Sunday, July 29, 2007

Fast Facts Nation

For the amount of money spent on health and diet issues, we as a civilization are still appallingly ignorant on what causes us to be fat. To judge by food advertizing, you would imagine that the number one dietary culprit is fat. it isn't. Fat does not make you fat. The only macronutrient that has the capacity to put fat on your frame is carbohydrates, pure and simple. Yet we continue to indict meats, with their associated fat, and fried foods drenched in oil and shortening. Yet if you broke down the real culprits in the McDonald's diet made famous in the book and documentary film "Fast Food Nation", they would be the bun in the Big Mac, the potato in the French Fries, and the sugar in the supersized drink. The meat and the frying oil are innocent.

Now there are other health issues related to the consumption of fat. More precisely it is the kind of fat that matters; trans-fats and saturated fats, which are not natural products but manufactured, present risks for cardio-vascular disorders. But the natural fats from meats, fish and plants, especially olive oil, do not present health risks by and large, and do not contribute to weight gain.

As a personal example, I've lost over 30 pounds since April on a low carbohydrate diet, first popularized by Dr Robert Atkins - and that's without any exercise program to speak of. The beauty of the low carb approach is in the knowledge of why it works. The only way that fat comes to be stored is through the workings of the hormone insulin. Insulin is released into the bloodstream in response to elevated blood sugar levels. It converts blood sugar molecules to body fat. If blood sugar levels rarely or never rise to an excess level, then insulin will not be triggered to convert it to fat.

Dietary protein and fat have negligible impacts on blood sugar levels. No matter how much of these macronutrients you ingest, your blood sugar level will never spike to excessive levels necessitating the release of insulin. But when the body is starved of blood sugar, it reverts to a secondary metabolic pathway to meet the body's energy needs, involving the hormone glucagon which acts in an opposite manner to insulin:
Glucagon is an important hormone involved in carbohydrate metabolism. Produced by the pancreas, it is released when the glucose level in the blood is low (hypoglycemia), causing the liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose and release it into the bloodstream. The action of glucagon is thus opposite to that of insulin, which instructs the body's cells to take in glucose from the blood in times of satiation.

Yet contrary to the established science, we're still fed the low fat mantra. Food has such political and cultural significance that I doubt that the science of nutrition can ever get a fair, unbiased hearing in the public eye. The cultural and political forces arrayed against meat and fat are considerable. First and most obviously are the vegetarian and anti animal cruelty lobbies. The subversive idea that Homo Sapiens evolved as a carnivorous omnivore that isn't capable of producing all of its needed proteins from plant sources alone is just too dangerous for them to admit to.

Secondly, I think that the legacy of the Food Pyramid makes the idea that any diet that is not dominated by breads and cereals is somehow redical and dangerous. Breads and grains are embedded in our culture, but from an evolutionary timeline perspective agricultural products are a very recent innovation to our diet for which our "legacy" metabolic hardware has not properly adapted to as a primary source of nutrition. In The Paleolithic Prescription, by by S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., Marjorie Shostak, Melvin Konner, MD PHD, the authors explore the diet that our hunter-gatherer Paleolithic ancestors, which our body has evolved to emulate, and how different it is from the agricultural diet that has been our legacy for the last 12,000 years. The book presents the evidence that the Agricultural Revolution was disastrous for the health and longevity of the great mass of mankind for the majority of history leading up to the modern era, where the ready availability of animal protein has restored some of the bodily vigor that was lost in the transition to agriculture. Food "traditionalists" who worship agriculture and the settled agrarian lifestyle may be put out by this realization, but the true traditional diet for mankind is heavy on meat and wild, unrefined plant sources like nuts, seeds and fruits, and has no place for refined breads and cereals.

Update: This article by Gary Taubes goes into great detail about the development of the low fat mantra, beginning in the 1970s with Congressional hearings chaired by Senator George McGovern, and shows how the government, the AMA and leading medical institutions conspired (with good intentions, of course) to inflict an obesity epidemic on the American people through politically correct junk science. It is long, but well worth a read. If you're not a low carb believer now, you will be after reading his article. Here are a few worthy quotes:
Atkins was by no means the first to get rich pushing a high-fat diet that restricted carbohydrates, but he popularized it to an extent that the American Medical Association considered it a potential threat to our health. The A.M.A. attacked Atkins’s diet as a ‘‘bizarre regimen’’ that advocated ‘‘an unlimited intake of saturated fats and cholesterol-rich foods,’’ and Atkins even had to defend his diet in Congressional hearings.

Thirty years later, America has become weirdly polarized on the subject of weight. On the one hand, we’ve been told with almost religious certainty by everyone from the surgeon general on down, and we have come to believe with almost religious certainty, that obesity is caused by the excessive consumption of fat, and that if we eat less fat we will lose weight and live longer. On the other, we have the ever-resilient message of Atkins and decades’ worth of best-selling diet books, including ‘‘The Zone,’’ ‘‘Sugar Busters’’ and ‘‘Protein Power’’ to name a few. All push some variation of what scientists would call the alternative hypothesis: it’s not the fat that makes us fat, but the carbohydrates, and if we eat less carbohydrates we will lose weight and live longer.

The perversity of this alternative hypothesis is that it identifies the cause of obesity as precisely those refined carbohydrates at the base of the famous Food Guide Pyramid—the pasta, rice and bread—that we are told should be the staple of our healthy low-fat diet, and then on the sugar or corn syrup in the soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks that we have taken to consuming in quantity if for no other reason than that they are fat free and so appear intrinsically healthy. While the low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth, the low-carbohydrate message has been relegated to the realm of unscientific fantasy.
It was Ancel Keys, paradoxically, who introduced the low-fat-is-good-health dogma in the 50’s with his theory that dietary fat raises cholesterol levels and gives you heart disease. Over the next two decades, however, the scientific evidence supporting this theory remained stubbornly ambiguous. The case was eventually settled not by new science but by politics. It began in January 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern published its ‘‘Dietary Goals for the United States,’’ advising that Americans significantly curb their fat intake to abate an epidemic of ‘‘killer diseases’’ supposedly sweeping the country. It peaked in late 1984, when the National Institutes of Health officially recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 eat less fat. By that time, fat had become ‘‘this greasy killer’’ in the memorable words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the model American breakfast of eggs and bacon was well on its way to becoming a bowl of Special K with low-fat milk, a glass of orange juice and toast, hold the butter—a dubious feast of refined carbohydrates.

In the intervening years, the N.I.H. spent several hundred million dollars trying to demonstrate a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease and, despite what we might think, it failed. Five major studies revealed no such link. A sixth, however, costing well over $100 million alone, concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease. The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith. Basil Rifkind, who oversaw the relevant trials for the N.I.H., described their logic this way: they had failed to demonstrate at great expense that eating less fat had any health benefits. But if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same. ‘‘It’s an imperfect world,’’ Rifkind told me. ‘‘The data that would be definitive is ungettable, so you do your best with what is available.’’

It isn't surprising that the deplorable Senator McGovern's fingerprints would be on this government engineered health disaster, as he and his co-conspirators in the Democrat party had earlier managed to turn an American victory in Vietnam into a full-fledged massacre of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people by withholding support from the South Vietnamese government. But there's plenty of blame to go around for the quack science underlying the low fat debacle that made Americans the fattest people on the planet.


Blogger Bret said...

I've been following a lower carbohydrate diet (The Zone Diet) for more than a decade now and can confirm that for me, excessive intake of high density carbohydrates make me fatter. However, it seems to me that there is actually a pretty wide variation in human responses to food, so I think that some subset of the population metabolizes carbohydrates quite well. For such people, a lower carbohydrate diet might be counterproductive.

I wasn't aware that we were all being fed the low fat mantra still. Certainly, in my circles, that concept was discredited many years ago. Even my mother has moved on from that concept.

The latest in propaganda is that having fat friends makes you fat. If you have fat friends, dump 'em and replace them with skinny ones for your health. I've put my wife on notice that if she gets fat, I'll have to leave her for health reason. :-)

July 29, 2007 3:07 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Also, you may currently have lots of energy and may even feel somewhat euphoric. Enjoy it. It doesn't last forever.

July 29, 2007 3:08 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Duck, Congrats on your weight loss. The euphoria doesn't last forever, that's why you need to go shopping. Getting some new sharp duds in smaller sizes helps reinforce how good you look.

Carbs really are the bad boys. Besides everything else, the more carbs you eat, the more you want to eat. You never feel full.

July 29, 2007 3:36 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I continue to see products in the grocery store labeled "low fat" or "fat free". Low carb diets are still labeled as dangerous:

The world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals,[7] calls the Atkins Diet "a nightmare of a diet."[8] The official spokesperson of the American Dietetic Association elaborated: "The Atkins Diet and its ilk--any eating regimen that encourages gorging on bacon, cream and butter while shunning apples, all in the name of weight loss--are a dietitian's nightmare."

This is laughable, because anyone who thinks Atkins dieters gorge on bacon, creme and butter doesn't get it. Those items are permissible on the diet, but they are not good sources of protein, which is the core of the diet. And since fat calories are much more effective in generating the satiety signal in the brain than carbs or protein, noone actually "gorges" themselves on the diet. Calorie intake goes down, not up. I've noticed that food cravings have virtually vanished on this diet. There are days that I must force myself to eat (not really, but almost).

I first tried the diet nine years ago, when the copycat diet book "Protein Power" came out, and several guys at work joined it. The diet got some notoriety in the Twin Cities after Vikings coach Denny Green lost about 60 lbs on Protein Power. I lost 35 lbs then, going from 225 down to 190, but my wife, in collusion with my doctor, sabotaged my effort. They were worried about the adverse health effects, blah blah. I found it impossible to control my diet while my wife did the shopping. She had a sweet tooth and always had a candy dish stocked with sweets. Plus we ate out a lot, and it is almost impossible to keep to a low carb diet at most restaurants.

Now that I'm living alone I have total control of the pantry and my eating out habits, which I rarely do except when meeting with friends. I've had to give up beer at home, but the tradeoff is worth it. Since I have a family history of diabetes, this is more than just a vanity project. I don't see the conventional diet police getting worked up over the terrible tool obesity and diabetes is having on the population.

July 29, 2007 4:59 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That wild hunter diet probably included longish stretches with not much food at all. That oughta keep the pounds off.

I've read enough old accounts, from all around the world, of hunters able to sit down and eat 20 pounds of buffalo or whatever's in the larder to doubt whether anybody today (with the exception of the Thule Eskimos) still has his ancestral digestive system.

July 29, 2007 5:37 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

"More precisely it is the kind of fat that matters; trans-fats and saturated fats, which are not natural products but manufactured, present risks for cardio-vascular disorders."

Saturated fats are natural, and are not harmful. Saturated fats increase your HDL and strengthen the cell walls against oxidant damage. Saturated and mono unsaturated are the best for us. Polys are the least stable, so are damaged easily. (that's why olive and flax oils shouldn't be used with high heat)

There are some transfats that are natural, those aren't dangerous either. It's the artifical and damaged fats that are the problem. Fats that are highly processed, even if not hydrogenated, are damaged and bad for us.

Sadly the anti-fat propaganda is still out there. The scientists are starting to question it, but the media and the food industry are ignoring it. There's a lot of money in high carb foods. Processed or not. And the amount of added sugar (usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup, HFCS) is frightening.

Unfortunately too, many that do say they agree with low carb have no idea what they're talking about!Promoting "low carb" as being 100-120 or more grams a day. And still often pushing low fat!

July 29, 2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks for the clarification. This is another example of how poorly the media and the food industry explains the basic facts. All I've heard about trans-fats is "trans fats bad, avoid trans fats". You see "zero trans-fats" on many products now.

July 29, 2007 8:46 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

duck wrote: "I continue to see products in the grocery store labeled "low fat" or "fat free"."

Good point. I'd forgotten about that. I guess my wife buys low fat milk, but she claims that's because it steams better for her lattes. Other than that, I can't think of anybody I know who still buys the low fat stuff, but I'm not exactly a mainstream kinda guy, so I just wasn't aware the rest of the world hasn't caught up yet. On the other hand, relying on a site titled "atkinsexposed" is not necessarily the best place to get unbiased info either.

Duck also wrote: "Plus we ate out a lot, and it is almost impossible to keep to a low carb diet at most restaurants."

I've never found that to be that much of a problem. I'll eat a chicken caeser salad for lunches (lettuce doesn't have a lot of carbs and though there's clearly something sweet in the dressing, it doesn't seem to be a huge amount of carbs) and for dinners some sort of meat or fish, I don't eat the bread, and I (usually) don't get dessert. I try very hard to avoid Italian food (which I've never liked anyway), for Mexican food I get fajitas and don't eat the tortillas, and for chinese food I usually get Kung Pao something (meat, onions, peanuts).

Even fast food can be survivable. I (often) throw away the top bun for a burger and get the meatiest version, usually with cheese, I don't eat the shake and don't eat fries.

So, what're gonna do when you get down to your desired weight? It's always been a problem for me - the diets don't work well for me once I'm pretty lean.

July 29, 2007 9:01 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Very happy to see you highlight the Paleolithic approach, which I'm convinced is the best way to go for most people.

And Harry is absolutely right that a healthy eating regimen includes not eating occasionally - skipping a few meals, and fasting for a day every so often.

July 29, 2007 9:21 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I wasn't actually endorsing the go-hungry diet. I'm the guy who considers the peak of economic wisdom to be Harry Hopkins' observation that 'people don't eat in the long run, they eat every day.'

It was rare for an ancient hunter-gatherer to make it to 40. Although he was probably trim right up to the minute he expired.

Skipping a meal, or even a day's worth, probably won't hurt any in today's conditions, though. (As long as your pancreas is functioning.)

It's also worth noting that hunter-gatherers ate a lot of carrion. Maybe there's a bestseller yet to be written: Bone Appetit: The Carrion Diet; or, How I Shed 100 Pounds and Saved a Bundle at Safeway.

July 29, 2007 9:31 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

The reasons for hunter-gatherers not making it past forty, on average, had more to do with violence than it had to do with diet. I haven't read the Paleolithic Prescription in many years, but I seem to remember it saying that their health was excellent, barring life-shortening injuries, which wasn't a minor consideration. They weren't dying young from losing their teeth at 25 from malnutrition, like some later peoples in an agricultural setting.

Agriculture really made life worse for people. People were shorter, sicker, and died earlier after the conversion to agriculture than before.

July 29, 2007 10:12 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


Speaking of fasting, the low carb diet works because it produces a metabolic response that is similar to fasting. Here's a quote from the Taubes article I linked to:

‘Doctors are scared of ketosis,’’ says Richard Veech, an N.I.H. researcher who studied medicine at Harvard and then got his doctorate at Oxford University with the Nobel Laureate Hans Krebs. ‘‘They’re always worried about diabetic ketoacidosis. But ketosis is a normal physiologic state. I would argue it is the normal state of man. It’s not normal to have McDonald’s and a delicatessen around every corner. It’s normal to starve.’’

July 29, 2007 10:17 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

So, what're gonna do when you get down to your desired weight?

I haven't figured that out yet. I'll probably introduce some low glycemic carbohydrates, but I won't be going back to the good old days of potato chips and white bread. And I need to develop an exercise program. I used to be a frequent runner, but after developing plantar fascitis several years ago after a run, I haven't run since. I'll be turning 50 in October. I might try running again on a limited basis, but from what I've read weight training is a better exercise regimen for burning calories than aerobic exercise is. Once I finally settle myself in a new home, I'll invest in some proper weight equipment.

July 29, 2007 10:23 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I don't think that "Agriculture really made life worse for people" can be defended.

It allowed for a potentially large surplus of supply over need, which could be stored against future want. It could be expanded. In some societies or communites, individuals were less healthy, but it allowed for there to be more people in existence, not all of whom were unhealthy.

Few peoples that discovered or were introduced to the concept of ag passed it by or eventually gave it up, so those with the most knowledge of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle apparently usually thought that ag was of value.

Plus, without ag, there aren't many cities, and without cities, there's not much innovation.

Whether one most enjoys books, films, or the X-Box or Wii, those cultural highlights are the end product of a long chain of discovery and invention that began with agriculture.

July 30, 2007 5:05 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

For me, good carbs and fasting works much better than no carbs and a metabolic response similar to fasting. I likes me fruit and nuts too much for that to be ideal. (And chocolate).

The latest in propaganda is that having fat friends makes you fat.

There's something to that. Humans are by and large social creatures, and if everyone's bringing cake and cookies to work, or everyone's going to lunch at the buffet, the temptations can add up.

Undernutrition eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are also somewhat "catching".

So if one's social circle is mostly large, simply avoid if possible eating with them. And don't spend too much time with Victoria Beckham, either.

July 30, 2007 5:24 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't think that "Agriculture really made life worse for people" can be defended

From the most literal reading of "life", it is defensible. On average, people lived shorter, sicker lives after agriculture than before it. I don't think that you can use the language of choice to describe the transition to agriculture. It was something that had to happen. Population pressure pretty much necessitated it. Hunter-gathering can only work with low population densities. It's hard to know exactly why some people started cultivating plants and domesticating animals rather than hunting and gathering them, but once the practice was established it became a logical reaction to population pressure.

You're right that we benefit today from the long chain of innovations in technology and learning that was set in motion by the agricultural revolution, but it doesn't negate the fact that the transition exacted a toll on human health for a long time.

July 30, 2007 6:29 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

You won't be avoiding Victoria Beckham, she'll be avoiding you.

July 30, 2007 6:30 AM  
Blogger David said...

Chocolate is low carb. It's the sugar that's the problem.

I believe in the beer theory of agriculture: the reason hunter/gatherers settled down and turned to farming was to secure their supply of beer.

July 30, 2007 7:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Or maybe they settled down for security.

Or security and beer.

Studies of cemeteries show that early agriculturalists died young. Maybe not any younger than hunters but young.

The things that killed them, though, were more insidious, and they didn't know enough to understand what was happening to them. Whereas, being trampled in a melee with a mammoth was unmistakable.

July 30, 2007 9:40 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I'm a big advocate of the CSK* diet.

*Choose Skinny Parents.

July 30, 2007 1:51 PM  

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