Dr. Malcolm Kendrick is the Mark Twain of medical writers, wielding his own pen warmed up in hell. Hell, in this case, is a modern medical system designed to persuade doctors and the public that nearly everyone with a pulse is abnormal and in need of treatment.  In fact, I can summarize Kendrick’s latest book Doctoring Data by paraphrasing Twain himself:  “If your doctor doesn’t read the medical literature, he is uninformed.  If he does read the medical literature, he is misinformed.”

I first became aware of Kendrick when Dr. Mike Eades recommended his book The Great Cholesterol Con.
I ordered a copy and expected to be educated.  I didn’t expect to laugh my ass off while being educated, but that’s Kendrick’s style.  He attacks nonsense with facts and logic, yes, but also with a razor-sharp wit.  (If you don’t read his blog, you should.)

As Kendrick has made clear many times, he’s not anti-medicine.  He is a doctor, after all.  Take surgeries and the true wonder drugs out of the picture, and many of us would be far worse off, if not dead.  I’d be limping around on a ruined knee, deaf in one ear, and unable to raise my left arm above chest-level.  So much for doing farm work and playing disc golf on weekends.

But Kendrick is very much against the nonsense that pervades much of preventative medicine these days.  The nonsense is driven by what he calls doctored data.  In a nutshell, the system works something like this:

Even though you’re probably fine, you undergo a lab test at your doctor’s insistence, and lo and behold, you’re diagnosed with a previously unknown “disease” … which was discovered just in time to coincide with the approval of a new wonder drug … which was approved based on suspicious data … from a study designed and run by the drug-maker … which paid key opinion leaders to sit on a government committee that wrote the treatment guidelines … which instruct your doctor to prescribe the new wonder drug … which produces nasty side-effects … which must be treated with more wonder drugs. Oh, and you also need to stop eating anything that tastes good.

Here’s how Kendrick describes the situation in the book’s introduction:

It has become exceedingly difficult to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Lying in the sun… “Do not do that, or you will die of skin cancer.” Eating a bacon sandwich… “You mad fool, the saturated fat in that will raise your cholesterol levels and you will die of heart disease.” Putting salt on food… “That raises blood pressure and you will die of a heart attack or a stroke.” Drinking an ice-cold gin and tonic after a hard day’s work… “If you drink more than 15 units a week you risk dying of cancer and liver failure.” Hey ho, what jolly fun.

At the same time we are being cajoled to undergo ever more screening tests to pick up the early stages of cancer and numerous other diseases. As if this were not enough, your GP will be haranguing you to have endless measurements of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, to name but three. As if good health is only really possible through constant monitoring by the medical profession.

As for the elderly, it has become virtually impossible to find anyone taking fewer than four or five separate medications. One of my jobs is working in Intermediate Care where I help to look after elderly people, many of whom have suffered an injury or fracture of some sort. When patients enter this unit, the average number of medications taken is ten. That is ten different drugs, to be taken each and every day, some of them three or four times each day. I suppose it saves on buying food.

At the same time, the boundaries that define illness have narrowed inexorably. When I first graduated from medical school in 1981, a high cholesterol level was anything above 7.5 mmol/L. Over the years, this level has fallen and fallen to the point where a ‘healthy’ level is now 5.0 mmol/L. I suspect it will soon be 4.0 mmol/L. Anything above this figure, and you have an increased risk of heart disease – allegedly. Considering that over 85% of the adult population in the western world has a cholesterol level higher than 5.0 mmol/L this is a quite amazing concept. I will admit that I have never been that brilliant at statistics. However, it seems to me that attempting to claim that more than 80% of people are at high risk of heart disease stretches the concept of ‘average’ to breaking point – and well beyond.

The sad truth is that most of the advice we are now bombarded with varies from neutral to damaging. In some cases it can be potentially very damaging indeed. Advising people with diabetes to eat a low fat, high carbohydrate diet, for example. As a piece of harmful idiocy, this really could hardly be bettered.

How about frightening people to stay out of the sun, or slap on factor 50 cream at the first suspicion that a deadly photon may sneak through 10 layers of protective clothing? Not necessarily a good idea, because without vitamin D synthesis in the skin, from exposure to the sun, there is a significant danger that we can become vitamin D deficient, which can lead to all sorts of other problems.

And later in the introduction:

So you trust the experts… right?

No, I do not think that would be the best way to go. In fact, long sections of this book are dedicated to an exploration of the role of the ‘expert’ (chapter six). The bottom line is that experts are just as prone to grasping the wrong end of the stick as anyone else, then hanging on for blue bloody murder. Far more so, in many cases.

If truth be told, my view of medical experts has become extremely jaundiced. At times I feel they are like those highly decorated generals in North Korea with the funny hats. They look splendid and important, but the only point of their existence is to suppress dissent and keep an idiotic regime in place. In reality, you are not likely to get much nuance from an expert. You are more likely to be ‘educated’ on the party line. Room 101 lurks.

I don’t have to convince a bunch of Fat Heads to be skeptical of experts, but the question remains: when we’re bombarded with medical advice, or with headlines proclaiming New Study Says Blah-Blah-Blah, how do we separate the gems from the garbage?  To a large degree, that’s what Doctoring Data is about:

Should you believe everything, or believe nothing? Trying to establish any type of system for establishing the truth is clearly not simple, and it is fraught with its own biases.

Having said this, I do think that there are certain ‘tools’ that you can use to analyse health stories and clinical papers. Using them will allow you to spot many of the manipulations and biases. These tools are not complete, and they are not some sort of mathematical formula, whereby a score of five means the paper is true, and a score of ten means it is untrue.

However, I believe that they can guide you, and give you a much clearer picture of what is really happening out there in the murky world of medical research, a way of looking at the world to try and establish the truth. Or something as close to the truth as can be achieved.

The truth toolkit: Ten things to remember, to help you make sense of a medical story; they are also the chapters of this book.

• Association does not mean causation
• Lives cannot be saved; we’re all going to die
• Relative mountains are made out of absolute molehills
• Things that are not true are often held to be true
• Reducing numbers does not equal reducing risk
• Challenges to the status quo are crushed – and how!
• Games are played and the players are…
• Doctors can seriously damage your health
• Never believe that something is impossible
• ‘Facts’ can be, and often are, plucked from thin air

The rest of the book is like an in-depth version of Science For Smart People.  Kendrick guides the reader through the process of how studies are conducted and how the numbers are crunched.  Then he shows how everything gets turned upside-down and sideways so researchers can declare that a new wonder drug or procedure will “save” hundreds of thousands of lives … even if “saving” a life means extending it by an average of three months.

Statins, blood-pressure medications, various cancer screenings … as Kendrick repeatedly demonstrates with actual study results (minus the medical-industry spin), many of the sacred cows of “preventative” medicine don’t seem to prevent much of anything:

Those involved in cancer screening have even created their own, virtually-impossible‐to-understand language, in order to make their figures look stunning. Stunning they may look, but luckily there are other people out there who are less than stunned, and who choose to look a bit more closely.

The United States Preventative Task force reviewed all the data on Prostate Cancer screening (using the prostate specific antigen (P.S.A.) blood test) and came to the conclusion that it does more harm than good.

Lo, it turns out that the prostate screening test, which improves survival from 68% to 99% does not actually save lives – at all. Fantastic sounding cure rates, which completely bedazzle doctors, are simply meaningless.

In the chapter titled Challenges to the status quo are crushed – and how!, Kendrick cites examples of how results that challenge prevailing medical opinion are squashed … or fudged, or simply ignored.  For example, one study was published with the title Excess deaths associated with underweight, overweight, and obesity.

Well, there you go: you clearly don’t want to be overweight or underweight.  If your doctor glanced at the journal article, that’s the conclusion he or she would draw.  Just one little problem: the actual study data showed that people in the overweight category (BMI of 25 to 30) had the longest lifespans.  But wait, it gets even better:

You may note that, in this study, even those in the obese category (BMI 30-35) had a lower mortality than those of ‘normal’ weight.

The overwhelming belief in the medical community is that being overweight is bad for you. It causes a host of diseases, which will inevitably result in premature death. To state that being overweight means that you live longer is the scientific equivalent of standing up and shouting that the Emperor is not actually wearing any clothes at all.

So why did the paper’s title declare that the risky categories are underweight, overweight and obesity?  As Kendrick writes:

If they dared to write a paper with this title… Excess deaths associated with underweight, normal weight, and obesity. …one of two things would have happened. Either the peer reviewers would have rejected it, or, had it been published, their names would be mud in the world of obesity research.

If the medical world crushes people who say being overweight won’t kill you any sooner, imagine how it treats people who say statins won’t save your life.  Time to call in the North Korean generals with the funny hats.

In the chapter titled Doctors can seriously damage your health, I finally learned the origin of a colorful phrase that means giving someone a load of nonsense:

If someone was close to death, or even apparently dead through drowning or suchlike, conventional wisdom was that you could save their life by blowing tobacco smoke up their rectum with a pair of bellows. So strong was this belief that hundreds of set of bellows were hung up around the Thames to revive those who had fallen in and drowned.

The hell with CPR, just blow smoke up someone’s backside, that’ll do the trick. How idiotic does this now sound? Pretty idiotic I would think. However, very intelligent people believed it was true. Doctors thought it to be true… Not, of course, that I would necessarily confuse doctors with intelligent people.

Sadly, each generation easily convinces itself that such arrant nonsense has become thing of that past.

But such arrant nonsense isn’t a thing of the past.  Doctors used to blow smoke up our arses; now they prescribe statins to beat down our cholesterol.  I’d rather take the smoke.

That’s the point of Doctoring Data:  there’s still a lot of nonsense in medicine – perhaps more than ever.  I can barely turn on my TV these days without seeing a commercial for some new drug, always ending with the line Ask your doctor about SuperlaBlex or whatever it’s called.

No, don’t ask your doctor if you need the new wonder drug!  The entire system of studies, reviews, approvals, guidelines, etc. is designed to convince your doctor that you’re ill and need that new drug.  You simply can’t count on your doctor (unless you’re lucky) to be skeptical of modern medicine.  You have to be the skeptic.  Doctoring Data teaches you how to be an informed skeptic.  As Kendrick writes in his closing:

How can Dr Kendrick be right, and all the highly decorated experts be wrong? Well, obviously, they are right about many things. However, when it comes to the area of preventative medicine it seems that every stick that can be grabbed at the wrong end, has been grabbed at the wrong end. Alongside this, experts seem obsessed with simplistic ideas where cause and association are hopelessly muddled. It has become a mess, in part driven by money. Things that are high should be lowered, things that are low should be raised. Yes, we have a drug for that… Kerrching. ‘Look for underlying causes? What idiot said that?’

So I decided to try and expose, if that is the right word, how data are produced. How statistics are used to terrify people, or falsely reassure them. Also, what are the drivers for this behaviour? I know I will be attacked for some of the things I have said. That is inevitable. However, that does not matter. What matters is that you, once you have read this book, can understand more clearly how and why data are ‘doctored’. You can then understand the headlines more clearly. Two sausages a day increase your risk of bowel cancer by 50%. Shock, and horror, and bollocks. You can make the decisions for yourself about what you can and should do to live a longer, healthier and happier life.

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Spring is nearly two weeks away, and a few days ago ice blanketed our property.  The temperature that day was, if memory serves, around 10 degrees.  I define that as “winter.”  So when I woke up late on Sunday and Chareva informed me daylight savings time had already kicked in, I expressed my enthusiasm with words like @#$%, and &*$%, and perhaps even %$#@.

I hate daylight savings time.  The last thing someone geared to stay up late and sleep late wants is for the clock to spring forward.  There are cruel people where I work who occasionally schedule meetings for 8:30 AM … which will now feel like 7:30 AM to my night-owl body.

I’ve heard the excuse for daylight savings time:  more daylight during the warm months, more daylight for farmers, blah-blah-blah.  A reader sent me a graphic that perfectly captures my opinion of that one:

I guess the Old Indian didn’t read Paul Krugman and learn about the “multiplier effect.”

Anyway, if you want more daylight in your day, get up earlier.  Don’t make the rest of us pretend the ungodly hour of 7:30 AM is actually 8:30 AM.  Or at least wait until May.

Despite my grumbling about the time change, Sunday did feel like a sudden jolt of spring just three days after a sudden jolt of winter.  It was 60 degrees outside, so I decided to take a walk-around look at the property.  And while I was walking around, I figured I may as well carry some plastic disc things and throw them at baskets placed around the land.

The baby chicks who arrived during the deep-freeze of a few weeks back don’t look much like baby chicks anymore.  I’d swear they’ve tripled in size already.  And we have another 12 due to arrive this week for Alana’s 4-H project. So Chareva was already out back, sketching out how she’s going to build two more hoop houses and create two big chicken yards around her gardens.

After my round of disc golf in the front pastures, I walked around the back of the property to survey the damage caused by two ice storms.  Most of the damage looked like this:

Waste not, want not.  Chareva decided we’ll cut up all the broken branches and use them to create raised beds for the garden.

The mostly-destroyed fence in the picture below was part of our pig-run, which I described in this post.

Probably just as well that we need to rebuild.  We’ve seen the pigs push their way right under a wimpy fence like this, so when it’s time to shoo them into the trailer for real, we’ll want something more substantial.  Chareva already experienced the joy of chasing runaway pigs from her garden (as in the picture below) back to their pen.  I don’t feel the need to experience a repeat.

We’ve had tire-grabbing ruts in our driveway since we moved in, but the ice storms deepened them into tire-ripping canyons.  We’ve been steering around them, which means slipping and sliding in muddy grass after a rain.

So late Sunday afternoon, Sara and I did some road construction.  We took Chareva’s garden cart down to the creek and loaded it up with rocks and stones of various sizes.  (Tennessee’s theme song is “Rocky Top” for good reason.  No shortage of rocks in and around that creek.)  Dragging a cart loaded with rocks and stones up the long, sloping driveway was real exercise – and we did it four times. We filled the canyons in the driveway with bigger stones first, then smaller stones, then rocks, then gravel on top.

Sara earned enough Cabin Cash for her cabin last fall, but now she’s into furnishing it.   She currently has her heart set on a rocking chair for reading. So even though she didn’t ask for it, I told her afterwards that she’d earned more Cabin Cash for her considerable assistance patching the driveway.

Meanwhile, I earned my first-of-the-year taste of working myself into a state of Dog-Tired Satisfied.  With all the plans Chareva has for the property this spring, there’s much more satisfaction on the way.

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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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The programming project that’s been dominating my time and my life should wrap up this weekend.  In fact, this is the do-or-die weekend.  I’m supposed to run my big-fix program before Monday.  Everyone from the president of IT on down is waiting for results, so if I fail, I’m failing on a big stage.

It’s a bit stressful, but I also tend to thrive under this kind of pressure.  Years ago, an agent who signed me in Los Angeles told me he liked to work with standup comedians and retired athletes, and that the two share some personality traits.  As someone nearly devoid of natural athletic ability, my reaction was something like, “Uh … huh?  What are you talking about?”

“Think about it,” he said.  “You both have to perform in a high-pressure situation in front of a live audience.  Doesn’t matter if you’re tired, doesn’t matter what kind of mood you’re in, doesn’t matter how good you were last time out.  When it’s game time, you have to get out there and do the job.  There’s no re-shoot and no second take.  It’s the personality type who wants the ball when it matters.”

So yeah, I kind of wanted the ball when this one came around.  Hope I don’t fumble.

Anyway, I expect life to return to normal on Monday, which means I won’t be an absent blogger anymore.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share the view from our kitchen window this morning:

Deer come down from the hills now and then and and nose around the tree line, but usually the dogs bark and scare them away.  The dogs happened to be snoozing in the sun room when I took these pictures.  We counted eight deer in all.  It was a pleasing, relaxing sight to take in before heading upstairs to put my program through some final tests before running it.

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I finally left the farm today for the first time since ice and snow blanketed us last week. I love my wife and kids, but it was nice to see someone besides them for a change. The checkout lady at Kroger was probably wondering why I was beaming at her.

We could have stayed put longer without any danger of going hungry. The old lady who owned the property before us was stranded for two weeks after the Great Tennessee Flood of 2010, so Chareva makes it a habit to keep a few weeks’ worth of canned and dried food on hand. We also have neighbors who can pick us up at the highway in front of our property. Chareva hitched a ride with one of them last week.

My first attempt to escape was on Friday. Yes, that would mean attempting to drive my compact car up the same icy driveway my girls have been speeding down on their sleds. No, it doesn’t make sense … but keep in mind I’m a male, which means I’m prone to occasional bouts of inexplicable stupidity. I believe my theory revolved around the weight of the car crushing its way through the ice.  Something like that.  It seemed plausible at the time.

Our driveway is like an elongated U. It slopes down steeply from the house to the creek, runs almost level across the front pastures, then slopes up again to the highway. I crept down the ice-covered driveway in a low gear, then put the car in drive and tried to pick up a bit of momentum as I approached the slope up to the highway.

I managed to get about two-thirds up the slope before the tires started spinning. Then the car began sliding backwards. I tried turning the wheel to control the direction of the slide, which made no difference whatsoever. That’s when I realized that sliding backwards in a car down a steep, icy driveway is … well, let’s just say it’s a special feeling.

There’s a steep drop into a big pit off the left side of the driveway – the pit is county land, not ours. As the front of the car began drifting left, I comforted myself with the knowledge that when cars roll down an embankment, they don’t explode nearly as easily as Hollywood movies would lead you to believe. Then the momentum of the downward slide seemed to pull the car straight – if you can call sliding backwards going straight.

As I reached the almost-level section of the driveway, I decided I should turn around. In retrospect, I have no idea why. Perhaps having failed to climb the steep slope up to the highway, I thought it would be a good idea to try the even steeper slope up to the house. That would give me another chance to slide backwards – maybe even right off the bridge over the creek.  A 10-foot drop down to a rocky creek bed would give me another opportunity to prove that cars do not, in fact, explode as easily as Hollywood movies would lead you to believe.

Anyway, turning around would require backing into the pasture. There are gullies running along the driveway in some areas, but the ground is almost level with the driveway in others. Unfortunately, the gullies had disguised themselves by filling up with snow.  I tried to remember where the flattest area was, then turned the wheel and backed into the pasture.

I remembered wrong. The back wheels rolled through the gully because of all that nice momentum I’d picked up while sliding backwards from up near the highway.  But the front wheels – also known as “the drive wheels” — parked themselves in the low ground. Since I’m a male and therefore prone to occasional bouts of inexplicable stupidity, I of course spent the next several minutes trying to prove the theory (which all males believe to some degree) that if I constantly shifted between drive and reverse, I could rock the wheels out of an icy, snowy pit and go on my merry way.

After I trudged my way up the house, I made a careful analysis of the situation. The root cause of my troubles, as far as I could tell, was that my driveway was covered with a thick sheet of ice. So the solution was obvious: get rid of the ice.

Even though we live in the south, we own snow shovels. They’re made of plastic. I quickly learned that plastic is completely ineffective for removing ice. I also learned that if you stomp on plastic in an attempt to drive it into ice, the plastic breaks apart and the ice doesn’t.

The previous owner left behind a whole slew of old tools, including two pick-axes. I have no idea what she planned to do with one pick-axe, much less two, but it occurred to me that a tool that bangs through coal can probably bang through ice. I went to the garage and chose the lighter of the two. Sara decided to join me and grabbed a garden hoe.

The first few whacks looked promising. The ice broke apart in decent-sized chunks. Then we hit thicker, more solid ice. I banged away at it with the pick-axe, all the while developing deeper and deeper respect for my great-grandfather Naughton, an Irish immigrant who began working in coals mines in his teens. How the heck did he swing one of these things all day, every day?

The best we could do was take chips from the ice. So when my hands began to swell from the impact, we gave up and called it a day.

On Saturday, the temperature was above freezing for the first time nearly a week, and the forecast called for rain all day. I figured the rain probably wouldn’t melt the layer of ice, but might loosen it up enough for me to chip it away. So after a few hours of steady rain, I told Chareva I was going ice-chipping again, even though I’d get soaked out there.

She triumphantly announced that she’d long ago purchased a man-sized set of rain slickers for just such an occasion – pants with suspenders, jacket and hood. They’re bright yellow, and when I put them on over my jeans and hooded sweatshirt, I looked like a mutant canary from a ‘50s horror movie. As I walked past the new chicks in the basement, they all cowered at the other end of their trough.

I soon discovered that the ice was a little softer than the day before, but not by much. I also discovered that water-soaked ice is particularly slippery, and that slickers are called “slickers” for a reason. Chipping away at the top of the driveway, I took a step to the side and felt my boot slide out from under me. I fell backwards onto the hill next to the driveway, which didn’t hurt because the ice covering the grass splintered and absorbed much of the impact.

Just as I was noting my good fortune for not slamming my head onto something solid, gravity gave me a little shove down the hill. The wet ice and the rain slicker took that idea and ran with it. That’s when I realized that sliding on your back down a steep, icy hill – headfirst and with a sharp pick-axe resting somewhere on your legs — well, let’s just say it’s a special feeling.

I kicked the pick-axe off my legs, then remembered that farther down the hill – and not much farther – was a hurricane fence. I stuck my arms over my head as if doing an overhead press and caught the fence with my hands. Amazingly, I didn’t sprain a wrist. My body rotated left and slid into the fence, but by then the momentum was almost down to nothing.

At that point, I decided my ice-chipping adventures were over for the day. But I still wanted to push my car out of the gully and onto the driveway, so I drafted Chareva to do the driving. I pushed and heaved and shoved, tried putting a brick and a board under the front tire, but each time I just … about … managed … to … crest … the … driveway, the tires spun and the car rolled backwards into the gully.

I was flipping through my mental dictionary, choosing the best arrangement of four-letter words to announce that I was giving up, when I was reminded of why I love living in a rural area populated with nice people who say “ya’ll” and suchlike. I looked toward the highway and saw a pickup parked up there. Some guy I’d never met before was taking baby-steps down our driveway to avoid slipping.

“You need some help pushing her up the hill?”

“It’ll never get up the hill on this ice,” I replied. “I found that out yesterday. I’m just trying to get it back up onto the driveway.”

“All right, then. I’m sure we can do that.”

I pointed to the icy, slushy, muddy mess in the gully. “I appreciate it, but we can just leave it here until tomorrow. You’re guaranteed to cover those boots in mud if you step in there.”

“Aw, I don’t care. They’re just boots.”

And with that, we gave Chareva the thumbs-up. She stepped gently on the gas, and the unknown neighbor and I pushed the car onto the driveway.

“Thank you so much for stopping to help.”

“No problem. Y’all have a nice day.”

When the rain stopped later in the afternoon, Sara and I went back out, but only managed to expose a few feet of actual driveway under the ice. By then my arms felt like lead and my hands were swollen again, so we called it quits.

Saturday night is traditionally our family outing to a local Mexican diner. We weren’t going anywhere, so Chareva whipped up a pretty tasty version of steak fajitas with black beans and Mexican fried rice. I believe even our Mexican sister-in-law would have approved.

Today the temperature was in the low 40s, but we’re due for below-freezing temperatures again Monday. I really wanted to get that ice off the driveway before Saturday’s rain freezes on top of it. So around noon I took a show shovel and a steel garden spade down to the driveway to see if the ice was getting loose. On the slope near the house, it wasn’t. But on the slope up to the highway, I was finally seeing some slushy areas.

So Chareva, Sara and I began digging down to the gravel with a combination of the garden spade, the snow shovel, and the garden hoe – Sara’s favorite weapon. After a couple hours of chipping, scraping and shoveling, we managed to expose two long tracks down to where my car was parked.

I rolled Chareva’s garden cart down to the pasture, then the four of us piled into my car and drove up the slope. Near the top, I got a little off track and the car started to slide just a bit. Then the tires found gravel and we pulled out onto the highway.

We were nearly giddy. Look, it’s the highway! It’s clear! We can go anywhere!

Anywhere was a Tractor Supply, where we bought more pig and chicken feed, then a Kroger, where we bought more people feed. I’m normally a get-in-and-get-out shopper, but today I was happy to dawdle. After a week of not leaving the farm, I was shaking off a mild case of cabin fever.

We parked my car on the almost-flat area of the driveway at home, then loaded the groceries into the garden cart to ferry them to the house. As we pulled the cart up the slope of the driveway, my boots were digging into slushy areas. So were the tires on the cart. Apparently the ice had loosed up more while we were out shopping.

So I grabbed a snow shovel and a garden spade, and Sara grabbed her hoe. While Chareva and Alana put away groceries inside, Sara and I banged and chipped and scraped and shoveled until we’d exposed one long track from the car to the top of the slope near the house.

I told her watch from off to one side in case the car decided to slide back down the driveway. “Okay,” she said. “But be careful!”

Nothing to it. No sliding backwards this time. The tires spun briefly once near the top, then caught the driveway underneath. Sara applauded as I rolled up next to the van.

I have never felt so happy to pull into my own driveway and put my car in park.

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