Stretching The Truth

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Media folks are fond of saying the camera never lies.  I’ve always thought that’s a load of bologna.  A camera is only as honest as the person behind the lens.  If  you’re shooting pictures at a rally for a political candidate you don’t like, you can choose to ignore the thousands of cheering supporters and focus instead on the little group of angry protestors.  Your pictures then emphasize conflict and dissent, when there was actually little of it.  (Not that our press would ever pull such a stunt.)

Pictures can also be posed or altered. In the old Soviet Union, officials who had fallen out of favor used to routinely disappear from state photos … and probably from the earth as well.  That required talented artists.  But these days, anyone with a computer can fire up a copy of PhotoShop and create pictures that lie.

Which brings me to this rather interesting weight-loss story Jason Sandeman of Well Done Chef! forwarded to me.  To sum it up, a formerly-fat female chef is now thin and lovely.  She was miserable then, she’s happy now, she can wear a smaller dress size, blah-blah-blah, etc., etc., etc. 

As usual, the story misses the point about her diet:  it’s clear from the list of foods she used to eat that she was a major carbivore, but of course the writer focuses on the fat and calories.  But that’s not what inspired Jason to send me this story.  Take a good look at the before and after pictures:

Notice anything strange about the before picture?  Her face is way too wide.  So are her hands.  She’s literally big-boned in that picture, but not in the after picture.  My weight has varied by 35 pounds over the past decade, but my hands and cheekbones never tried to keep up with my belly. So unless Miss Skinny Chef went on a special bone-shrinking diet, the before picture was stretched for dramatic effect. 

After laughing at the obvious fakery, I fired up my own copy of PhotoShop and squeezed the picture until her skull resumed what appeared to be normal proportions.  In doing so, I also noticed the stone tiles went from rectangles to squares, which is probably what they are.  Now look at the supposedly fat chef:

You know what I see there?  With appropriate apologies to my wife, I see a hottie with some good muscle tone.  If this is actually the same woman (I have my doubts), it’s ridiculous to label her as overweight.

I said it in the film, I’ve said it in interviews, and I’ll say it again here:  the obesity epidemic has been exaggerated to suit the goals of the weight-loss industry.  If you check the story, you’ll notice it explains that Skinny Chef  lost weight on the Cambridge Diet – one of those stupid, semi-starvation, liquid diets.

If this woman truly did consider herself overweight and chose to slim down by eliminating the sugar and starch from her diet, I’d be all for it, because she’d be getting healthier in the process. But too many people focus exclusively on weight.  They become so desperate to shrink themselves, they go on semi-starvation diets that end up wrecking their metabolisms – or worse, they let a surgeon cut apart their stomachs and bypass a crucial section of the digestive system.

Looking great in a dress is nice – but not if you’re being buried in it.  Choosing a diet should be about health first and foremost.  How you appear on camera is secondary … even if the camera is telling the truth.


Weekend Bonus: King Corn

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Last night my wife and I watched the documentary King Corn, which I highly recommend because it serves up one of my favorite combo meals:  information and humor.


I heard about King Corn when Nora Gedgaudas interviewed Curt Ellis, one of the film’s creators.  Ellis and his co-creator Ian Cheney decided to learn about the dominance of corn in our food supply by growing an acre of corn in Iowa, then following where corn goes after it’s harvested.  The short answer is:  it goes into pretty much everything.

People like to blame the big, bad food industry for turning us into a nation of corn-eaters, but it was clear to me (and yes, this fits nicely with my own bias) that the problem is rooted in stupid government policy.  Before Ellis and Cheney even till the ground, the farmer whose land they’re renting tells them, “Without the government payments, you wouldn’t make any money growing corn.”

Duh!  As they explain in the film, farmers in Iowa used to grow a variety of crops.  Now most of them grow corn, period.  Why strictly corn?  Because they get subsidies for it.  Take away the subsidies, and corn would be far less plentiful, or much more expensive, or both.  As any economist will tell you, you get less of what you tax and more of what you subsidize.

Mountains of cheap, government-subsidized corn are the reason corn syrup replaced sugar as a sweetener, and also the reason most cattle are raised on corn.  Why should a cattle rancher buy enough land to let the cattle graze when it’s cheaper to have a few tons of corn shipped in?  As Dr. Al Sears told me during our interview, grains are literally cheaper than dirt – he compared the per-pound price.

So your tax dollars are making nutritionally inferior food cheaper to produce.  Those of us who don’t drink sodas are helping to buy them for people who do.  Those of us who would prefer to eat grass-fed beef are helping to make corn-fed beef cheaper, which pretty much guarantees it will dominate the market.

Doesn’t that just make you proud of your politicians?


Michael Jackson

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I’m going to preface this by pointing out that as I’m writing, the details surrounding Michael Jackson’s death are still sketchy.  There have been rumors for some time that he’d become a heavy drinker.  Several news sites also reported earlier in the year that he was living on biscuits, gravy and painkillers.  So we don’t know – and may never know – what killed him.  The families and handlers of celebrities are pretty good at keeping those details locked up.

Having said all that, when I first heard of Jackson’s death, I couldn’t help but recall that vegetarian advocacy groups have mentioned him many times over the years as a shining example of the healthy vegetarian lifestyle.  Here’s a quote from Jackson’s book Moonwalk, published in 1988:

“I’m a vegetarian now and I’m so much thinner. I’ve been on a strict diet for years. I feel better than I ever have, healthier and more energetic.”

I’m pretty sure we can rule out a lack of exercise as a contributing factor in his death, because Jackson was an incredible dancer.  His concerts were as much athletic events as musical events.  To prepare for his tours, he worked out with Lou Ferrigno, a bodybuilder who once portrayed The Incredible Hulk.

So Jackson was a lean guy who exercised more than most of us, and he apparently didn’t eat meat.  Now he’s dead at age 50 … my age.

One isolated case doesn’t prove anything, of course.  But obviously his vegetarian diet didn’t make him immune to cardiac arrest, if that’s what killed him.  And if he was abusing alcohol, a diet consisting of vegetarian foods that metabolize easily into blood sugar may have made him crave the stuff, as I talked about during my interview with Nora Gedgaudas.

You will also no doubt recall that Linda McCartney, another famous vegetarian, died of cancer at age 56.  Again, one isolated example doesn’t constitute proof, but it doesn’t surprise me when someone who eats a lot of starch – vegetarian or not – develops cancer.  Starches turn to glucose, and glucose feeds cancer cells.  Drip glucose on cancerous tissue in a lab, and it will proliferate like crazy. 

Meanwhile, cancer is virtually non-existent among hunter-gatherers.  There’s a reason cancer, heart disease and Type II diabetes are called “The Diseases of Civilization.”  They barely show up in populations that still live on a primal diet.

I have a few friends who are vegetarians.  I wouldn’t trade my health status with any of them.  One had reconstructive dental surgery because she lost more than 50 percent of the bone tissue in her jaw.  (She’s a vegan, by the way.)  Another is currently suffering from autoimmune diseases and bone loss in her spine.  Again, I’m not surprised.  Too much starch can leach calcium from your bones, and grains can cause your intestines to leak proteins into your blood; when the body attacks those proteins as foreign invaders, it ends up attacking your own tissues as well.

Vegetarian web sites love to point out that vegetarians in general have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.  That may be true.  But vegetarians are also, compared to the rest of the population, more concerned about health.  They are far less likely to smoke or drink 44-ounce Big Gulps of soda, and they’re more likely to exercise.  It’s not avoiding meat that makes them healthier; it’s avoiding all the junk so many people put into their bodies.

One of the studies that fueled the notion that avoiding meat was the key to health involved Seventh-Day Adventists, who are strict vegetarians.  The study noted that the Seventh-Day Adventists suffered fewer health problems and lived longer than the average American.

But Seventh-Day Adventists also don’t smoke, don’t eat candy, don’t drink sodas or alcohol, and don’t do drugs.  So another group of researchers thought to compare them to Mormons, who also avoid those health hazards, but do eat meat.  In fact, they’ve been described as “some of the biggest beef-eaters in the world.”  Guess what?  The Mormons were even healthier and lived even longer. 

So the moral of the story is: don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, and don’t eat junk food.  But a steak isn’t junk food.  Biscuits are junk food.


On Primal Body-Primal Mind Radio

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On Wednesday, June 24th, I’ll be one of the guests interviewed on Primal Body-Primal Mind, an internet radio show hosted by Nora Gedgaudas.  We’ll be talking about the link between carbohydrate addiction and alcoholism. 

It’s a great show, and I encourage you to listen to all the episodes.

UPDATE:  The show is now available on this page for streaming or downloading.


Let’s Review Some Bologna

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I occasionally check for reviews of Fat Head by Googling the title and my name.  Surprisingly, new reviews still come along now and then.

As you’d expect, some reviewers liked the film, some didn’t.  That’s showbiz. I don’t usually fuss over the negative reviews.  Art is subjective, and the reviewers are expressing their subjective opinions.  I even thought some of the criticisms had merit. 

But a couple of reviews that caught my attention require a response – one because the reviewer managed to completely misunderstand the point I was trying to make (in fact, he got it backwards), and the other because he mangled the science about cholesterol levels.

Here’s an excerpt from the “missed the point” review:

A large part of the problem is that Naughton believes the public-especially those who have watched Super Size Me-are stupid.  In street interviews, Naughton can’t help but look down his nose at common people and their faulty “common sense” beliefs about fatty food.

This rather interesting interpretation left me flabbergasted.  The sequence he’s referring to goes like this:

  • I recount how Morgan Spurlock was concerned that a nutrition menu listing calorie counts wasn’t available in every McDonald’s he visited.
  • I point out that nutrition information is easy to find online, in books, etc., and wonder if people are really getting fat on fast food without knowing why.
  • I conduct a series of street interviews in which I show people a double quarter-pounder with cheese, a large order of fries and a large Coke, then ask if that’s a high-calorie meal or a low-calorie meal.  They all say it’s a high-calorie meal – which it is.  When I ask what would happen if you ate a meal like this all the time, they all reply “You’d get fat” – which you probably would.  I conclude that the ability to recognize high-calorie food seems to be universal.
  • I point out that people who loved Super Size Me seem to share a common and dearly-held belief that poor people are too stupid to know what’s good for them.
  • Dr. Eric Oliver appears to say that he was struck by the paternalistic attitude in Super Size Me, and that he disagrees with the idea that poor people can’t think for themselves and need McDonald’s to look after them.

I thought it was clear as a bell that I was criticizing Morgan Spurlock for assuming people are stupid.  The street interviews were intended to demonstrate that most people do in fact have common sense – and therefore don’t need Ronald McDonald to inform them that a double-quarter pounder, large fries and large Coke is a fattening meal.

Here’s another quote from the same review:

As expected, people view his tray of fast food as high in fat, but Naughton knows better because he’s done the math and knows his lunch is within the recommended daily intake of calories.

Wowzers.  I didn’t ask anyone if the meal was high in fat; I asked if it was high in calories.   I also didn’t say this particular meal would fall within the recommended calorie intake, because it wouldn’t.  Large fries and a large Coke?  Are you kidding me?  A major portion of Fat Head is dedicated to explaining the fattening effect of sugar and starch. 

Being misinterpreted is merely annoying.  Now here’s an excerpt from the review where the writer – who reviewed several films dealing with diet and health – mangled the science:

Naughton also selectively edits out discussion of his LDL (bad cholesterol) both in his baseline and in his final checkup. From the information he does share we can determine that his starting LDL was 170 (231 total cholesterol – 61 HDL = 170 LDL) which is regarded as high risk for heart disease and stroke by the American Heart Association.

I didn’t waste screen time talking about my LDL score because it stayed exactly the same: 156.  I also don’t care what my LDL score was, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.  But what made me chuckle was the reviewer’s formula: 

LDL = Total cholesterol – HDL

That’s not how LDL is determined.  LDL can measured directly in a lab, but it requires a time-consuming and expensive test, so most of the time it’s calculated.  If it’s calculated, the equation is:

LDL = Total Cholesterol – HDL – (Triglycerides / 5)

This is known as the Friedewald equation.  It’s quick and inexpensive, but it’s also nearly meaningless.  As Richard Nikoley pointed out in one of his many excellent blog articles, the LDL equation actually rewards you for having high triglycerides – which is a bit nutty, considering that high triglycerides are strongly associated with heart disease. 

Suppose your total cholesterol is 200, HDL is 60 and triglycerides are 70.  (This happens to be nearly identical to my most recent lipid panel.)  In that case, your calculated LDL is 126.  Your doctor will probably suggest a lowfat diet and perhaps even a statin … by gosh, that evil LDL should always be below 100!

But if your triglycerides are 300 – which is dangerous – your calculated LDL would only be 80.  Your doctor will probably congratulate you, even as your elevated triglycerides are running around your body, torching and burning your arteries and re-enacting Sherman’s march to the sea.

And there’s an even bigger problem with the equation: it can wildly over-estimate your LDL, especially if your triglycerides are below 100 … which mine were, both before and after my fast-food diet.

As I was working on this article earlier today, Dr. Mike Eades happened to put up his own post debunking the LDL equation.  (Great minds thinking alike?)  Since he spelled it out in detail, I won’t bother – read his article and you’ll get the full scoop.  But here are a couple of pertinent paragraphs giving an example of how inaccurate the calculation can be:

This paper is basically a case presentation of a 63-year-old man with a total cholesterol level of 263 (all results in mg/dl), an HDL of 85, a triglyceride level of 42, and an LDL level of 170.  The LDL level was, of course, calculated using the Friedewald equation.

For some unexplained reason the authors of this paper decided to repeat the lab results and got the same readings.  They then wondered if his very low triglyceride readings might be having an effect, so they measured his LDL levels directly and found that instead of the 170 predicted by the Freidewald equation, his actual LDL levels were only 126.

And even if my LDL really and truly was 170, as the reviewer believed, so what?  That’s a meaningless number, despite what the anti-cholesterol hysterics at the American Heart Association believe.  (My advice: don’t take advice from an organization that puts its stamp of approval on a box of Cocoa Puffs.)  Saying I have too much LDL is like saying I have too many cells in my body.  What kind of cells?  Brain cells?  Muscle cells?  Cancer cells?

LDL can be big and fluffy or small and dense.  People with small, dense LDL are at risk for heart disease even if the LDL score is low, because the small particles can perforate the arterial wall.  Big, fluffy LDL doesn’t do that – in fact, it may even have anti-inflammatory properties and therefore help prevent heart disease. 

I explained all this in the film.  But after incorrectly calculating my LDL, the reviewer repeated the bologna that high LDL equals bad.  Once again, I was flabbergasted.  He either took a potty break during that sequence, didn’t understand it, or simply refused to believe it. 

The most accurate measure of heart-disease risk is the ratio of triglycerides divided by HDL.  The higher the ratio, the more likely you are producing small, dense LDL.  Ideally, the ratio should be 2.0 or less.  If it’s above 4.0, you’re in trouble.  If it’s above 6.0, start putting your affairs in order.

Here are my triglyceride/HDL ratios before the fast-food diet, after the diet, and today:  before: 1.15, after: 1.63, today: 1.17.

So my ratio went up a bit after a month of eating fast food that included some starch and trans fats.  That’s why I don’t eat them anymore.  But even then, my ratio was excellent.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, eating natural fats (including saturated animal fats) raises your HDL.  Frankenstein fats, such as processed and hydrogenated vegetable oils, lower your HDL.  Cutting back on sugar and starch lowers your triglycerides.  So if you want a good triglyceride/HDL ratio, the simplest way to achieve it is to ignore the American Heart Association and get most of your energy from natural fats.

And whether you’ve seen the film or not, trust me on this:  I don’t think the vast majority of you are stupid.


Jimmy Moore Interview With Dr. Malcolm Kendrick

I would guess most of you are frequent readers of Jimmy Moore’s blog, but in case you missed it, I wanted to point out that he recently interviewed one of my favorite medical writers:  Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, author of “The Great Cholesterol Con.”

Dr. Kendrick possesses a rare ability to explain medical concepts clearly, while managing to be laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.  If you haven’t read his book, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Buy an extra copy and give it to anyone you know who’s in a panic over cholesterol or (worse) taking statins — in fact, buy a copy for your doctor as well.