be able to comment further on this work until the research is complete.’

Weetabix … you mean the people who make these?

Yeah, I’m sure that will be an objective review.

A quarter of people under 34 said they buy less cereal and bread because of the latest diet craze.  This could be why 90 per cent of British people eat less than half of the recommended 30g of fibre a day.

Eating the recommended amount of fibre can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and some cancers, and can also improve digestive health, doctors advise.

Claire Canty, Senior Brand Manager at Weetabix said: ‘The research highlights the misconceptions about whole wheat and how people might be mistakenly avoiding it.

No, I’m pretty sure people are avoiding it on purpose.

‘Whole wheat has been shown to be important to gastrointestinal health, thanks to its high fibre content and range of micronutrients.’

Riiiiiight.  Gotta eat your wheat if you want a healthy digestive system.  That explains all the people in health forums online sharing stories of how adding wheat to their diets caused all kinds of nagging health issues to go away.

Go ahead, Weetabix spokespeople and other eat-your-grains types.  Find those stories online.  Send us links to all those “wheat saved my life!” posts on social media.

You can’t, because they don’t exist (other than any planted by the grain industry, of course).  But there are plenty of compelling stories being shared by people who gave up grains.

I’ll recount one of those in my next post – a story from one of Chareva’s relatives whose health was saved by the Wisdom of Crowds.


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No post last night because I got back from Chicago much later than I’d planned.  I left Chareva’s parents’ house in the morning and made good time all day … then hit a dead-standstill traffic jam in southern Kentucky that lasted for hours.  Chareva told me later there had been an accident involving a semi.  Good thing I had the trusty audiobook player.  I don’t like being parked for hours on an interstate highway, but I treated it as extra reading time.

The original motivation for my trip north was a reunion of “The Schmat Guys,” a.k.a. the four of us who have been in the same football pool for 25 years.  (One of the Schmat Guys is Dave Jaffe, whose very amusing Write Good! blog I’ve quoted here a few times.  I’m the current holder of the Mista Schmat Guy trophy, but not doing so well this season.)

Back when we all lived in Chicago, we met every Sunday at the Red Lion pub to watch the games, drink pints, and insult each other’s bad picks.  Now we’re all old married men (one divorced), and only two of the old married men still live in the Chicago area.  It had been at least 15 years since we were all in the same room at the same time.  We fixed that with a gathering at the Red Lion on Sunday.  The owner remembered us by name, so I guess we probably spent more time there than we should have.

Anyway, as I mentioned in my last post, it occurred to me that Dr. William “Wheat Belly” Davis lives near Milwaukee, so I checked to see if he might perhaps be in town and available for an on-camera interview.  He was.  So I spent pretty much all of Saturday with him.  Interview first, then we went out for an early dinner and a long conversation at a restaurant in Milwaukee.

I got to know Dr. Davis a bit during the 2012 cruise (we were at the same dinner table), but this was the first chance I had to talk with him one-on-one for an all-day stretch.  It turns out he’s as fascinated with the whole Wisdom of Crowds effect as I am.  Given what’s happened with the national dietary guidelines, bad advice from organizations like the American Heart Association, all the drug-pushing doctors out there, etc., etc., Dr. Davis believes seeking advice from the crowd is a necessary form of self-defense.

When I opened my menu at the restaurant, I saw the Wisdom of Crowds effect right there in front of me.  I’m paraphrasing from memory, but printed above the list of burger combinations was something like this:

All our hamburgers are freshly ground from 100% grass-fed beef!

Was anybody demanding grass-fed beef five years ago?  If so, I wasn’t aware of it.  But I’m seeing more and more restaurants meeting what is obviously a growing demand.

At the BMI office where I work, there’s something called Food Truck Wednesday, which means employees can patronize a food truck in the parking lot during lunch hour.  I recently noticed that one of the vendors, Hoss Burgers, also brags on their menus that the burgers are made from 100% grass-fed beef.

A lot of us have very legitimate complaints about the food supply, with all its processed garbage and meats that come from grain-fed animals raised in what amount to meat factories.  A question I’m asked now and then is How do we change this horrible system?

We don’t have to change the system.  All we have to do is buy foods that enhance health and help spread the word to the crowd.  You can complain all you want about the evils of capitalism, but even the greediest capitalist can only sell you what you’re willing to buy  — the exception being when government takes your money and does your buying for you.

Remember when every damned thing on the grocery shelves was labeled low-fat or zero cholesterol?  That was the market responding to consumer demand.  Yes, the federal government helped create that demand with lousy dietary advice, but it was nonetheless consumer purchases driving what was produced.

That’s still how it works.  But now the Wisdom of Crowds effect is kicking in and changing what people demand.  When food trucks are offering grass-fed burgers, it means somebody in management noticed a change in consumer preference.  When restaurants add a new Gluten Free section to their menus, it means somebody in management noticed a change in consumer preference.  As more and more people choose grass-fed meats and other healthier foods, that’s what the producers will produce.

The burger I had in Milwaukee (a half-pounder with Havarti cheese, onions and mushrooms) was excellent, by the way.  So was the dinner conversation with a brilliant doctor I believe is responsible for making the crowd a bit wiser – and probably for some of those Gluten Free sections on menus.


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Even before I read his latest book, Dr. William Davis struck me as a man who will never be satisfied with how much he knows about diet and health.  I suspect that while I sit here writing this review, he’s poring over new research and incorporating it into his thinking.

On the first low-carb cruise I attended more than four years ago, Dr. Davis gave a speech on the importance of controlling blood sugar, with lots of information on the damage that occurs inside our bodies if we don’t.  If he mentioned wheat at all in that speech, it was probably in reference to how wheat spikes glucose.  I was aware of his Track Your Plaque program and read his blog now and then, but after his cruise speech, I mostly thought of him as the mind your blood sugar doctor.

Barely a year later, I received an advance copy of a book titled Wheat Belly and was blown away by all the information about the damage caused by grains.  It seemed that every other page, I was mumbling Oh my god, I had no idea to myself.   Up to that point, I had been limiting my grain consumption mostly to keep my carb intake down.  I still ate a hamburger bun or a serving of pasta now and then if I could squeeze it in under my carb limit.  But as I explained in the follow-up section of the Fat Head Director’s Cut, that all changed after reading Wheat Belly.  Now I avoid grains because they’re grains, not because of the carb count.

I don’t know how many millions of people have read Wheat Belly, but here’s an indication of the book’s reach:  two casual acquaintances who only know me as a programmer have mentioned it to me as something I ought to read.  Some months ago I was having lunch with one of the partners at the tech agency that placed me in my current job.  We’d met for lunch a few times before, and he always ordered broccoli-cheese soup in a bread bowl.  But on this occasion, he ordered a chef salad.  When I mentioned the change, he said, “I don’t touch wheat anymore.  I read this amazing book called Wheat Belly about how bad modern wheat is for your health.  You might want to check it out.”

So I casually mentioned that Dr. Davis and I were seated at the same dinner table on the previous year’s low-carb cruise, that I’d roasted him and the other speakers during the pre-cruise dinner, that we correspond occasionally, and yes, I was familiar with his work.  That was kind of a fun moment.

Anyway, as Ellen DeGeneres would say, my point  — and I do have one — is this:  given the stellar success of Wheat Belly, Dr. Davis could have declared he’d done his part to save humanity, ridden off into the sunset and spent the rest of his life playing golf or whatever.  But he didn’t.  He kept right on researching and writing, apparently without taking a break.

Wheat Belly Total Health, his latest book, isn’t Wheat Belly Lite or Wheat Belly Rewarmed.  Most of what I read in the 300-plus pages was new information not found in Wheat Belly.  (As usual with my busy schedule, I didn’t finish the book until after it was released, so pardon the late review.)

If the one-sentence description of Wheat Belly is “Here are all the reasons wheat is bad for you,” then the one-sentence description of Wheat Belly Total Health is “Now that you’ve been persuaded to stop eating grains, here’s how to undo the damage and regain your health.”

Well, okay, there’s still some persuading going on in Part One of the book.  But it comes in the form of Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in addition to all the crimes we’ve already attributed to this dastardly cereal killer, we now have evidence of many, many more.

Here’s an example from the second chapter:

WGA [wheat germ agglutinin] also mimics the effects of insulin on fat cells.  When WGA encounters a fat cell, it acts just as if it were insulin, inhibiting activation of fat release and blocking weight loss while making the body more reliant on sugar sources for energy.  WGA also blocks the hormone leptin, which is meant to shut off appetite when the physical need to eat has been satisfied.  In the presence of WGA, appetite is not suppressed, even when you’re full.

What a bargain: high blood sugar provoking high insulin, plus a lectin that acts like another dose of insulin, plus a short-circuiting of the “I’m full” signal.  Betcha can’t eat just one.

When I read the Perfect Health Diet book, I was impressed partly because Paul Jaminet was the only diet-and-health guru I knew of who addressed the importance of a healthy gut microbiome.  I can now add Dr. Davis to that list.  Wheat Belly Total Health includes quite a bit of information on gut bacteria and how to properly feed them:

Over the last few years, there has been a new scientific appreciation for the composition of human microbiota.  [Yeah, it’s new.  My spell-checker doesn’t even recognize “microbiota.” – TN]  We know, for instance, experimental animals raised in an artificial sterile environment and thereby raised with a gastrointestinal tract that contains no microorganisms have impaired immunity, are prone to infections, are less efficient at digestion, and even develop structural changes of the gastrointestinal tract that differ from creatures that harbor plentiful microorganisms.  The microorganisms that inhabit our bodies are not only helpful they are essential for health.

Care to guess whether wheat and other cereal grains are good or bad for your gut flora?  The irony is that we’re told to eat those healthywholegrains because they contain fiber.  Our gut bacteria feed on fiber – but not the fiber you get from a bowl of whole-grain cereal:

We are given advice to include more fiber, especially insoluble cellulose (wood) fibers from grains, in our diets.  We then eat breakfast cereals or other grain-based foods rich in cellulose fibers, and lo and behold, it does work for some, as indigestible cellulose fibers, undigested by our own digestive apparatus as well as undigested by bowel flora, yield bulk that people mistake for a healthy bowel movement.  Never mind that all of the other disruptions of digestion, from your mouth on down, are not addressed by loading up your diet with wood fibers.

After recounting the damage grains (especially modern wheat) can do to our guts, brains, hearts, sex hormones, thyroids, etc. in Part One, Dr. Davis moves on to his prescription for a health-enhancing diet in Part Two, Living Grainlessly: Restoring the Natural State of Human Life.

Grains can be addicting because of the opiate-like effects in the brain, so the first chapter in Part Two offers strategies for easing the withdrawal symptoms:  choosing a non-stressful time to ditch the grains, drinking enough liquid, getting enough fat and salt in the diet, possibly taking some supplements such as magnesium.  But most of Part Two is about which foods to eat and which to avoid.  The foods to eat include those that feed the good gut bacteria:

An emerging role is being recognized for so-called “prebiotics.”  These fibers, such as fructooligosaccharides and inulin from sources such as tubers and legumes, are indigestible by humans but digestible by bowel flora, which convert these fibers to short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate.  Butyrate is proving to play an essential role in maintaining a health intestinal lining, including repair of “tight junctions” between intestinal cells disrupted by grain consumption.  This repair restores normal barrier functions against undesirable components from other bacteria and reduces colon cancer risk.

So Dr. Davis is on board with the benefits of fiber and resistant starch from foods like tubers, but he doesn’t consider those benefits an invitation to eat mashed Russet potatoes.  He makes the same point in the book that I made in a recent post:  yes, your paleo ancestors ate ground tubers, but those tubers were tough and fibrous.  They’re not the metabolic equivalent of a low-fiber white potato mashed with cream and butter.

He still cares very much about avoiding glucose spikes, so unlike Paul Jaminet, Dr. Davis recommends a low-carb diet that limits the starches – 45 grams or so per day of non-fiber carbs, spread over three meals.  But unlike the early version of the Atkins diet (at least as perceived) the diet Dr. Davis recommends isn’t all meat, eggs and cheeses with a green salad thrown in.  He’s adamant about feeding the gut bacteria.  So he recommends raw potatoes, green bananas, legumes in small portions, and lots of high-fiber vegetables – some cooked, some raw, some fermented.  Everything he recommends is of the real-food variety; no processed foods, whether or not they contain grains.

Ditching the grains and switching to a whole-foods, grain-free diet is a huge step.  But in Part Three of Wheat Belly Total Health, Dr. Davis makes a crucial point:  yes, giving up grains halts the assault on our health … but that alone, or even combined with a good diet, may not be enough to fully recover our health.  Repair and rebuilding can take some focused effort.  That’s what Part Three is about.

Not surprisingly, restoring gut health is a big part of the process, and Dr. Davis recommends some specific probiotics to repopulate microbiomes that are all out of whack thanks to years of grains and other junk foods.  He also recommends (depending on the reader’s current health status) a list of supplements ranging from vitamin D to iodine.

The final few chapters deal with metabolism, weight loss, hormones and thyroid health.  There are descriptions of the lab tests doctors typically order for various metabolic conditions (including thyroid disorders) as well as explanations of what all those numbers mean.  (As many of you know by now, it’s not always a good idea to count on your doctor to interpret lab tests for you.)

In addition to being a dogged researcher, Dr. Davis is a talented writer.  His sentences flow, he injects humor throughout the book, and he explains concepts clearly.  In spite of the wealth of information — much of it dealing with biochemistry — I never found myself having to re-read a paragraph to grasp the meaning.  Doctors could learn a lot from this book, but it’s intended to consumer-friendly, and it is.

I interviewed Dr. Davis on camera during the 2012 low-carb cruise.  Some of that interview ended up in the Directors’ Cut version of Fat Head, and I’ve been saving the rest for the DVD companion to our upcoming book.  Wheat Belly Total Health contains so much new information, I kept thinking I wish I had him on video saying this stuff while reading it.

Well, it so happens I’m driving to Chicago this weekend to hang out with some old friends (and yeah, we’re all old now).  That’s been on the schedule for months.  It also so happens that Dr. Davis lives near Milwaukee, which is a reasonable drive from Chicago.  So I figured what the heck and emailed to see if was in town and available for another interview.  Yes and yes.

So I’ll be gone for the next few days, spending much of the time in my car or otherwise disengaged from the internet.  I’ll answer comments when I can, but don’t be surprised if they sit there for a day.

When we scheduled the interview, Dr. Davis suggested we head out for lunch afterwards.  I’m looking forward to that — and I’m pretty sure we won’t be visiting the Olive Garden for bread and pasta.


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See that nice line of fence posts in the picture below, just waiting for some cattle panels to be attached?

Nah, we couldn’t see them either, but we knew they were in there somewhere.

When we first bought the farm, there were t-posts and barbed wire all over the place.  Take a look.

Wow, hard to believe that’s now a grassy field – also the fairway for hole #8 on my disc-golf course.

Anyway, one of the first things we did after moving in was get rid of most of the barbed-wire fences.  They looked awful, and with two rambunctious girls running around the property, rusty barbed wire seemed like a bad idea.

Later we discovered another barbed-wire fence running along a dry creek-bed at the edge of our side pasture (same pasture in the first picture above).  We didn’t attempt to dismantle that one because it was surrounded on both sides by one of those @#$%ing briar jungles that surrounded and crisscrossed our property.  We figured we’d take care of that one when we paid someone to install a nice wooden fence around the land.

I’ve since changed my mind about the fence.  I’d still like a nice wooden fence for the two front pastures.  Pretty much all the fences in this area are either dark wood or iron, and I don’t want to own the one property with an ugly wire fence facing the road.  (I’m guessing the neighbors were none too pleased with the previous owner of our land, with her chest-high weeds and rusty barbed wire everywhere.)

But after seeing estimates for a wooden fence surrounding the entire six-acre property, we decided we can go with cattle panels for the side pasture and the land behind the house.  Nobody can see those areas except us anyway, and we’d rather put the considerable savings towards a tractor or something else useful.

We’d like to have the option of raising sheep next year, and we’d also like the dogs to have more room to run around.  Rather than hire a fencing company, Chareva suggested we just jump in and start fencing off the side pasture and the back of the land ourselves.  I agreed enthusiastically.  As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, I now look forward to those outdoor labor projects.

Step one was to remove the jungle that had grown up around the barbed-wire fence in the side pasture, then cut away the barbed wire.  The t-posts are fine (most of them, anyway), so we’ll keep those and attach cattle panels to them.

Man, those jungles are wicked.  Here’s a close-up of what we had to clear.

Believe it or not, there are some nice trees behind all that mess.  You’ll see them in the pictures below.

Defeating the jungle required a multi-pronged attack.  For each section, I had to start by walking in there with a chainsaw and swinging it back and forth like a slow-motion machete.  The briar counter-attacked ferociously, and my arms got shredded even though I was wearing sleeves.

After I hacked my way up to the fence line with the chainsaw, Chareva stepped in to snip away the barbed wire, fold it up, and stuff it in a garbage can.  Here’s what each section looked like with the jungle cleared just up to the t-posts.

We don’t want the jungle to grow back up through our eventual fence, so after Chareva snipped away the barbed wire, I stepped back in with the chainsaw and cleared a few more feet behind the fence line.  When all that was done, I mowed down whatever was left with our Predator brush mower (a process we called “Feeding The Beast.”)

Between the density of the jungle and my protective facemask, it was sometimes tough to see exactly what I was cutting when I reached in there with the chainsaw.  So even though I was trying to be careful, I caught some barbed wire on my second day out there, which caused the chain to fly off the bar.  I’m no longer Chicken Man when it comes to working with dangerous power tools, but trust me, seeing a loose chain whipping around in front of you will wake you up in a hurry.

When I opened the chainsaw, I noticed some little part had gone flying off as well, forever lost in the jungle.  I took the chainsaw to the Stihl dealer and was told the repair expert (a nice older fella I refer to as “Pepperidge Fahm” because of his thick New England accent) wouldn’t be back until Monday.

Well, what the heck, I thought to myself.  Truth is, this 20-inch Farm Boss is great for cutting logs, but it’s a bit of a load to swing around in a briar jungle all day, and it’s extreme overkill anyway.  Kind of like carrying a bazooka to hunt squirrels.  So I bought a small chainsaw and left the big one behind for the repair.

Depending on where each section was located, we ended up whacking down somewhere between six and 10 feet of jungle to clear the fence line.  In the picture below, the brown area was all jungle.

At first, I thought one of our biggest chores would be dragging all the saplings and vines we cut down to a new and massive burn pile.  But then I hacked my way well past the fence line and nearly stumbled into a wide and very dry creek-bed.  Two thoughts occurred to me:  1) When we get sheep, that dry creek-bed would serve as a convenient superhighway for any coyotes who decide to come down from the hills and sniff around, and 2) that looks like a convenient place to dump all the briar I’m cutting down … which would discourage coyotes from treating the creek-bed as a superhighway.

So I cleared a path to the creek in a few places, and that’s where we dragged the jungle-whackings.  In the picture below, the creek curves pretty close to the fence line.  If you look towards the right, you can see the creek-bed filled with briar.

See that thing that looks sort of like a snake hanging down in the picture above?   That’s a vine that grew up and around a tree.  We pulled down quite a few of them, but some — like that one — wouldn’t budge.  So I just cut them as high up as I could safely reach with the chainsaw.

The job took three weekends, but the t-posts are now exposed and waiting for cattle panels.  (Hey, look — trees!  They’re a pretty sight when they’re not being strangled by a briar jungle.)

My camera doesn’t have a wide-angle lens, so I can’t snap a picture of the whole side pasture.  This picture shows about half of the area we had to clear.

The good news is that the side pasture is done.  The better news (now that I’m a fan of working myself into a state of Dog-Tired Satisfied on weekends) is that we still have the entire back of the property to go.  Heaven forbid I run out of work.


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It’s November already, so I’m sure by now some of you are asking yourselves the same question you ask every year:  What the @#$% am I going to get my mom for Christmas?

Allow me to offer a suggestion:

No, I’m not offering to sell my wife.  She’s modeling our latest Fat Head wearable product, the Cool Moms Cook With Butter apron (which she also happened to design).  Here’s the close-up view:

The apron is a nice holiday red, and it’s made from stain-resistant cotton twill.  There are two front pockets and a pen pocket – so Mom can keep a notebook and pen handy, thus making it easy to write A dozen boxes of Kerrygold on the grocery list.

Like with our Wheat Is Murder t-shirts, postage for shipping overseas is more than double the cost of shipping within North America, so if you order from outside the U.S. or Canada, please click the order button for overseas shipping.  (Unlike with our Wheat Is Murder t-shirts, we didn’t have to take a wild guess about how many to order for each of several sizes.  The aprons are one-size-fits-all.)

Shipping time within the U.S. should be 3-4 days.  Based on what people told me about the t-shirts, I’m guessing shipping to places like Sweden and Australia will be more like 2-3 weeks.

The cool mom in our house has already informed me she’s keeping the apron she modeled.  No problem; I hope we sell out this batch and have to order a LOT more.

Here’s the link to the Fat Head online store.


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You ever go to a big party, go to the bathroom, flush the toilet, and the water starts coming … up? This is the most frightening moment in the life of a human being. You’ll do anything to stop this. You’ll lose your mind and start talking to the toilet: “No, please, don’t do this to me. No, come on, you know this is not my responsibility! I didn’t make this happen!” – Jerry Seinfeld

Of course you caused it to happen, Jerry. You flushed the toilet, which filled the bowl with water. More water went into the bowl than went out, and so it overflowed. Call any reputable plumber and ask why a toilet overflows, and that’s the answer you’ll get: more water going in than going out.

Heh-heh-heh … just kidding. A reputable plumber would explain that something has clogged up the system, then charge you a hefty hourly fee to fix the clog.

Back in my standup days, I opened a few times for a comedian I really liked named Tom Parks. He had a good bit about his toilet backing up into his bathtub. (I don’t remember it word for word, and paraphrasing won’t be as funny. Sorry about that.) Parks called a plumber, who fixed the problem and then apologized for the bill, explaining that house calls on a Sunday are billed at two-and-a-half times the usual rate … to which Parks replied, “Buddy, here’s all I want to know: is the @#$% gone from my tub? Yeah? Then you can charge me whatever you want.”

Fortunately, the plumber didn’t attribute the problem to more @#$% entering the tub than exiting.

I bring up the toilet humor because of yet another raging debate about the relevance of calories-in/calories-out (CICO) on the Fat Head Facebook group. I don’t have time to read all the posts in the Facebook group, much less comment on them, but I did chime in on that one. Here’s what I wrote:

Arguing about whether weight gain/loss is caused by the hormonal effects of diet or CICO is like arguing whether your toilet overflowed because of a clog in the pipe or because more water went into the toilet than went out. CICO always applies, but that’s the HOW of the result, not the WHY.

I’m not sure why this is such a difficult concept for some people to wrap their brains around, but apparently it is. So I’ll try to explain one more time:

Those of us who believe losing weight isn’t as simple as restricting calories aren’t denying the laws of physics. People have accused Gary Taubes of ignoring the laws of thermodynamics, but frankly, that’s beyond ridiculous. The man has a degree in physics from Harvard, for pete’s sake. His first award-winning book was about physics. It seems rather unlikely that when he wrote Good Calories, Bad Calories, he just up and decided the laws of physics don’t apply to obesity or weight loss.

What he’s tried to explain in at least a couple of speeches I watched online is that yes, of course, if you increase your body mass, you consumed more calories than you expended. If you decrease your body mass, then yes, of course, you expended more calories than you consumed. But that’s all the calories-in/calories-out equation can tell us. It doesn’t tell us the actual reason weight gain or weight loss occurred.

As I was trying to get across in my Facebook comment, we’re talking about the difference between HOW vs. WHY. If my toilet overflows, then yes, more water entered the bowl than exited. That’s HOW it overflowed. But that’s not WHY it overflowed. The WHY would have something to do with a clog in the pipes.

People who insist that gaining weight is caused by consuming too many calories and that losing weight is therefore as simple as consuming fewer calories are confusing HOW with WHY. The HOW of gaining or losing weight is always the same: a calorie surplus or a calorie deficit. But that doesn’t mean eating more will make you fat or eating less will make you thin.  Your body is rather opinionated about how much fat mass it wants to maintain and will adjust your metabolism accordingly.  That’s where the WHY comes into play.

In his book The Calorie Myth, Jonathan Bailor wrote about a group of research subjects who consumed an extra thousand calories per day for several weeks. According to the CICO equation, they should have all gained 16 pounds. Nobody gained that much (the most anyone gained was eight pounds), and some of the naturally-lean subjects gained a mere half-pound. So let’s look at HOW vs. WHY for those lucky people:

  • HOW they avoided getting fatter: the calories they expended matched the calories they consumed.
  • WHY they avoided getting fatter: their bodies are hormonally geared to stay lean and responded to the extra calories with a corresponding rise in metabolism.

Here’s a paragraph from Good Calories, Bad Calories:

When physiologists began studying animal hibernation in the 1960s, they again demonstrated this decoupling of food intake from weight gain. Hibernating ground squirrels will double their body weight in late summer, in preparation for the winter-long hibernation. But these squirrels will get just as fat when kept in the laboratory and not allowed to eat any more in August and September than they did in April. The seasonal fat accumulation is genetically programmed – the animals will accomplish this task whether food is abundant or not.

So simply limiting food intake didn’t prevent the calorie-restricted ground squirrels from getting just as fat as their free-eating brethren.

  • HOW they got just as fat: they consumed more calories than they expended.
  • WHY they got just as fat: hormones released before the hibernation season commanded their bodies to get fat, and their bodies heeded the command … even if doing so required a drastic reduction in metabolism to provide the surplus calories to store as fat.

Here’s another paragraph from Good Calories, Bad Calories:

In these experiments, researchers remove the ovaries from female rats. This procedure effectively serves to shut down production of the female sex hormone estrogen (technically estradiol). Without estrogen, the rats eat voraciously, dramatically decrease physical activity, and quickly grow obese. When estrogen is replaced by infusing the hormone back into these rats, they lose the excess weight and return to their normal patterns of eating and activity.

Oops. I guess getting fat is all about eating too much and exercising too little after all. Those rats ate voraciously and sat around being lazy. That must be why they got fat.

But wait …

When researchers remove the ovaries from the rats, but restrict their diets to only what they were eating before the surgery, the rats become just as obese, just as quickly; the number of calories consumed makes little difference …. “If you keep the animals’ food intake constant and manipulate the sex hormones, you still get substantial changes in body weight and fat content,” [researcher George] Wade said.

  • HOW the rats got fat: they consumed more calories than they expended.
  • WHY the rats got fat: removing their ovaries caused a hormonal imbalance that commanded their little rat bodies to accumulate fat – which they did, despite no increase in food intake, probably by drastically reducing metabolism.

Awhile back, I watched a TV documentary called The Science of Obesity. It wasn’t very good overall, so I didn’t write about it. But there was one intriguing section about a woman who was lean her entire life, then became morbidly obese within a year. She limited herself to 1500 calories per day, but didn’t lose any weight. Her doctor insisted she was lying about her food intake.

So she did the smart thing and found another doctor – who ran a slew of tests and found she had a tumor on her pituitary gland. Was she consuming more calories than she was expending while becoming obese? Yup. Gaining weight always requires a surplus of calories.  Does that mean she got fat and stayed fat because she was eating too much? Nope. She became obese because of the tumor, which caused all kinds of hormonal hell to break loose.

I recently had a good friend tell me he finally cut way back on his carb intake, especially his bread intake. (Interestingly, he wasn’t persuaded by Fat Head to change his diet; it was a personal trainer who finally got through to him.) He’d been eating less and less over the years in a failed attempt to drop some weight. I remember hanging out with him over a weekend, and he didn’t eat anything until dinner – but then bread was the first item on his dinner menu. Bread, a salad, and some salmon. That was it.

Anyway, after making the dietary change, he told me, “I swear, I didn’t do anything but ditch the bread and potatoes, and 15 pounds just dropped off like nothing. I was never hungry. I never felt deprived.”

  • HOW he lost weight: he expended more calories than he consumed.
  • WHY he lost weight: a change in diet triggered some kind of hormonal shift that moved him from fat-accumulation mode to fat-burning mode.

Maybe he unconsciously ate less, even though he insists he didn’t. Maybe he started releasing fatty acids at a faster rate and didn’t feel hungry because he was eating his own fat. Maybe he started eating more protein, which requires more energy to digest. Maybe his metabolism perked up. Doesn’t matter. The point is, something about the change in diet fixed the WHY of his inability to lose weight. He absolutely, positively expended more calories than he consumed while losing … but he didn’t count calories or consciously restrict his portions in order to do so.

When we switch to a better diet and end up losing weight (and keeping it off) for the first time in our lives, it means we’ve finally addressed the WHY of excess fat accumulation. The HOW of weight gain (whether we gain fat or muscle) is always the same:  consuming more than calories than we expend. CICO and hormones are not mutually exclusive explanations, any more than a clogged pipe and water-in vs. water-out are mutually exclusive explanations for an overflowing toilet.

I don’t like the CICO explanation because 1) it doesn’t actually tell us why a person gains or loses weight, and 2) it encourages people who don’t know what the @#$% they’re talking about to be judgmental — like that idiot reality TV star from England who stuffed herself to get fat and then concluded that fat people just eat too much.

But in a recent email, a reader reminded me that people who attribute obesity to hormones can be judgmental too … or least too confident that they understand the WHY of weight gain and have the answer.

This woman has been overweight for years.  She’s tried everything under the sun, including severe calorie restriction.  When people told her “it’s the hormones, it’s the hormones, it’s the hormones!” she had everything checked and checked again, by endocrinologists, holistic practitioners, you name it.  The bottom line is that she can’t lose the excess weight, and nobody can tell her why.

I’m reminded of the “resistant obese” subjects some researchers described in a study I recounted in a previous post:

This phenomenon of people who do not lose weight is really the most tantalizing thing that confronts physicians.  There are these people who can live on 600 calories and not lose any weight. On what are they surviving?  If we measure their basal metabolism in terms of calories, we get figures in excess of 600 calories per twenty-four hours.  It would seem that on this diet they are in a caloric deficit all time, but still are not losing any weight.  I am still an admirer of the laws of thermodynamics, but these people seem to be thermodynamic paradoxes.

The researchers were describing people under supervision in a hospital.  They weren’t sneaking food or lying about their food intake in a diet journal.  They were locked down in a hospital, but failing to lose weight on 600 calories.  I don’t think they were thermodynamic paradoxes, however.  Somehow, some way, they managed to get by on that ridiculously low intake of food.  Some people just seem to be hard-wired to be very fat.

  • HOW they stayed obese on 600 calories:  The calories they expended matched the calories they consumed.
  • WHY they stayed obese on 600 calories:  Nobody knows.  And nobody should judge them for it.  Those unfortunate people are just proof that scientists still have a lot to learn about the WHY of obesity.



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