The French Paradox

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Earlier this week, I posted links to several old margarine commercials, including a Blue Bonnet ad in which French chefs declared “no difference” when comparing the taste of industrial vegetable goo to real butter.  This demonstration made such an impression on the French, they immediately continued their habit of putting real butter in pretty much everything.

Compared to Americans, the French consume four times as much butter, three times as much pork and 60% more cheese.  Their overall consumption of saturated animal fat is double ours. Since the experts have told us over and over that saturated fat will clog your arteries, the heart-attack rate in France must be higher than the Eiffel Tower, right? 

Wrong.

The heart-disease rate in France is about one-third the rate in the United States and United Kingdom, in spite of the fact that the rate of smoking in France is also 10% higher. Since everyone knows saturated fat causes heart disease, the experts refer to this as the French Paradox — and for years, they’ve been falling all over themselves to explain it away.

First they blamed the paradox on all that red wine.  Yes, that must be it … animal fat will kill you, but red wine protects you!  Just one little problem: people consume even more red wine in countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, where the heart-attack rate is three or four times higher.

So the experts tried blaming the French Paradox on vegetables.  Animal fats will kill you, but not if you eat eggplants and peppers!  But again, there’s a problem: it doesn’t hold true around the world.  The heart-attack rate in the vegetarian region of India, for example, is nearly twice as high as in the region where most people eat meat.  No meat, lots of vegetables, but lots of heart attacks too … how embarrassing.

With wine and vegetables unable to excuse the paradox, the experts next assigned magical powers to garlic.  Perhaps cholesterol was originally spread to humans by vampires and is therefore repelled by garlic.  That theory looked promising until clinical trials concluded that garlic merely tastes good … assuming it’s properly roasted or sautéed.

Clearly, there must be some untested but uniquely French trait or behavior that protects arteries from the well-known clogging effects of saturated fat.  So in the interest of both science and personal health (I do, after all, eat a lot of saturated fat), I’ve decided to try making myself a bit more French … or at least more French-like.  Here are some ideas I’m considering testing to see if they protect my heart:

Adopting more cultured table manners.

Through a bit of online research, I discovered that table manners in France are similar to the American version, but with a few significant differences.  To be more French-like, I will:

  • Keep my hands on the table instead of in my lap.  I have no idea where this tradition started.  Perhaps after the Norman conquest, French lords sitting down to dinner in their newly-acquired English estates learned the hard way that a hand under the table could be holding a dagger.  If you are reasonably sure your dinner guests have no intention of stabbing you, your stress level will be lower — and we all know stress can cause heart disease.
  • Place the bread on the tablecloth, not on my plate.  I don’t eat bread, so I’m more than happy to leave more room on my plate for the meat and vegetables.
  • Place my napkin on my lap only after the lady of the house does.  That’s fine by me too, even if my wife forgets to place a napkin on her lap.  For the past five years, pretty much every spill that’s landed on my lap had to travel all the way across the table from the general direction of wherever my daughters were sitting.  If I’m paying attention, I can usually get out of the way.

Peeing in public.

Travel sites warn Americans not to be shocked by the sight of French men relieving themselves on the street.  As someone who often made the mistake of drinking an Iced Venti Americano shortly before driving off and getting stuck in L.A. traffic, I think the French have the right idea here.  Trying to create a vise grip with your thighs as traffic inches along and joggers pass by is extremely stressful.  And there’s no telling what all those unreleased toxins are doing to your body.

Sunbathing topless at the beach.

I wouldn’t do this for years.  Yes, I know French women are comfortable doing it, but for much of my life, I had bigger boobs than they did.  That’s not the case anymore, and I believe soaking up some extra vitamin D may protect against heart disease.

Stretching the lunch hour to three hours.

I’ve never actually done this, because I’ve always avoided government jobs.  But since I’m self-employed and work at home, there’s nothing to prevent me from closing my office door from noon until 3:00 and taking a nice nap after lunch.  If my blogging becomes less frequent, please be patient; I’m only trying to protect my heart.

Watching Jerry Lewis movies.

This may be the hidden key that has eluded serious-minded researchers.  Laughter is a great stress-reducer and releases feel-good hormones.  The only trouble is, I can’t find any Jerry Lewis movies at the video store.  I suspect, however, that the heart-healthy benefits don’t derive from watching Jerry Lewis specifically … just someone goofy, spastic, clueless, and inept.  So I’m going to substitute watching the House of Representatives on C-SPAN.

Speaking in a breathy, sexy, accented voice.

Many years ago, I worked as a computer geek in an office where one of the employees had transferred in from Paris.  She was always impeccably dressed, tastefully perfumed, and perfectly coiffed.  We had occasional conversations that went something like this:

(In a breathy, accented voice)  “Hellohhh, Tohhhm.  How was your luhhhnnnch?”

“Yes,  I’d be honored to marry you and bear your children!”

(In a breathy, accented, slightly alarmed voice) “Par-done moi?”

“Oh, sorry … old Yankee expression.  It means lunch was quite good, thank you.”

Perhaps breathing deeply to load the lungs for speaking oxygenates the blood and lowers blood pressure.  I tested this theory last night by speaking to my wife using a breathy French accent.  She responded by looking over my shoulder with obvious concern.  When I asked what was wrong, she explained that she was waiting for some Chinese guy to leap from the closet and karate-chop me.

Kissing business associates on the cheek.

I spent ten years in Hollywood, so I’m used to people kissing each other’s cheeks to get ahead.  The French version is, if anything, more pleasant and easier on the back.  Either way, physical affection is known to have healing properties.  I plan to test this theory the next time I sign a contract for a programming gig.

Keeping a mistress.

This one makes perfect medical sense.  With a wife and a mistress, you’d get double the exercise.  And there’s another advantage:  in a very French, open-mistress situation, you can tell your wife you’re spending the evening with your mistress, tell your mistress you’re spending the evening with your wife, then go to a sports bar and watch Monday Night Football. 

However, I won’t be testing this theory.  I explained it to my wife, and she assured me that several recent studies concluded that keeping a mistress is actually associated with a significantly shorter lifespan, especially in my case.

There is one other theory about the French Paradox that I might eventually get around to testing:  While the French consume a lot more animal fat than we do, they also consume about 5% as much sugar —  and almost no vegetable oils, apart from olive oil.

Vive la France.  May she always be a poke in the eye to the nutrition experts.

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Margarine and Mother Nature

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Let’s go back to the 1970s. If you’ve still got a pair of purple bell-bottoms in your closet, put ’em on … assuming you can fit into them. Comfy? Okay. Time to head down Memory Lane.

If you’re my age or older, you probably remember this commercial for Blue Bonnet margarine:

As a marketing pitch, I guess it worked pretty well. Heck, everyone knows the French are persnickety about their gourmet food. If margarine is good enough for them, it ought to be good enough for ordinary Americans. (Amazingly, the French continued cooking with butter, despite this demonstration.)

But maybe French chefs are a little too effeminate and snooty to convince you to give up that artery-clogging butter. So let’s hear it from a real man’s man:

See? Even real guys are willing to give up all that artery-clogging butter. But wait … it’s the 1970s. We already had our first Earth Day. Shouldn’t we embracing natural foods? Well, fear not. Here’s the margarine commercial I remember best of all:

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Chiffon margarine tastes so much like butter, even Mother Nature can’t tell the difference. So stop clogging your arteries with all that perfectly natural butter – industrial food is here to save you!

You may have noticed the singer’s careful diction in the Chiffon jingle: If you think it’s butter, but IT’S NOT, it’s Chiffon. As I recall, the diction wasn’t quite so careful in the jingle’s first version. The result was a generation of youngsters cracking each other up by singing it exactly as we heard it: If you think it’s butter, but it’s SNOT, it’s Chiffon.

I believe our version of the jingle was closer to the truth. Here’s how you make butter:

  • Milk a cow.
  • Skim off the cream.
  • Add salt.
  • Churn the cream until it’s thick and chunky and tastes awesome.

That’s a food Mother Nature would indeed recognize. So how is margarine made? Well, that depends on who you ask. One pro-margarine site describes the process this way:

  • Farmers grow seeds.
  • The seeds are harvested.
  • The seeds are warmed and crushed to extract the oils.
  • Other ingredients are added to keep the margarine fresh.
  • Color and flavor are added.
  • The mixture is cooled to make a smooth margarine spread – perfect for cooking, baking or spreading on your sandwich.

Heck, that doesn’t sound too bad. Gather up some seeds grown right out there in the Great Outdoors, warm them by the wood stove, crush them to extract the oil, flavor it, cool it, and you’ve got margarine. No wonder Mother Nature couldn’t tell the difference.

Now here’s a slightly more detailed description:

  • Farmers grow seeds.
  • The seeds are harvested.
  • The seeds are crushed to extract some of the oil.
  • The rest of the oil is extracted by mixing the seeds with hexane, a chemical solvent.
  • The hexane is (supposedly) all removed.
  • The oil is pumped full of hydrogen gas and nickel powder. (Even the margarine makers know hydrogenated oils are a tough sell these days, so they may skip this step. I don’t know what, if anything, has replaced it.)
  • The remaining oil is subjected to heat and high-pressure CO2 gas.
  • The oil is mixed with sodium hydroxide and passed through a centrifuge.
  • The oil is mixed with water and passed through another centrifuge. At this point, the margarine is a gray, speckled, oily mass that doesn’t smell so good. So …
  • The oil is mixed with hydrated aluminum silicate that binds to and filters out the unwanted pigments.
  • The mix is heated again and the oil is extracted.
  • The oil is passed through a steam distillation chamber to remove unwanted odors.
  • Yellow food coloring and artificial flavors are added.

Yummm … doesn’t that sound just like something Mother Nature would cook up in her kitchen?

Okay, maybe margarine isn’t totally natural. But the anti-fat hysterics still believe it’s better for us than butter. Here’s an example of their reasoning:

Because health experts recommend a diet lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol to reduce the risk of heart disease, margarine consumption has become a key part of dietary recommendations made by leading health organizations … Although some margarines contain more trans fat than butter, the total of trans and saturated fat is always less than the total for butter. The total for butter is much higher because of all the saturated fat that it contains.

Allow me to interpret: Thanks to our carefully-planned campaign to demonize saturated fats despite no evidence whatsoever that they’re actually harmful, experts now recommend that you avoid them. This proves we were right and you should eat margarine.

As I said in Fat Head, Mother Nature isn’t stupid. Human beings love the taste of fat because Mother Nature wanted us to eat fat. Our hair, skin, nails and brains depend on fat. Many of our hormones are made from saturated fats and cholesterol.

And while Mother Nature might not be fooled by Frankenfats like margarine, our bodies unfortunately are. Our taste buds sense what they think is saturated fat and tell us to eat it. Our cells grab the stuff and pack it into our cell walls, where saturated fat is supposed to go.

But of course, Frankenfat isn’t saturated fat and doesn’t do the same job. Saturated fats strengthen our cells and make our brains happy. Frankenfats weaken our cells, screw up our brain chemistry, and cause inflammation throughout our bodies – including the walls our arteries.

In retrospect, it’s amazing that doctors and scientists ever thought (and some still think) margarine is better for us than butter. A hundred years ago, Americans ate a lot more lard and butter, but few people died from heart disease. Most doctors didn’t even learn about heart disease in medical school; it wasn’t considered a big problem. (See the charts below.)

But by 1950, heart disease was the leading cause of death. That’s also the first year that margarine, which was becoming more and more popular, finally out-sold butter.

No, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. Too bad we ever tried.

(Note:  This is total pounds sold.  The population was growing, so the per-person consumption dropped even more dramatically.)

(Note: This is total pounds sold. The population was growing, so the per-person consumption dropped even more dramatically.)

Deaths due to Coronary Heart Disease, 1920-1960

Deaths due to Coronary Heart Disease, 1920-1960

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Bonus Footage: Diets & Hunger

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As you probably know, Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades finally have a new book out, The 6-Week Cure for the Middle Aged Middle.  I’ve just started it, so it’ll be awhile before I can write a review.  I can already tell you that, as usual, they do an excellent job of taking complicated metabolic science and explaining it clearly to a non-medical audience.

In the meantime, I decided to celebrate the arrival of the book in my mailbox by putting together more clips of the interviews we conducted while I was shooting Fat Head.  In these clips, the doctors are talking about weight gain, diets and hunger, particularly the “internal starvation” that can occur as people eat too many carbohydrates and become insulin-resistant.

This is one of the concepts that blew me away when I read Good Calories, Bad Calories.  Suddenly it made sense why fat people overeat – or at least appear to overeat.  In fact, they’re eating as much as they need to keep their cells fueled.  When elevated insulin commands your body to store calories as fat, you run out of fuel and become hungry.  So you eat more.  In other words, you’re not getting fat because you’re eating more; you’re eating more because you’re getting fat.

Enjoy.

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Bogus Science is Draining

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Over the weekend, I came across this video, courtesy of the British government. Take a look:

Well, that’s it, then. Despite the fact that I love saturated fat, after viewing this disturbing video, I’ve come to a painful and reluctant conclusion: I must stop injecting saturated fat directly into my arteries.

I briefly considered continuing the practice, reasoning that I could minimize the accumulation of grease with proper medical treatment … in this case, a twice-weekly injection of Liquid Drano. But during a brief scan of the medical literature, I discovered that while Drano is effective against grease, it also dissolves hair. I’m bald enough as it is. I don’t want to go through life resembling my baby pictures.

(Rumor has it that when my father stood staring at me through the maternity-ward window, the obstetrician patted him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Naughton. You’ll learn to love him.”)

My wife, who loathes wasting food, is bound to be annoyed with my new restrictions. Just this morning, she concluded the after-breakfast cleanup by funneling leftover bacon grease into two dozen syringes – my own personal party tray for Monday Night Football. I usually wait until halftime to begin pumping lard into my arteries, although if I crank up my appetite with a first-quarter beer or two, all bets are off. I’ve been known to empty every syringe before the second-half kickoff, then call Dominos and order a pint of pepperoni grease. Never again.

Desperate to know exactly which foods won’t clog my arteries, I decided to subject a number of them to the experiment featured in the video, employing the same rigorously scientific methods. My wife was out running errands, so my daughters assisted – partly out of intellectual curiosity, and partly because they were concerned I’d introduce a plunger as an uncontrolled variable and skew the results.

We began simply enough, taking turns stuffing slices of bread down the drain. Since the British government’s experiment specified a month’s worth of saturated fat, we didn’t stop until the drainpipe held a total of 120 slices of bread – half of them toasted.

After the plumber packed up his wrenches and left, we incorporated his expert opinion into our conclusion: bread definitely clogs your arteries, especially when consumed with milk. Or, to use the expert’s jargon, “What the @#$%?! You guys clogged the $#@& out of this pipe!”

With bread eliminated from the heart-healthy list, we moved on to other dietary staples. It turns out that rice and beans don’t totally clog your arteries, but can dramatically impede the flow. So do most vegetables, although the effects are somewhat mitigated by thorough boiling. (This may, in fact, explain the extremely low rate of heart disease in Scotland.) Clearly the theories espoused by the raw-foods advocates don’t hold up to actual scientific research.

On his return, the plumber agreed, noting, “If you’re gonna stick a coupla pounds of brussel sprouts down the drain, you gotta cook the @#$%ing things first!” I promised to include his opinion in the discussion section of our academic paper. Then, so my daughters would stop attempting to steer our research down a blind alley, I answered the question they’d been posing since the plumber’s initial visit: Yes, some men have hair on their buttocks. However, the association with heart disease is statistically insignificant.

As the experiment progressed, we were stunned to realize that a month’s worth of nearly all foods will clog your arteries: hamburgers, chicken wings, pork chops, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, cheese, cashews, pickles, bananas and apples, to name just a few.  Chunky-style peanut butter appears to be the most artery-clogging of all.

When I called the plumber again, a pre-recorded voice that sounded very much like the plumber’s informed me that the number was no longer in service. I asked for the new number, but the pre-recorded voice replied that it was unlisted. Business must be good when you can rely exclusively on referrals.

When my wife returned home, we began to appreciate the true cost of high-quality scientific research. She spelled out, loudly and specifically, the size of the grant that would be required to re-stock the laboratory. Until we receive such a grant, I’m afraid we won’t be able to determine if the results are repeatable.

But as good scientists like to say, the drain doesn’t lie. We are confident in our preliminary conclusion: nearly all foods clog your arteries. The only exception seems to be ice cream, which apparently can be cleared from your arteries with a steady stream of warm water. If you want to avoid heart disease, we’d suggest injecting ice cream (and nothing but ice cream) into your arteries, followed by periodic injections of warm water.

Or you could try chewing and swallowing your food, thus allowing your digestive system to process it. The effects on your arteries could, at least in theory, be somewhat different.

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Cheaper Health Care

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(I’ll be posting this on both of my blogs, since it’s partly about health, partly about politics and current events. Pretty convenient for me, since I’m in play rehearsals and don’t have as much time to write.)

There are a lot of proposals to “fix” health care floating around, all with various cost predictions – most of which are probably about as accurate as the predictions provided by a magic 8 ball. Whatever price tags you’re seeing now, just triple them in your mind. That way, the actual cost will only be double what you expected.

I have my own proposals to address the rising costs of health care. And unlike the proposals coming out of Congress, I don’t need thousands of pages to explain them. Better yet, my proposals aren’t based on the theory that the best way to bring down health-care costs is to spend another trillion dollars or so. In fact, my proposals would actually save the taxpayers money.

Seriously, they would. And I’m not talking about the kind of pie-in-the-sky “We’ll spend billions on this program now, but it will save money in the long run” nonsense that usually comes out of Washington. (If just half of the “save money in the long run” predictions I’ve heard in my lifetime had come true, we’d be running huge surpluses right now.) Nope, I’m talking about real, spend-less-money savings.

Here’s how the federal government can realize those savings:

  • Stop telling us what to eat, and admit that the earlier attempts to tell us what to eat were a mistake.
  • Stop subsidizing corn and other grains.

These proposals would produce both short-term and, more importantly, long-term savings. The short-term savings are based on a principle of economics that’s so stupidly simple, even the average congressman can grasp it: if you stop spending money, you end up spending less.

For decades, the federal government has been employing people whose job is to tell us what they think we should eat. In addition to their salaries, taxpayers also pay for the dubious research they conduct and the mountains of literature they produce and distribute. I say “dubious” because the primary purpose of the current research seems to be to prove that their previous advice wasn’t actually wrong … which it was. We don’t need these people. And for reasons I’ll explain shortly, we would’ve been better off without them.

The taxpayers also foot the bill for billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies. These subsidies were enacted in the 1930s as a “temporary” solution to the price shocks and instability of the Great Depression – which apparently never actually ended. In our continuing efforts to lift ourselves out of the Great Depression, we now provide wealthy corporations like Archer Daniels Midland with subsidy payments. Same goes for “farmers” like Scottie Pippin, the former star forward for the Chicago Bulls, who without government checks would no doubt have to strap his trophies to the top of a rusty old truck and seek work in California.

But even as the country struggles to escape the effects of the stock market crash of 1929, it’s probably time to end those subsidies. And we’d be healthier if we did, again for reasons I’ll explain shortly. In the meantime, we’d save billions – instantly. Once again, for the benefit of any federal policy-makers out there: if you stop spending money, you end up spending less.

The long-term savings are based on another economic principle that’s not stupidly simple, but merely logical, so at this point we’ll probably lose any government policy-makers who happen to stumble across the blog. But here it is anyway: When lots and lots of people get sick, health-care costs go up.

I know, I know … you probably thought we’re just as healthy as ever, but the insurance companies keep jacking up their rates simply because nobody’s had the political will to stop them. The fact is, the profit margin in the health-insurance industry is pretty much what it’s always been: around 3%. (Actually, a report I saw recently said it’s dropped to about 2.2% in recent years.) Insurers aren’t creating the spiraling cost of health care; they’re just passing it along to us in the form of spiraling premiums.

We can sit in town hall meetings and shout all we want about pre-existing conditions, levels of reimbursement, co-payments, deductibles, portability, public versus private competition, and the true number of the uninsured. None of that changes the simple fact that when people get sick enough to require medical care, someone is going to pay for it.

Shifting the cost of being sick from one group of people to another doesn’t reduce the cost; it just sticks someone else with the bill. The only way to reduce to the real cost of medical care (aside from refusing to treat sick people, which isn’t a good idea) is to require a lot less of it.

We require much more medical treatment than we should largely because the federal government told us what we should eat, and by gosh, we listened. As you already know if you’ve seen Fat Head or read Good Calories, Bad Calories, the only macronutrient we consume more of now than in previous generations is carbohydrates. (We’ve actually cut back on fat, especially men.)

This didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of a senate committee on nutrition, headed by George McGovern, who believed everyone should switch to a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet to prevent heart disease. Plenty of researchers and scientists, including the head of the National Academy of Sciences, tried to tell the committee they were wrong – but McGovern knew he was right because his own doctor said so. (With that kind of authority backing you, it’s just a waste of time to wait for actual scientific proof.)

And so, with a big push from the McGovern committee, the FDA and the USDA, the low-fat, high-carb diet became the rage. We became a nation of fat-phobic grain and sugar eaters.

Meanwhile, the federal government made it cheaper for us to eat sugar and starch through massive grain subsidies. As the old farmer told the stars of King Corn, “You couldn’t make any money growing corn if not for the government payments.” Those government payments are the reason we feed cattle corn instead of letting them eat grass as nature intended. Subsidies are the reason high-fructose corn syrup is in half the products you’ll find in the grocery store, including bread. Dirt-cheap subsidized corn is the reason for Big Gulps and endless refills at the soda dispenser.

And here’s the happy result of all that government involvement in food and nutrition: Nearly one-fourth of all senior citizens have type II diabetes.  Just think of the impact on Medicare expenditures. Diabetes isn’t just a disease; it’s a driver of many other ailments, including kidney failure, blindness, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Diabetes puts senior citizens in wheelchairs. It puts them in assisted-care facilities. And as a harbinger of health-care disasters yet to come, type II diabetes is even showing up in adolescents now. That never used to happen.

You are paying the toll for the diabetes epidemic even if you’re in fine health and have private insurance. Your taxes, of course, pay for all those diabetes-related Medicare costs – but so do your health-insurance premiums, whether you realize it or not.

You’ve probably seen media stories about hospitals charging $10 for an aspirin. Perhaps you were even outraged at the very idea. But there’s a reason hospitals put $10 aspirins on your bill: Medicare, expensive as it is, doesn’t actually cover the full cost of many treatments hospitals are required to provide. So they make up for the Medicare deficits with $10 aspirins and other exorbitant charges – all billed to your insurance.

Much, if not the majority, of our ever-increasing health-care costs are driven by chronically high blood sugar and diabetes. But diabetes isn’t like the swine flu. We aren’t catching it from each other. We don’t need to spend billions of dollars to develop a type II diabetes vaccine.

What we need is for officials in Washington to stop beating up on the health-care industry, and instead call a giant press conference to make an announcement like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, the nutrition advice we’ve been handing out since the 1970s was clearly wrong. You could even say it was dead wrong. Saturated fats are not and never have been the cause of heart disease and cancer. And let’s face it, fat is delicious. We scared you away from a taste your body loves, and we feel really stupid about that. We especially feel stupid about recommending corn-oil margarine. It tastes awful and it promotes inflammation. It’s not a natural food, despite the picture of the hot-looking Native American lady on the box.

It turns out we should have been warning you about sugars and starches all along. Those are the real problem. So please, embrace your fatty foods. Enjoy your meats, your eggs, your cheeses, and be sure to drizzle lots of butter on your vegetables. We were at least right about the vegetables. But we were totally wrong about grains. They’re not a natural food for humans, and you should try to cut back on them as much as possible.

And to encourage you to do so, we’re going to cease all farm subsidies so the price of grain-based foods will reflect the actual cost of production. We suspect a lot of corn farmers will choose to retire or grow other crops, and we wish them well.

Again, we’re very sorry, and we have all turned in our resignations. Thank you, and enjoy your dinners.

No, this wouldn’t solve the problem overnight. Millions of people are already sick. Somebody is going to pay to treat them. But we could at least prevent future generations from developing the same diseases. That alone would stop the spiral.

Then, with the cost of health care held in check by actual health, we could resume debating about who’s going to pay for the costs of treating injuries and illnesses that aren’t caused by metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

I have a feeling it would be a much more civil discussion. Lower bills tend to have that effect on people.

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Jimmy and MONICA: A Tale From the Heart

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The alleged person Jimmy Moore

The alleged person Jimmy Moore

I’ve never actually met Jimmy Moore, so I can’t say for sure he’s real.  Sure, I read his Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb blog every day, we exchange emails regularly, we’ve spoken on the phone, and he’s threatened to drop by for a visit in October, when he’ll be in Nashville for a wedding.  Still, he may be a pod person, created by the meat and dairy industries to fool us into thinking their products won’t kill us. (His shows, after all, are called “podcasts” … coincidence?)

I’m suspicious because Jimmy’s total cholesterol is well over 300, which puts him in the category I sang about in the closing song for Fat Head:  “I’m shopping for my coffin, but don’t shed me any tears … ‘cuz according to the experts, I’ve been dead for several years.”

Score that high on a cholesterol test, and your doctor will break into an impression of the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, arms flying in opposite directions as he lurches for a bottle of Lipitor and a defibrillator at the same time.

To make matters worse, Jimmy has a family history of heart disease.  His father had a quintuple bypass a year ago.  His brother Kevin died of heart failure at age 41.  And Jimmy was morbidly obese for much of his life.

Worst of all, Jimmy lives on a diet that’s around 70% fat (much of it saturated), and he has committed the cardinal sin of refusing to accept the sacrament of statin drugs, despite many warnings from his doctor.  In other words, according to the Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living a Long and Healthy Life, Jimmy is a condemned man, a heart attack waiting to happen.

And yet when he had a heart scan recently, the amount of plaque build-up in his arteries was measured at …(drum roll, please) … Zero.  None.  Nada.  No plaque.  Despite being a walking bundle of supposed risk factors, he has no signs of heart disease whatsoever.

This goes against everything we’ve been told about heart disease for the past 40-plus years. (Or, as his doctor put it when reading the test results, “That’s not possible.”)  If Jimmy does visit in October, I may have to serve him a drink in a cracked glass so I can send a blood sample to a lab.  There’s a good chance it will come back labeled “Not human, unable to identify.”

But let’s assume Jimmy is human, and is also alive and well.  Perhaps he’s just an outlier.  Surely, if we compare cholesterol levels and heart disease across large populations, we’ll see a pattern, right?

Hardly.

Check out this video by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, author of the very enlightening and very funny book The Great Cholesterol Con, speaking about the world-wide MONICA study:

Dr. Kendrick arranged his data to demonstrate a crazy up-and-down pattern in the heart-disease death rate as you go up the cholesterol scale.  I was curious what the data would look like on a scatter chart.  (Yes, I’m that big of a dweeb.) 

So I went prospecting for MONICA data on the internet and ended up finding two useful nuggets:  1) average cholesterol levels for men in various countries, and 2) heart-disease death rates for men aged 35 to 75 in those same countries – in other words, men who died prematurely due to heart disease.  (If I die of a heart attack at age 95, I’ll consider it a victory.)

I plotted the results for 40 of the most populous countries.  But before we get to those, take a look at these charts, courtesy of Tony at Emotions for Engineers, demonstrating what different degrees of correlation look like:

A perfect correlation equals 1.0, which produces a trendline starting in the lower left and rising to the upper right.  If x (horizontal axis) causes y (vertical axis), the data from studies comparing them should be strongly correlated.  Researchers rarely get excited about a correlation of less than 0.8, unless their grants are running out.

With that in mind, take a look at the average cholesterol levels for men in 40 countries plotted against the annual heart-attack death rates per 100,000 men in those same countries:

Do you see a meaningful pattern there?  If so, you probably also see secret messages from the CIA in crossword puzzles and college baseball scores – published solely for your benefit, of course. 

Or perhaps you just work for one of the organizations that’s been promoting the Lipid Hypothesis for the past 50 years.  I found and downloaded the MONICA data from the official website of the British Heart Foundation, the U.K. equivalent of the American Heart Association.  The same site includes (of course) recommendations for reducing your risk of a heart attack:

It is now universally recognised that a diet which is high in fat, particularly saturated fat, sodium and sugar and which is low in complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables increases the risk of chronic diseases – particularly cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer … The dietary changes which would help to reduce rates of coronary heart disease (CHD) in the UK population were detailed in the 1994 report of the Government’s Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA). This recommended a reduction in fat intake, particularly saturated fat intake, a reduction in sodium intake and an increase in fruit and vegetable and complex carbohydrate intake.

I ran the CORREL function on the data in Excel, and the result was -0.25 … a negative correlation.  In other words, there is no meaningful correlation at all, but the tiny correlation that does exist would point towards heart disease rates going down as cholesterol levels go up

I can only imagine the conversations that go on in organizations like this when they look at the results of large studies like MONICA:

“Did you finish analyzing the cholesterol data?”

“Yes, Doctor Higginbotham, all done.”

“And?”

“A careful analysis of the data from 40 of the largest countries shows no relationship between cholesterol levels and heart disease whatsoever.”

“Hmm … that’s it, then.  We’d better keep telling people to cut back on saturated fat.”

“Why, Doctor?”

“Because it raises cholesterol.”

“But … uh … I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Well, it’s complicated, so let me explain it this way:  Shut up.”

Fortunately, a lot of doctors like Malcolm Kendrick and Uffe Ravnskov and Mike Eades refuse to shut up.  Same goes for a lot of bloggers like Jimmy Moore.

Yes, Jimmy has high cholesterol – very high, by most standards.  But he also has very low triglycerides and high HDL, and only 2 percent of his “too high” LDL is the small, dense type that can penetrate the walls of an artery and lead to heart disease.  He achieved those numbers by ignoring the experts and cutting the sugars and starches from his diet, not the fats.  He’s not an outlier, any more than the hundreds of thousands of people who die from heart disease every year despite having low cholesterol. 

As for whether or not Jimmy Moore really exists …I’ll let you know in October.

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