Digest Some Bologna, Readers

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Reader’s Digest recently published an article titled “Why Low-Carb Diets Aren’t the Answer.”  The article was full of the usual bologna, with a few side orders of pseudo-scientific salami.  Curiously, the article was not credited to any particular author.  I’m guessing the unusual anonymity is due to one of two reasons:  the author doesn’t want to be on record when the article is shredded by real scientists, or he’s a food-industry hack whose conflict of interest would torpedo his credibility. 

But I digress.  Let’s examine the bologna this article asks you to swallow:

Low-carb diets usually begin with an “induction” phase that eliminates nearly every source of carbohydrate. Often, you’ll consume as few as 20 grams of carbohydrate a day. That’s less than 100 calories’ worth—about what’s in a small dinner roll. On a 1,200-calorie diet, that’s only about 8 percent of your daily calories. By contrast, health experts recommend that we get between 45 and 65 percent of our calories from carbs.

Oh, I see.  We must need lots of carbs, because that’s what “experts” recommend.  Well, there’s proof for you.  Open a textbook in biochemistry and look up “essential fatty acids.”  You’ll find them listed.  Look up “essential amino acids,” a.k.a. proteins.  You’ll find them listed.  Look up “essential carbohydrates.”  You won’t find any, because there are no essential carbohydrates. 

Humans can live without any dietary carbohydrates whatsoever, and have done exactly that in cultures all over the world. So, according to Dr. Anonymous, we’re supposed to get most of our calories from the one macronutrient that isn’t biologically essential.

With virtually no carbs in your system, you may even have trouble concentrating. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the human brain requires the equivalent of 130 grams of carbohydrate a day to function optimally—and that’s a minimum.

If you’ve been living primarily on carbs and then stop eating them, you will indeed feel foggy – for a few weeks while going through withdrawal, which is what happened in the bogus NAS study.  People also feel foggy when they give up smoking.  Guess they’d better not quit; nicotine is obviously essential for the brain to function optimally.  Meanwhile, I somehow manage to write complicated software programs while consuming perhaps 50 grams of carbs per day – closer to zero on many days.

But the low-carb diet will also wreak some havoc. When your body breaks down lean body mass—muscle—for energy, your metabolism slows because muscle tissue burns up a lot of calories. This may be one reason that the weight often comes back after you’ve been shunning carbs for a while.

Okay, this one is just plain stupid.  Studies show over and over again that ketogenic (low-carb) diets are superior for maintaining lean muscle mass while losing weight.  If you starve yourself, then of course you’ll break down muscle tissue, but low-carb diets aren’t about starving; they’re about lowering insulin. 

I added a weight-lifting program to my exercise regimen this year and put on 16 pounds while losing fat around my waist.  My legs and chest got noticeably thicker.  If I’m losing muscle mass, then someone is injecting silicone into my muscles while I’m asleep. Meanwhile, low-fat, high-carb diets are notorious for slowing down the dieter’s metabolism.

The effects on your heart are also questionable. Especially if you switch to a high-saturated-fat diet, as people do when they start eating their fill of steak and bacon, your “bad” LDL cholesterol will go up.

When I went on a “saturated fat pigout” diet for a month – all the steaks, bacon, sausage, cheese, cream and butter I wanted, but no sugar or starch – my LDL dropped by 30 points.  I know several other people who’ve had similar experiences. 

And frankly, the LDL number by itself is meaningless, because LDL can either be small and dense (the harmful kind) or big and fluffy (the harmless kind, which may even have anti-inflammatory properties).  And guess which macronutrient tends to produce small, dense LDL? Yup … carbohydrates. Meanwhile, Dr. Anonymous conveniently failed to mention that increasing fat in the diet raises your HDL – you know, the “good” cholesterol.

It’s not just that you’ll feel deprived because you’ve had to give up bread, fruit, and all the rest. Your body will also be deprived of foods and nutrients that are essential for good health, including the following:

Whole grains. These protect against metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

The idea that whole grains protect against metabolic syndrome and diabetes came from studies in which researchers compared the effects of eating white-flour products versus eating whole-grain products.  Surprise!  People eating the white flour – which spikes your blood sugar faster than sugar does – had worse health outcomes.  The researchers then translated that result into “whole grain products protect against metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease,” blah-blah-blah. 

Using the same logic, if I compare smokers to people who chew tobacco and determine that the smokers have a higher rate of lung cancer, I can declare that chewing tobacco protects against lung cancer.

Low-fat dairy foods. Sure, you can have butter and cream on a carb-restricted diet, but you won’t get much calcium or protein from them. Fat-free and low-fat versions of milk and yogurt are excellent sources of those nutrients.

Here’s a crazy idea:  get your protein from meat.  And get your calcium from spinach and nuts.  Considering that pre-agricultural humans had amazingly thick bones without the benefit of raising dairy cattle, I’m pretty sure we can live without fat-free milk.

Fiber. Getting fiber from these foods (except dairy) helps reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Beans and many fruits and vegetables are particularly rich in soluble fiber, which helps lower blood sugar, curbs hunger, and lowers LDL cholesterol.

Well, if the choice is between foods high in fiber and foods high in refined carbohydrates, which is the comparison that was used to tout the benefits of fiber, then Dr. Anonymous has a point.  Otherwise, he’s full of the beans he insists we should be eating. 

And ain’t it strange that Dr. Anonymous is recommending fiber to lower blood sugar?  How about if you avoid carbs so you don’t raise your blood sugar in the first place?  Then you won’t have to lower it.  But if Dr. Anonymous has convinced you that fiber is important, you can get all the fiber you need from broccoli, spinach, almonds, blackberries, and any number of other low-carb foods.

If you load up on saturated fats—the original Atkins diet got as much as 26 percent of its calories from saturated fat versus the 10 percent or less that experts recommend—it’s bad for your health.

Once again, saturated fat is bad for you because “experts” say so.  Too bad the experts can’t point to any real science to back up that opinion.  There have been several major studies that attempted to lower heart-disease rates by reducing saturated fat intake.  They were all colossal failures. 

Meanwhile, the French and the Swiss eat diets that are full of saturated fats, yet have low rates of heart disease.  Inuits and Plains Indians lived almost exclusively on fatty meat, yet had virtually no heart disease.  (If saturated fat truly caused heart disease, Custer would’ve lived to a ripe old age.  Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would’ve been long deceased.)

In one study, which lasted six months, the low-carb diet seemed to win hands down. The people on it lost nearly 13 pounds (6 kg); the low-fat dieters shed just 4 pounds (2 kg). But the second study lasted six months longer, revealing a truth about low-carb diets: The results don’t last. This study too found that the low-carb dieters lost more weight in the first six months, but in the second half of the year, the weight came roaring back. By the end of a year, there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two groups.

Uh … what the data revealed is that people who didn’t stick to their diets regained all the weight.  Lord knows that would never happen to people who stopped going to Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig.  Jimmy Moore lost 180 pounds on the Atkins diet in 2004 and has kept it off.   I guess the roar of his inevitable weight gain is simply inaudible. 

I’ve read books by Dr. Atkins and Drs. Eades and Eades of the “Protein Power” series, and I don’t recall a single sentence along the lines of “When you’ve lost all the weight you want, drop this diet and return to your old ways of eating.”

No matter how you slice it, we eat too many carbohydrates. We consume many more calories than we used to, and most of those extra calories come from extra carbs (so many chips and cookies!). Thus, it makes sense to cut back some on carbs.

Wow … Dr. Anonymous got one right.  Proof once again that even a broken clock is correct twice per day.


2Blowhards Interview

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Michael Blowhard, of the brilliant and eclectic site 2Blowhards.com, posted an interview with me today.  This was a follow-up to the interview he conducted while I was still producing Fat Head.  That interview was published as Part One and Part Two back in January 2008.

Michael is also a filmmaker, so many of his questions were about the filmmaking process.  If you’ve ever wondered how little indie films get made, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one.


Jane Brody’s Cholesterol Headache

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Boy, I’ve had a real problem lately with headaches. Seems like all day, every day, I have a headache. And it’s not as if I don’t know how to get rid of them. I have, in fact, been writing about headache prevention for years, so I did exactly what I’ve always instructed my readers to do:  hit myself in the head with a hammer.

I began with a fairly conservative treatment:  two daily hammer-whacks to the temples for two weeks.  But when I next checked my headache status – which means I sit still for a minute and ask myself, “Does my head hurt right now?” – I was stunned:  instead of being diminished, my headache had gotten worse.

Frustrated, I tried three hammer-whacks per day for another two weeks.  But once again, my headaches only got worse.  So I tried four hammer-whacks per day combined with a stronger dose – namely, a big old sledgehammer I nicknamed “Slammin’ Sammy,” the kind used to knock down walls.

Amazingly, my headaches grew worse.

There was only one conclusion I could draw from the results:  my condition is hereditary. Despite all the studies recommending them, simple hammer-whacks will not do the trick in my case.  (And I must confess that this whole affair is a bit embarrassing, considering how many articles I’ve written praising head-bonk therapy.)

And so, much as I don’t like the idea, I’m considering undergoing the admittedly drastic step of having my head removed.  There are some known side effects from the procedure, such as forgetting the names of your children and expecting the Cubs to win the World Series this year, but they’re not as big a threat to my overall well-being as a constant headache would be.  I will have my head removed and report the results in a month or two.

Does this all make sense?  Or do I sound unbelievably dense?  Because if you substitute “cholesterol” for headache and “low-fat diet” for hammer, I could be an influential health writer for the New York Times.  This is pretty much the experience Jane Brody had trying to treat her “high” cholesterol with a low-fat diet … i.e., the very diet she’s been promoting for decades.

There were many interesting topics that came up while I was researching Fat Head that didn’t quite fit into the film.  Ms. Brody’s campaign to lower her cholesterol was one of them.  If you watch the bonus interview track, you’ll see that Dr. Mary Dan Eades mentions Ms. Brody as an example of someone who simply can’t bear to admit she’s been wrong all these years, in spite of the evidence.

Ms. Brody’s cholesterol panic began when a routine test revealed her total cholesterol to be 222.  (So much for a low-fat diet keeping cholesterol down.)  Since she just knows that a “heart healthy” level should be below 200, Ms. Brody dutifully stopped eating cheese and went on a diet to lose a few pounds.

But – horrors! – when she underwent another test a few months later, her cholesterol had risen to 236, and her LDL had gone up, not down.  Now, you’d think someone with a functioning brain would pause at this point and wonder if perhaps the whole low-fat diet theory is load of bologna.  But not Ms. Brody.  After all, she’s been telling her readers for decades to cut the fat, cut the fat, cut the fat.

So she cut the fat.  She stopped eating red meat, switched to low-fat ice cream, took fish oil, and increased her fiber intake.  In other words, she did just about everything she’s been telling her readers they must do to prevent heart disease.

And boy, what wondrous results!  Her next test revealed that her cholesterol had risen to 248, and her LDL was up yet again.

If this were a horror movie, we’d all be screaming at the screen, “Don’t go through that door, you freakin’ idiot!  Everyone who went through that door ended up hanging on a meat hook!”

But Ms. Brody went through the door.  Mere paragraphs after recounting how her low-fat diet failed utterly to bring down her cholesterol, she reminded her readers how important it is to exercise more and cut the saturated fat from their diets.  She even informed us that a former roommate lowered her cholesterol by becoming a vegetarian.  (“See, this diet made my cholesterol worse, but I know someone who had good results, so you should do exactly what didn’t work for me.  Okay?”)

Yup … hitting myself with a hammer didn’t cure my headaches, but I know a guy who knocked his head clean off and never has a headache anymore, so I still recommend the treatment.  Talk about grasping at straws.

Finally, Ms. Brody reported that despite having some reservations, she began taking a cholesterol-lowering drug.  And lo and behold, her cholesterol went down!  (At this point in the story, you are allowed to scream, “Of course your cholesterol went down! That’s why it’s called a cholesterol-lowering drug!)

Now, here are a few no-bologna facts that Ms. Brody either doesn’t know or can’t bring herself to admit:

  • For women of all ages and men over age 50, there is zero statistical relationship between high cholesterol and heart disease. (In other words, the relationship only shows up in men under 50 – and even then, it’s weak.)
  • The Swiss have an average cholesterol level of around 240. Russians have an average cholesterol below 200. But the Swiss have a low rate of heart disease, and the Russians have one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world.  If you check cholesterol levels and heart-disease rates around the world, you’ll see this pattern (or non-pattern) repeated over and over.
  • There’s never been a single study that offers any evidence whatsoever that cholesterol-lowering drugs prevent heart attacks in women.
  • Cutting carbohydrates reduces your triglycerides, and eating more fat raises your HDL, or “good cholesterol.”  Both effects are good for the health of your heart.

So despite her enthusiasm over her new and improved cholesterol reading, all Ms. Brody actually accomplished was to produce a drug-induced test score that made her feel better about the miserable results of her low-fat diet.  This is equivalent to darkening your gray hair with some Grecian Formula, then telling yourself that you’ve reversed the aging process.  If you have gray hair and you feel old and tired, go ahead and give that a try.

And then whack that newly-darkened hair with a hammer.  Maybe your headache will go away.


100-Calorie Nonsense

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The nutrition experts at MSN’s health & fitness channel offered up some advice recently on easy ways to cut 100 calories from your daily diet.  Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Ditch the Pop-Tart for a slice of high-fiber toast with strawberry jam.
  • Top your waffles with Reddi-wip instead of syrup.
  • Go ahead and have that piece of birthday cake –just scrape off the chocolate frosting first.
  • Pass on the à la mode and savor that brownie au naturel.
  • Can the cone. Have your ice cream in a bowl.
  • Slather your bread with mustard rather than mayo.
  • Two or more pizza slices? Blot off the grease with a napkin.
  • Swap low-fat cottage cheese for whole-milk ricotta when you make lasagna or stuffed shells.
  • Lay off the Lay’s Classic potato chips and have a handful of Rold Gold pretzels.

Hmmm … bread, waffles, ice cream, cake, brownies, pasta and pretzels.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, apparently it’s fine to eat a diet loaded with carbohydrates –as long as you cut 100 calories per day, preferably in the form of fat.  The theory, of course, is that if you just make this tiny sacrifice, you’ll shave 36,500 off your calorie intake for the year and lose a bit more than than 10 pounds.  All from just blotting the grease off your pizza!

Yeah, right.  Sure, it’s that easy.  That’s why there are so many people who are fatter than they want to be — because despite hating the way they look in the bathroom mirror, they’re just not willing to eat ice cream without the cone or skip the mayo when they eat a yummy white-bread sandwich.  They could eat all that sugar and starch and still lose weight if they’d just consume 100 fewer calories per day.

I hate to break it to you, but if all you do is eliminate the mayo from your sandwich for a year, you won’t lose 10 pounds. You won’t lose any pounds. You’ll just end up eating a lot of dry sandwiches — and if you’re insulin-resistant (like most fat people), you’ll also get an insulin spike from the white bread that will tell your body to store fat.

People who’ve been brainwashed in nutrition classes may believe in the 100-calories-per-day theory, but your body doesn’t.  It’ll simply adjust for the difference, probably by producing a teeny bit less heat while you’re sleeping.  

People on low-calorie diets often complain of being cold.  Ever wonder why?  It’s because that cranky old super who lives between their ears decided to turn down the thermostat until he gets his back-due mayonnaise.

I sometimes wonder if these “it’s all about the calories” theorists live in the real world — or even talk to real people.  Maybe they should do a little research on my son, who is naturally lean — complete with six-pack abs — and always gets exactly the same reading when he steps on a scale, year in and year out.  (He did not inherit this blessed trait from me.  I got fat as an adolescent.)

He consumes at least 3000 calories per day, which is more than 1.1 million calories per year. To gain just five pounds in a year, he’d only have to consume an extra 17,500 calories. That may sound like a lot, until you consider that it’s only 1.6 percent of 1.1 million.

So according to the “it’s all about the calories” theorists, my son manages to avoid gaining so much as five pounds by calculating his daily calorie needs and then eating exactly that amount – with better than 98.4 percent accuracy.

But since he never gains or loses more than two pounds, he’s even more precise than that!  Yup, my boy manages to eat exactly the right number of calories, year in and year out, with 99.4 percent accuracy.

Pretty darned good for a guy who’s never read a nutrition label.  He must be the Rain Man of dieting.  He looks at the meal spread out before him and says, in a nasal but charming monotone, “Seven hundred twenty five and one-half calories.  Gotta, gotta eat fast.  Judge Judy is on in three hundred and ten seconds.”

When my son was playing high-school basketball, his coach wanted him to gain weight so he’d have some extra heft to toss around under the basket.  He tried, but couldn’t.  Same thing happened when he was in basic training.

And as Gary Taubes recounts in his book Good Caloies, Bad Calories, the same thing happened to a group of naturally-lean prisoners who agreed to consume an extra 1000 calories per day for six months as part of a research project.  They gained a few pounds (which should’ve been 50 pounds, according to the “it’s all about the calories” goofs), then lost them as soon as the experiment was over.

If you really believe being thin is all about counting calories, do yourself a favor:  Find someone whose weight never fluctuates.  (My wife’s weight never fluctuates, but she’s busy trying to pack up our house, so find someone else.)  Pick out that guy at the office who always looks great with his shirt tucked in and won’t wear a jacket unless it’s really cold outside.  Then walk up to him and say, “Hey, Joe,” – if his name isn’t Joe, you should probably use another name – “if you don’t mind me asking, how many calories did you consume for lunch?”

If Joe is like most thin people, his answer will be, “I have no idea.”  That’s because Joe, like my wife and son, has a body that doesn’t want to store fat.  He doesn’t count calories … because for him, they don’t count.


Create Your Very Own Biased Study

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A few weeks ago, the media were all abuzz about a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study’s conclusion: weight loss is all about the calories, period. High carb, low carb, high fat, low fat – it doesn’t matter.

Lead researcher Dr. Frank Sacks and his team put four groups of people on four different diets for two years. There was a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet, a high-carbohydrate/low-fat diet, and two diets sort of in-between. At the end of the two years, the weight loss was about the same among all four groups.

Well, that settles it. Case closed. You can get off that silly, faddish, low-carb diet now. Drop the cheeseburger, pick up the whole-grain bun, and start counting your calories.

I was intrigued, because this study’s results don’t match my own. When I was on the Zone diet, I consumed about 1700 calories per day, which included about 175 carbs. I lost six pounds per month. On my fast-food diet, I consumed about 2000 calories per day, but limited myself to around 100 carbs. I lost 12 pounds in 28 days. That’s double the weight loss, despite an extra 300 calories per day. Exercise can’t explain the difference, because I walked the same number of miles each week on both diets.

At least that’s how I remember it. But according to Dr. Sacks, those numbers can’t be right. Either he’s wrong, or I’m a functional schizophrenic, walking around with memories of experiences that didn’t actually happen. I must have a beautiful mind. (My contact at the CIA, who has me decoding secret Al Qaeda messages in New England Journal of Medicine articles, does like the way I think.)

Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something else going on here. Ah, yes, that does seem to be the case.

I’ll spare you the details on the diets because Jimmy Moore and Mike Eades already did a full slice-and-dice on the numbers. But here’s the bottom line: Dr. Sacks and his fellow researchers got the result they wanted by coming up with a definition of “low-carb” that is, to put it charitably, rather creative: 35 percent of total calories.

If you consume 2000 calories per day, that’s 175 grams of carbohydrates. The Atkins diet recommends starting at 20 grams per day – barely one-tenth of the carbohydrate load Sacks calls a “low-carb diet.” Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades also advise dieters to start very low and gradually raise the carb count to perhaps 50 grams – less than a third of what Sacks calls a “low-carb diet,” and just 10 percent of the calories in a 2000-calorie diet.

In other words, Sacks didn’t bother to include a diet that would’ve actually restricted carbohydrates to the point where insulin levels would plummet and send the dieters into fat-burning mode.

After thinking long and hard about this little bit of scientific chicanery, I can only come to one conclusion: Dr. Sacks is brilliant! He’s given all the married men on earth what we need most – a clear demonstration of how to “prove” you are right even when you’re not. Speaking for married guys everywhere, I want to thank you, Dr. Sacks, from the bottom of our hearts.

Okay, gentlemen, wise up and follow this brilliant doctor’s example. From now on, when you need to prove a point, just change the definition of the terms so you can’t lose. Then conduct a quick study using the terms you created.

Suppose your wife accuses you of drinking too much beer. “What’s wrong with beer?” you ask. She then offers up some cockamamie theory about how beer makes you fat, stupid, and a dangerous driver. In the pre-Sacks era, you would’ve been roped into an argument that could last for days.

But thanks to the Sacks methodology, now you can disappear into the den for a couple of days, do some intense research, and re-emerge with a study like this:

Comparison of Weight, Cognitive Ability and Motor Skills In Moderate vs. Heavy Beer Drinkers.

No, the results were pretty straightforward.

We assigned one random husband to two groups of beer drinkers on random afternoons when the NCAA playoffs were on television. The first group, defined as the moderate-drinking group, consumed 1.0 bottles of Bud Light during the afternoon games. The second group, defined as the heavy-drinking group, consumed 2.0 bottles of Bud Light during the afternoon games. Both groups consumed the allotted bottles of beer well before half-time.

Both groups also consumed exactly 10 pepperoni Slim Jims during the games, and both groups participated in equal amounts of exercise, defined for the purposes of the study as 1) running to the bathroom during commercials and 2) occasionally jumping up from the couch and yelling, “What’s the matter, ref, are you BLIND?!!”

Weight was measured by bathroom scale. Additionally, abdominal fat was recorded by employing a carpenter’s tape measure, which was extended and bent carefully around the waist.

Cognitive ability was determined by the participant’s ability to read the final scores displayed on the television screen and calculate which team’s score was higher. (In layman’s terms: who “won” the game.) Each participant’s conclusion as to the highest score was later compared to ESPN news reports to assess accuracy.

Motor skills were determined by recording each participant’s average highest score in three rounds of “Grand Theft Auto,” played on an Xbox 360 immediately following the game.

Weight gain was remarkably consistent among both the moderate-drinking and heavy-drinking groups (0.5 pounds vs. 0.7 pounds respectively, P=0.05). Abdominal circumference was identical in both groups, although the participant in the heavy-drinking group suffered a minor laceration due to a belching incident that occurred as the tape measure was being cinched around his waist.

Cognitive ability was also remarkably similar. Both groups correctly identified which team scored the most points in every instance (1.0 vs. 1.0, P=0.01). The participant in the heavy-drinking group was noticeably unsatisfied with the scores, despite correctly calculating which was higher, and indicated verbally that the referee was afflicted with near-sightedness.

Motor skills were similar, but not identical. The average Grand Theft Auto score was slightly higher among the moderate-drinking group than the heavy-drinking group (523 vs. 489, P=0.11) but was not a desired outcome and therefore classified as statistically insignificant. The Grand Theft Auto score was also impacted by the heavy-drinking subject’s need to urinate more often (Pee=2.5/hour vs. Pee=3.5/hour, P=0.22) which could be considered a distraction.

The commonly-held belief among many researchers and most wives that heavy beer-drinking will lead to obesity, stupidity, and an increased risk of traffic accidents and DUI arrests is not supported, but may require further research in other research environments, preferably during baseball season.


That’s it. Hand your wife a copy of the study and explain that according to carefully controlled research, it doesn’t matter how much beer you drink – the only risk is a slightly higher P score, which is no big deal because you always remember to put the seat back down. Then turn triumphantly towards the fridge to grab a cold one.

Of course, if your wife happens to be a real scientist – or is blessed with a functioning brain – she may stop you with one of those looks and say, “Frankly, my dear, this study Sacks.”