More 100-Calorie Nonsense

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I found this video on the MSN health channel. It’s obviously sponsored by Nabisco, and is really nothing more than an infomercial meant to promote their 100-calorie snack packs. I hope people recognize this for what it is and take it with a grain of salt.

Nonetheless, viewers are treated to the usual bologna about diets (in a convenient snack size, naturally), so I wanted to comment on it.

Now, notice the overall message: weight control is all about limiting your portion sizes. Eat what you eat now, but a little less of it, and you’ll lose weight.

This is a convenient message for Nabisco, because it would mean you could still eat Oreos and lose weight, as long as you just eat a few of them. And Nabisco will help you, bless ‘em, by putting 100 calories’ worth of cookies into a to-go package for you.

This will save you the trouble of reading the label on a box of Oreos, noticing that each cookie provides 53 calories, and dropping two of them into a baggie before you leave for the gym. If you’re willing to pay a higher per-cookie price to avoid this kind of simple math, I suspect being overweight isn’t your biggest problem in life.

And of course, there’s a teensy little problem with this whole theory: nutritionists, dieticians, doctors and other priests of The Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long and Healthy Life have been telling people for decades to lose weight by restricting calories. This sage advice has been demonstrated to have a long-term success rate of about 1 percent, otherwise known as a failure rate of 99 percent. If I want advice that’s useless 99 percent of the time, I’ll take golf lessons.

There’s a good reason this advice rarely works: it isn’t based on real science. As Gary Taubes recounts in Good Calories, Bad Calories, if you restrict calories without lowering your insulin level, the insulin will tell your body to continue burning sugar while storing fat. You’ll take in less fuel, but the fuel in your fat cells – which is what you want to burn on a diet – will be released slowly or not at all.

So after perhaps losing a bit of weight, you’ll simply start running out of fuel for your cells. You’ll get hungry. If you ignore the hunger, your body will slow down your metabolism to compensate – exactly what a fat person doesn’t need. And the reality is that most people can’t ignore hunger week after week. It goes against our deepest survival instincts. So once you start eating more again, the slower metabolism means you’ll gain weight even faster.

So what you could keep your insulin elevated even as you cut calories? Hmm, let’s think about this … well, 100 calories’ worth of Oreos could probably do it.

The section of the video that prompted me to yell at the screen, however, was when the dietician explained that the proper size for a serving of meat is three ounces. If I consume three ounces of meat at a meal, it means one of three things:

  • I need to go shopping.
  • It’s an appetizer.
  • I’m at a restaurant that I won’t be patronizing again.

Whenever I hear one of these blanket pronouncements, whether it’s on a health topic or not, I like to ask myself a question: says who, and how do they know? Which gold-standard research study concluded that the proper size for a serving of meat is three ounces … as opposed to 2.5 ounces, or 11 ounces?

The answer always seems to involve some kind of tautological explanation: Three ounces is the proper size because it’s what experts recommend.  Okay, so why do they recommend that size? Because it’s the correct amount. Yeah, but why is that the correct amount? Because experts say so.

This is the same kind of iron-clad logic we saw in that stupid Reader’s Digest article that slammed low-carb diets. You can’t eat that all that fat because experts say it’s a bad idea. And you shouldn’t restrict your carbohydrates because experts say you need them. How do the experts know this? Because they went to school and were trained by experts.

And if I’m supposed to limit my meat to three ounces per meal – which wouldn’t provide nearly enough calories to get me through the day – where am I supposed to get the rest of my calories? From starch?

Uh, yes, apparently. According to the video, I should consume either pasta or a potato, but limit my portions. Portion control is definitely a good idea when it comes to starch, so I follow a modified version of what the nutritionist suggests: I cook up some pasta, then disconnect the mouse from my computer and take it to kitchen to use as reference for selecting a potato. I bake the potato and squeeze the pasta into a tennis ball shape. Then I throw them in the garbage where they belong. Oh yes, then I put more meat on my plate.

Finally, we learn from the video that those 100-calorie snack packs are a great idea. Yup, when you’re on a diet, nothing keeps you on the straight and narrow like a convenient bag of sugar. After your blood sugar spikes and then drops, you’ll feel famished.  All you’ll think about is your next meal.

Too bad it’s portion-controlled, or you might really look forward to it.

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The Caveman’s Valentine – a radio play

(SFX:  A boulder rolled away)

GROK:  Honey, I’m in da’ cave!

MANA:  Home.  We call it home now.  “Honey, I’m home.”

GROK:  Right, right.  Sorry, I – Wow!  You made animals on the wall!

MANA:  I call it “painting.”  Hope you don’t mind, I used up the berries.

GROK:  No, it’s a lovely surprise.  And I have a surprise for you, too.  Here!

MANA:  What are those?

GROK:   Flowers.  

MANA:  Flowers? 

GROK:  All the men are doing it now.  I didn’t want to be the last man to catch on,  you know, like when everyone around here started  … aaah, what’s that thing we do sometimes now?  You know, before we —

MANA:  Kissing?

GROK:  Right, kissing.  Anyway, after we killed the mastodon, Old Baka said, “It’s been a long hunt, men, and we don’t smell so good.  Better bring the women some flowers, or there won’t be any children next year.” 

MANA:  That’s nice.  But they don’t really look like flowers. 

GROK:  Well … no.  When Old Baka said that, I was squatting behind a bush, and the other men picked all the flowers.  So I grabbed some of this tall grass the birds were eating.  See, there’s a little bit of a flower on the top.  I call it a “what.”

MANA:  What?

GROK:   Yes, that’s right.

MANA:  No, I mean, you can’t call it “what.”  We use that word already … what’s this, what’s that, what’s for dinner.

GROK:  Oh, I see.  Uh … How about “wheat”?

MANA:  You have a wonderful mind.  Should I put the wheat in some water?

GROK:  I was thinking maybe we could eat some of it.  Like the birds.   They sing really nice.

MANA:  Well, mastodon takes forever to cook, and I am a little hungry.  

GROK:  And you used all your berries to paint. 

MANA:  Yes.  I call myself a “starving artist.”  It makes me feel special and gifted beyond my actual abilities.

GROK:  Uh … right … so you still want to eat what? 

MANA:  Wheat?

GROK:  What?

MANA:  Never mind.  Yes, let’s try the wheat.

(SFX:  munching, then gagging and spitting)

MANA:  Yeeeuk!  Birds are stupid!  Wheat tastes terrible. 

GROK:  And  it made my belly hurt!  Stupid wheat!

(SFX:  A club pounds away, BAM!  BAM!  BAM!)

MANA:  Look at that.  You beat it into a pile of dirt.  I mean, it’s sort of like dirt, except it’s kind of pretty.

GROK:  It is, now that you mention it.  I think I’ll call this wheat-dirt “flower.”

MANA:  I have an idea!  Let’s mix the flower with some water and a little bear fat.  Maybe it’ll taste better.

GROK:  I’ll get a bowl.

(SFX:  pouring, stirring, then swallowing)

GROK:  Mmm!  That’s not bad!

MANA:  It’s delicious!  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

GROK:  Why are you laughing?  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

MANA:  I don’t know.  I just feel all happy and silly!  Like after eating honey!  Ha-ha-ha-ha!

GROK:  So do I!  Ha-ha-ha-ha! 

MANA:  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! – oh …  Wait a minute.  I don’t feel so good.

GROK:  Me neither.  I feel kind of sleepy.   Like after the kissing.

MANA:  What should we do?

GROK:  We probably should eat more flower.

MANA:   Okay! 

(SFX:  Pounding, pouring, stirring, then swallowing)

MANA:  Mmm!

GROK:  Mmm-mmm!  That’s better!  I feel good again.

(SFX:  two small pings, off the stone floor )

GROK:  What was that?

MANA:  Two of your teeth fell out.

GROK:  Hmmm…  How do I look?

MANA:  Somewhat less intelligent.  I’m not sure why.

GROK:  Good thing the flower is soft and easy to chew.  Get me a little more, would you?

MANA:  Sure, why not?

(SFX:  shuffling, creaking)

GROK:  Why are you moving like a turtle?

MANA:  It’s strange … my bones hurt.  Like that old man, Artur.

GROK:  Well then, we should call what you’re feeling “Artur-itis.”

MANA:  Call it whatever you want, but get your own flower.  I need to sit down. 

GROK:  Okay.

MANA:  And get me some, too.  I want to feel happy and silly again.

GROK:  Right.  Good idea.  We should eat more  flower and feel silly and happy.

MANA:  So stand up and go get the flower, already!

GROK:  I am standing up!

MANA:  Oh!  Uh … Grok … you’re not as tall as I remember.

GROK:  I kind of thought my deerskin was dragging on the floor.

MANA:  And my deerskin feels tight around the middle.

GROK:  Yes, I noticed.  I was afraid you were hibernating.

MANA:  You’re getting shorter, and I’m getting fatter.  What should we do?

GROK:  Well … let’s have some flower so we can be happy while we think about it.

MANA:  Good idea.

(SFX:   Pounding, pouring, stirring)

GROK:  Here!  I made extra!

MANA:  Mmm!  So good!

GROK:  Mmmm!  Mmm-mmm – aaaah!

MANA:  What’s wrong?

GROK:  My eyes and my throat hurt.  They’re dry, like dirt! 

(SFX:  Grok taking short, painful breaths through clenched teeth.)

MANA:  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

GROK:  Why are you laughing?!  This hurts!

MANA:  I can’t help it; it’s funny.  You’re in pain, but  it looks like you’re grinning.  We should call this “Show Grins” disease.

GROK:  Call it whatever you want, just get me some water! 

MANA:  Okay, already!

GROK:  And more flower!  I need more flower!

MANA:  I’m moving as fast as I can.

(SFX:  shuffing, creaking)

GROK:  Why are you all bent over like that?  Your back looks broken.

MANA:  I call it a “window’s hump.”

GROK:  How can it be a “window’s hump”?  I feel awful, but I’m not dead.

MANA:   No.  But if you bring home any more of this bird food, I’m pretty sure I’m going to club you.

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Primal Body, Primal Mind, Primal Tools

There’s an old saying that when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  If you’ve got a malfunctioning pancreas, a surgeon is likely to decide you need surgery, a medical doctor will decide  you need a prescription drug, and a therapist will suggest you heal your inner child so it will stop taking its emotional wounds out on your pancreas.

Sometimes these modern therapeutic tools are exactly what we need.  But sometimes they’re not.  Sometimes what we really need is a good, old-fashioned, stone-age tool … such as a hunter-gatherer diet. 

Here’s an example: some years ago, as I’ll explain shortly, I thought I needed a 12-step program, and perhaps some therapy to go along with it.  Turns out I actually needed a medium-rare steak.

I thought about that while reading Primal Body–Primal Mind, by Nora Gedgaudas.  The book covers a wide range of health topics – nutrition, metabolism, exercise, weight loss, vitamins and supplements, depression and other emotional issues – but ties them all back to one central idea:  physically, we are virtually identical to our Paleolithic ancestors.  We may drive minivans and listen to modern jazz on iPods, but our bodies and brains haven’t really evolved past the stone-tools era.  Your great-grandfather to the 10th power thrived on particular nutrients, and so will you.  The reverse is also true:  you probably won’t thrive if you fill you belly with foods he never ate.

Nora obviously ploughed through an enormous amount of research to write this book, and she summarizes it quite nicely.  She explains biochemical concepts clearly, while managing to sneak in a bit of humor here and there – always a plus with me.  I enjoy a book when the information is dense, but the writing style isn’t.

But what I especially liked is the reason she wrote the book.  Nora is a clinician who helps address brain malfunctions with a technique called neurofeedback, a kind of biofeedback for the brain.  With electrodes attached to your head, you play something akin to video games on a computer, and retrain how your brain responds to stress.  She’s used this high-tech tool to help clients with everything from depression to autism with impressive results.

Nora Gedgaudas

Nora Gedgaudas

And yet, she sometimes found that clients would make minor improvements, then stall.  Since she’s been studying nutrition for 25 years, she recognized that the neurofeedback treatments were being stymied by brain malfunctions that were rooted in a lousy diet.  As she explains in the preface:

“The brain and the body simply have to have certain raw materials to work with in order to function properly.  It is abundantly clear that all the brain-training in the world cannot create a nutrient where there is none, or remove a problematic substance which does not belong.”

So despite wielding a modern and effective tool, she knew these people needed a stone-age tool as well.  Tired of having to copy countless research articles on Paleolithic nutrition to give to her clients, she wrote Primal Body-Primal Mind so she could hand them a book instead.  It’s no surprise, then, that the book includes chapters detailing how the wrong diet can lead to depression, anxiety, ADD, bipolar disorders, and yes, alcoholism. 

Which brings me back to that medicinal, medium-rare steak.

Back in my starch-loving vegetarian days, I had a problem with alcohol.  The problem was that I craved the stuff.  If I drank a beer, I soon wanted another.  Then another.  Then another.  And if I didn’t have another, my brain would start to shut down.  I remember becoming sleepy and lethargic at parties, but feeling alert again after drinking yet another beer.  I even wondered how a supposed depressant could produce this effect.  (I never wondered for too long, because eventually I’d be drunk.)

Not wanting to be a lush, I swore off alcohol for long periods.  But I still craved the stuff and still got pretty drunk now and then, so eventually I started attending AA meetings. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 12th step:  I changed my diet.  After reading The Zone, I cut my carbohydrate consumption drastically and, for the first time in years, started stocking my refrigerator with meats.  I tossed the vege-burgers and the soybean mayo, and started cooking chicken and steaks.  I felt better, my overall mood improved, and I lost weight. 

I also lost the desire to drink.  I quit going to meetings because I didn’t see any point in continuing, and frankly, I have a limited tolerance for listening to people recount every stupid thing they ever did while drinking. 

(Before any recovering addicts decide to fire off an angry email, take note:  I’m not saying 12-step programs don’t have a place and don’t help people.  I’m saying I no longer needed one.)

A couple of years later, an immigrant waiter in a Lebanese restaurant served me a Lebanese beer instead of the non-alcoholic beer I’d requested.  I didn’t realize the mistake until I’d finished it.  I wondered what would happen.

What happened is that I enjoyed my lamb.  That’s it.  I didn’t want another beer.  The same thing happened when I intentionally ordered a beer a month after that, and again when I tried a glass of wine a few weeks later.

I still drink a beer, or a glass of wine, or a single-malt scotch now and then, but I don’t crave the stuff.   I’m not fighting the urge to keep drinking, because the urge isn’t there.  I literally can’t remember the last time I downed a sixpack, which I used to do quite easily … often as a warm-up for downing another one.

So why did changing my diet make such a difference?  I’ve wondered many times over the years.  Nora’s section on alcoholism offers a pretty good clue:

“Alcoholics are utterly dependent upon and regularly seek fast sources of sugar – alcohol being the fastest … the problem in alcoholism, in fact, really isn’t alcohol per se, but severe carbohydrate addiction … Once cravings for carbohydrates and dependence on carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel are eliminated, so are the alcohol cravings.  Training the body to depend upon ketones rather than sugar for fuel is key to this equation.”

I wasn’t addicted to alcohol; I was addicted to having fuel for my brain.  Thanks to my starchy, meatless diet, I was a sugar-burner. When I drank, I instantly became an alcohol-burner.  If I didn’t keep drinking, I’d run low on fuel and my brain would scream for more.  I didn’t need therapy, I didn’t need atonement, and I didn’t need to heal my inner child.  I needed to stop living on starch.

Which makes me wonder:   how many people are currently in therapy, when what they truly need is a Paleolithic diet?  How many people are sitting in some shrink’s office, feeling depressed and talking endlessly abut their mothers, because too many sugars and processed vegetable oils have screwed up their hormones?  How many kids are given a daily dose of drugs for ADD,  just before they finish up that big bowl of Cocoa Puffs and head off to school?

After reading Primal Body–Primal Mind, I’ve convinced that many (if not most) of these people don’t need drugs, and they don’t need therapy.  They need a stone-age hammer.

p.s. – Nora will begin hosting a show titled Primal Body-Primal Mind Radio on Voice America’s Health and Wellness Channel on May 20th.  In the meantime, you can read more about her work on her Primal Body-Primal Mind blog.

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Spurlock’s Boozler Fans

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In my last post, I wrote about some advice my college physics professor gave during a guest lecture in a humanities class: “No matter what field you plan to go into, learn math. Math is how you know when you’re being lied to.” I listed some examples of how researchers use math to bamboozle. Understand the math, and you are de-bamboozled.

But that’s assuming you want to be de-bamboozled. Some people – I call them “boozlers” – refuse to abandon their cherished beliefs, no matter how clear you make the math. I came to this conclusion some time ago, after I uploaded the “Spurlockian Bologna” clip to our YouTube site.

You can watch the clip in the About the Film section of this blog, but in brief, it demonstrates that Morgan Spurlock couldn’t possibly have followed the rules he laid out at the beginning of Super Size Me. The numbers just don’t add up. We’re talking about simple math here, so I didn’t expect this clip to generate much of a debate.

How wrong I was.

As it turns out, Spurlock has legions of fans who are boozlers. Whether it’s because they loved Super Size Me, they hate McDonald’s, or they have a big, gooey crush on Spurlock, they simply will not believe he cheated, no matter how clearly or logically you explain it to them.

After wasting a lot of time in fruitless online debates, I realized boozlers don’t think like the rest of us. Most people (I hope) think like this: If it’s a fact, I believe it. If it’s not a fact, I don’t believe it. In other words, we find math and logic convincing.

But a boozler thinks like this: If I believe it, it’s a fact. If I don’t believe it, it’s not a fact. Logic has no effect on them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I actually discovered that the more logical I was, the nuttier they became. They produced rationalizations that were so convoluted, merely reading them put me in serious danger of pounding my head on my desk. (And if I remember correctly, one of the boozlers offered that exact suggestion.)

I now refer to a “I refuse to believe it” rationalization as “a boozle.” Just for fun, I’m going to share some of the boozles I received after the Spurlockian Bologna clip went online. But first, let’s recap the facts and the math.

Spurlock laid out these rules for his McDiet:

  • I must eat three square meals per day.
  • I must eat everything on the menu at least once.
  • I can only super-size a meal if they ask me.

He was asked to super-size nine times. Since 3 meals/day * 30 days = 90 meals, that means he could only super-size 1 meal in every 10, or about twice per week. So the majority of his meals would’ve been limited to large combinations. Put together a day’s worth of large combinations at McDonald’s, and you get maybe 3,500 calories. And yet, Spurlock’s nutritionist told him at two different points in the film that he was consuming more than 5,000 calories per day.

In other words, at some point he realized his rules wouldn’t allow for a Sundance-worthy weight gain, so he ignored them. And yet all I ever heard about Super Size Me (before I finally saw it) was that it demonstrated what would happen if you just ate just three meals per day at McDonald’s.

Let’s look at some of the boozles. I’m quoting where possible, but some of the language was a bit colorful, so I’ve substituted symbols.

Boozle: The nutritionist could have had the wrong info on how many calories the foods in his log contained. It’s simple.

Logic: Ah, I see. He didn’t really consume 5,000 calories per day. His nutritionist, whose job is all about counting, couldn’t do simple addition. And since she repeated this miscalculation twice in the film, it must’ve sparked an interesting conversation during post-production:

“Hey, Morgan, she keeps chiding you for consuming more than 5,000 calories, but you really only consumed about 3,000. Should we do a little voice-over or a subtitle so people know she’s got the math all wrong?”

“Goodness, no. I’m too nice of a guy to embarrass her like that. I don’t think it matters if people think I ate twice as much as I actually did.”

And if she did get the math wrong, how in creation did Spurlock manage to put on 25 pounds in 30 days? A pound of fat = 3,500 calories, which means Spurlock consumed 87,500 calories more than he could burn. That’s 2,900 extra calories per day. Since he’s a tall (6’3″) young male, he probably burns at least 2,000 calories … even if he spends the entire day admiring his moustache in a mirror. Obviously, he did average at least 5,000 calories.

Boozle: How the $%#@ does this prove he broke his rules? He said he’d eat three meals per day, he didn’t say he’d only eat three meals per day.

Logic: He said “three meals per day.” In fact, he specifically named them – “breakfast, lunch and dinner” – for viewers who don’t know what “three meals per day” means. If he did eat four or five meals per day, then 1) he was obligated to say so, considering this was supposed to be a documentary, and 2) his entire thesis – look what happens if you eat three meals per day at McDonald’s – is kaput. All he proved is that eating four or five big meals per day is a bad idea.  I think most people knew that.

Boozle: He never said I’m only gonna have one hamburger a meal with one frie too, you @#$%ing moron. If you actually watch the movie, then you see him eating a couple of burgers and a couple orders of fries. So maybe double some of those numbers and see what you get.

Logic: You got me there. He never said he’d only have one sandwich or one order of fries. Just one little problem … he stated specifically, “I can only super-size a meal if they ask me.” If he ordered two sandwiches and two orders of fries, he was super-sizing his meal without being asked. Doubling your order increases the calorie count even more than super-sizing the drink and the fries.

Boozle: He said he would eat everything on the menu, and shakes are part of the McDonald’s menu, and at about 1110 calories for a large, adding one of them to a meal easily puts the count above the 5,000.

Logic: Yes, the 32-ounce shake is on the menu, and it’s 1110 calories. But “at least once” doesn’t mean every day. The menu also includes a 12-ounce shake, and it’s only 440 calories. What happened on the days where he ordered one of those? The grilled chicken salads provide fewer than 500 calories, including the dressing. Let’s look at a day where he ordered these items – which he had to, according to his rules.

I’ll stack the odds in his favor by starting with the Deluxe Breakfast at 1150 calories. For lunch we’ll have the grilled chicken salad at 430 calories, and the 12-ounce shake at 440 calories. Heck, I’ll let him toss in a large order fries to add an additional 500 calories.

Guess what? Mr. “three meals per day” has consumed 2,520 calories so far. To get over 5,000 for the day, he will now have to consume 2,500 just for dinner. Once again, I’ll stack the odds in his favor by assuming he ordered a double quarter-pounder with cheese and this was one of the nine times they asked him to super-size it. The whole dinner adds up to 1,790 calories. He’s still 700 calories short.

Boozle: A shake is listed on the McDonald’s USA menu as dessert, but in Canada it’s listed as a beverage. So he could’ve ordered them without ordering extra desserts, as you claim.

Logic: Well, that makes perfect sense. He ate his meals in the U.S., but rabid hockey fans who say “eh” a lot believe if you pour ice cream into a cup, it’s no longer a dessert – it’s a beverage.  So now he’s justified in pounding them down without telling us, and that means he wasn’t cheating on his rules. If this is all true, it means Super Size Me proved that it’s a bad idea to drink a lot of milkshakes. Funny how most people didn’t understand the the true, anti-milkshake message.

Boozle: He may not have told us he was eating extra meals, but he didn’t have to because the intelligent viewers understood.

Logic: (after banging head on desk) I never heard a single fan of the film – including the reviewers – describe Super Size Me as a documentary about what happens if you eat four or five meals per day. Roger Ebert is an intelligent viewer. Let’s take a peek at his review:

He does have a policy that whenever he’s asked if he wants to “super size it,” he must reply “yes.” But what he orders for any given meal is not uncommon, and we have all known (or been) customers who ordered the same items.

Mr. Ebert apparently believed Spurlock was simply super-sizing when they asked him, and otherwise eating “not uncommon” meals – which makes me wonder which McDonald’s Mr. Ebert patronizes. I’ve been going to McDonald’s for decades, and I have yet to see anyone put away 2,500 calories for dinner.

In fact, when I re-read Ebert’s review, I was annoyed all over again. Read the following paragraph:

It’s amazing, what you find on the menu at McDonald’s. Let’s say you start the day with a sausage and egg McMuffin. You’ll get 10 grams of saturated fat — 50 percent of your daily recommendation, not to mention 39 percent of your daily sodium intake. Add a Big Mac and medium fries for lunch, and you’re up to 123 percent of your daily sat fat recommendation, and 96 percent of your sodium. For dinner, choose a Quarter Pounder with cheese, add another medium order of fries, and you’re at 206 percent of daily sat. fat and 160 percent of sodium. At some point add a strawberry shake to take you to 247 percent of sat. fat and 166 percent of sodium. And then remember that most nutritionists recommend less fat and salt than the government guidelines.

Let’s set aside the fact that Mr. Ebert apparently believes the government’s recommendations for fat and sodium intake are based on something resembling science – they’re not. What annoyed me was that he went to all the trouble to do the math on the fat and sodium, but apparently not on the calorie counts.

The items Mr. Ebert listed add up to 2,820 calories. (My son could easily burn that off in one day, by the way.)  Did it simply not occur to him to ask himself how Morgan Spurlock managed to consume more than 5,000?

But I digress.

Boozle: u r the biggest retard in the world! cant u c mcdonalds is bad for u! jeez even if he wasnt following his own rules he still ate it if u watched the movie u would understand.

Logic: If he didn’t follow his rules, then 1) he’s a liar, and 2) the entire premise of his film is bogus. All he proved is that consuming 5,000 calories per day will make you fat and screw up your health. The same thing would happen if you ate that much at home, or at your grandmother’s, or your favorite vegan restaurant.

Boozle: YOU ARE A #@$%ING MORON! all your $#*& is wrong, you’re just trying to prove something that i true. eat $#*& and die, i don’t see you making a difference in the world like morgan spurlock. so do us a favor and up and die.

Logic: (Hmm … better not try logic on this guy.  I could inadvertenly incite a wife-beating incident.)

Fortunately, I also discovered that Spurlock has some fans who aren’t boozlers. One of them left a note on our site:

“Super-Size Me” was one reason among a long litany of influential reasons for me deciding to become a vegetarian. I think it was great film for helping a lot of people to re-think their food choices, but I am disgusted that he was so loose and misleading with his calculations.

Bingo! That’s exactly what disgusted me. That, and the fact that he refuses to show anyone his food log – which should, all by itself, convince anyone but a boozler that the guy has something to hide.

My food log, by the way, is posted on our site.

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Good Math Slices Bad Bologna

      34 Comments on Good Math Slices Bad Bologna

My sophomore year in college, I took an Introduction to Humanities course (which I enjoyed very much), and was pleased when I walked into class one day and found that my physics professor was giving a guest lecture.

“Doc,” as we called him, was a major science wonk. He held PhDs in physics and mathematics and taught courses in both disciplines, as well as freshman chemistry. No matter what the class, his lectures frequently took unexpected side trips into anthropology, biology, astronomy – well, heck, you name it, and he knew it. Probably the only other person I’ve met who reads as many books per year is Dr. Mike Eades.

Doc’s guest lecture was about the need for general scientific literacy, and he told us at one point, “No matter what field you plan to go into, learn math. Math is how you know when you’re being lied to.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Trouble is, math just plain scares a lot of people. Stick a couple of x’s and y’s into an equation, and they get a case of brain-freeze that can otherwise be produced only by gulping a Slurpee.

After researching Fat Head, I’m convinced most reporters are prone to Slurpee Syndrome. When they report on this-or-that new study, they don’t want to strain their brains by poring over the actual data. So they just read the abstract and the author’s conclusion, then write the story. That’s how a lot of bad science becomes embedded in our consciousness.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Gary Taubes thoroughly analyzes the hard data – but Gary has a degree in physics from Harvard. That’s why I found it laughable when some media-darling doctors claimed his hypotheses about adaptive thermogenesis and homeostasis would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Yeah, right … the guy with the degree in physics forgot all about the laws of thermodynamics. Luckily for us, there were actual doctors on hand to set the record straight.

To restate Doc’s warning – with a little Mark Twain stirred in – if you can’t do the math, researchers with an agenda will use lies, damned lies and statistics to bamboozle you. Let’s look at how they do it.

Just flat-out lie about the results. Thirty years after the start of the famous Framingham study, the authors of a new report stated that “The most important overall finding is the emergence of the total cholesterol concentration as a risk factor for coronary heart disease in the elderly.” In plain English: high cholesterol kills old people.

Just one little problem: the hard data showed no correlation at all between heart disease and cholesterol in the elderly, as Dr. Uffe Ravnskov pointed out in his excellent book “The Cholesterol Myths.” If you look at the actual data points, they’re all over the place.

Perhaps hoping to clarify the issue, the American Heart Association put actual numbers on the claim: “The results of the Framingham study indicate that a 1% reduction of cholesterol corresponds to a 2% reduction in CHD risk.” But when Dr. Ravnskov crunched the data, he found that the Framingham subjects whose cholesterol decreased over time actually had a higher rate of heart disease, not a lower one.

With this apparent inability to recognize if numbers are going up or down, I respectfully suggest that the Framingham researchers resign their positions and go work for a congressional budget committee. (I also respectfully suggest that reporters who couldn’t be bothered with examining the data start covering school-board meetings.)

Scare people with percentages. When you see a percentage, you’re looking at the results of multiplication or division. But when you see the word “difference,” you are – if the researcher is honest – looking at simple subtraction. If a value goes from 20 to 22, it’s an increase of 10%, but the difference is 2. (Still with me? Good; you have a functioning brain.)

Multiplication and division can produce big, impressive-sounding percentages that are in fact nearly meaningless. Here’s an example that helped enshrine the “cholesterol kills” theory:

After a major study with the acronym MRFIT was concluded, the researchers announced that people with high cholesterol were over 400% more likely to die of heart disease. Ohmigosh!! Get me into an Ornish program, now! I must reduce my cholesterol!

That’s a big, scary number. Let’s see how they came up with it.

Over the course of the study, 0.3% of the men whose cholesterol was below 170 died from heart disease. Meanwhile, 1.3% of the men whose cholesterol was over 265 died of heart disease. Over 265?! Dead man walking! Buy your casket now and save!

And in fact, since 1.3/0.3 = 4.33, you could say the relative risk is 400%.

Now flip the numbers and look at the actual difference. In the low cholesterol group, 99.7% did not die from a heart attack. Among the very high cholesterol group, 98.7% did not die from a heart attack. That’s a difference of 1.0%. In other words, if you go up the scale from low cholesterol to very high cholesterol (nearly 100 points higher), the real difference is that an extra 1 in 100 men died of heart disease. Not quite such a scary number, is it?

Wow people with percentages. Percentages work in the other direction, too. You’ve probably seen the Lipitor ads where Pfizer announces that this wonder drug reduces heart attacks by 36%. That sure sounds impressive … until you look at the actual difference.

In the study cited by Pfizer, men with known risk factors for heart disease took either Lipitor or a placebo. In the placebo group, barely more than 3% had a heart attack. In the Lipitor group, 2% had a heart attack. Use division, and you get that impressive 36% reduction. But the difference, once again, is 1 in 100, or 1%. Boy, that’s worth giving your liver a major smack-down.

And by the way, the difference in the heart-attack rate for women who take statins and women who don’t is: zero. You can multiply that difference, divide it, square it, triangle it, stick it inside a trapezoid, whatever … you still can’t come up with a reason for women to take statins – ever.

Count only the numbers you like. (Otherwise known as “cherry picking” your data.) In trials conducted on statins, researchers will happily announce that fewer people died of heart disease. (Not a whole lot fewer … see above.) But they’re curiously silent about how many people died overall. In fact, they refuse to release what’s called the “all-cause mortality” data. Gee, I wonder why?

If I conduct a five-year study in which I give one group a daily glass of orange juice, and another group a daily glass of rat poison, I can guarantee you that far fewer people in the rat-poison group will die from heart disease. But I doubt the all-cause mortality numbers would help sell rat poison as a new wonder drug.

(And in fact, studies of the first cholesterol-lowering drugs were stopped because too many subject were dying of cancer … but at least they didn’t get heart disease.)

Here’s another example of cherry-picking data: Awhile back, newspaper headlines were practically screaming that smoking cigars is nearly as dangerous as smoking cigarettes – you know, high rates of cancer and all that. The American Cancer Society jumped all over the report. And since I enjoy two or three cigars per week while taking my five-mile walks, this one grabbed my interest.

As it turns out, the researchers compiled their data from men who smoke five or more cigars per day. Now, a good cigar can easily take an hour to smoke. So unless these guys were standing outside half the day, they were lighting up indoors and inhaling a lot of smoke. And I’m pretty sure anyone who smokes five cigars a day isn’t exactly a health nut. Lord only knows what else these guys put into their bodies.

Most cigars smokers don’t even average one per day. When other researchers compared men who smoke one cigar per day with nonsmokers, the difference in cancer rates was insignificant. (The cigar smokers were also more likely to have Austrian accents and be elected governor of California.)

Confound it! In a real, true, worthwhile study, you compare large groups of people who are statistically identical except for one variable: one group is taking a drug, or adding fiber to their diets, or meditating while listening to Yanni music. Everything else should be the same.

If everything else isn’t the same, you’ve got confounding variables, which means your study data is worthless. You can’t just compare x. You’ve got to compare x while making sure that a, b, c, y and z are virtually identical.

Dean Ornish claims a lowfat diet prevents heart disease. Why? Because he put people on his diet, and by gosh, they had fewer heart attacks than the control group. But Ornish also had the study group stop smoking, start exercising, and take classes in stress management. That’s pretty convenient, considering that smoking and stress are two of the biggest causes of heart disease.

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure if I took a group of smoking, stressed-out couch potatoes and had them stop smoking, start exercising, meditate while listening to Yanni, and take up chewing tobacco, their rate of heart disease would plummet. Then I could claim that chewing tobacco prevents heart disease. Heck, I’d probably get a lifetime pass to NASCAR races.

So the next time you see a newspaper headline announcing that some new study “proves” this or that will kill you – or save you – ask yourself a few questions: What exactly did they count? What didn’t they count? Are we looking at a percentage change, and if so, how did they calculate it? What’s the real difference? Did they control their variables? And – most importantly – do the raw numbers actually support the conclusion?

And Doc, if you’re still alive, I want you to know you were one of the best teachers I ever had, at any level. You told me once I was good at math and should look into programming computers for a living, which I thought was a silly idea at the time. Now it’s how I pay the mortgage. It’s also how I paid for Fat Head.

You were even more brilliant than I thought.

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Can Your Own Bologna Kill You?

      44 Comments on Can Your Own Bologna Kill You?

I feel like such a pig.

I already knew that humans and pigs share a lot of the same DNA.  (Some would argue this is more true for men than women.)  But it only occurred to me recently that we might also store the same kind of fat in our bodies.

The thought was sparked by some literature my wife brought home from a town fair.  A registered dietician had her own booth, and she was passing out pamphlets that warned – surprise! – against consuming too much “artery-clogging saturated fat.”

Yada, yada, yada … same old bologna about how saturated fat drives up your cholesterol, the cholesterol sticks to the inside of your arteries, and then someday you clutch your chest and realize you should’ve tried hang-gliding when you had the chance.  I’ve heard it thousand times, and I’ve known for at least two years that it simply isn’t true, so my reaction was, “Okay, whatever.”

Then I checked another pamphlet, which explained how we should all eat less and exercise more to lose weight.  Yada, yada, yada.  But then my usual “Okay, whatever” screeched to halt at about “whatev—.”

Looking at both pamphlets, I started thinking about the twin pillars of The Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long and Healthy Life:  Don’t consume animal fat, because it’ll kill you.  And you should eat less to lose weight – which means consuming your own body fat.

Uh, wait a second … that sounds a teeny bit inconsistent.  Are we talking about two totally different kinds of fat here?  Or is it more likely that the fat in fat-back bacon is similar to the fat in Fat-Back Francis Bacon?  So I looked them up.

It’s easy to find the breakdown of lard on the internet.   It’s mostly oleic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid, with several others making up the balance.  Add them up, and it turns out that lard is about 38 percent saturated, 11 percent polyunsaturated, and 45 percent monosaturated.   (The numbers don’t add up to 100 because some of the trace fats were unclassified.)

So most of the fat in lard isn’t even saturated, and nearly half of it is monosaturated, like olive oil.  Pretty interesting, considering that in The Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long and Healthy Life, monosaturates are worshipped as The Great Protector Of Arteries and Valves.  And while stearic acid is saturated, it’s been shown to raise HDL.  That hardly sounds like a killer fat.

For some reason, finding an analysis of human body fat was trickier.  (I suppose it’s because few of us care about the smoke point or other cooking properties.)  I finally found a paper in which the researchers stated that they extracted human body fat from the subjects’ buttocks.   Since research subjects are often college sophomores, I’m guessing this took place at a fraternity initiation.

In any case, I saw pretty much the same list of fatty acids.  Add them up, and it turns out that human body fat is about 35 percent saturated, 51 percent monosaturated, and the rest polyunsaturated.  In other words, it’s similar to lard.

The implications are interesting.  For one, if you were fat growing up, this means the skinny snot-nosed kid who used to call you a “lard butt” might not have been such a bad kid after all.  He may have just  been studying biochemistry – secretly, of course, because if the classroom bullies found out, they would make alterations to his biochemistry during recess.

For another, if the anti-fat hysterics are correct, then we know why cannibals are mostly extinct:  they died of atherosclerosis.  I’ve already started writing the docu-drama:

EXT. The Cannibals’ Camp – Day

The cannibals are tying Livingston to a pole.  He remains calm, chin up, even as other cannibals begin lighting the kindling around his feet.

Livingston
Go ahead, you savages!  Wait until my beer
belly collides with your coronary arteries.  Ha!

EXT. The Cannibals’ Camp – Night

A feast is in full swing.  A grinning CANNIBAL takes a hearty bite from a roasted leg.  Then, wide-eyed, he clutches his chest and falls to the ground.  From inside his chest, we hear LIVINGSTON LAUGH.

The other cannibals drop the bones they’ve been chewing and begin fighting over the pile of untouched vegetables.

FADE OUT

So let’s do a little math.  If you consume 2500 calories per day and half of them come from fat, that’s 1250 calories – pretty close to my daily fat intake, in fact.

Now, suppose you’re overweight and burn about 2500 calories per day.   The High Priests of The Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long and Healthy Life (otherwise known as dieticians) would happily put you on a diet in the 1200-calorie range, with very little fat.  Why?  So you’ll burn your own body fat to make up the difference and lose weight.

This is considered healthy.  But it means you’d be getting 1300 of your daily calories from fat.  Even if your diet consisted of nothing but Weight Watchers “Smart Ones” meals (just 1 gram of fat per serving!), more than 52 percent of your fuel would come from fat.  And not just fat:  human body fat, which is nearly as saturated as lard.

So, much as I did when I was in catechism classes, I have an annoying question to ask:  when this porky fat streams out of your adipose tissue and invades your unsuspecting muscles and organs to be burned for fuel, why isn’t your health at risk?  Why don’t your arteries clog up?

Maybe you’d be better off leaving all that “artery-clogging saturated fat” safely imprisoned in your buttocks.  After all, it’s an unrepentant killer.

Or perhaps there’s something about body-fat the High Priests haven’t told us.   Perhaps our own fat knows a secret password it can use to identify itself so the body doesn’t try to commit suicide – which is, of course, what it does when saturated fat mounts an invasion via the digestive system.

“Red alert!  Red Alert!  Fat globules attempting flanking maneuver!”

“Roger!  Liver, crank out the artery-clogging LDL!  Small particles, full charge, dead ahead!  Stop the heart!  Stop the heart!  They’ll never take us alive!”

“Wait, sir!  The fat globules are signaling!  I’ll issue the challenge.  Flash!”

“Thunder!”

“Abort!  Abort!  They’re ours! Proceed back to full health; I repeat, proceed to full health!”

Then, of course, the muscles and organs would welcome the fat globules, who would regale them with stories about life trapped in a prisoner-of-war buttocks, and express their gratitude to have finally escaped.  Then they’d be ceremonially eaten.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see the difference.  If you go on the Atkins or Protein Power diet and get most of your calories from fat, why is that more dangerous that consuming your own body fat on a calorie-restricted diet?

According to the theories espoused by the High Priests, Mother Nature screwed up, big time.  She designed our bodies to store our fuel reserves as a fat that could kill us when we actually need it.  But I don’t think Mother Nature is that stupid.  After all, she was smart enough to make pigs.  She was also smart enough to make fat-back bacon delicious.

But for the record, I have no opinion on Fat-Back Francis Bacon.

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