Archive for January, 2015

I had a longer post in mind for tonight, but I’m up to my ears in a programming project that’s due Monday.  It’s 11:30 PM and the only reason I’m writing a post at all is that my program takes 20 to 30 minutes to test each time I run it.

Anyway, I saw something at a grocery store recently that reminded me of what I wrote in a post titled The Wisdom of Crowds Is On The Menu:

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.

Here’s what I saw that reminded me of that post:

Yup, this store wants you to know you’re buying locally sourced produce.  They even have pictures of the nice folks who grow it.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the nice folks are growing organic produce. (Personally, I think the “organic” label is overrated.)  But if you live here, it’s nice to know your squash wasn’t shipped from California to Tennessee.  According to Google Maps, Elora (the red A on the map) is about 90 miles from Franklin.

Given my druthers, I’d still rather get my squash from Chareva’s garden, but you get the point.  Those big signs featuring pictures of the local farmers cost money.  If the store went to the effort and expense, it means someone in management decided consumers want locally grown produce.  So what was this store?  Whole Foods?

Nope.  These signs were in our local Kroger.  Not exactly a store for the soy-cheese and Birkenstock crowd.

But crowd is still the operative word here.  The Wisdom of Crowds effect is continuing to change what consumers demand, and in turn what producers sell.

Now back to that pesky code.  It’s going to be a long night yet …

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As you know if you’re a regular reader, I’ve been yelling and screaming for years about the lousy science that convinced Americans heart disease is caused by eating too much fat and cholesterol.  From Ancel Keys on down, researchers jumped to conclusions based on weak associations.  Big muckety-mucks in our government bought into the lousy science, and the rest is history.

So it’s refreshing to learn that researchers are revisiting the whole “what causes heart disease?” issue and applying rigorous scientific thinking for a change.  Here are some quotes about an enlightening new study as reported in Medical Daily online:

Over the years, researchers have gathered several risk factors for heart disease ranging from not making a lot of money, to smoking, to stress. Now, a new study shows just how the use of Twitter can help dictate what populations are at risk of coronary heart disease: by identifying which users are tweeting about negative emotions like anger, stress, or fatigue.

A few of my blog readers and Twitter followers have complained that I don’t tweet often enough.  Well, now you know why.  I’ve suspected for a long time that tweeting causes heart disease, but I kept that suspicion to myself – meaning I didn’t tweet about it.

If you’re a health and history buff like I am, you know that heart disease in America plummeted during World War Two, then spiked after the war ended.  But you may not have connected that dot to the fact that the Defense Department restricted tweeting during the war.  I’m a pro-freedom type of guy, but I understand their reasons.  General Eisenhower couldn’t afford to have soldiers sending out tweets like:

The military didn’t prohibit tweeting entirely at first.  But soldiers pretty much gave up after seeing their tweets go into the world like this:

The final clampdown on tweeting came after the other side started engaging in what became known as Dirty Twitter Tricks.

So tweeting plummeted and, interestingly, so did heart disease.  After the war, tweeting skyrocketed and, again, so did heart disease.  So I think these researchers are on to something.

The study, led by Johannes Eichstaedt at the University of Pennsylvania (in collaboration with others) and published in the journal Psychological Science, found that a county’s tweets about negative emotions were associated with a higher risk of heart disease for that community, while tweets that were more positive were associated with a lower risk.

Okay, so it’s angry or negative tweets doing the damage here, not tweeting in general.  I stand corrected.  Nonetheless, I believe my observations about tweeting and heart disease both spiking in the years after World War Two are still relevant.

McCarthy died at age 48.  Let that be a warning to all you angry tweeters out there.

Here’s how the researchers made this discovery:

The researchers studied public tweets from 2009-2010, scattered across 1,300 counties. Language considered negative — such as the word “hate” or swear words — were associated with heart disease mortality, while more positive messages involving words like “friends” or “wonderful” were linked to a lower risk of heart disease mortality.

Just wanted to protect my heart a bit before moving on.

It wasn’t necessarily the people writing negative tweets who were dying of heart disease, however: rather, the tweets were indicative of a higher rate in certain communities.

Wait a minute … you mean this stuff doesn’t affect the person actually doing the tweeting?!

“The relationship between language and mortality is particularly surprising,” H. Andrew Schwartz, an author of the study, said, “since the people tweeting angry words and topics are in general not the ones dying of heart disease. But that means if many of your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.”

Well, hell’s bells!  All these years, I’ve been operating on the theory that if you’re surrounded by angry neighbors, you’re more likely to die of a gunshot wound.  Now it turns out those neighbors sitting at their computers and sending angry tweets all day can give you heart disease.

I’m reminded of something Rocky Angelucci wrote in his book Don’t Die Early:  predicting your odds of suffering a heart attack based on your cholesterol score is like predicting your odds of a suffering a heart attack based on your zip code.  And here I thought he was making fun of cholesterol scores.  Turns out he was ahead of the curve on the neighbors give you heart disease theory.

Well, that’s it, then.  I’m going to start following my neighbors on Twitter.  If I see angry or negative tweets, I’ll respond with something like Knock it off, ass@#$%!! You’re raising my risk of a heart attack, dumb-@#$%!!

“Psychological states have long been thought to have an effect on coronary heart disease,” Margaret Kern, assistant professor at the University of Melbourne and an author of the study, said in the press release. “For example, hostility and depression have been linked with heart disease at the individual level through biological effects. But negative emotions can also trigger behavioral and social responses; you are also more likely to drink, eat poorly and be isolated from other people which can indirectly lead to heart disease.”

So let me follow the logic here … hostility and depression are linked to heart disease.  Check.  People who send angry tweets are more likely to be angry and depressed.  Check.  So in counties where lots of people are sending angry tweets, the rate of heart disease is higher, even though it’s not the tweeters who are having the heart attacks.  Check.  Add it all up, and you get the conclusion if many of your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.

Well then, you’d better move out of that angry county as soon as possible.  Move to a county where people are nice and friendly – like ours, for example.  I remember visiting a bank to set up our accounts shortly after we moved here.  By the time the new-accounts manager and I were done, I knew her children’s names and the fact that her husband collects unusual knives.  She was so sweet, I felt a little guilty for not hugging her on the way out.  And as our local paper once pointed out, this county has the highest longevity in Tennessee – which prompted the writer to suggest the state should find a way to move more poor people here so their health would improve.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it:  positive people are more likely to be both financially successful and healthier.  They move to counties that are considered “nice” and are also more expensive.  Negative people are more likely to end up with bad health and bad finances.  They live in the less-desirable areas they can afford.  So angry tweets and heart disease end up being correlated if you divvy up the data by county.  Same old, same old:  it’s adherers vs. non-adherers.

Which means …

But I don’t consider that an angry tweet or anything.

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Readers send me links to articles all the time.  (Bless all of you who do.)  Some articles are particularly newsworthy or timely and become fodder for blog posts.  Others don’t and end up in what I now think of as the Cold Case Files.  They’re old, but still worth digging out now and then for a second look.

I just came across one that deserves a second look because it relates to my recent posts on how U.S. News ranked the popular diets and The Rider And The Elephant.  I poked fun at how U.S. News ranked the Slim Fast diet #13 while placing the paleo diet 35th out of 35 – because it’s just so darned hard to follow, you see.  What I didn’t mention in that post is that the Biggest Loser diet was ranked #9.  The U.S. News panel of experts had this to say about eating like a Biggest Loser:

The diet received high marks for short-term weight loss, safety and soundness as a regimen for diabetes, and it was rated moderately effective for heart health.

Good for short-term weight loss — and it must not be hard to follow, because according to the (ahem) logic the panelists cited while putting paleo at the bottom of the list, a difficult diet should earn a bad score.

We know the Biggest Loser diet is good for short-term weight loss because we see people losing impressive amounts of weight during weekly weigh-ins on the TV show, right? Uh-huh … so let’s take a look at an article from an Australian news service I found in my Cold Case Files:

Andrew ‘Cosi’ Costello was a contestant on the Biggest Loser in 2008 … Today, Cosi writes exclusively for news.com.au about what contestants really have to go through on the hit Channel 10 show.

“The only thing that really disappoints me about the Biggest Loser is the length of time between the weigh-ins. Have you ever wondered how the contestants manage to lose a staggering 12 kilos in a single week? We don’t. In my series a weekly weigh-in was NEVER filmed after just one week of working out. In fact the longest gap from one weigh-in to the next was three and a half weeks. That’s 25 days between weigh-ins, not seven. That “week” I lost more than nine kilos. I had to stand on the scales and was asked to say the line, “wow, it’s a great result, I’ve worked really hard this week”. The producers made sure that we never gave this secret away, because if we did, it created a nightmare for them in the editing suite. The shortest gap from weigh-in to weigh-in during our series was 16 days. That’s a fact.”

So that short-tem weight loss isn’t as impressive as the U.S. News panelists think it is.

“The thing is, overweight people get inspired by watching the Biggest Loser. They get off the couch and they hit the gym. But after a week in the real world, some people might only lose 1kg so they feel like they’ve failed and they give up.  That’s where the show is misleading. You need to remember it’s a TV show, it’s not all real. In fact, not even the scales we stood on were real.”

Awesome.  So people watching the show try starving themselves and horsewhipping themselves into hours of exercise so they can achieve a similarly awesome seven-day weight loss … except the weight loss might have actually required 25 days and was measured on a not-real scale, at least while the cameras were rolling.

“I would say that about 75 per cent of the contestants from my series in 2008 are back to their starting weight. About 25 per cent had had gastric banding or surgery.”

If 75 percent are back to the their starting weight and 25 percent had bariatric surgery, that would leave … hang on, let me get out the calculator … almost nobody achieving long-term weight loss.

Yes, but … uh … the short-term weight loss is good.  Just ask the experts consulted by U.S. News.

“Anyone can lose weight in a controlled environment; I’d say it’s almost impossible not to lose weight on the Biggest Loser.  But the show doesn’t address the reasons why people like me are so obsessed and addicted to eating excess amounts of food; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”

Bingo.  People who go on The Biggest Loser are (as the article makes clear) agreeing to be in lockdown.  Same goes for people who participate in metabolic ward studies.  And yes, under those circumstances, you can probably demonstrate that all weight-loss diets work as long as the dieter sticks to the diet, as some internet cowboys like to point out.  So what?  All that tells us is that if you lock the elephant in a cell, he doesn’t run away — because he can’t.  But he’ll be miserable the whole time, and when he’s no longer in lockdown, he won’t be hanging around for long – even if the rider thinks he should.

When Ancel Keys conducted his semi-starvation study in the 1940s, the participants were in lockdown.  Yup, they lost weight.  They also lost their energy, their ability to concentrate, their sex drive, their desire to talk about much of anything besides food, and – in a couple of cases – their sanity.  One man bit off his own finger to get released from the study.  That’s an elephant being pretty damned determined to run away.  Soon after the study ended, all of the men regained the lost weight, and some gained more than they’d lost.  After being starved, the elephant wanted to protect itself against future starvation.

So again, I don’t give a rat’s rear-end what the (ahem) experts consulted by U.S. News consider a good diet.  A good diet is a diet that keeps the elephant happy instead of dragging him to a place he doesn’t want to go.  And I doubt the Biggest Loser diet fits that definition for most people.

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I didn’t post yesterday because I had my every-five-year colonoscopy, which means undergoing general anesthesia, which means feeling a bit dopey and tired for the rest of the day.  I elected to spend the evening relaxing and watching some Netflix series I’ve been meaning to check out.

I don’t consider myself a cancer candidate, but since my dad had colon cancer, I get the peek-inside procedure done every five years.  No use being stupid about it.

The peek inside showed no cancer or warning signs of cancer, by the way.  That might be a disappointment to the vegan evangelists who occasionally show up in comments to warn me that red meat causes cancer.  They’ve seen some studies, by gosh, and they just know my meaty diet is going to kill me at a young age.

I once pointed out to a vegan troll who was making that argument that Linda McCartney died of cancer after more than 20 years of being a vegetarian.  He replied that she didn’t become a vegetarian until she was in her 30s, so the damage had already been done.  So I replied that I’m in my 50s, which means according to his theory, the damage has already been done.  So there’s really no point in me giving up meat at this point.  May as well enjoy my diet and my life until the cancer set in motion decades ago by eating meat finally flares up and kills me.

That actually shut up him, which was a bit of surprise.

Now I’m off to enjoy a skirt steak for dinner.

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We’re only two weeks into the New Year, which means millions of people are on a diet, hoping to fulfill a resolution to lose weight. Last week I wrote about how U.S. News ranked the popular diets. The low-fat, low-sat, low-flavor DASH diet was ranked #1, the Slim-Fast diet was ranked #13, and the paleo diet was ranked last. I finished that post with this comment:

So here’s what we’ve got with the U.S. News diet rankings: the same group of idiots who’ve been pushing low-fat, low-salt, low-meat diets for decades were asked to rank diets and – surprise! – they chose the low-fat, low-salt, low-meat diets as the best …

And that’s why the same people will be making the same weight-loss resolution next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

Now and then some internet cowboy will pop up in a forum and make the (ahem) profound observation that all the popular weight-loss diets work equally well if people stick to the diet. Uh-huh. That’s roughly as enlightening as saying all alcoholism-treatment programs work equally well as long as the alcoholic doesn’t drink. Or that knee surgery is equally successful under no anesthesia, vodka anesthesia or general anesthesia, as long as the patient remains perfectly still for the procedure. That may be true, but I’m pretty sure the type of anesthesia influences the patient’s tendency to run screaming from the room.

You can lose weight drinking Slim-Fast shakes instead of eating, but you’ll probably be miserable the whole time. If your diet puts you at war with your own body, your body is going to eventually win. I wrote about that phenomenon early last year in a series I called Character vs. Chemistry.

Later in the year, I read a thoroughly enjoyable book about the psychology of happiness titled The Happiness Hypothesis. The author, a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt, presents an explanation of human behavior that I like so much, I’m borrowing it (with attribution) for the book I’m writing for kids.

As Haidt explains it, your body and your unconscious mind are like an elephant. Your conscious mind – the part of you that thinks and makes plans and vows – is like a rider on top of the elephant. We like to think the rider is in control. But he isn’t, at least not if he tries to guide the elephant somewhere the elephant doesn’t want to go – like, say, into a fire. Here are some selections from that chapter that I edited down:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

It will help to go back in time and look at why we have these two processes, why we have a small rider and a large elephant. When the first clumps of neurons were forming the first brains more than 600 million years ago, these clumps must have conferred some advantage on the organisms that had them, because brains have proliferated ever since. Brains are adaptive because they integrate information from various parts of the animal’s body to respond quickly and automatically to threats and opportunities in the environment. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that trigger survival-related motivations.

Language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution. They are like new software, Rider version 1.0. Automatic processes, on the other hand, have been through thousands of product cycles and are nearly perfect. When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps. But the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.

Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out.

Love it. That last sentence described me pretty much every January through April before I found a diet that doesn’t leave me feeling deprived. I’d resolve to lose weight, adopt some variation of a calorie-restricted, low-fat diet, and lose a few pounds … then give up after stalling, or finding myself unable to take the gnawing hunger anymore, or both. And then, of course, I blamed myself for being weak-willed.

I wasn’t weak-willed. I was human. I had put myself into a battle with my own body chemistry, and chemistry won. Or to use Haidt’s wonderful analogy, I was trying to drag the elephant to a place the elephant refused to go – because the elephant believed he was in danger. To repeat a quote from Haidt:

The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that trigger survival-related motivations … When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking).

The automatic system – the elephant – is far older than the conscious mind and was shaped by the need to survive. If evolution has hard-wired one survival instinct into every living creature on earth, it’s got to be this: don’t starve. Starvation means death. In our conscious minds, we may believe going hungry for weeks on end is a fine idea if we’ll look good in a swimsuit by summer. But the elephant disagrees. And as Haidt puts it, the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. So the elephant decides to run away and escape the danger.

Haidt doesn’t claim that the elephant makes it impossible to change our behaviors or reach new goals. (After all, the title is The Happiness Hypothesis, not The Hopeless Hypothesis.) His point is that the rider has to learn to work with the elephant, not simply try to order the elephant around. Then the rider and the elephant are both happy.

For people trying to lose weight, working with the elephant means adopting a diet the elephant doesn’t consider a threat. If you simply starve yourself, you’re dragging the elephant somewhere he doesn’t want to go. If you deprive yourself of what your body knows it needs – fat, protein, salt, vitamins, micronutrients, and yes, perhaps even some “safe starch” depending on your metabolism – the elephant will run away. If you drink a sugary shake that jacks up your blood sugar, then leaves with you low blood sugar after the insulin spike, the elephant isn’t going to be happy. Low blood sugar is one of those triggers for a survival-motivated behavior – the behavior in this case being run out and eat something, now!

So to quote again from my post about how U.S. News ranked the diets:

On one plate, you’ve got a slice of grass-fed beef, some eggplant and green vegetables drizzled in olive oil, and perhaps a small sweet potato. On the other plate — wait, make that in the other glass – you’ve got a brew of FAT FREE MILK, WATER, SUGAR, COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), CANOLA OIL, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, FRUCTOSE, GUM ARABIC, CELLULOSE GEL, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, POTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, MALTODEXTRIN, SOY LECITHIN, CELLULOSE GUM, CARRAGEENAN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, SODIUM BICARBONATE, SUCRALOSE AND ACESULFAME POTASSIUM (NONNUTRITIVE SWEETENERS), SODIUM CITRATE, CITRIC ACID.

Paleo vs. Slim-Fast … or as the U.S. News panel of (ahem) experts would label them, the worst diet vs. one of the better diets.

Hmmm, I wonder which of those meals would satisfy the elephant and which would leave it feeling deprived and threatened?

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Take a look at this headline from a Shape magazine online article – but I’m warning you, if you’re prone to head-bang-on-desk incidents like I am, you’d best don your helmet before continuing.

Low Carb Diet Linked to Shorter Life Expectancy

That’s the headline.  Here’s the subhead:

If your healthy diet doesn’t include breads, rice, oats, and other whole grains, you may be missing out on a huge health perk, says new science.

And here’s the opening paragraph:

Swearing off carbs may mean forgoing health perks as well: People who ate more whole grains throughout their lives lived longer than those who didn’t, reports a new study in the JAMA Network Journals.

Better eat your bread and other grains, because a low-carb diet is linked to an early death.  That’s the takeaway message.  So obviously, the study being reported by the Shape magazine writer compared low-carb diets to diets rich in whole grains, right?

Wrong.  The study wasn’t about low-carb diets at all.  The headline and the opening paragraph are both complete nonsense.  Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see some goof in the media misinterpret a study (often with help from the researchers), but I ignore most of those articles these days simply because they’re so common.

But this article … wow … I found myself asking the same question I often ask when politicians give speeches:  Is this goofball knowingly dishonest, or just plain stupid?

So let’s put on our Science For Smart People hats and ask some questions about the study that prompted the Shape reporter (and others, no doubt) to conclude that a low-carb diet is linked to shorter life expectancy.

Q: Is this a clinical study or an observational study?

A: It’s an observational study.  Actually, researchers dug data out of two ongoing observational studies.  Here’s a quote from the study abstract:

We investigated 74,341 women from the Nurses’ Health Study (1984–2010) and 43,744 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986–2010), 2 large prospective cohort studies.

I’ve written about those studies before.  The Reader’s Digest version is that they’re based on occasional food questionnaires, which are notoriously unreliable.  Whenever I see a new analysis of the same old data from either one of these studies, I know it’s time to roll my eyes and walk away.  Move along folks, nothing to see here.  But for the sake of argument, let’s assume food questionnaires are reliable and observational studies actually tell us something useful.

Q: What was the actual difference?

A:  Well, you can refer to the abstract for the details, but here’s what got the researchers and members of the media all excited:

After multivariate adjustment for potential confounders, including age, smoking, body mass index, physical activity, and modified Alternate Healthy Eating Index score, higher whole grain intake was associated with lower total and CVD mortality but not cancer mortality…. We further estimated that every serving (28 g/d) of whole grain consumption was associated with a 5% lower total morality or a 9% lower CVD mortality, whereas the same intake level was nonsignificantly associated with lower cancer mortality.

So people eating whole grains had lower mortality.  Which leads to the next question …

Q:  Compared to what?

A:  Well, from the headline in Shape magazine online, you’d think researchers compared diets rich in whole grains to low-carb diets.  But like I said before, that’s not the case.  All this data shows is that people who ate more whole grains were less likely to die prematurely.  So … if a person eats more whole grains, wouldn’t that mean he or she is eating less of something else?  Which leads us to ask …

Q: If A is linked to B, could it be because of C?

A:  That’s the $64,000 question.  And the answer in this case is almost certainly yes.  Whole grains are associated with better health outcomes, but that’s because people who eat whole grains usually choose them over refined grains.  This study was conducted at Harvard, which trumpeted the results in the media and promoted the idea that there’s something especially health-enhancing about whole grains.  Here’s a quote about the study from a Harvard press release:

“This study further endorses the current dietary guidelines that promote whole grains as one of the major healthful foods for prevention of major chronic diseases,” said Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and senior author of the study.

Wow, so it turns out the government dietary guidelines are correct!  We just proved it here in our government-funded study!  (The NIH funded the study, according to the same press release.)  People who ate more whole grains lived longer, so that proves whole grains — in and of themselves — are good for you.

Uh-huh.  But here are some quotes from a different Harvard press release, commenting on earlier data extracted from the same two observational studies:

Refining wheat creates fluffy flour that makes light, airy breads and pastries. But there’s a nutritional price to be paid for refined grains. The process strips away more than half of wheat’s B vitamins, 90 percent of the vitamin E, and virtually all of the fiber. It also makes the starch easily accessible to the body’s starch-digesting enzymes.

A growing body of research shows that returning to whole grains and other less-processed sources of carbohydrates and cutting back on refined grains improves health in myriad ways.

Eating whole instead of refined grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels. Any of these changes would be expected to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

More recent findings from this study (the Nurses’ Health Studies I and II) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study suggest that swapping whole grains for white rice could help lower diabetes risk: Researchers found that women and men who ate the most white rice—five or more servings a week—had a 17 percent higher risk of diabetes than those who ate white rice less than one time a month.

In other words, the supposed magic of whole grains comes down to them being a somewhat better choice than refined grains that jack up blood sugar, triglycerides, insulin, etc.  That tells us absolutely nothing about the health effects of whole grains vs. no grains.

The researchers noted that “replacing” one serving per day of red meat with whole grains was also associated with lower mortality.  I put “replacing” in quotes because people in these studies don’t check a box that says I am now swapping one serving of red meat for one serving of whole grains in my daily diet.  Those daily servings are the result of number-crunching by the researchers.  Their conclusion just means that given what they consider a “serving,” people who ate one serving less of red meat and one serving more of whole grains lived longer.

As I’ve explained before, the “red meat” in these studies most often comes in the form of pizza, burritos, deli sandwiches, hot dogs, etc. – in other words, processed meats that are served with a generous helping of white flour.  So when the researchers inform the media that “replacing” red meat with whole grains was associated with greater longevity, it could simply be the result of comparing people who eat pizza for dinner to people who eat chicken, vegetables and brown rice for dinner.  That doesn’t tell us diddly about what would happen to your health if you swapped a steak for a plate of whole-wheat pasta.

The folks at Harvard may understand that (not that you can tell from their conflicting press releases), but the reporter from Shape magazine clearly doesn’t.  She somehow managed to interpret this study as demonstrating a link between low-carb diets and an early death, even though the data doesn’t deal with low-carb diets at all.

To illustrate the depth of the stupidity, let’s take the smoking analogy I used in Science For Smart People and extend it a bit.  Suppose we conduct an observational study of smokers and find that those who smoke filtered cigarettes have lower rates of lung cancer than those who smoke unfiltered cigarettes.  The proper conclusion is that filtered cigarettes might be a better option than unfiltered cigarettes.  It would be stupid to conclude that our study proves filtered cigarettes are good for you.

But our Shape magazine reporter took that level of stupidity a step further.  To borrow a phrase from the comedy Tropic Thunder, she went full retard.  Her headline is the equivalent of reading a press release about our observational study on smoking and then writing a headline like this:

Non-Smoking Linked To Higher Cancer Rate

Like I said, I can’t tell if she’s being intentionally dishonest or is just plain stupid.  Either way, it’s not comforting to know she writes for a major health and fitness magazine.

You may now bang your head on your desk.

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