Archive for the “Random Musings” Category

Still rounding the bend on finishing the book, but I wanted to post this brief bit anyway.

I’ve mentioned the late, great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko before. Back in the day, he was by far and away the most-read journalist in the Windy City. He was also amazingly prolific. For most of his career, he pounded out five columns per week. He commented on everything from Chicago politics to national fashion trends, usually with a biting sense of humor. I envied his way with words.

Anyway, I stumbled across a column he wrote back in 1987, which was when the whole low-fat craze was really taking off. A friend of his had invited him to a pasta party, and the column recounts their conversation. Here’s an excerpt:

I could tell he was serious. “You bought a pasta machine?”

“Sure. It’s the latest thing. Electric. That’s why I’m having the party.” ”

But you’re not Italian,” I said.

“Of course not. If I was Italian, my mother would make pasta for me.”

“You really have a pasta machine?”

“Sure. It’s right next to my Cuisinart.”

“But you don’t even live in Lincoln Park. You’re from the Southwest Side.”

“What has that to do with it?”

Obviously, he was another victim of pasta chic, a craze that has gripped the city and the nation.

When Slats Grobnik was a kid, he always knew when the old man was having a losing streak at the racetrack.

“We ate spaghetti every day,” he said. “Or macaroni. Or some of those other damned noodles.”

If the streak was prolonged – and old man Grobnik had a fondness for horses that ran backward – Slats would start moaning: “The only fresh meat in the house is our dog. And I’m too weak to chase ‘im.”

It was that way all over the neighborhood. You knew when the paycheck was running out: the noodle appeared. There was no cheaper way to feed a family.

Poverty meant starch. Prosperity meant meat. That’s why so many poor people are fat.

But now that has been reversed. Pasta is in. Meat is out. (At least red meat. You are still fashionable if you eat the flesh of a dead fish or chicken.)

I remember chuckling at that column, but also thinking, What the heck is he talking about? Fat makes people fat. The problem isn’t the noodle, it’s the fatty sauce on top.  Everybody knows that now.

Yup, and everybody was wrong.

Back to that final rewrite of the book.

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Yup, I’m busy working on what I hope is the final draft of the book.  The goal is to have copies available by the time I leave for the low-carb cruise in late May.  Chareva needs time to draw, lay out the book in InDesign, etc., etc., so I have to wrap up the writing side of the equation — yesterday, if possible.

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When readers first linked to the “paleo diet makes you fat!” study in comments, I replied that I generally dismiss mouse and rat studies as irrelevant to humans, except in certain circumstances. I should probably talk about those circumstances.

But first, I’ll explain which studies I dismiss outright: pretty much all diet studies that involve rodents. We’re not rodents. The foods that have negative effects on rodents may have positive effects on humans and vice versa.

The big cholesterol scare started more than 100 years ago when scientists fed cholesterol to rabbits, who rapidly developed heart disease as a result. Oh my gosh, cholesterol must cause heart disease in humans!

Stupid conclusion. Rabbits are herbivores. They don’t eat cholesterol. There’s no reason they should have the biological machinery to deal with cholesterol. So – duh! – it builds up in their systems and causes problems. I’m pretty sure if we fed lions an all-vegetarian rabbit diet, they’d become quite ill. But that doesn’t mean carrots are bad for rabbits or humans. It simply means lions are obligate carnivores.

So even if researchers fed rats and mice a true paleo diet of meats and vegetables, I still wouldn’t give a rat’s ass (pardon the pun) about the results — positive or negative – because there’s simply no reason to assume those results translate to humans. We’re not rats. The diet that’s perfect for them is very unlike the diet that’s perfect for us. The researchers in the dumbass “paleo diet makes you fat!” study mentioned that standard rat chow is 3% fat. Has there ever been a group of paleo humans who lived on a 3% fat diet? I sincerely doubt it. Rats are probably biologically geared to thrive on an extremely low-fat diet. We’re not.

But of course, researchers in these studies rarely feed mice and rats anything like the human diet they’re supposedly testing. The “paleo” diet in the dumbass study consisted largely of isolated casein, sugar and canola oil. It was nothing like a paleo diet. The study has absolutely zero relevance to humans eating an actual paleo diet.

This little sleight-of-hand seems to be a habit among some researchers. More than once, I’ve dug into a mouse or rat study of the “Atkins” (ahem-ahem) diet and found that the primary fats were Crisco or corn oil, and the sole source of protein was casein … you know, just like Dr. Atkins recommended. Then when the rats or mice became fat or sick, dingbats in the media dutifully reported that New Study Show Atkins Diet Causes (insert scary result here)!!

Utter nonsense.

So when should we pay attention to rodent studies? Well, I’ll least give them a look if they test the result of drugs or hormones. In the animal kingdom, hormones are the chemical messengers that trigger the code written into our biological software.  Hormones have been around since before humans existed. I think we can safely assume hormones produce similar effects in a man and a mouse.

So if researchers pump male mice full of testosterone and those mice become leaner, stronger, and start throwing punches in bars at the slightest provocation, I’d expect to see similar effects in male humans. If researchers inject rats with high doses of insulin and the rats start eating like crazy and getting fat, I’d expect a similar result in humans.  But I’d still take those studies with a grain of salt.

Here’s the type of rodent study I don’t take with a grain of salt: those that disprove a supposed Immutable Law of The Universe. Back in 2011, I wrote about a study in which researchers calculated how much food mice were eating ad libitum. Then they took one group of mice and cut their daily calories by just 5%. Here are some quotes from my post:

Now, according to Jillian Michaels and the other leading experts in thermodynamics, there are only a couple of possible outcomes for these experiments:

  1. The calorie-restricted mice, who were prevented from making little pig-mice of themselves, ended up weighing less and were leaner.
  2. If the calorie-restricted mice somehow ended up fatter, it could only be because they were far less active than the mice who ate freely.

Yup … if you get fat, by gosh, it means you’re either eating more or moving less. Now let’s look at the actual results:

At the end of the second experiment (three weeks), the average weight for both groups was virtually identical — it was also virtually identical to their baseline weights. But the calorie-restricted mice had 43.6% more fat mass and 6.4% less lean mass than the free-eating control mice.

Ah, well then, the mice who gained fat mass must’ve been less active, right?

Nope. According to the study data, there was no difference in locomotor activity levels between the two groups.

The calorie-restricted mice ate less, they moved around just as much, but they ended up weighing the same as the mice allowed to eat freely, and also ended up with more fat and less muscle. Oh, dear me … did these mice find a way to violate the laws of thermodynamics?

I paid attention to that study because the calorie freaks insist that according to the laws of physics, if you eat less and move around just as much YOU MUST BURN FAT FOR FUEL AND LOSE WEIGHT. IT’S AN IMMUTABLE LAW OF THE UNIVERSE.  But these mice ate less, moved around just as much, and gained fat mass while losing muscle.

Yeah, it’s just a mouse study, but the laws of physics are the laws of physics, period. They don’t apply to humans and then go on vacation when mice saunter into the room.  So if the laws of physics say eating less while remaining active must always lead to fat loss, that would apply to both large and small furry creatures.

No, those mice didn’t violate the laws of physics. And no, the experiment didn’t disprove any laws of physics. But it did disprove the calorie-freak argument that cutting calories while remaining just as active MUST ALWAYS LEAD TO BURNING AWAY BODY FAT BECAUSE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS SAY SO.

The laws of physics say no such thing. They merely say that if you lose weight, you burned more calories than you consumed. These mice – despite remaining just as active – slowed down their metabolisms and burned muscle tissue for fuel in order to get fatter. It was probably a programmed reaction to what their little mouse bodies interpreted as a risk of starvation. No laws of physics were harmed in the process.

So here’s the one part of the “paleo diet makes you fat!” study I found relevant:

After 3 weeks, mice fed the LCHFD began to diverge from the chow-fed group, and at 5 weeks the difference in body weight was statistically significant. At the end of the study, white adipose tissue mass was also significantly increased. The LCHFD has a higher energy density than the chow diet (24 vs 13.5 MJ kg−1); however, the increased body weight of mice fed the LCHFD was not associated with a higher energy intake.

Yup, the mice fed the full-of-crap “paleo” diet (which tripled their sugar intake) gained more weight and more body fat. We can’t blame it on palatability, because they didn’t say, “Oooh, this is yummy!” and eat more. We can’t blame it on consuming too many calories, because they didn’t consume more calories. So if the researchers kept accurate records on food consumption (and it appears they did), we have a situation where mice eating a crap diet got fatter than their control-group cousins, despite not eating more.

That’s a relevant result, even though it’s a mouse study. It disproves the dearly-held belief among the calorie freaks that getting fatter is always and forever the result of eating too many calories BECAUSE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS SAY SO. And it lends credence to the belief that food quality affects how calories are partitioned, burned and stored.  Different foods send different commands to the biological software.  That’s the only useful lesson from an otherwise garbage study.

And once again, no laws of physics were harmed in the process.

Of mice and men.  Again.

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Random stuff not worthy of a full post:

The Garmin Forerunner

Awhile back, I mentioned that I had to send back my FitBit because the heart monitor was way off.  I went with a Garmin Forerunner instead. A reader emailed this week to ask if I like the Forerunner, since I never mentioned it again.

Yes, I do like it. I’ve compared the heart-rate reading to a manual reading several times, both before and during workouts. It’s always spot-on. I also like how I can press one of the buttons a few times and see my heart rate for a moment without leaving the watch mode. So I guess it’s a case of getting what you pay for. The FitBit was cheaper, but not up to snuff.

My plan was to monitor my heart rate during aerobic sessions on the bike.  I’ve been using the bike to do sprints a few mornings per week, but haven’t had much time to do those longer aerobic sessions because …

Tighter schedule – yeah, I like I needed that

For a few years, programmers at the contracting job were encourage to share a cubicle.  Half the week at home, half in the office. I worked at home Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings. It was great. No commute time at all for the firs two days of the week. I’d sleep until 8:00, wake up slowly with a cup of coffee, work until 5:30 or so, then turn my attention to the book. On Wednesdays, I’d put in a few hours at home, then stop at the gym for my workout on the way to the office.

Ahhh, the good old days. They’re gone. Someone high up the totem pole decided earlier this year that programmers need to work in the office every day.  Why?  Yeah, we asked that too.  The only explanation I heard is that a few people abused the work-at-home days — as in not really working much at home.

Now, if I were in management, I’d handle that problem by requiring the bad apples to work in the office every day and let those who didn’t abuse the system continue spending half the week at home. But I’m not in management. So now I’ve got the long commute five days per week. I’m up early every day so I can be at my desk by 9:30.  I’m up earlier if I want to squeeze in a workout at the gym.  No more waking up slowly with the big cup of coffee.

It’s pointless to leave downtown Nashville at 5:30 PM. That just means sitting in rush-hour traffic. So now I put in my programming time, eat a quick dinner, then stay at the office for another couple of hours to write. It’s the only way I’ll get the book done on schedule.  It’s also affected my eating habits …

Commuter food

Chareva’s every bit as busy as I am. Chickens, dogs, the cat, the girls with their gymnastics classes and school activities … all those mommy chores add up. Meanwhile, she’s working through tutorials on InDesign so she can lay out the book. Oh, and there are all those cartoons and graphics yet to produce.

Once I had to start working downtown every weekday, I told her to forget about making me a lunch and a dinner to pack every day. She doesn’t need the extra workload. So I started taking – egads! – packaged food to the office for dinner some days.

I’m a big believer in not letting perfect become the enemy of good. There are no perfect meals-to-go in grocery stores, at least not that I can find. But I found that many of the Atkins dinners are at least good. They are (duh) low in carbs and reasonably high in protein. A lot of the other “diet” meals out there consist of pasta, a bit of protein, and a bit of fat.

When I check the ingredients for higher-protein meals from most other brands, textured soy protein always seems to be high on the list. The Atkins dinners at least use meat instead of meat substitutes. There are bits of other ingredients in there you wouldn’t use at home (what the heck is corn protein, anyway?) but overall, I think I can eat these things without trashing my body. That’s the hope, anyway.

My main complaint — with all brands — is the portion size.  They actually brag on the boxes, Only 330 calories!  To which I’d reply, What adult male is going to be satisfied with a 330-calorie dinner?!   So I always end up eating two of them.

Nutty bars

The dinners aren’t real-food perfect, but I found a real-food snack bar that doesn’t have soy protein, or corn protein, or any other fake-food nonsense. Well, I didn’t find it.  It found me.  The owner of Nutty Crunch bars (who is also personal trainer and fitness buff) sent an assortment for the family to try.

I liked them. Chareva liked them. The girls liked them. The bars are crunchy and tasty. They’re low in carbs too, despite a bit of sweet taste. Here’s the list of ingredients, which varies only slightly among the different flavors:

Coconut chips, almonds, pecans, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, organic coconut oil, organic raw honey, egg whites, organic molasses, Celtic sea salt, Madagascar vanilla or cinnamon.

That’s it. No chemical names. There are seven carbs in a bar, but three of those are fiber. Six grams of protein as an added bonus.

I’m not in business with the guy or anything. I don’t make advertising or profit-sharing deals for any of the products I mention on the blog. So if I say I like something, it’s because I like it and think it’s worth sharing.

A quote about doctors

A reader emailed to share some quotes from a 1988 book titled What Every Engineer Should Know About Artificial Intelligence. The first quote is from a chapter on expert systems:

Rule-based expert systems are purely empirical in that the expert system knows nothing of any underlying causality. Rules encode experiential observations, such as “This disease is associated with fever,” “That disease is accompanied by certain chemicals in the urine,” or “Watch hydraulic pressure for a few hours after the pump is adjusted,” without including any information about why these rules work. Such systems are called “shallow systems” and are said to use “shallow reasoning.” Rule-based expert systems are common in medicine because doctors are not taught much about disease mechanisms.

Right. They’re taught which drugs to prescribe when the body breaks down, not how to prevent it from breaking down. The second quote is a footnote to the first:

There is so much purely diagnostic information taught in medical school that there is little time to explain the underlying mechanisms of disease. Doctors seem not to need to know much about the causes of disease to make successful diagnoses; tracking down causes is left for epidemiologists. Medical school has been described as a place where students learn correlations and ignore causation. A student may be taught to treat gall bladder cancer with a certain drug. They are not taught that the drug is a metabolic poison that damages rapidly growing cancer cells more than it harms normal cells. This explains side effects such as hair loss because hair cells grow rapidly, but there are so many rules to learn that there is no time for such deeper details. Medical training is based on memorization of shallow rules.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I believe the rush-hour traffic has subsided. Time to make that commute home – just like on every other friggin’ weekday now.

I sure hope that book sells a million copies. Then I’ll only commute the kitchen and back.

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A link in comments reminded me of a criticism of Good Calories, Bad Calories I see now and then. In a nutshell, the criticism goes like this:

Taubes says people get fat because insulin makes their fat cells release fatty acids too slowly, so they have to eat more to avoid cellular starvation, and then they get fat. But studies show fat people have the same concentration of fatty acids in their bloodstreams as lean people. So there. That proves Taubes is wrong.

Uh, no. The fact that fat people have a steady supply of fatty acids in their blood doesn’t prove him wrong at all. The people who think it does either didn’t actually read Good Calories, Bad Calories or didn’t grasp one of the key concepts.

Let’s start with an analogy. Suppose we’re studying people on a planet where it’s considered disgusting to have a large savings account. And yet many people do. I want to understand why, so I spend years digging through financial research. Then I offer this explanation:

For half of each year, people on this planet have no regular income and have to live off the interest from their savings accounts. Most accounts pay 10% interest, so most people continuing saving until the 10% interest provides enough cash to pay their bills.

However, because of a banking flaw, some people’s accounts pay less than 10%. At the lower rate, the interest they can withdraw isn’t enough to pay their bills – that is, unless they compensate by making bigger deposits to build up more savings. So they do. Each time the interest rate drops a bit, they deposit and save more until the interest is once again enough to pay their bills. For people whose accounts pay a low interest rate, this requires a BIG savings account.

With me so far? Great. Now suppose another researcher digs up a study showing that people with fat savings accounts withdraw the same amount of cash each month as people with normal savings accounts. Waving that study around, the researcher makes this announcement:

Aha! Naughton is clearly wrong! He claims people grow fat saving accounts because they can’t withdraw enough cash as interest. But now we know people with fat accounts are withdrawing just as much cash as everyone else. So he’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

You see the flaw in that conclusion, right? The fact that the fat-account people are  withdrawing enough cash to pay their bills doesn’t prove my explanation is wrong – because I never claimed they don’t end up withdrawing as much cash as everyone else. I said they maintain big accounts so that they can withdraw as much cash as everyone else.  The researcher didn’t read or didn’t understand my explanation of how these people solved the defect with their low-interest accounts.  He apparently stopped reading after the description of the defect itself.

Let’s return to our own planet. Here’s my quick, user-friendly summary of some lengthy passages in Good Calories, Bad Calories.

To keep your blood sugar in the normal range, your body needs to alternately store and release fatty acids. When glucose goes up, your body brings it down by storing fatty acids and burning glucose as the primary fuel. But as glucose continues to drop, your body prevents it from dropping too low by releasing fatty acids for fuel. As most of your body switches to burning fat, glucose is preserved for the brain – which requires at least some glucose every minute of every day.

If you can’t release a sufficient supply of fatty acids, you have a problem. When glucose drops after meals (not to mention during the long night’s sleep), your body will experience a fuel shortage. You’ll be hungry. Your brain may sense a threat to the consistent fuel supply it needs. If this is a regular experience, it’s a problem your body must and will work to fix.

That’s the quick summary. Now here are some paragraphs from what I consider the most important section of the book, offering an explanation of how our bodies fix the problem (bold emphasis mine):

If energy goes into the fat tissue faster than it comes out, the energy stored in the fat tissue has to increase. Any metabolic phenomenon that slows down the release of fat from the fat tissue – that retards the “energy out” variable of the equation – will have this effect, as long as the rate at which fat enters the adipose tissue (the energy in) remains unchanged, or at least does not decrease by an equal or greater amount.

Pennington suggested that as the adipose tissue accumulates fat, its expansion will increase the rate at which fat calories are released back into the bloodstream (just as inflating a balloon will increase air pressure inside the balloon and the rate at which air is expelled out of the balloon if the air is allowed to escape), and this could compensate for the initial defect itself. We will continue to accumulate fat – and so continue to be in positive energy balance – until we reach a new equilibrium and the flow of fat calories out of the adipose tissue once again matches the flow of calories in.

By Pennington’s logic, obesity is simply the body’s way of compensating for a defect in the storage and metabolism of fat. The compensation, he said, occurs homeostatically, without any conscious intervention. It works by a negative feedback loop. By expanding with fat, the adipose tissue “provides for a more effective release of fat for the energy needs of the body.” Meanwhile, conditions at the cellular level remain constant; the cells and tissues continue to function normally, and they do so even if we have to become obese to make this happen.

So to sum up:

According to Taubes, if our fat cells begin releasing fatty acids more slowly, we get fatter to overcome this defect. Once we’re fat enough to release a sufficient supply of fatty acids, our weight tends to stabilize again. We’re back in a state of energy balance. We now store and release fatty acids as needed, just like thin people – but we had to get fatter in order to do so. If the fat cells slow their rate of release again, we become fatter again to compensate. That’s how our bodies stay in a state of energy balance.

Nothing in that explanation says obese people release fewer fatty acids into their bloodstreams than thin people. It says they achieve a normal supply of fatty acids by being fatter. That’s why (according to the book) our bodies fight to gain and keep the fat – because if we can’t release enough fatty acids between meals, we can’t keep our cells fed and our glucose levels stable. To shed body fat without fighting our own bodies, we first have to fix the root of the problem. (That’s where the change in diet comes in.) Once we can release enough fatty acids with a smaller fat mass — because the rate of release speeds up again — our bodies will be willing to lose the extra fat.

Again, I consider that one of the crucial ideas – perhaps the most important idea – in the entire book. I don’t know how anyone could miss it. But apparently plenty of people did.

During between-session chit-chat at a conference some years ago, a blogger whose name I won’t mention tossed out the line about how fat people have just as many fatty acids in their bloodstreams as thin people, so Taubes is wrong and therefore the insulin hypothesis is wrong.

“Well, actually Taubes wrote that each time our fat cells become a little slower at releasing fatty acids, we get a little fatter to compensate,” I replied.  “Fat people release as many fatty acids into their bloodstreams as thinner people, but they need more fat mass to do so. That’s why they’re fat. Being fat keeps them in a state of energy balance.”

That drew a look of confusion from the blogger, who then replied, “Hmm, I don’t remember that part of the book.”

I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, YOU DON’T REMEMBER THAT PART OF THE BOOK?! Are you @#$%ing kidding me? That’s like reading Huckleberry Finn and not remembering the part about the runaway slave.

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with Taubes, challenging the insulin hypothesis, offering their evidence to counter his, whatever. That’s how it should be. Real science is not (despite what some politicians believe) about reaching a consensus. We should always be questioning and re-assessing our beliefs.

But when people argue that Good Calories, Bad Calories got it all wrong, it would be nice if they read the book first. And then remembered what they read.

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Sorry to bug off for an entire week, but it’s one of those pedal-to-the-metal situations at work.  And to make things worse, the insomnia bug hit this week.  It’s been awhile since I’ve dealt with that one.

So I’ve been writing code in the wee hours, catching a bit of sleep in the late morning or afternoon, then getting back to it.

I hope to return to something like a normal schedule after the Super Bowl — go Peyton!

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