Archive for the “Media Misinformation” Category

Depending on which article you read, somewhere between 30% and 55% of people in the U.S. and Canada are cutting back on grains, especially wheat.  That’s no small threat to what has long been the most profitable sector of the food industry.  (Those government grain subsidies sure help.)

So the grain industry is fighting back with I’ve decided to call the Save The Grain Campaign.  The campaign employs three main tactics I’ve noticed so far:

1. Promote grains as a necessary health food.
2. Attack people who say grains are bad for us.
3. Attack diets like low-carb or paleo that limit or eliminate grains.

Back in January, I wrote a post about an incredibly stupid article in Shape Magazine that featured the headline Low Carb Diet Linked to Shorter Life Expectancy.  The article was about a Harvard observational study in which people who ate whole grains had longer lifespans than people who ate white flour.  From that study, the dunce reporter at Shape Magazine concluded that 1) whole grains are health food, and 2) a low-carb diet will shorten your lifespan.

Riiiight.  And if people who smoke filtered cigarettes live longer than people who smoke unfiltered cigarettes, that means unfiltered cigarettes are good for you … so people who don’t smoke will die prematurely.  Same twisted logic.  Leaders of the Save The Grain Campaign must have been proud.

The grain promoters know they can’t claim that grains are good for everyone without looking foolish.  After all, there’s that little problem known as celiac disease.  So they’re quick to point out that only one percent of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease.  Grains are great for the other 99 percent, ya see.

Riiiiight.  That’s roughly equivalent to pointing out that only seven percent of cigarette smokers develop lung cancer, so cigarettes are fine for the other 93 percent.  Celiac disease may be the most severe form of grain intolerance, but it’s hardly the only one.  As I’ve mentioned before, when I stopped eating wheat and other grains, I waved goodbye to psoriasis on my scalp and arthritis in my shoulder, to name just two benefits of many.  And guess what?  I don’t have celiac disease.  I had the test done to be sure.

If my daughter Sara eats wheat, she gets red blotches on her arms she calls da bumps – and I doubt she has celiac disease.  I’ve heard from people who gave up grains and stopped getting migraines, or restless legs at night, or cold sores, or mood swings, or … well, heck, name it.  Most of them, like me, didn’t give up grains because they have celiac disease or were worried about gluten or the gliadin protein.  They gave up grains because they adopted a low-carb diet to lose weight, then noticed all those lovely side benefits.

That’s why I believe some studies and articles discouraging people from adopting a low-carb diet are part of the Save The Grain Campaign.  When people go low-carb, bread, pasta and cereal are usually among the first foods swept from the menu.  So with that in mind, let’s look at a couple more articles I’d consider part of the campaign.

We’ll start with an article on the Med Page Today site with the headline OmniCarb Study: Cutting Carbs No Silver Bullet.

Overweight and obese people who followed a low glycemic index diet in the context of an overall DASH-type diet had no greater improvements in insulin sensitivity, lipid levels or systolic blood pressure compared with study subjects who ate high glycemic index foods, in a randomized, controlled feeding study.

Low glycemic?  I though the headline was about low-carb.

Following a low-glycemic index, low-carbohydrate diet, compared with a high-glycemic index, high-carbohydrate diet did not affect insulin sensitivity, systolic blood pressure, LDL cholesterol or HDL cholesterol, but it did lower triglycerides during the from 111 to 86 mg/dL, researcher Frank M. Sacks, MD, of Harvard School of Public Health, and colleagues wrote in the Dec. 17 issue of JAMA.

Ah, there was a low-carb arm of the study.  So they must have limited carb intake to somewhere between 20 and 50 grams per day.

Among the two study diets with a high carbohydrate composition (58% of daily energy), one had a high glycemic index (≥65 on the glucose scale) and the other had a low glycemic index (≤45 on the glucose scale).

The two other diets had a low carbohydrate composition (40% of daily energy), with one having a high (≥65%) and the other having a low (≤45%) glycemic index.

Um … 40% of daily energy as carbohydrate is a low-carb diet?  Say what?  If I consume 2500 calories per day, 40% as carbohydrate works out to 250 grams per day.  I’m pretty sure that’s nothing like what Dr. Atkins recommended.

As I read the article, I realized I’ve written about Dr. Frank Sacks and his research before.  In fact, my first-ever blog post (nearly six years ago) was titled Create Your Very Own Biased Study.  It was about a study conducted by … wait for it … Dr. Frank Sacks, who declared that low-carb diets aren’t particularly good for inducing weight loss.  He showed as much by putting people on a (ahem) low-carb diet.  Except his definition of low-carb was … wait for it … 35 percent of calories.  Again, that’s nowhere close to the degree of carbohydrate restriction recommended by Dr. Atkins, Drs. Eades & Eades, etc.  Heck, even Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet, with the safe starches and all, tops out at 30% of calories from carbohydrates.

Dr. Sacks has to know that low-carb diet plans start at 50 grams max, then gradually raise the carb intake to perhaps 100 grams.  So I can’t help but wonder why he keeps studying “low-carb” diets that allow well over 200 grams per day, then uses those results to declare that cutting carbs doesn’t make much of a difference.  Why not try an actual low-carb diet in one of these studies?  Because to me, his studies look like reducing an alcoholic’s intake from 10 drinks per day to seven, then declaring that the poor S.O.B. still isn’t sober, so there’s no point in cutting back on alcohol.

If Dr. Sacks wants to steer people away from low-carb diets, at least he’s subtle about it.  This article in Consumer Reports isn’t:

Widely publicized diets, such as high protein and low carbohydrates, seem so promising. It’s no wonder so many of us have tried—or considered—them. But does science support the claims? We spoke with doctors and dietitians, and read the research.

They may have spoken with doctors and dieticians – which is roughly as useful as asking for dietary advice from a plumber – but based on what follows, I can guarantee they didn’t read the research.

Remember the Scarsdale diet and the Stillman diet? Those high-protein, low-carb plans may have gone out of fashion, but Atkins, first published in 1972, is still hot. Protein-packed products are flooding stores, and the list of popular protein-rich diets—Paleo, Zone, and more—continues to grow. All claim that you’ll lose pounds, feel peppier, and reduce your risk of heart disease.

People lose weight on high-protein plans because they take in fewer calories, not because they focus on protein. “Diets only work by lowering calories,” says David Seres, M.D., director of medical nutrition at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York and a member of Consumer Reports’ medical advisory board. “Where the calories come from doesn’t matter.”

Yes, when you lose weight, you take in fewer calories than you burn.  That’s HOW you lose weight, but not WHY you lose weight.  In several studies, people on a low-carb diet spontaneously ate less despite not being told to restrict calories.  That means something positive happened with their metabolisms.  Eating less is the result, not the cause.  Dr. Seres’ statement is akin to saying that Alcoholics Anonymous may work, but only because people stop drinking.

In addition to pushing protein, many of these plans recommend cutting back on—or completely eliminating—carbohydrates. Get less than 50 grams of carbs per day (the amount in two apples) for three to four days in a row, and your body will start tapping its own fat and muscle for fuel instead of its usual source: glucose derived from carbohydrates. That may sound like a way to shed pounds, but it can have serious health consequences. “You’re altering your metabolism away from what’s normal and into a starved state,” Seres says. “People in starved states experience problems with brain function.”

Holy crap, I’d better load up on carbs and then check that highly complex program I spent all those overtime hours coding last month – with everyone from the president of IT on down waiting for results.  I’m told it worked quite well.  On the other hand, my brain function is impaired, so I might have heard “This sucks — you’re fired” and interpreted it as “I really appreciate all your hard work in getting this done” … from the president of IT.

A high-protein diet also overworks the kidneys. That’s especially worrisome for people with kidney disease and can predispose those with healthy kidneys to kidney stones.

If your kidneys are damaged, they can leak protein.  In that case, you need to restrict protein.  But protein doesn’t cause the damage in the first place.  Here’s a quote from a journal article on the supposed dangers of high-protein diets:

The purpose of this review is to evaluate the scientific validity of AHA Nutrition Committee’s statement on dietary protein and weight reduction, which states: “Individuals who follow these [high-protein] diets are risk for … potential cardiac, renal, bone, and liver abnormalities overall.

Simply stated, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that high-protein intake has adverse effects on liver function. Relative to renal function, there are no data in the scientific literature demonstrating that healthy kidneys are damaged by the increased demands of protein consumed in quantities 2–3 times above the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).

In contrast with the earlier hypothesis that high-protein intake promotes osteoporosis, some epidemiological studies found a positive association between protein intake and bone mineral density. Further, recent studies suggest, at least in the short term, that RDA for protein (0.8 g/kg) does not support normal calcium homeostasis. Finally, a negative correlation has been shown between protein intake and systolic and diastolic blood pressures in several epidemiological surveys.

In conclusion, there is little if any scientific evidence supporting the above mentioned statement.

So I guess the anonymous Consumer Reports reporter didn’t actually slog through the research before repeating what a few doctors and dieticians believe.

When it comes to heart disease, the saturated-fat-laden red meat that’s part of many high-protein diets may actually boost your risk. According to a Harvard study of more than 120,000 people followed for more than 20 years, a meat-based low-carb diet increased the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 14 percent.

Denise Minger sliced and diced that observational study in a guest post on Mark Sisson’s blog.  It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the money quote:

If you secretly suspected that this was a “people who eat red meat do a lot of unhealthy things that make them die sooner” study, you can now gloat.

As you can see, the folks eating the most red meat were also the least physically active, the most likely to smoke, and the least likely to take a multivitamin (among many other things you can spot directly in the table, including higher BMIs, higher alcohol intake, and a trend towards less healthy non-red-meat food choices).

Same old, same old … in a society where people are told meat is bad for them, it’s mostly the I don’t give a @#$% people who eat more meat – well, except for us LCHF and paleo types.  I don’t give a @#$% types have worse health outcomes for all kinds of reasons – including not giving a @#$%.

By the way, I realize some of you are probably expecting me to jump up and down and insist that a low-carb diet is a high-fat diet, not a high-protein diet.  Truth is, unless you aim for a constant state of ketosis – which I don’t – a low-carb diet probably will be high in protein.  And for most of us, I think that’s good.  I’ll explain why in a future post.

In the meantime, we can all sit back and chuckle at the Save The Grain Campaign.  I give them kudos for effort, but it’s not going to work.  You can’t easily convince people to dismiss their own experiences.

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I’ve written a few posts about how the Wisdom of Crowds is changing what we see offered in restaurants and grocery stores. Thanks to books like Wheat Belly, numerous blogs and discussion groups in social media, more and more people are figuring out they’re better off without wheat and other grains.

Well … you didn’t think the grain industry would take that lying down, did you? We’re talking about the most profitable sector of the food business, and one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

The grain industry is pushing back with media articles I’m going to start calling the Save The Grain Campaign. Let’s look at a couple of recent examples.

We’ll start with an online article titled 5 Unintended Consequences of Going Gluten-Free:

A gluten-free diet is becoming more and more popular for a variety of reasons. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates that 1% of the American population has celiac disease, the autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. An NPD Group study from 2013, however, showed that 30% of Americans are trying to cut back on or completely avoid gluten in their diets.

Hmm, you’d almost think there are benefits to giving up gluten even for people who don’t have celiac disease. Or maybe it’s just a fad. I don’t know.

Going gluten-free, though, isn’t without it’s downsides.

But learning the difference between its and it’s has very few downsides.

Here are 5 things to think about if you’re cutting gluten from your diet.

1. You may be missing out on important vitamins. We started enriching staples in the American diet — through flour, mostly — with iron and B vitamins for two reasons: we’re notoriously bad at getting our recommended daily value, and deficiencies cause things like birth defects and anemia.

Well, that and the fact that if you live on wheat flour that isn’t fortified, you’re prone to birth defects and anemia.

While people suffering from celiac disease physically can’t absorb most nutrients, if you’re cutting out gluten without really thinking about all the nutrients you get from wheat products, you may find that you’re not doing your body any favors. Inside Tracker explains some of the nutrients you’ll need to actively seek out when you go gluten-free:

Fiber, which helps your body slow the absorption of sugar into the blood and works to improve digestion, as well as helps you feel full for a longer period of time.

Folic acid, a B vitamin that the federal government mandates manufacturers to add to their wheat-based products.

Iron, which many U.S.-produced wheat flours are fortified with and helps the body move oxygen to your muscles and organs, but few gluten-free flours are iron-enriched. An iron deficiency can make you anemic and weak.

Got that, folks? Don’t, for heaven’s sake, eat vegetables for fiber and meat for B vitamins and iron. You need your gluten foods to get the iron and folic acid that are artificially added.

2. It can get pricey. If you’ve started a gluten-free diet, regardless of the reason, you’ve probably noticed that many of the staples in an American diet revolve around wheat. Most of the popular foodstuffs made traditionally — cereal, bread, etc. — will have a lower cost at checkout than those now being made with ingredients and processes new to their processing plants.

So don’t worry yourself about the costs of treating asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, Sjogren’s, psoriasis, arthritis, migraines or diabetes. You’ll save almost a dollar when you buy wheat bread vs. gluten-free bread.

3. You may gain weight. Many people jumping on the gluten-free train are hoping to lose weight by cutting gluten from their diets. Men’s Fitness reports that many of the replacements for wheat flour used by manufacturers — cornstarch, rice flour — are more calorically dense than their wheat counterparts.

Man, that’s enough to make me consider basing my diet on meats and vegetables instead of cornstarch.

If you do have celiac disease, you may notice a quick increase in your weight once you cut gluten out of your diet. Celiac.com explains that one of the effects of gluten on the system of someone with the autoimmune disease is that nutrients aren’t absorbed well, or at all. Removing gluten and restarting your nutrient absorption means you’re actually going to start feeding your body, and you may see some weight gain.

Okay, you silly celiac sufferers: Do you really want to start absorbing nutrients again if it means you might gain weight? Stick with the wheat and stop trying to actually feed your body. You’ll look better in a swimsuit — and remember, wheat is fortified with important nutrients your body needs even though you can’t absorb them well, or at all.

4. The slightest bit of gluten can make you miserable. Especially if you have celiac disease! While you’re eating gluten regularly, your body slogs through the reaction, but if you cut gluten from your diet, the tiniest bit can cause a major reaction.

Once again, you silly celiac sufferers, listen up! Your body has learned to slog through the reaction to a food that makes you sick. Trust your body on this one. If you stop eating the food that makes you sick and then eat it again later, you could feel really sick! So just keep eating it.

And to all you alcoholics out there, I’m warning you: If you stop drinking a pint of whiskey every day and then later decide to drink a pint of whiskey, you’ll feel really, really sick! So don’t be an idiot – keep drinking so your body doesn’t forget how to slog through the reaction.

5. Your cholesterol may rise. If you have celiac disease and your body hasn’t been properly absorbing nutrients, you may have particularly low cholesterol. At the point when you begin to normalize, though, your cholesterol may jump up.

And as we all know, cholesterol is a killer. So keep eating the food that makes you sick and prevents you from properly absorbing nutrients so you can continue to have particularly low cholesterol. (But be sure to choose fortified wheat products, because they contain important nutrients you can’t properly absorb.)

The next article in the Save The Grain Campaign comes from the CBC in Canada and is titled Wheat Belly arguments are based on shaky science, critics say. Normally I start with a quote from the top of an article, but in this case I think it’s more instructive to pull a quote that explains why the grain industry is scared @#$%less of Dr. William Davis and his Wheat Belly book:

Kellogg’s, the world’s largest cereal maker, has seen its biggest drop in sales since the 1970s. Food companies are selling off their struggling bread divisions, while wheat sales are plummeting across Canada.

That’s because millions of people are going wheat-free, influenced by best-selling health evangelists and celebrities who say wheat is responsible for everything from fat bellies to breast cancer to schizophrenia.

So yeah, I think it’s safe to say the grain industry is none too happy with Dr. Davis. When I had dinner with him in December, I told him – only half-joking – to please say out of dark alleys.

Here are some other quotes from the article:

Critics say the anti-wheat claims made by leading health crusader Dr. William Davis are based on shaky science, an investigation by the fifth estate has found.

Newsflash: Dr. Davis’ critics are criticizing him. Stop the presses.

Davis and others in the anti-wheat movement are changing the way people eat — 56 per cent of Canadians now report they’re cutting down on foods such as bread, breakfast cereals, pastas and pastries.

That can’t be good. That means the Canadians are missing out on important nutrients. And if they have celiac disease, they may gain weight and see their cholesterol rise once they begin absorbing nutrients.

But the fifth estate’s investigation found that experts in the scientific community say scientific claims made by the anti-wheat movement are questionable at best.

Joe Schwarcz, a chemist at McGill University dedicated to demystifying science and debunking big claims, says, “This is one of these arguments that has one smidgen of scientific fact to it, which is then exploded into a whole blob of nonsense.”

Schwarcz says he hasn’t seen any evidence that wheat has addictive properties, as Davis claims in his book. Schwarcz also says “opioid peptides” are produced when some foods are digested. But just because they can bind to opiate receptors in the brain doesn’t mean they produce a morphine-like effect.

It appears that Davis based this claim mainly on one study of rat brains, done on dead rats in 1979. The fifth estate could not locate any study on humans that conclusively proves wheat is addictive.

That’s a bit like saying the fifth estate could not locate any study on humans that conclusively proves orange hats cause brain cancer. The studies haven’t been done. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that wheat isn’t truly addictive. So what? I only care if it’s good or bad for me.

Davis also links wheat to mental illness such as schizophrenia. But the study he based his research on was conducted in 1966 …

Um … meaning it’s not valid? It’s past the expiration date?

… and after almost 50 years of research, no one consulted by the fifth estate could point to any definitive study that specifically links wheat to schizophrenia.

Um …meaning researchers have spent nearly 50 years trying and failing to find a link between wheat and schizophrenia?  I’m pretty sure the accurate statement would be something like as far as the fifth estate can determine, nobody has conducted any further research on the subject since 1966.

What about Davis’s claim that today’s wheat is not wheat at all, but a “modern creation of genetics research”?

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have been studying the genetic profiles of 37 varieties of wheat grown in Canada since the 1800s, to discover if wheat’s basic protein structure has been altered in any way.

Wheat geneticist Dr. Ravi Chabbar is heading up the Saskatchewan project and is paid to advise the grain industry, but this particular project is being funded by the federal government.

Oh, well, if this study is funded by the federal government, it couldn’t possibly be biased. It’s not as if Canada is a major wheat exporter or anything.

Dr. Chabbar says that over time, wheat has been modified to produce high-yield crops. But when it comes to wheat’s proteins – gluten and gliadins – the basic structure of “ancient” and modern wheat is the same.

So we have this stuff that only grows two feet tall, with an abnormally thick stalk, and yields ten times as much per acre as traditional wheat. But nothing’s really changed in the proteins. Trust us on that one. The fact that rates of celiac disease have increased by 400% in the past 50 years is a coincidence.

Yoni Freedhoff, a family doctor and diet expert who runs a nutrition clinic in Ottawa, says the eating guidelines touted in Wheat Belly are similar to other carb-free diets that get results by dramatically reducing the carbohydrates and calories people eat.

He argues that the difference here is Davis, not any miracle cure: “This just took it to another level with a very charismatic doctor, who has a presentation that to me is reminiscent of an evangelical preacher.”

Dr. Davis would be flattered to know he’s considered charismatic, but the news site did its best to minimize the charisma.

More than five years ago, I wrote a long piece about how to bias a news story on my other blog. (If you read it, don’t leave a comment there. That blog is dormant until I have more time.)  The CBC article provides some fine examples, but perhaps I should have mentioned that selecting pictures is also a neat way to color a story. Media outlets do it all the time.

Suppose the president gives a speech demanding some new tax or regulation the media types support. You’ll probably see a picture like this accompanying the story:

Who could possibly oppose a tax or regulation proposed by such a confident-looking leader? We are literally looking up to him in the photo.

Now suppose that after months of the president insisting that if you like your policy, you can keep your policy, it turns out you can’t actually keep your policy – and even the media types are upset (or perhaps just embarrassed that they dutifully repeated the lie without bothering to read the Federal Register and look like shills as a result). When the president faces the press to give his version of a mistakes were made but not by me speech, you’re more likely to see a photo like this:

The confidence is gone, and unless my eyes are deceiving me, we’re even looking down on the man a bit.

Anyway, you get the idea. Picture selection is no accident. Media types choose the picture that conveys their attitude about the subject.

Hi-res video is a great source for getting exactly that picture you want, especially if the subject is talking. When we talk, our mouths adopt funny shapes, our eyes open and close, etc. Take a video of a person talking, I guarantee you can find some unflattering frames. Or some flattering frames. Take your pick.

When I wrote about my interview with Dr. Davis back in December, I chose this frame from a video clip:

Dr. Davis looks intelligent and confident. That was, of course, my intention. Now here’s the shot the CBC people chose for their article:

He looks belligerent and slightly scary … like some evil genius out to destroy the wheat industry.

Back to the article:

But the fact remains that despite the vast majority of scientists and health organizations not supporting much of what Dr. Davis says, more and more people are giving up grains.

Yup. That’s because despite what the vast majority of scientists and health organizations say, people are learning about the benefits of giving up wheat and other grains via the Wisdom of Crowds. They’re trying gluten-free diets, seeing positive results, and sharing those results with the crowd.  They’re ignoring the vast majority of scientists and health organizations because they’re tired of being given advice that doesn’t work.

And there’s nothing the Save The Grain Campaign can do about it.

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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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It’s January, which means millions of people are either already on a weight-loss diet or considering one.  If you watch TV this time of year, you can’t help but see ads for Jenny Craig, NutriSystem, Weight Watchers and all the other usual suspects.  So many options out there … which one should people choose?

Well, let’s suppose you were offered these choices:

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.

That brew in the glass contains 18 grams of sugar, by the way.

So which meal should you choose?  Why, the glass of Slim-Fast, of course.  (How many of you guessed it from the list of ingredients?)

I know the Slim-Fast is a better option because a group of (ahem) experts says so.  Here are some quotes from an article on the NPR site, and from an article in U.S. News:

Despite the buzz about paleo and raw food diets, a new ranking of the 35 top diets puts these two near the bottom of the list.

Why?

I’m guessing it’s because the list was created by a bunch of nutritionists who still believe the same old anti-fat, anti-salt, hearthealthywholegrains nonsense they’ve been preaching for years.

The U.S. News & World Report rankings are based on evaluations by a panel of doctors, nutritionists and other health experts. For each diet, the experts evaluated short-term and long-term weight loss, ease of adherence, and how the advice stacked up against current dietary guidelines.

… and how the advice stacked up against current dietary guidelines.  In other words, the diets may as well have been ranked by the guiding lights at the USDA.

One expert concluded that “a true paleo diet might be a great option: very lean, pure meats, lots of wild plants.” But the problem, according to the report, is that it’s too difficult to follow in modern times.

Well, yes, if you tried to go out and track down a Megaloceros giganteus, you’d be sorely disappointed.  But the paleo diet is about eating nutrient-dense whole foods and avoiding Neolithic foods, not recreating the exact diets of our caveman ancestors.

The experts say that in avoiding dairy, grains and other mainstays of the modern diet, paleo followers may miss out on key nutrients.

Yeah, that’s why Custer kicked ass at Little Big Horn.  The Sioux and Cheyenne were perpetually weak and sick from a lack of dairy, grains, and other mainstays of the modern diet.

The paleo diet, by the way, was ranked 35th out of 35 – you know, because it lacks those mainstays of the modern diet.  The Slim-Fast diet – which requires consuming shakes that contain all those ingredients I listed above, including hydrogenated soybean oil –was ranked 13th.

Meanwhile, a  vegetarian diet was ranked 11th … because while we shouldn’t give up grains and other mainstays of the modern diet, giving up a mainstay of the modern diet is fine and dandy if the mainstay is meat.  And while the paleo diet was ranked last largely because it’s “too difficult to follow in modern times,” apparently switching to a vegetarian diet isn’t difficult at all.

Here’s what the U.S. News article said about the vegetarian diet:

As a health diet, vegetarianism is solid. It’s decent at producing rapid weight loss, according to experts, and is strong in other areas, such as heart health and nutritional completeness, that arguably are more important.

But if you take a vegetarian diet and remove the grains while adding meat, it’s no longer nutritionally complete, according to the (ahem) experts.

As for heart health, well geez, that must explain why vegetarians don’t die of heart disease.  No, wait … I seem to recall that they do.  As I recounted in a previous post, Bill Clinton’s own vegan-promoting doctor warned him against eating bread:

When Caldwell Esselstyn spotted a picture of him on the Internet, eating a dinner roll at a banquet, the renowned doctor dispatched a sharply worded email message: “I’ll remind you one more time, I’ve treated a lot of vegans for heart disease.”

And in another post, I quoted from a study titled Mortality Among British Vegetarians:

The mortality of both the vegetarians and the nonvegetarians in this study is low compared with national rates. Within the study, mortality from circulatory diseases and all causes is not significantly different between vegetarians and meat eaters.

Hmmm, kind of makes you wonder if these diet rankings are a bunch of poppycock.

The U.S. News article included a link to the panel of experts who ranked the diets.  I’ve never heard of most of them, but I have heard of Dr. David Katz.  He created something called the NuVal system, which is supposed to help shoppers choose healthier foods at the grocery store.  Foods are ranked from 100 (excellent) to zero (might just kill you.)  I wrote about NuVal in a previous post.  Here are how some foods rank on Dr. Katz’s NuVal scale:

Post Shredded Wheat ‘N Bran – 91
Silk Soymilk Light – 82
Silk Soy Milk Chocolate – 68
Chicken Breast (boneless) – 39
Turkey Breast – 31
Ham – 27
Coconuts (husked) – 24

So according to Dr. Katz, a big bowl of wheat is an excellent choice.  A cup of chocolate soy milk containing 17 grams of sugar is a good choice.  But a chicken breast, a turkey breast, a slice of ham or a coconut is a bad choice.  No wonder he thinks Slim-Fast is better for you than a paleo diet.

The #1 ranked diet was the DASH diet.  Here’s what U.S. News has to say about it:

DASH was developed to fight high blood pressure, not as an all-purpose diet. But it certainly looked like an all-star to our panel of experts, who gave it high marks for its nutritional completeness, safety, ability to prevent or control diabetes, and role in supporting heart health.

The theory: Nutrients like potassium, calcium, protein and fiber are crucial to fending off or fighting high blood pressure. You don’t have to track each one, though. Just emphasize the foods you’ve always been told to eat (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy), while shunning those we’ve grown to love (calorie- and fat-laden sweets and red meat). Top it all off by cutting back on salt, and voilà!

But if you take way the whole grains and low-fat dairy and add in some red meat, it’s now a paleo diet and the ranking drops from first to last — 22 spots lower than the Slim-Fast diet.  Yeah, that makes perfect sense.  And the extremely low level of salt allowed on the DASH diet is not only unnecessary for most people, it might actually be bad for your health, according to a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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 … which means ordinary folks looking for advice to help them fulfill that New Year’s resolution to lose weight will read that a diet of meats and vegetables isn’t good for them.  Nope, a decent diet is based on meal-replacement shakes that include 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.

Head. Bang. On. Desk.

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.

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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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Here’s part of what I wrote in a recent post titled Body Types and Brains:

I remember one of my roommates in college looking at the single spiral notebook I took to all my classes and saying, “That’s all the notes you take? How the heck are you getting A’s in everything? You hardly write anything down!”

“Uh, well,” I mumbled, “if the professor says something and it makes sense, I just remember it. I don’t really have to write much of it down.”

That particular roommate was a party animal. I partied right along with him, but only on Thursdays (dollar pitcher night), Fridays (quarter beer night) and Saturdays (student parties all over campus and near-campus).

I had another roommate for half of my senior year who was a studying machine. He not only took copious notes in class, he’d rewrite them all in neat penmanship later.  The notes he took in class were “too messy,” you see.  He attended the occasional party, but never drank much. We graduated with identical grade-point averages: just a fraction under a perfect 4.0/4.0, which means we both got a B in a class at some point. I remember him once asking me, “Why is it that you can party like [the first roommate] and then get the same grades I do?”

“Uh … I don’t know,” I said. “I channel both of you?”

Actually, I explained why I got those grades in the Body Types and Brains post:

I got those grades largely because I’m a “brain mesomorph,” so to speak. Brain mesomorphs can pick pretty much any method of studying and still do well, as long as they don’t do something to screw up that genetic gift – like, say, don’t study at all.

Well, I’ve changed my mind. I now believe I got (almost) straight A’s because I had the discipline to take a few notes in class, study a bit to master the material, turn in my papers on time, and limit my heavy beer-drinking to three nights per week. In fact, I think everyone could pull straight A’s in college if they were just willing to do the same.

To prove my theory, I’m going to re-enroll in college as a one-man experiment. This time around, I’ll drink copious amounts of beer six nights per week, skip the note-taking entirely, not bother studying, and turn in half-assed first drafts of my papers a week late. I suspect this will lead to no better than a C average, perhaps even worse.

If that’s the result, I’ll announce that I’ve proved my theory: anyone who doesn’t do extremely well in college simply isn’t willing to take a few notes, study a bit, and limit the partying to no more than three nights per week. Those B and C students have no one to blame but themselves.

Say what? You think my theory is bogus and my experiment is stupid?

Yes, of course it is. Academic achievement was easy for me, and screwing up on purpose to get average grades proves absolutely nothing about why other people get average grades.

As part of an extra-credit program in high school, I tutored another student who was struggling with freshman algebra. (I was a junior, which means I was taking trigonometry at the time.) This kid certainly put out the effort – more than I ever had to – but had a difficult time wrapping his brain around mathematical concepts. I felt sorry for him … because even at age 17, I had enough common sense not to blame people for being less than genetically gifted.

Unlike this nincompoop:

A woman who intentionally gained 50 pounds wants to demonstrate a point she believes about overweight people: They have only themselves to blame for being heavy.

“People have always said to me, all of my life, ‘You’re lucky to be skinny,’ and what I wanted to prove was that there are no excuses for being overweight,” British reality star Katie Hopkins told TODAY.

Ahh, I see. You’ve always been skinny, so of course you know all about what causes obesity. Are you by any chance related to MeMe Roth?  Your “before” picture suggests as much:

Hmmm, maybe you should get in touch with Heath Squier of Julian Bakery and ask him how to puff out your belly to look a teensy bit fat, then claim you were 35 pounds heavier.  Anyway …

Known across the pond for her acerbic, outspoken comments, Hopkins created a Twitter frenzy when she declared on a British talk show: “I don’t believe you can be fat and happy. I think that’s just a cop out.”

Critics immediately accused Hopkins of “fat shaming” and failing to understand the psychological, as well as physical, factors behind weight gain.

Hopkins then fought back against those who called her ignorant and wrong by eating. A lot. She consumed 6,500 calories every day by stuffing herself with calorie-rich burgers, fries, pasta and cupcakes, recording everything in a food journal. At times, she brought herself to tears because of how much she ate.

“I didn’t cry at childbirth. I didn’t cry at my wedding, but I cried over this because I was just so disgusting,” she said.

So to gain weight, you had to stuff yourself with 6,500 calories per day and eat until you were disgusted and in tears – in other words, waaaaay beyond what your appetite would dictate – just like all fat people do. Geez, and to think some critics actually doubted you understand the physical factors behind weight gain.

Hopkins admits the next step of her experiment has proved to be much more difficult. She’s committed to losing the 50 pounds she gained within three months. She has drastically changed her diet and upped her exercise level, all to prove that being thin is as simple as eating less and moving more.

So it’s a simple matter of eating less and moving more! Well, hell, why didn’t anyone ever tell me that during all those years I was making myself ravenous on low-calorie, low-fat diets and spending hours and hours on a treadmill? Clearly I didn’t try hard enough.

“I’ve learned a lot about how it feels to be big, how difficult it is to be big, how horrible it is to have fat sitting on the top of your thighs, and how much more challenging it is just to do everyday life when you’re bigger,” she said.

Hopkins said she still has 35 pounds left to lose in the next two months.

And I bet she’ll do it – because she’s been skinny her whole life and that’s the shape her body will want to resume.  (Simple math says she already lost 15 pounds in the first month; i.e., nearly four pounds per week.) To quote again from my Body Types and Brains post:

Mesomorphs look well built without setting foot in a gym … Yup. I’ve known people like that. In order to stay lean and muscular, all they really have to do is not screw up.

So this naturally-thin bubblehead screwed up on purpose by jamming 6,500 calories per day of junk food down her throat, thus overwhelming her body’s resistance to gaining weight, and by gosh, she got fat. So that means anyone who’s fat must be screwing up just like she did. Uh-huh … and if I go back to college and party away all my evenings instead of studying and then wind up with average grades as a result, that means anyone who gets C’s in college is a screw-up who parties too much. Same (ahem) logic.

Ms. Hopkins, you were born on the metabolic finish line and think you won a race. Not only that, you think you’re an expert on how the race is won – because you tied your ankles together and proved how difficult it is to run a race in that condition.

What you actually proved is that you’re a flippin’ moron.

Whoops … there I go, making judgments about someone born with a low I.Q.

Sorry about that.

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