AC anti-metabolic advantage dismemberment

I’ve got to apologize in advance for the length of this post, but in order to thoroughly do what needs to be done, it took the space.

Readers of this blog who have been around for a couple of years have been through the Anthony Colpo (AC) fiasco with me.  For those of you who weren’t around at the time, I’ll give a brief – a very brief – overview of what happened so you’ll understand what this is all about.

I wrote a post in September 2007 describing two different diets and their outcomes.  The first was designed by Ancel Keys and was a 1500+ calorie low-fat, high-carb diet; the other, designed by John Yudkin, was a 1500+ calorie low-carb, high-fat diet.  The subjects following the two diets experienced drastically different results.

This post, for whatever reason, inspired AC, a trainer and self-taught nutritional guru from Australia, to go into mad-dog attack mode.  I wasn’t the first person he had gone after, but I became the first to fight back.

Around the same time AC took it upon himself to attack me, he had just published an online book on weight loss that he was beginning to promote called The Fat-Loss Bible.  A more cynical person than I might have thought AC picked this fight in an effort to get some free publicity for himself and his book.  If that was indeed his motivation, he may have gotten a little more publicity than he had bargained for.

I took a look at his book – which I hadn’t realized even existed prior to this kerfuffle – and found it to be much like the ad for the educational software pictured above to the left.  At first glance, it looked reasonable, but upon closer inspection, it had some problems.

I made the offer to readers to dissect AC’s book if that’s what they wanted.  Or I could ignore the whole thing and continue with my regular posting.  A majority in the comments section voted for me to dissect.  I dug into the book, pulled all the papers cited, but subsequently got involved in other stuff and forgot about AC and his book.  He more or less dropped from sight, but has surfaced lately.  I had forgotten all about him, his book and the whole situation, but his new antics have stirred a few readers to ask about the dissection that I promised but never came through with.

So, with that preamble, here it is.

The crux of AC’s objection to me (and a few other people, namely Gary Taubes, Richard Feinman and Gene Fine) is that I (and they) believe there is a metabolic advantage that becomes manifest during low-carb dieting.  AC has taken the position that my idea of the low-carb driven metabolic advantage means that people following low-carb diets can eat all the calories they want and lose massive amounts of weight as long as they keep their carbs reduced.  He accuses me of leading people astray by encouraging them to eat, eat, eat as long as carbs stay low.

I don’t know where he got this idea because I have certainly never said such a thing anywhere.  The metabolic advantage brought about by low-carb dieting is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a 100-300 calories, which isn’t all that much.  This few hundred calories don’t even come into play until the 1500-2000 calorie range of consumption.  I’ve written about this numerous times and have always used these figures, so, as I say, I don’t know where the idea that I believe the metabolic advantage allows low-carb dieters to eat huge numbers of calories and still lose weight.

I don’t plan to go through The Fat-Loss Bible in its entirety or this post would take on the dimensions of War and Peace.  I’m going to limit my comments to Chapter 1, titled “Myth 1: Don’t Count Calories.”  This first chapter is the one that tells why AC so fervently believes there is no metabolic advantage.

AC sells his book online, but (at least the last time I checked) it can be downloaded only on a PC.  At the time this dispute started I had a PC, which I used to download the book.  Since then, my PC has given up its ghost and I now use Macs exclusively.  So, the copy I have is about two years old.  I don’t know if AC has changed it since; consequently, I don’t know if my critique applies to the book as it exists today.  AC changes his book all the time, updating here and there, and I don’t blame him for it.  I do it with this blog all the time.  I find typos in old posts and sentences that I don’t like.  I change these things all the time and the blog is the better for it, so I don’t blame him if he does the same thing.  But I just want everyone to know that I’m critiquing the book as it was when he launched his attack.

AC firmly believes that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.  He believes that people lose the same amount of weight dieting irrespective of the composition of whatever diet they’re on.  He believes that a given person will lose exactly the same amount of weight on, say, a 1600 calorie diet whether that diet is a low-carb diet or a low-fat diet or any other kind of diet.  It is the calories that set the weight loss, not the macronutrient composition or any other factor.

I don’t know if AC came to this conclusion then went looking for studies to confirm his bias or if he came to this conclusion because of the studies he read.  The first chapter of his book contains a number of studies he trots out to ‘prove’ his idea that only calories count.

There have been many out patient studies that have shown a metabolic advantage and many that haven’t.  Overall a greater number of studies demonstrating a metabolic advantage exist than studies showing no such metabolic advantage.  The first part of the first chapter of The Fat-Loss Bible goes into great detail describing why such studies are worthless.  He makes a fairly plausible argument as to why people on low-carb diets might tend to overreport consumption while those on low-fat diets may underreport.  If correct, this difference in reporting would create the appearance of a metabolic advantage where none exists.

To solve this problem, AC turns to what he calls

strict ‘metabolic ward’ studies in which, for the entire duration of the study, the participants are confined to a research facility where they can only eat the foods supplied by the researchers.

On the surface this seems to make sense.  Put the subjects under lock and key, give them just the food you want them to eat, and see what happens.  You’re going to have some individual variation, but if evaluate enough subjects and they all end up losing the same amount of weight irrespective of macronutrient composition, then you’ve got some pretty good evidence that there probably isn’t a metabolic advantage.

But as obvious as this appears at first glance, there are problems with this approach.

The first problem is a problem of measurement.  Newton derived his gravitational laws and everything scientists measured obeyed them.  These laws became sacrosanct.  If some observation didn’t conform to Newton’s laws, then the observation was faulty because Newton’s laws were infallible.  Those quirky movements of planets way out on the edge of the solar system were off a little from Newton’s predictions, but, hey, it’s got to be a measurement error somehow.  Then Einstein came along with his theory of relativity, and all the weird deviations conformed to Einstein’s laws.  Newton had been superseded.  Because the caloric differences brought about by a metabolic advantage (at least as I see it) are so small, weighing subjects in pounds and kilograms may miss it.

That’s the first problem.  But there is a problem much greater than that.  One that AC isn’t aware of because he doesn’t really have any real-world experience in doing nutritional studies in a hospital.

When subjects are studied in ‘metabolic wards’ they aren’t locked away and under constant observation.  In fact, often enough, they aren’t even in a hospital at all.  A ‘metabolic ward’ is simply a part of the hospital set aside to do nutritional studies.  And often it isn’t even a specific part of the hospital.  Subjects can be scattered about among the other patients.  Subjects can have visitors, can roam through the hospital, can even go to the cafeteria.  A ‘metabolic ward’ study can mean anything from: careful observation; to check into the hospital for a couple of days; to get trained on the diet then follow it at home; to check in, go to work all day, then come stay in the hospital all night. They are definitely not the strictly-controlled studies AC thinks they are.  He confuses them with ‘metabolic chamber’ studies, which are a horse of a different color.

The opportunities to cheat in a ‘metabolic ward’ study are, for the most part, as great as the opportunities to cheat in an outpatient study, especially since many of the subjects are outpatients most of the time.  There is a difference though.  When people are on outpatient studies they are more likely to at least admit their cheating and record what they cheat with than they are in ‘metabolic ward’ studies.  Some of the studies AC sites are formula diet studies in which shakes made of specific caloric and macronutrient composition are provided to subjects throughout the day.  (Or are given to them to consume outside the hospital at work or wherever.)  These are the kinds of programs you wouldn’t want to report cheating on.  And these subjects do without question cheat.  The fact that the data is reported as coming from a ‘metabolic ward’ study gives it a veneer of accuracy that it doesn’t really deserve.

AC gathered up a bunch of these ‘metabolic ward’ studies – 17 to be exact – that he uses to prove his point that there is no metabolic advantage and that only calories count.  He lists these studies in a chart (reproduced below), then proceeds to go through them one at a time.

On the ones that confirm his bias, he spends little time.  Just a brief description typical of this one describing the first study.

In a paper aptly titled ”Calories Do Count”, Kinsell and co-workers admitted five obese subjects to a hospital metabolic ward, then fed them liquid formula diets.  The diets ranged in protein content from 14 to 36 percent, fat from 12 to 83 percent, and carbohydrate from 3 to 64 percent.  The calorie content of the various diets was held constant for each patient irrespective of diet composition.  As they switched from one diet to another, each patient continued to lose weight at a similar pace.  Concluded the researchers: “…it appears obvious that under conditions of precise consistency of caloric intake, and essentially constant physical activity, qualitative modification of the diet with respect to the amount or kind of fat, amount of carbohydrate, and amount of protein, makes little difference in the rate of weight loss. [Italics in the original]

This is a great study to start with because it contains many, many flaws that AC is blinded to by his own confirmation bias.  It’s a terrible study.  Let me show you why.

Here is the first paragraph of the study.  And I’m not kidding.  This is directly quoted from the paper.

The accumulation of excess adipose tissue is a malady which affects many people.  That undue preoccupation with the pleasures of the table contributes to the disease has geen [sic] generally accepted in most quarters; or, to express the matter differently, majority opinion has held that the first law of thermodynamics applies to the human machine quite as predictably as it does to inanimate machines.  Despite this body of “official opinion” one finds many obese individuals who are either convinced that their food intake completely fails to explain their adiposity, or who spend time and money in the search for the magic potion or pill which will enable them to consume food in any quantity but still maintain or achieve a slim figure.

Do you think there might be just a little bias in this author and his co-workers?  From this first paragraph one sees by the reference to the first law of thermodynamics the set of the sail of these researchers.  Plus it’s pretty clear that these researchers don’t like overweight people and think obesity comes from a “preoccupation with the pleasures of the table…”  How do you suppose their data is going to turn out?

First of all, were these five subjects inpatients in a metabolic ward or did they just pick up their formula and take it home.  Did the live in the hospital or just spend the night?  No information is given.
Here is the sum total of the information given on the ‘metabolic ward’ status of the first patient described:

His weight on admission to the metabolic ward was 270 pounds.

Was he admitted to the ward where he stayed full time for the full 70 days of the study?  I doubt it, and I’ll describe why in a bit.  Or was he admitted for his initial workup then released to continue his diet at home.  I suspect the latter.  Whatever the situation, this is all the study says about it.

Here are the descriptions of how the rest of the subjects entered the study:

Second subject:

Weight on admission to the study was 227 1/2  pounds…

Third subject:

At the time the study was undertaken her weight was 199 pounds…

Forth subject:

At the time the study was undertaken, her weight was 211 1/2 pounds…

Fifth subject:

Patient GTAY was a 61 year old white female with a history of diabetes for more than 20 years.  She had received insulin in the past but could be maintained in a satisfactory diabetic control with diet and tolbutamide.  Milky fasting plasma was discovered in July 1962.  Other findings included evidence for coronary and peripheral atherosclerosis, and diabetic retinopathy.  She had partial removal of a goiter 40 years ago, but was essentially euthyroid during her stay in the metabolic ward.

The study in this patient was actually directed toward evaluation of her hyperlipidemia, but she is included in this report since she was maintained on quantitatively constant, eucaloric regimens containing high fat and high carbohydrate respectively, and also received both saturated and unsaturated fat.

This last patient wasn’t even accepted into the study as a subject for a diet study but more or less added after the fact.

There were five subjects in this study that lasted for anywhere from 65 to 77 days.  We can’t really tell which subjects went how long. Nor can we really tell if it was an inpatient study or just one where the subjects checked in.  Nor do we know how much weight each lost over how long a period.  We know the starting weights and that’s about it.

The data as displayed looks like data collected in an inpatient study, but the paper itself only implies that it is.  As you might imagine, inpatient studies are tremendously expensive, and, consequently, authors tend to make sure readers of the study know they are inpatient studies.  In this paper, we have to guess.

If these are truly inpatient studies for 65 to 77 days, we need to address another point: the quality of the subjects in such studies.  Who do you know who would have the time or inclination to spend two to two and a half months in a hospital full time?  People who are willing to spend the time in such facilities are usually not the most reliable. They are typically unemployed with little education and, for the most part, are imbued with a lack of understanding as to how important their rigid adherence to the protocol truly is.  I will be the first to say that not everyone who has ever volunteered for such a study falls into this category, but, unfortunately, many do. I’ll let a couple of the authors of these metabolic ward studies expound on this fact a little later.

The age range of these subjects is from 25 to 61. All of the subjects in this trial save one have serious medical problems and are under treatment with multiple drugs.  The one who doesn’t have serious problems is a 25 year-old male who has “been grossly obese since childhood.”  These are not the subjects you would want in a study of this nature.

The subjects getting the most calories got 1200 per day while those getting the least consumed 800 calories per day.  As I’ve written before, if calories are kept ultra low, all the calories – irrespective of composition – are going to be used for energy.  And under those circumstances, you would expect there to be no metabolic advantage.  And you would expect weight loss to pretty much follow a trajectory driven solely by caloric deficit, which is pretty much what happens in this study.  But it’s difficult to tell because of how terrible this study is presented.  There is a starting weight, but no ending weight for the subjects.  And, although the Methods section reports that the study lasted from 65 to 77 days, my calculations based on the data provided shows the study lasted from 64 to 82 days.  Which are we to believe?  Without an ending weight for the subjects and a precise number of days under caloric restriction, how do we really know how much they lost verses how much they should have lost given the number of calories they were getting?

And we have this other little tidbit thrown in when discussing the results of one patient, RTEA, who was a 26 year old female with “a history of resection of a cystic chromophobe adenoma of the pituitary…followed by radiation”:

Rate of weight loss was greater during the last 2 weeks on the high fat, high protein intake than during either of the other 2 dietary periods.  This probably does not have significance on view of the “stair case pattern” of weight loss.

Say what?  So they do have a subject that shows greater weight loss (and late in the program rather than early), yet they toss off the data with a bunch of weasel words implying that it probably isn’t significant.

I suggest you pull down the full text of this study at the bottom of this post so you can see for yourself how terrible it is.

I’m certainly not going to go through all 17 of the studies in this fashion because this post would then truly gargantic, but I wanted to go into this one at length to show that so-called ‘metabolic ward’ studies, those AC terms the ‘gold standard’ of medical research can be very, very flawed.  I, for one, would not want to be making any categorical statements based on the data contained in this study we just evaluated, that’s for sure.  If AC weren’t so blinded by his own confirmation bias, he would have laughed this study off.  If I had used it to ‘prove’ a metabolic advantage – based on the one patient described above who had more weight loss on the high-fat diet – he would have had a field day.

Next, let’s turn our attention to the Liebel et al study.  It’s number 11 down the chart if you’re counting.  Here’s what AC says about it:

Leibel and co-workers took 13 subjects, determined how many daily calories each needed to maintain his/her weight, then proceeded to feed them, in crossover fashion, diets differing in their macronutrient content.  Despite wide variations in protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake, the subjects maintained their weight irrespective of diet type.  This included two subjects who followed low- and high-carb diets (15 percent and 75 percent carbohydrate, respectively) for a minimum of 34 days each.

That’s it.  That’s AC’s commentary on the study.  I suppose readers are meant to believe that this study showed that it was all a matter of calories with no difference in terms of weight lost versus macronutrient composition of the diet.

The Leibel et al paper is a great one because it shows just how sloppy AC is in his presentation of data and, no doubt, in his own evaluation of the medical literature.

Go back and reread AC’s description of how the study was done.  Looks like Leibel et al did a hands-on study of these subjects, right.  Well, that’s not exactly how it worked.  Here is what really happened as reported by Leibel et al:

The records of all subjects studied by the Lipid Laboratory of the Rockefeller University Hospital between 1955 and 1965 who were fed lipid-formula diets of various carbohydrate (CHO) and fat composition were reviewed.

Leibel et al didn’t do squat in terms of studying subjects.  They went back through 40-year old records of subjects who had undergone formula feeding in the 1950s and 1960s to drag out records of 13 subjects (they actually drug out 16, but three were of children) who met their experimental parameters.  They weren’t looking for evidence of a metabolic advantage; they were looking to see if fat intake irrespective of calories made people gain weight.

Out of the countless studies done in those early years, they wanted to see if any could show that fat intake increased weight gain to a greater extent than the calories consumed as fat.  As they put it in the Introduction to their paper:

One group of investigators concluded that “fat intake may play a role in obesity that is independent of energy intake.”

The Leibel et al paper was published in 1992, the time in which the low-fat mantra was at its zenith.  It was a time that many people who should have known better were telling us we could eat all we wanted as long as we limited fat.  Fat makes us fat, we were told.  Cut it and you lose.  What Leibel et al were trying to show in this paper was that the weight gain or loss effects of fat were a function of the calories contained in the fat, not some other magical property that makes people gain weight above and beyond calories.

Before we get to the interesting data in this study, let’s take a look at what the guy who actually did this work had to say.  Leibel’s group went through old formula feeding studies done by Edward H. Ahrens, M.D., the head of the formula feeding lab at the time and the lead author of all the old papers referenced by Leibel.  Says Dr. Ahrens about the subjects in the inpatient studies:

Thirty-eight of forty patients were observed continuously under strict metabolic ward conditions; four of the forty [I know, the math doesn’t add up] were sufficiently motivated and intelligent to follow the regimen at home. (Ahrens EH et al 1957)

A couple of points here.  First, if four subjects out of 40 were “sufficiently motivated and intelligent” to be sent home with formula and instructions, what does that say about the other 36 (or 38)?  Which is to my point earlier about the quality of subjects recruited into metabolic ward studies.  Second, were some of the patients whose data was used for the Leibel paper those who were sent home?  If so, it blows AC’s notion of being unable to rely on any data gathered from free-living subjects.

Dr. Ahrens in another paper describing his 15 years of experience using formula diets says this about cheating in metabolic ward studies:

Such cheating is a natural (but dismaying) consequence when a patient’s dissatisfactions with any part of the ward routine are not quickly enough appreciated by the ward personnel.  Anticipation of the discontent is the clinician’s daily concern.  The closer the relationship between the patient and his medical attendants, the less likely cheating is to occur.  We have detected [my italics] cheating in only eight patients; undoubtedly others have gone undetected, but we feel the problem has been surprisingly minor. (Ahrens, EH 1970)

These are the subjects under lock and key.  The people running the study have to maintain constant vigilance to prevent cheating.  How about those who only check into the metabolic ward to sleep and spend the rest of their days at work or home?  And those are the subjects who make up most of the metabolic studies you read about.

One last interesting point about the Leibel paper.  The subjects they looked up in their retrospective analysis had undergone experiments during which they were given formula in amounts sufficient to maintain their weight.  As they lost or gained weight, their caloric intake was increased or decreased to compensate so that their weight stayed about the same.  According to the old papers about the original studies, the researchers tried to keep the subjects from fluctuations greater than one kg.  One kg equals two pounds.  If there was a metabolic advantage, it would probably show up within this two pound range and would be considered insignificant in terms of how this study was presented.

Some of the subjects, however, did lose or gain weight. Leibel et al then adjusted their caloric intake on paper to compensate for the weight differential.  In other words, if a patient lost weight on a given number of calories of a precise formula in the original study, Leibel et al would adjust the intake (40 years after the fact) to compensate for the weight loss.

One subject, a 55-year-old male with a BMI of 32, maintained his weight on a high-carb formula at 2871 calories per day.  The same subject then required 3501 calories to maintain his weight on a 70% fat, 15% carbohydrate diet.  Sounds like a metabolic advantage to me.

There were two papers in AC’s list of 17 that did show what could be considered a metabolic advantage.  In other words, subjects on the low-carb diet lost greater amounts of weight than subjects on low-fat, high-carb diets of the same number of calories.  These are two of the three studies by Rabast et al that are the 4th and 6th studies on the list of 17 shown above.

How did AC deal with this seeming refutation of his notion that no metabolic advantage exists?  By typical AC flimflammery.

In their 1981 study, Rabast et al observed significantly greater potassium excretion on the low-carbohydrate diets during weeks one and two.  A considerable amount of potassium inside our bodies is bound up with glycogen, so the greater potassium losses in Rabast’s low-carbohydrate dieters may indeed be a reflection of greater glycogen, and hence water losses.  Until recently, potassium excretion was often used a a marker or lean tissue loss; in Rabast’s study, this would indicate that the low-carbohydrate diet subjects lost more lean tissue.  As lean tissue holds a considerable amount of glycogen, this would again point to glycogen-related water loss as the explanation for the allegedly “significant” differences in weight loss. [Italics in the original] If the low-carbohydrate groups maintained greater lean tissue and/or glycogen losses at the end of the study, then this would easily explain their greater weight loss.

Regardless of whether Rabast et al’s findings were the result of water loss from glycogen depletion, pure chance, or some other unidentified factor, they should be regarded for what they are: An anomaly that has never been replicated by any other group of researchers.  For a research finding to be considered valid, it must be consistently reproducible when tested by other researchers.  As proof of the alleged weight-loss advantage of low-carbohydrate diets, the findings by Rabast and colleagues fail dismally on this key requirement.

Wow!  Where do we start?

First, AC didn’t mention Rabast’s 1979 study in which 117 patients were admitted to the hospital and studied on formula diets.  I assume these subjects were hospitalized round the clock because in the body of the paper it states:

…and as the patients were under constant supervision differences in food intake between the two groups could be excluded.

Unlike the Kinsell study (the first of AC’s 17 I described in detail above), the authors of this study were expecting a different outcome.  As discussed, Kinsell was obviously biased going in against the notion of anything other than calories count.  Rabast et al went in biased against low-carb diets:

The popularity of so-called ‘fad’ diets, low in carbohydrates and relatively high in fat, has continued to spread, especially among lay groups.  The caloric intake is only slightly limited, if al all; alcohol is allowed most of the time, and fat is consumed in the form of saturated fatty acids.  However, this kind of dieting, which must always be carried out on a long-term basis, has proved harmful.  The cholesterol intake can lead to severe health damage and clearly contributes to atherosclerosis.

After keeping the 117 subjects on low-carb vs high-carb diets of the same number of calories for 25 – 50 days, and probably hoping to find that those on the low-carb diet didn’t lose any more weight than those on the low-fat diet, the subjects on the low-carb formula diet lost considerably more weight than those on the low-fat diets.  Here are the graphs from the paper.

After going through all the data, Rabast et al conclude

Differences in fluid and electrolyte balance could not be measured but marked fluctuations can occur.  However, the change in body water and electrolytes could only be considered in short-term studies as the cause of the differences in weight loss.  Variation in the depletion of the glycogen pool is also a feasible explanation, as up to now, sufficiently long-term studies have not been reported.  However, the glycogen pool can be restored even under fasting conditions.  Therefore, an increased rate of metabolism presents itself as the most feasible explanation. [my italics]

The 1981 Rabast study that AC does comment upon refutes his commentary on the difference being due to greater fluid loss from the low-carb diet.

Potassium excretion during the low-carbohydrate diets was significantly greater for as long as 14 days, but at the end of the experimental period the observed differences no longer attained statistical significance.  At no time did the intake and loss of fluid and the balances calculated therefrom show significant differences.  From the findings obtained it appears that the alterations in the water and electrolyte balance observed during the low-carbohydrate diets are reversible phenomenon and should thus not be regarded as causal agents.

As to AC’s comment that the work of Rabast et al should be ignored because it has never been replicated by another group of researchers, I’ll leave to you to decide the validity of that.  There have been a number of such studies, including ones (as I’ll describe in a moment) in AC’s own list that confirm what Rabast found.  The 1979 Rabast paper discussed earlier lists 17 of them.

Hang in there; we’re almost through.  If I have to read all these papers and type all this stuff, the least you can do is stick with me ‘til the end.

Most of these studies don’t list the amounts of weight lost by the subjects because most of them aren’t designed to really look at weight loss.  Most are designed to look at other metabolic parameters such as protein sparing or branch chain amino acid use or nitrogen balance and the authors weren’t particularly interested in how much weight the subjects lost.  The authors mention that the two groups of subjects lost similar amounts of weight.  Other than the Rabast studies that we’ve already discussed, only four studies listed the weight lost over the course of the study by the subjects on either low-carb or high-carb diets.  In none of these cases did the weight loss difference reach statistical significance, so AC is presenting them as if there is no difference.

But in reality, there was a difference.  It just wasn’t statistically significant.

Statistical significance as it pertains to weight loss is a function of both number of subjects and amount of weight loss.  If I enroll 10 obese subjects in a weight-loss study and put five subjects on one diet and five on another, observe them for four weeks, and find that one group has lost an average of 2 pounds more than the other, that probably won’t be a statistically significant difference.  Why?  Because with only five subjects in each arm of the study, it requires a much larger weight loss to show a statistically significant difference.

If I do the same exact study, but enroll 100 subjects with 50 in each arm, and get exactly the same results – a two pound differential – then I achieve statistical significance.  The more subjects, the smaller the difference in outcomes it takes to reach significance.

In the case of these metabolic ward studies, the numbers of subjects are small.  As we’ve discussed, it is extremely expensive to keep subjects hospitalized 24 hours per day.  Consequently, most metabolic ward studies don’t enroll very many subjects.

I went through all the papers in AC’s list and found four (aside from the Rabast that we’ve already discussed) that list both starting and ending weights for the subjects.  I’ve listed them in the chart below.

As you can see, the study with the largest number of subjects had only 22 subjects in each arm.  These studies all use a caloric intake that is lower than would be expected to produce any kind of a metabolic advantage because all are at an almost starvation level.  Yet, as you can see, three out of the four show a greater weight loss in the low-carb arm than in the low-fat arm of the study.  Equal caloric intake, greater weight loss with the low-carbohydrate diet.  But, due to the small number of subjects, the difference doesn’t reach statistical significance.

If we had these same findings and same difference in weight loss between the two diets with a larger number of subjects, we would indeed have a significant difference.  If we did a meta-analysis of these studies, we might find that adding the subjects together would end up showing a significantly difference in weight loss.  Even though these differences don’t add up to statistical significance given the number of subjects involved, you can see the definite trend.

But what about the Piatti study, the one that showed the low-fat diet producing more weight loss than the low-carb?  I have it marked with an asterisk for a reason.  The paper by Piatti et al titled Hypocaloric High-Protein Diet Improves Glucose Oxidation and Spares Lean Body Mass: Comparison to Hypocaloric High-Carbohydrate Diet looked at how 25 obese women fared in terms of lean body mass and insulin sensitivity.  They were put on 800 kcal diets for 21 days.  It was found that the low-carb diet spared more muscle tissue and improved insulin sensitivity more than the low-fat diet of an equal number of calories.

Since the authors weren’t specifically studying weight loss, they didn’t really randomize the subjects by weight but did so by other parameters.  As it turned out, the group on the low-fat, high-carb diet were much heavier than those that ended up in the low-carb arm.  The average starting weight of the subjects in the low-fat arm was 213 pounds (96.8 kg) whereas the starting weight of those on the low-carb arm was 191 pounds (86.8 kg), a significant difference.  It would stand to reason that subjects starting off at 213 pounds on a 800 calorie diet would lose more over 21 days than subjects starting out at 191 pounds and following the same diet, and indeed they did.

This post has gone on way, way too long, but I think it’s pretty obvious that these studies fail to ‘prove’ that a metabolic advantage does not exist.  I would say, if anything, that they ‘prove’ just the opposite.

Just so you can go through these studies yourselves if you so desire, I’ve put them all up on Scribd.  The links are below to the full text of all.

The next post will a) be much, much shorter and will b) go into detail on a beautiful study that AC totally disses in his book.  We’ll look at his diss and what the study really says.  That should put paid to AC.

All the papers referenced by AC listed below.  All full text.

Kinsell et al

Grey Kipnes

Rabast et al 1979

Rabast et al 1981

Yang et al

Bogardus et al

Hoffer et al

Leibel et al

Vazquez 1992

Vazquez 1994

Vazquez 1995

Piatti et al

Golay et al

Myashita

Four patients who changed my life

In the early 1980s MD and I were laboring away in anonymity in our clinics in Little Rock, Arkansas.  By that time I had gone through my thin-to fat-to thin again metamorphosis, and I was starting to treat patients for obesity.  My own transformation had been fairly striking, a fact not lost on many of my overweight patients, a number of whom were seeking my professional advice on treating their own weight problems.  I was still doing a fair amount of general primary care medicine, but more and more of my time was being diverted to helping people lose weight.

When I, myself, had gotten fat, I had tried a few diets that were then being extolled (including the Pritikin diet) and had experienced pretty much the same thing most people did with these diets:  I lost a few pounds, drifted from the diet, and regained the lost weight plus a little.  I then started thinking seriously about obesity as a medical problem, and, in an effort to learn all I could about it, I turned to the medical textbooks on my shelves.  Unfortunately, none of them contained any information I found particularly enlightening.  The texts went into great detail about the risks associated with obesity and the many diseases that it either caused or made worse, but, other than recommending caloric restriction, none really discussed the treatment.  None really discussed (at least not to my satisfaction) what happens metabolically that makes people store excess fat.

I next turned to physiology texts, which didn’t help a lot, either.  I then grabbed my old medical school biochemistry textbook (I hadn’t been out of med school all that long at the time, so it was fairly current) and struck gold.  I started tracing out all the pathways for fat storage and noticed that in virtually every one insulin turned up somewhere.  Then I started reading about all the pathways involving insulin and realized that excess insulin had to be the agent driving the storage of excess fat.  I then went back to the physiology texts, reread them in light of my new found knowledge, and discovered that they reinforced what I had learned from the biochemistry text. I just hadn’t realized it, until I had made the insulin connection. (I drew out all the different pathways insulin worked through on piece of paper that we’ve saved, but I can’t lay my hands on it right now.  If I find it, I’ll post it.)

This was long before the days of Google and online searches; in fact, it was at least two years before I owned my first computer.  So I did what you did in those days: I trekked to the medical library at the med school, ran a search on insulin and obesity through their system, and came up with a handful of papers. The research into this field was quite new and sparse back then, but I learned about the newly proposed theory of insulin resistance, which answered my question as to why anyone would ever develop excess insulin levels in the first place.

Then I asked myself the big question:  If I have too much insulin (and I was guessing I did – it wasn’t something you measured in those days unless you were in a scientific lab), how do I get it down?  There were only two conclusions.  Don’t eat.  Or don’t eat carbohydrates. The latter seemed to make a lot more sense over the long run.

I remembered the Atkins diet.  I had read his book ten years before, but that was before I went to medical school and was while I was still rail thin.  (Why did I read it?  Because it was a huge bestseller, much in the news, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.)  I dug out my copy and reread it.  Nowhere was insulin mentioned in the original book.  He talked about some mysterious fat mobilizing substance (FMS, as he called it), which couldn’t be insulin because insulin doesn’t mobilize fat – it stores it.  The references cited in the back of the Atkins book for FMS listed scientific papers written in German. But, by then, I was on to insulin, so I didn’t bother trying to seek them out.

I decided to design a diet for myself with lowering insulin in mind.  What I came up with (with MD’s help) was the basis for what ultimately became Protein Power.  I lost weight like crazy.  Many of my patients noticed my weight loss and started clamoring for me to help them to become thin.

At the time I started treating patients with the low-carb diet, cholesterol was just starting to be demonized.  For the first time, people were concerned about their cholesterol levels (and at that time, the upper level for normal for total cholesterol was 220 mg/dl, 20 units higher than it is now) It was the era Taubes discusses in his great paper The Soft Science of Dietary Fat and that Tom Naughton shows in his movie Fat Head.  Low-fat diets were the rage.  The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure, a book about eating giant oat bran muffins daily and taking sustained-release niacin was in the writing and destined to be a mega bestseller.  The fear of fat was settling in on America.

And here I was starting to put patients on low-carb, high-fat diets to help them lose weight.

Back then I had bought into the lipid hypothesis and truly believed excess cholesterol did indeed lead to heart disease.  As a consequence, I was a little squeamish about putting people who might actually be at risk for heart disease on the diet.  I had read the biochemistry texts, and I knew that insulin stimulated HMG Co-A reductase, the rate limiting enzyme in the cholesterol synthesis pathway;  and I also knew that glucagon (insulin’s counter regulatory hormone) inhibited that same enzyme.  So, in theory, lowering insulin and increasing glucagon with diet should work to treat elevated cholesterol.  But, knowing those things theoretically didn’t really give me a whole lot of solace when it came to taking care of real flesh and blood patients who were entrusting their well being to me. (The picture at the top left of this post is one of the handouts I used in my early practice to demonstrate the many effects of too much insulin.)

Stupidly, when I started on the diet myself, I didn’t check my own labs, so I didn’t really know what happened to me.  The patients that I did put on the diet were typically women who were premenopausal (a group who rarely develop heart disease), so I didn’t worry about them.  I checked everyone’s labwork, but no one’s was really out of whack lipid-wise at the start of the diet, so I didn’t have a lot to go on data-wise.  The few who did have minimally elevated cholesterol tended to lower it over the first six weeks (I rechecked everyone at six weeks), so I figured the theoretical underpinnings of the diet were okay.  But I was still uneasy.

I had visions of myself in the witness box with a sneering plaintiff’s attorney saying to me:  So, Dr. Eades, are you telling the members of this jury that you put the deceased – whom you knew to have high cholesterol – on a diet filled with RED MEAT! IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE TELLING THIS JURY, SIR? YOU, SIR, CAUSED THIS MAN’S FATAL HEART ATTACK, DID YOU NOT?

But more than being worried about this scenario, I didn’t want to do anything harmful to anyone.  I knew it would be difficult to live with myself if I thought I had killed someone or caused a heart attack out of pure negligence.

You’ve got to remember that at this time there was no one in his/her right mind recommending a low-carb diet.  There was Atkins, of course, but he had been totally discredited in the eyes of the medical profession by that time.  It wasn’t until over 20 years later in 2004 that he and the low-carb diet got even minimally rehabilitated.  I was very uneasy to say the least.

Then four patients came into my clinic, one almost right after the other, who changed my life.  In my actual practice, I’m kind of old school and always refer to my patients as Mr, Miss or Mrs. But for purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to them by a bogus first name just to make it easier to keep track.

The first of the four patients we’ll call Angie.  She was referred to me by MD, who was working at a different clinic than I at the time.  Angie came into see MD for nausea and vague abdominal pains, symptoms that, along with tenderness in her upper right abdomen, led MD to suspect gall bladder disease.  Angie was a 32 year old woman who was mildly overweight and had vague abdominal pain, but no other remarkable findings.  MD drew blood on her and sent her for a gall bladder ultra sound.  The ultra sound came back negative, but her blood work was a doozy.   Her total cholesterol was over 300, and her triglycerides were about 1900.  MD called me and said “Have I ever got the patient for you.”  This was what I had been waiting for.  A patient who was female and pre-menopausal with terrible lipids.  I figured I could treat such a patient without any risk of her developing heart disease over the short term, and I planned to recheck lipids way sooner than the normal six weeks.  Since her lipids were so out of the ordinary for one so young, I asked MD to repeat them, fasting, have the results sent to me and to send Angie to see me after her repeat labs had come back.

When I got her labs, I knew the first reading wasn’t an error.  In fact, they were a little worse than when MD checked them the first time.

Total cholesterol: 374 mg/dl (all values in mg/dl)
LDL: ?
HDL: 28
Triglycerides (TG) 2080

(There was no value for LDL because LDL is a calculated number and can’t be calculated when the triglycerides are over 400 mg/dl.)

Upon examination I found a pleasant mildly overweight young woman who had no real physical signs except for mild tenderness in the right upper quadrant of her abdomen when I really pushed on it.  She had no family history of heart disease and she didn’t smoke – both pieces of information that made me feel better about what I was preparing to do.

(Not only were her lipids a mess, Angie’s liver enzymes were way abnormal as well.  I now know that she had non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder, but we (the medical profession) didn’t really recognize that as a common disease back then.  I’m sure her liver was inflamed to some degree, which explained the mild pain she was experiencing.)

I gave her a fairly rigid version of what became the Protein Power diet.  I explained exactly what she should eat and what she shouldn’t and sent her on her way with my home phone number and my beeper number (this was before the days of cell phones). I told her to call me if she had even the slightest problem and to return to the office in three weeks for a recheck no matter what. And I gnawed my nails.  I had the staff call her after a few days to see if she was doing okay.  She reported that she was fine.

I got no emergency calls from her and in three weeks she returned.  Her right upper quadrant pain had vanished as had her nausea.  She reported that she had never felt better.  She had even lost nine pounds (which was a fair amount for her since she wasn’t that overweight to begin with).   I rechecked her labs and waited anxiously for them to come back from the lab the next day.  When they did, I was stunned.

Total cholesterol: 292
LDL: 192
HDL 70
TG: 149

I had hoped for a change for the better, but I hadn’t in my wildest dreams expected this kind of change.  I kind of figured that her triglycerides and cholesterol would come down slowly over several months, not that they would drop like rocks in only three weeks.

The second of my life-changing patients was a casual friend of mine who came to see me about a week after my experience with Angie.  He was a 55 year old guy we’ll call Lynn who worked in advertising.  I had gotten to know him when his company created some brochures for our clinic.  He came to see me for an insurance physical.

He arrived, we chatted, and then I looked him over.  I poked and prodded and listened at all the appropriate places.  He seemed fine. He was a thinnish white male who was just starting to develop a little (and I mean little) paunch.  I would never have even noticed it had he not been sitting there with his shirt off.

Talk turned to my own weight loss, and he asked me if I could put him on a diet to help him lose his little pot belly.  I said ‘Sure,’ and told him about my meat, cheese, salad and green vegetable diet.  I told him that I had lost my weight eating a ton of steak and had continued to do so.  He was thrilled because he loved steak and had been avoiding it because of everything he had been reading about red meat and heart disease.  I had our nurse draw his blood for the lab part of his physical and sent him on his way.

The next day I was going through all the results from the bloodwork that had been drawn the day before when I came upon his.  I nearly dropped my teeth.

Total cholesterol: 312
LDL: ?
HDL: ?
TG: 1515

(There was a note on the lab sheet that said they were unable to determine the HDL because the serum was too lipemic (cloudy with fat)?!?!)

I thought, Whoa!, a 32 year old premenopausal woman is one thing, but a 55 year old male right in the middle of major-heart-disease-risk age is something else.  And here I had put this guy with totally disrupted lipids on a red-meat diet, which, according to current medical thinking, would almost guarantee to make the situation worse.  I put in an immediate call to his office and was told he had left that morning for vacation for two weeks.  (Why he had neglected to even mention this trip when we talked for 30 minutes the day before baffled me completely.) I asked for the number wherever he was.  His secretary told me that he was on a Caribbean Island and couldn’t be contacted.  I told her that if he called in to have him call me immediately.

My fears were somewhat assuaged because I figured, hey, the guy is on vacation, he’s not going to diet anyway.  Why should I worry?

He called me the day he got back and before I could get a word in told me “Hey, your diet works great.  I lost five pounds while I was on vacation.”  As it turned out, he was on a Caribbean Island, but it was a resort of some sort.  As part of his deal, all the food was provided.  He had chowed down on steak just about every day.

I was mortified.  I told him about his labs and told him to get into the clinic the next morning to have his blood rechecked.  He came in.  Here are his labs taken 15 days after his first ones.

Total cholesterol: 195
LDL: 124
HDL: 26
TG: 201

I was really stunned this time.  How could these values change this much in just 15 days?

He wanted to stay on the diet, so I told him to go for it. But I kept an eye on him.

Not long after this experience I had a very nice lady, named Jesse, who was the mother of a friend of mine come to see me.  She had had labwork done somewhere else and her cholesterol had come back as 735 mg/dl.  Her doctor had put her on a cholesterol-lowering medicine, but she was still distressed because she had a friend who remarked to her, “I didn’t know you could even be alive with a cholesterol that high.”  I examined her and found her to be a very mildly overweight 72 year old lady with no signs of anything out of the ordinary.  I rechecked her blood.

Total cholesterol: 424
LDL: ?
HDL: ?
TG: 1828

Along with these lipid labs, her fasting blood sugar came back at 154 mg/dl.  So, not only did she have major lipid abnormalities, she had blood sugar that was in the diabetic range.

I gave her instructions on the diet and told her to stay on her cholesterol-lowering meds until we checked her again in three weeks.

Three weeks later:

Total cholesterol: 186
LDL: 118
HDL: 27
TG: 201

I was surprised this time, but not stunned.  Along with these mega improvements in her lipids, Jesse’s fasting blood sugar was 90.

I told her she could go ahead and discontinue her cholesterol-lowering medications because her cholesterol was normal.  She looked at me kind of funny and said, “I stopped them when I started the diet.  That’s what I thought you said to do.”

The last of my four patients came along about two weeks after Jesse.  This woman, we’ll call Betsy, was famous in Little Rock.  Actually, she wasn’t the famous one – her husband was – but she got plenty of notoriety herself.  And just in case you’re wondering, it wasn’t Hillary.

She came to see me because she had picked up a little excess weight and wanted to get it off.  I went through my normal workup and found Betsy to be a moderately overweight woman with no other physical signs of ill health.

Her labs told another story.

Total cholesterol: 416
LDL: ?
HDL: ?
TG: 2992

(Like Jesse’s and Angie’s labs, Betsy’s didn’t show HDL because the serum was too lipemic.)

After three weeks on the program, Betsy lost 11 pounds and came through with the following labs:

Total cholesterol: 177
LDL: 122
HDL: 36
TG: 94

By then, I was kind of getting used to these seemingly miraculous lipid improvements, so I was no longer stunned.  But it did confirm that I was on the right track.

After my experiences with these four patients, all of whom came to see me over about a three month period, I became convinced that my theorizing about the potent effects of reducing insulin was based in reality.  Over the ensuing years, I saw many, many more patients with disturbed lipid metabolism whom I successfully treated with low-carb, high-fat diets, but these four, coming as close together as they did in the early days of my feeling my way along in my low-carb career, gave me the conviction to press on.

I am eternally grateful to them.

Low-carb gaining a foothold…with the mainstream

The video below shows Chris Gardner, Ph.D., researcher from Stanford University, giving a presentation about the data he generated when he compared the Atkins diet to the Ornish diet, the Zone diet and the LEARN diet.  You all probably remember this study, which he published in JAMA in 2007, showing the low-carb diet brought about greater weight loss and better lab value improvement than the other three diets.

As you watch this long video (and you should watch it; it’s extremely entertaining and filled with a ton of good info), there are a few things you should note.

Before we get to that though, let me fill you in on the LEARN diet.

Most of you, I’m sure, are familiar with the ultra-low-fat Ornish diet and the 30-40-30 protein-carb-fat ratio of the Zone diet, but you may not be aware of the LEARN diet.  LEARN stands for Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships and Nutrition and is the brainchild of Kelly Brownell at Yale.  The LEARN diet is a low-calorie regimen that recommends 55-60 percent of calories as carbohydrate and under 10 percent of calories as saturated fat.  The LEARN program is big with academics (since it was created by one of their own) and is the diet typically used when a diet program is required as part of a study.  In fact, the LEARN manual was developed to bring some consistency to the nutritional regimens followed in research.  As a consequence of its widespread use in academia, it has also become the program that pretty much mirrors the national guidelines.  Or, to put it another way, the nutritional guidelines set by academics pretty much mirror the LEARN program.

If you look at the carb content of the LEARN program and realize that it is the basis for the national nutritional guidelines, you can LEARN why we have an obesity epidemic.  But that’s another subject.

First off, at about 17:10 in the video, Dr. Gardner talks about how Dean Ornish got mad at him for publishing this study.  (So did Barry Sears, author of the Zone, but Dr. Gardner didn’t mention him.)  Both Ornish and Sears got their noses out of joint after this study and sniffed that the study results didn’t really apply to their programs because clearly the data showed that the subjects assigned to their specific diets really weren’t following the diet as designed.  Both missed the point.

As Dr. Gardner plainly says, the study is of specific diet books and how patients lose (or don’t lose) weight following these books.  You can’t recruit a million people for a nutritional study in which you hold their hands throughout.  But you can write a book that a million or more people read and follow.  What Gardner was looking for in this study was how people would do following a diet book advocating a specific program as compared to others on different diet books promoting different diets.

As part of the structure of the study, he randomized subjects to the various diets, then had them come in weekly for eight weeks to visit with a dietitian who went over the book with them.  He relates an interesting story at about 26:10 that I’m sure is absolutely true.  Many of the people who were randomized to their particular diet were demoralized because they had already done that diet in the past and hadn’t done particularly well on it.  After going through the book with the dietitian, these same people realized they hadn’t really read the book very well – if at all – the first time through.  Once they really read and understood it, they were fired up and ready to go.  Based on may questions MD and I have received about our books, I know this only too well.

Earlier in the video, at about the 17:10 point, Dr. Gardner makes an observation that all of us using low-carb diets know well.  He is discussing how reducing carbs makes triglycerides go down and adding fat makes HDL go up.  He then says that all these people have come into the clinic he is involved with after having been on Ornish or McDougall only to find their triglycerides have skyrocketed and their HDLs have dropped off the chart.  He tells them to replace some of the carbohydrate with good quality “unsaturated fats” (sigh), and their labs revert to normal.

At about the 29:00 mark, Dr Gardner points out that as the data came in and was charted, it became apparent that it was difficult for people to stick with the Ornish or Zone diets, and when these subjects fell short of following their specific program, their macronutrient-consumption data ended up falling right smack into the middle of the LEARN data, or the national nutritional guidelines.  Those on the Atkins diet morphed a little (toward a more Protein Power sort of plan, but not quite), but not nearly as much as those on the low-fat diets did.  After a year, the data ended up showing a bunch of subjects essentially following the national nutritional guidelines and another, smaller bunch, following a semi-Atkins diet.

As Dr. Gardner points out, in virtually every parameter measured, those following the Atkins book who ended up following a semi-Atkins diet triumphed over those following the other books, all of whom ended up following the national nutritional guidelines.  Which, of course, is no surprise to most readers of this blog.

But it was a huge surprise to Dr. Gardner, a 25-year-long vegetarian.  He admitted it was a bitter pill to swallow, but the data are what the data are.  And he was man enough to admit it.  I think this study and Dr. Gardner’s engaging presentation style will start getting some notice from mainstreamers.  King Canute couldn’t hold back the tide, and I don’t think the lipophobes will be able to hold back low-carb diets forever.  This is a great video to show Doubting Thomases if they will take the time to watch it.

Aside from the finding that the low-carb diet was vastly superior, a lot of other data came to light as a consequence of this study.  Some people did great on Ornish or the Zone while others did poorly on Atkins.  Why?  You would think that since all the subjects were humans, they would all respond the same way, but they didn’t.

This intrigued Dr. Gardner, so he began slicing and dicing the data to see what he could come up with.  At about the 40:00 point on the video, he discussed a few papers showing that people who are insulin sensitive actually do better on high-carb diets than they do on low-carb diets, whereas those who are insulin resistant do just the opposite.

I pulled all the papers he discussed and plan on reading them over the next ten days while I’m spending (literally) about 24 hours in an airplane seat.  (As part of our Sous Vide Supreme tour, MD and I leave tomorrow for Dallas, then Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas, so I’ll have plenty of time to read.) I do find this information fascinating, but I have a few reservations as well.  There are very few moderate to significantly overweight people who aren’t insulin resistant to some degree, so I’ll be curious to see how the authors of these papers define insulin resistance.

Based on my own experience with a whole lot of patients, there are a few, but not many, overweight people–usually women, but occasionally men–whose lab reports show normal insulin sensitivity. I treated them with a low-carb diet, and they did well.  But I didn’t randomize these apparently insulin-sensitive overweight patients into two groups and put one group on a low-carb diet and the other on a low-fat, high-carb diet, so I can’t really say the ones I treated did better than they would have on a low-fat diet.

What I do know, however, is that those who have been overweight and insulin resistant, and who lose their weight and restore their insulin sensitivity with a low-carb diet, will regain in a heartbeat if they go on a high-carb diet for maintenance.  So, it’s hard to reconcile this fact that I know from hands-on experience with the data Dr. Gardner presented.

It could have something to do with the genetics that prevent the development of insulin resistance in the first place.  I’ll post on my thought about this paradox after I’ve read the relevant papers and reflected on them.

I had only one real objection to this presentation.  At the end, during the Q & A, someone asked a question about ketosis, and Dr. Gardner was clearly in above his head.  He did make the distinction between the ketosis one experiences on a low-carb diet and the dangerous ketoacidosis that those with uncontrolled type I diabetes are subject to, but he seemed to be uncertain as to whether low-carb ketosis was harmful over the long run.  He did remark that everyone is in ketosis part of the day, but then he kind of tossed it off by saying that the people on the Atkins diet weren’t really following it that closely and so weren’t really in ketosis for that long.  I wish had addressed the ketosis situation head on.  There is no danger in being in ketosis for extended periods of time.  Ketones are normal fuels of respiration and don’t pose any problems over the long haul.  In fact, some research has shown that ketones are a preferred fuel of many organs including the heart. (Veech et al)

As I’ll be traveling a lot the next 10 days, and since I don’t know my exact schedule even yet, I can’t promise a lot of regular posting.  But I will check the blog often and put up the comments as they come in.  If any of you have experience with trying a low-fat diet after losing on a low-carb diet, I would love to hear about it.

The Vegetarian Myth

Before I get into a discussion of the absolutely phenomenal book you see pictured at the right, I’ve got a few disclosures to make.  First, I’m not much of a believer in the notion of man-made global warming or climate change (as they now call it since temperatures have been constantly falling instead of rising).  I’m a denier, in the pejorative term used by those who are believers.

Second, I’m not particularly pro-feminist.  And I certainly don’t hang around with any self-proclaimed radical feminists.  I have a wife who is smarter than I am, who is more talented than I am, and who, pound for pound, is probably a better athlete than I am, and I’m not bad. (In my defense, I can read much, much faster than she, but, she has better comprehension.) I long ago gave up the idea (if I ever really considered it seriously) that men are superior to women in any ways other than brute strength.  Having said that, however, I do believe that men are better suited to certain endeavors than woman and vice verse, but that doesn’t mean either men or women should be denied the opportunity to give whatever it is they want to do a whirl just because of their sex.  I guess I consider myself an egalitarian.  But from what I’ve seen of radical feminists, I’m not sure that I would count myself a big fan.

Given the above, you wouldn’t think I would enjoy and recommend a book written by a self-proclaimed radical feminist who is obviously a believer in global warming and the impending end of the earth as we know it.  I wouldn’t think so, either. Not my cup of tea even when it is sort of preaching to the choir.

But I can tell you that Lierre Keith’s book is beyond fantastic.  It is easily the best book I’ve read since Mistakes Were Made, maybe even better.  Everyone should read this book, vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike.  If you’re a radical feminist, you should read this book; if you’re a male chauvinist, you should read this book; if you have children, especially female children, you should read this book; if you are a young woman (or man) you should read this book; if you love animals, you should read this book; if you hate vegetarians, you should read this book; if you are contemplating the vegetarian way of life, you should definitely read this book; if you have a vegetarian friend or family member, you should this book and so should your friend.  As MD said after she read it, “everyone who eats should read this book.”

Anyone who has ever read a book on writing has come across the hackneyed piece of advice to cut open a vein and bleed on the page.  Lierre Keith, the author of this book, has come closer to literally doing that than almost any writer I’ve ever read.  Not only does her passion for her subject bleed through in almost every sentence, she is a superb lyrical prose stylist.  My book is dog eared, underlined and annotated from front to back – I can’t remember anything I’ve read that has contained so many terrific lines.

In fact The Vegetarian Myth is filled with so many good quotes (most by the author but some from other authors) that I was reminded of the old joke about the redneck who went to see a performance of Hamlet.  When the show let out, someone asked him what he thought of it.  Replied he:  It wasn’t nothin’ but a whole bunch of quotes all strung together.  As you’ll see when I ‘quote’ them below, The Vegetarian Myth contains quotable lines and paragraphs at about the same rate Hamlet does.

Ms. Keith was a practicing vegetarian (vegan) for twenty years, driven by her passion for kindness and justice for all creatures.  She couldn’t bear the thought of even killing a garden slug, or, for that matter, even removing a garden slug from her garden to a place where something or someone else might kill it.  Her years of compassionate avoidance of any foods of animal origin cost her her health.  Her story of coming to grips with the realization that whatever she ate came as a consequence of some living being’s having to die form the matrix onto which her narrative hangs.

You can read the first 14 manuscript pages of the book on the author’s website.  I have quoted from these 14 pages liberally below.

The introduction to The Vegetarian Myth explores Ms. Keith’s rationale for writing such a book, a book that, given her years of walking the vegetarian walk, must have been incredibly difficult to write.  She says as much with her first sentence.

She ponders the idea of factory farming, which she loathes, and the misbegotten idea that most people hold (not most readers of this blog, but most of the people in the world) that grains are good, not only for people, but for many animals as well.  And the common misconception that agriculture, the growing of annual grains and plants, is a wonderful, kind, sustainable activity.

This misunderstanding is born of ignorance, an ignorance that runs the length and breadth of the vegetarian myth, through the nature of agriculture and ending in the nature of life. We are urban industrialists, and we don’t know the origins of our food. This includes vegetarians, despite their claims to the truth. It included me, too, for twenty years. Anyone who ate meat was in denial; only I had faced the facts. Certainly, most people who consume factory-farmed meat have never asked what died and how it died. But frankly, neither have most vegetarians.

The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet, and more of the same won’t save us. The truth is that agriculture requires the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems. The truth is also that life isn’t possible without death, that no matter what you eat, someone has to die to feed you.

I want a full accounting, an accounting that goes way beyond what’s dead on your plate. I’m asking about everything that died in the process, everything that was killed to get that food onto your plate. That’s the more radical question, and it’s the only question that will produce the truth. How many rivers were dammed and drained, how many prairies plowed and forests pulled down, how much topsoil turned to dust and blown into ghosts? I want to know about all the species—not just the individuals, but the entire species—the chinook, the bison, the grasshopper sparrows, the grey wolves. And I want more than just the number of dead and gone. I want them back.

After she had seen the error of her ways as a vegan and had been eating meat for two years, for reasons unknown to her, the author continued to surf the same vegan websites and message boards she had for years.  Until she read one post that was so bizarre that she finally realized the large intellectual gap that had widened between her rationale thinking and the cult like thinking of, well, a cult.  It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

But one post marked a turning point. A vegan flushed out his idea to keep animals from being killed—not by humans, but by other animals. Someone should build a fence down the middle of the Serengeti, and divide the predators from the prey. Killing is wrong and no animals should ever have to die, so the big cats and wild canines would go on one side, while the wildebeests and zebras would live on the other. He knew the carnivores would be okay because they didn’t need to be carnivores. That was a lie the meat industry told. He’d seen his dog eat grass: therefore, dogs could live on grass.

No one objected. In fact, others chimed in. My cat eats grass, too, one woman added, all enthusiasm. So does mine! someone else posted. Everyone agreed that fencing was the solution to animal death.

Note well that the site for this liberatory project was Africa. No one mentioned the North American prairie, where carnivores and ruminants alike have been extirpated for the  annual grains that vegetarians embrace. But I’ll return to that in Chapter 3.

I knew enough to know that this was insane. But no one else on the message board could see anything wrong with the scheme. So, on the theory that many readers lack the knowledge to judge this plan, I’m going to walk you through this.

Carnivores cannot survive on cellulose. They may on occasion eat grass, but they use it medicinally, usually as a purgative to clear their digestive tracts of parasites. Ruminants, on the other hand, have evolved to eat grass. They have a rumen (hence, ruminant), the first in a series of multiple stomachs that acts as a fermentative vat. What’s actually happening inside a cow or a zebra is that bacteria eat the grass, and the animals eat the bacteria.

Lions and hyenas and humans don’t have a ruminant’s digestive system. Literally from our teeth to our rectums we are designed for meat. We have no mechanism to digest cellulose.

So on the carnivore side of the fence, starvation will take every animal. Some will last longer than others, and those some will end their days as cannibals. The scavengers will have a Fat Tuesday party, but when the bones are picked clean, they’ll starve as well. The graveyard won’t end there. Without grazers to eat the grass, the land will eventually turn to desert.

Why? Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces.

But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leech away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.

On the ruminant side of the fence, the wildebeests and friends will reproduce as effectively as ever. But without the check of predators, there will quickly be more grazers than grass. The animals will outstrip their food source, eat the plants down to the ground, and then starve to death, leaving behind a seriously degraded landscape.

The lesson here is obvious, though it is profound enough to inspire a religion: we need to be eaten as much as we need to eat. The grazers need their daily cellulose, but the grass also needs the animals. It needs the manure, with its nitrogen, minerals, and bacteria; it needs the mechanical check of grazing activity; and it needs the resources stored in animal bodies and freed up by degraders when animals die.

The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators and prey. These are not one-way relationships, not arrangements of dominance and subordination. We aren’t exploiting each other by eating. We are only taking turns.

That was my last visit to the vegan message boards. I realized then that people so deeply ignorant of the nature of life, with its mineral cycle and carbon trade, its balance points around an ancient circle of producers, consumers, and degraders, weren’t going to be able to guide me or, indeed, make any useful decisions about sustainable human culture. By turning from adult knowledge, the knowledge that death is embedded in every creature’s sustenance, from bacteria to grizzly bears, they would never be able to feed the emotional and spiritual hunger that ached in me from accepting that knowledge. Maybe in the end this book is an attempt to soothe that ache myself.

How anyone who can read these 14 pages and not purchase and read this book is beyond me.

After the introduction which deals with why the author wrote the book, The Vegetarian Myth is divided into four sections: Moral Vegetarians, Political Vegetarians, Nutritional Vegetarians, and To Save the World.

The first three of these sections are the author’s in-depth refutations of the moral, political and nutritional arguments that vegetarians are constantly putting forth.  She does a masterful job.

In the Moral Vegetarians chapter, the author addresses the moral issue of killing animals for our own food.  She beautifully makes her case by cutting to the heart of the matter:

What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment.  It’s information.

And while she was in her 20-year trek in the vegetarian wilderness, she shielded herself from information as most cultists do:

I was on the side of righteousness, and like any fundamentalist, I could only stay there by avoiding information.

She finally realized the truth about agriculture; she figured out that the amber waves of grain are as death dealing as any slaughterhouse.

And agriculture isn’t quite a war because the forests and wetlands and prairies, the rain, the soil, the air, can’t fight back.  Agriculture is really more like ethnic cleansing, wiping out the indigenous dwellers so the invaders can take the land.  It’s biotic cleansing, biocide. … It is not non-violent.  It is not sustainable.  And every bite of food is laden with death.

There is no place left for the buffalo to roam.  There’s only corn, wheat, and soy.  About the only animals that escaped the biotic cleansing of the agriculturalists are small animals like mice and rabbits, and billions of them are killed by the harvesting equipment every year.  Unless you’re out there with a scythe, don’t forget to add them to the death toll of your vegetarian meal.  They count, and they died for your dinner…

Soil, species, rivers.  That’s the death in your food.  Agriculture is carnivorous: what it eats is ecosystems, and it swallows them whole.

In Political Vegetarians she refutes the politics (predominantly liberal) of the vegetarian movement and describes the dark side of political meddling in our ecosystem approved of in the main by PETA and other vegetarian groups.  She follows the money.

Rice, wheat, corn – the annual grains that vegetarians want the world to eat – are thirsty enough to drink whole rivers.

The result has been an unending river of corn, drowning our arteries and our insulin receptors, our rural communities, and poor subsistence economies the world over.  The corn comes at a huge environmental toll: there’s a half gallon of oil in every bushel.  And it’s essentially a massive transfer of money from the US taxpayer to the giant grain cartels, who are able to command the price of grain to be lower than the cost of production, with all of us making up the difference – five billion dollars in subsidies for corn alone, straight into the pockets of Cargill and Monsanto.

Nutritional Vegetarians is about the nutritional inadequacies of a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet.  And she does an absolute bang up job of laying out the rationale for following a no-grain, low-carb diet.

I have a disclosure to make here.  Much of the information in this chapter is based on Protein Power and The Protein Power LifePlan.  MD and I are listed in the acknowledgments, but I swear I didn’t know this until I bought the book.  We aren’t the only ones, but there are plenty of quotes from us in this chapter.  Gary Taubes, Malcolm Kendrick and (dare I say it) Anthony Colpo are quoted liberally as well.  I would have loved this book just as much if we had never been quoted.

Ms Keith has made a few minor innocuous errors in this chapter, but, all in all, she has done a tremendous job of synthesizing the scientific information into an easy to read, informative format.

The Nutritional Vegetarians section isn’t just about the science of why vegetarianism is bad and meat eating is good, it gets into the nutritional politics (as opposed to the vegetarian politics in the previous section) as well.  Ms Keith shows how we got to where we are by the nutritional strong arming by the McGovern committee back in the late 1970s.  George McGovern (a senator from a grain-producing state) and his cronies basically set the nutritional standards under which we are still oppressed.  They have been a disaster, as some scientists at the time predicted they would be.

And some scientists knew ahead of time that they would be.  Phil Handler, the president of hte National Academy of Scientists asked Congress, “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”  Dr. Pete Ahrens, an expert on cholesterol metabolism, told the McGovern committee that the effects of a low-fat diet weren’t a scientific matter but “a betting matter.”

It’s twenty-five years later and we aren’t winning this bet.  Each US American now eats sixty pounds more grain per annum and thirty pounds more cheap sugars, mostly from corn.  [Is it any wonder we’re all fat?]

The result, Dietary Goals for Americans, set in motion a cast sea change in the public’s beliefs and behaviors. … Dietary Goals was a predictable victory in a war that started ten thousand years ago.  What really won were those annual grasses that had long since turned humans into mercenaries against the rest of the planet.  We would now enshrine them like demi-gods, those whole grains and their sweet, opiate seductions, believing in their power to bestow health and long life, even while they slowly ate us alive.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book review that was positive from beginning to end, and this one is no exception.  Based on the many comments I’ve gotten on this blog and my response to them, I’m sure many of you will find my main objection surprising.  There is too much politics in the book.  Not nutritional politics, but feminist politics.

I know, I know, I let my libertarian leanings come through in all kinds of blog posts and comment answers, but there is a difference.  My blog is just that – a weblog of things I find interesting or informative.  And it’s free.  I don’t particularly like to pay for a book (and I paid full price for this one plus shipping) on a given subject then be beaten over the head with a political viewpoint.  I guarantee you that our new book has zero politics in it.  And if people bought our book expecting to learn about getting rid of their middle-aged middles and were fed a generous dose of my politics mixed in with the information, I would expect them to be flamed.

To give the author her due in this matter, the vegetarian ideology that had her in its grasp for 20 years was intertwined with her feminist politics, so a bit of said politics are necessary to describe how she was so taken in for so long.  But I think she went a little overboard with it.

And, I think the last section of the book – To Save the World – is the weakest part of the book.  The author makes several recommendations, all of which (save one) are, in my opinion totally unrealistic.  But I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions after you’ve read the book.

I’ve read that when people are asked to recall what they remember of something they read, they tend to remember the first thing in the piece and the last thing.  Most of the middle melds into a vague memory of what the article was about.  I certainly don’t want people to remember this last negative part I wrote and let it dissuade them from reading this book.  The good parts of the book so far outweigh the not-so-good parts that there is really no contest.

At a time when PETA and other vegetarian groups are mobilizing and ramping up their activity levels, a book such as this one bringing sanity to the debate is more important than ever.  And don’t think these groups aren’t becoming more active.  In the past, PETA and PETAphiles pretty much devoted their educational efforts toward the idea that eating animals was cruel.  Now they are starting to make the case that a vegetarian diet will solve the obesity epidemic.  Take a look at this billboard in Jacksonville, Florida.

whales

If you find this sign annoying, buy The Vegetarian Myth and do your part to fight back. And if you have or know anyone with a daughter who is contemplating going vegetarian (young females are the most common victims), please make this book available.  It could be the most important thing you ever do for the long-term mental and physical health of a young woman.

If you’ve made it this far in this long review, take a couple of minutes and watch this YouTube of Lierre Keith at a book event; she’s as fascinating to listen to as she is to read.

Hard at work on Orcas Island

Deer Harbor, Orcas Island blog

After meetings all day long Monday and Tuesday, we left with our partner to head for his place on Orcas Island.  We drove for an hour and a half then took a ferry for an hour to get there where his wife, who had gone up the day before, was patiently waiting.  We went to dinner and headed to the house.  We got there long after dark and crashed.  I always love to wake up in the morning in a place that I haven’t yet really seen because I arrived under the cover of darkness the night before.

Our partner’s house has a phenomenal view overlooking the sound and is nestled in among the Douglas firs, many of which are at least four feet in diameter.  It is really a forest primeval and a great place to vacation. Unfortunately, we had come to work.

After a breakfast of eggs and bacon, we set to.  MD was working inside on our traveling laptop while I sat outside on the deck and made calls.  In the photo below, our partner is on the phone to London and I’m on the phone to God only knows, since I had about a dozen calls I made while he made only the one.

Hard at work blog

As you can see, it’s not too shabby a place to work.  And work we did.  We got a lot accomplished before we took a break to set out the crab traps to get our dinner for that night.

We rowed out to the boat, unhooked from the mooring ball and headed out to our partner’s secret crabbing spot a couple of miles away.  It was so secret that we could locate it only by the dozens of other crab traps there.

MD tethers boat blogBaiting trap blog

After setting out the trap, we came back, worked a little more, then broke for lunch.  We went into the tiny town of Eastsound and ate at Roses, a lovely little restaurant, serving all natural or organic food.  Our friends needed to run by the hardware store, where I found the item pictured below.  It is a testament to America today (and the whole world, I fear,) when manufacturers can make money producing products like this one.  Thirty years ago there would not have been enough demand to justify mass producing these chairs.  But today I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t one of their biggest sellers (no pun intended).  As you can see from the photo, it is named The Big Boy, which implies a large, football-lineman-like physique, but which is really a euphemism for The Obese Boy (or girl).  As I’ve written before, these things make my blood boil, because so many people have been victimized by doing what the ‘authorities’ recommended they do.

We went back to the house, worked for the rest of the afternoon until it was Jameson time.  We walked to the beach (about 50 yards from the house) and sat in the sun waiting for the tide to get right so we could head for our crab trap. In due course, we rowed back to the boat, MD unhooked us again, and we were off to the traps.  On the way there we saw a commotion ahead in the water.  At first I thought it was dolphins, but as we got closer we realized it was two seals (not sea lions) fighting.  They were going at it hammer and tongs.  They would surface with one latched on to the other’s neck with its teeth, then both would submerge.  I thought they might just be playing until I noticed the blood everywhere.  The fight continued as we circled around watching.  I had my camera, but couldn’t get a decent photo because every time I clicked the shutter, the seals went back under during the lag between clicking and the shutter opening.  At last one seal gave up and swam away.  So we went on our way to the crabbing spot.

Once there I got the joy of pulling up the trap from about 80 feet of depth.  As it neared the surface, we could see a few Dungeness crabs within, so we knew we had dinner.

The catch blog

When we got back to shore, we set about cleaning the crabs, an activity fraught with a little peril.  The crabs are not particularly happy about being dragged from their briny lairs and are especially not happy to be handled.  They are extremely quick and have large, strong pincer claws in the front; they should be dealt with with care if you value your fingers.  I’ve never been pinched, but others who have say it hurts like the devil, and that they’re hard to dislodge once they’ve got a grip.

The cleaning is a grisly process.  You grab the crabs with both hands with one had holding all the claws on one side and the other hand holding all the claws on the other.  Grabbing them thusly is the difficult part, because they are strong and quick.  Once you’ve got them, you bang them down on their middles on some kind of an edge.  In this case, the edge of the aluminum row boat worked fine.  As the shells break, you pull hard on the handfuls of legs on both sides, which separate, and you end up with all the edible crab in either hand.

After you’ve got the legs apart, you then have to pick the gills out of the meat, which doesn’t take long, and then you’re ready to cook.

To cook, you simply put the legs into boiling salt water (water that we took from the ocean) for 8 to 10 minutes.  When you’re finished and plate them up, here’s what you have.  And they are delicious…if you like fresh Dungeness crab dipped in butter.

Cooked crabs blog

After dinner and cleaning up, we watched the gorgeous sunset over the sound.  We stayed up talking until about midnight, then hit the sack, got up and started a new day that was a repeat of the first.  Same people, same work, different clothes and different crabs, but basically the same day.  We repeated it a couple of times, then reversed our trek via the ferry and the drive to Seattle where we caught our plane home.

Suset on Orcas blog

Good news!  Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I received an email from our publisher informing me that they had actual printed books in hand and would be sending a couple our way.  This really does mean that they will be available before the publication date of September 8.  They will probably be in stores within a couple of weeks and, I would imagine, be available on Amazon and other online retailers soon.

If you plan to purchase the book it would really help if you pre-ordered it from Amazon.  The name of the game in book writing is to get on the NY Times list, and that involves selling a lot of books within a given week.  So, if we have a ton of pre-orders, they will all go out at once, and be recorded by those who set up the Times list.  Thanks in advance.

I will speak to the publisher tomorrow to see if I can post a lengthy excerpt soon.

Request for help promoting our new book

I’m almost afraid to say it, but it looks like after being delayed two times our new book is actually coming out on September 8.  As we have done with all our books, we will be expected to be available for all kinds of media appearances and interviews.  It is a giant pain, but it has to be done.  It’s part of the book-writing gig.  If you don’t sign up to do the PR, they don’t sign up to publish your book. (If you want to see a little of what a book tour is like, read this piece by Joe Queenan to see what we’re up against. Sometime I’ll write a piece on the nightmare of my first three-week-long book tour and my dealings with the escorts that are a part of the book tour experience.)

MD and I have been in discussion with our publisher and have gotten permission to excerpt part of the book, which I will do on this blog soon.  The book is about the weight gain that seems an inevitable part of moving into and through middle age and how this weight is different from that gained in the younger years.  It’s a kind of bad news, good news story because middle-age weight comes from a more dangerous kind of fat (the bad news), but a kind of fat that is fairly easy to lose (the good news).  But despite its being easier to lose, it still requires some effort…and a little different approach.  And, surprisingly, most of this fat can be lost in a 6-week window.  That doesn’t mean that we promise that all weight will be lost in a 6-week window, but most of the middle-aged weight can be ditched or at least significantly shed in this time period – thus the title.

Since we don’t have an active practice right now, most of the subjects we’ve given the diet to are former patients, friends and relatives.  We have had almost unbelievable success with those who gave the program a fair try.  We had one middle-aged friend who had struggled with lipid problems for years.  Despite our telling her not to worry and not to go on a statin because those drugs have never been shown to be beneficial for women, she was worried.  Her doctor was hectoring her, telling her that she would have to go on a statin if her lipids didn’t come into line.  She had an appointment in two weeks, so she went on the first two weeks of the program, then went to her doctor.  Not only did she lose eight pounds in her first two weeks, her lipid numbers plummeted.  Her total cholesterol fell from 240 to 174; her triglycerides dropped to below 100; and her HDL ran up to 60.  Happily, this all happened during the editing phase of the book, so we were able to include her story.  Other subjects have done as well if not better.

Another story is that of a business associate of ours who has gradually gained weight over the past 15 years who tried the plan.  She has tried diets of one kind or another for about 10 years.  She loses a little, but it’s been a tough slog for her.  She went on the new program and also lost eight pounds the first two weeks, which was a much greater loss than she had ever experienced.  A 60-year-old friend of ours easily lost 20 pounds over the course of his 6-week effort and had remarkable improvement in his lipids.  His wife had been on an HCG program that we had tried to talk her out of.  When she saw her husband lose substantially faster than she did, and without going on a 500 calorie diet, she switched to our program and her weight loss picked up and her measurements improved dramatically.

We have had multiple successes like the ones above, but, as I said, all are friends, relatives or business associates.  And they are not people who are keen on giving their testimonials to various media sources.  The first lady, mentioned above, works in the entertainment business – she was the director of a popular sitcom that most readers of this blog would probably be familiar with.  She doesn’t mind telling her story, but she doesn’t want her picture shown.  We found this out when the PR department of our publisher contacted us about some major interest in our book by a major women’s magazine.  They had read an advance copy of our book and were interested in making it a cover story.  They asked if we had any success stories they could interview and build a story around complete with photos.  We said sure and started calling all our ‘patients.’  Each one declined to be interviewed or would be interviewed but didn’t want her actual name used.  All refused to have their photo appear in the article.  So, we were left holding the bag, so to speak.

So, here is my request.  If any of you out there who are middle-aged and overweight would like to try the program, we will send you an advance copy of the book.  The deal is that you must be willing to have your real name and photo used by any media that approach you. This could be magazines, newspapers, online articles, and/or radio. You must also be willing to go on TV with us (or by yourself) – either national or local – and tell your story.  Should a TV appearance be required, generally all your expenses will be picked up by the television station, and if not, then you need not appear.  All you have to do is read the book, follow the program, keep us updated about your progress and tell anyone from the media who might contact you how you fared on the regimen.

Our publisher will let us recruit only 20 people for this project, so we can’t make it available to everyone who wants to do it.  We will select the 20 people from the applications we receive.  I have no idea how many that might be: it could be five or it could be 50.  I just don’t know.

I’ve set up a gmail account for anyone who is interested.  Please send an email giving your particulars, i.e., age, sex, weight, dietary history (what kind of diets you’ve been on, when and with what degree of success), medications, other disorders (diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, etc.), contact info and a photo if you have one.

Send to:

6weekcure at gmail dot com

Put ‘6weekcure’ in the subject line of your message.

We’re also looking to recruit a few people in other categories for some more immediate media exposure.  So, if you have used the shakes for weight loss that I have given the recipe for multiple times in the comments section of this blog, send an email to the above gmail address and put ‘Shakes’ in the subject line.

If you have been on an all-meat diet and done well, drop us a note and put ‘All meat’ in the subject line.

MD and I thank you, in advance, for being willing to help.

Addendum:  We have received over 300 requests from people wishing to try the program in our book.  Since our publisher is providing us with only 20 copies, we have to terminate the offer at this point.  We will go through the 300 plus submissions and contact all those who wrote shortly.  Thanks for all your interest.

Disney Small World ride a casualty of the obesity epidemic

Small World small

MD and I just spent a couple of days with the grandkids at Disneyland.  They’re here visiting for a couple of weeks, so we decided to bite the bullet and take them on the front end and get it over with instead of waiting until the end, as we usually do, and dreading it the entire time.  It was brutal but it is now over.

I loathe Disneyland and refer to it as the biggest people trap ever built by a mouse.  Which isn’t an original, but I’ve been saying it for so long that I’ve forgotten where I heard it years ago.

This year I at least was able to avoid the Small World ride.  Our 7-year-old grandson informed us that it was ‘lame.’  I couldn’t have agreed more.  I wasn’t so lucky a couple of years ago, however.  We took the kids then and did end up going on the Small World ride, which experience the grandkid remembered when he referred to the ride as being lame.

For those of you lucky enough to have escaped the Disneyland experience, the Small World ride is easily the most inane amusement park ride ever conceived by the mind of man.  You get in these little fiberglass flat-bottomed boats and cruise through this serpentine canal that wends its way around  tableaus of little dolls of various nationalities (as in photo above) doing their mechanical dances to what is easily the most nauseating piece of music ever written. Unlike most Disneyland rides that you wait an hour to get on and are then over in about 45 seconds, the Small World ride is interminable.  It goes on and on and on.  Which is, I suppose, its only virtue because at least it is dark and air conditioned, a welcome change from the heat radiating up from the vast concrete underpinnings of the park. (The downside is that you’ve been exposed to the nauseating song for so long that it has wedged itself into your brain and you can’t get it out for the rest of the day.)

When I last rode the ride,  it had just reopened after having been closed for almost a year for renovations.  I asked one of the attendants what had changed, hoping for an de-inane-ation of the ride.  The guy told me it hadn’t changed at all; they had just made the boats a little bigger and deepened the channel.  Then he told me it was because the guests of the park had become so much larger than when the ride went in in the 60s and were causing the boats to bottom out.

The park was so crowded and hot when we went two years ago that I kind of went brain dead.  All I wanted to do was slog through and get it behind me.  This time the weather was better and, thanks to the recession, the park wasn’t as crowded.  And I wasn’t so miserable, so I had a chance to look around a little more.

If Disneyland is any indication, there is no question we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  I tried to make some kind of semi-accurate estimate by doing little statistical analyses when  was waiting around for rides.  It looked to me that about 40 percent of adults were out and out obese, some morbidly so.  And I would estimate that of the folks who weren’t actually obese, at least 85 percent of them were overweight. A normal weight adult at Disneyland was a rarity.

What really surprised me was the state of obesity of the Disneyland staff.  When I was in college I got a job at Disneyland (which in part accounts for my loathing of the place).  I was a conductor on the train that circumnavigates the park.  It was one of the worst jobs I ever had.  But it did have its perks.  At that time, all the employees were college students or college dropouts who were the full time workers.  In keeping with the Disney image at the time, just about all the young employees selected were clean cut and nice looking.  As a consequence, the place was kind of a meat market.  Employee parties were legendary.  That part I enjoyed, but my enjoyment was somewhat tempered by the fact that I had a steady girlfriend at the time who also worked at Disneyland.

Now, the young employees are a reflection of the population in general.  At least half of them are obese, some almost morbidly so.  I don’t know if this represents the student body of the local college or what, but it certainly has changed over the past few decades.

Despite my kind of flippant tone in this post, I don’t find the large numbers of obese guests (as the Disneyland staff refers to the people paying to go there) and staff amusing in the slightest.  I think it is tragic.  As I’ve said many times before, we have all been the unwitting subjects of a long experiment, the hypothesis of which is that since fat is bad and carbs are good, we should all eat low-fat, high-carb diets.  If so, says this hypothesis, obesity will go away.  Well, it hasn’t.  It has gotten much, much worse.  And the sad, sad thing is that this hypothesis was never validated scientifically before we were all enrolled in the experiment.  When I see dozens and dozens of young people looking like the one pictured above, it makes my blood boil.  Most of the people who inflicted this nonsense on us are still around and still pushing the carbs and still blaming the fat in the diet. Tar and feathers spring to mind.

When I thought I was going to have to subject myself to the Small World again before my grandson got me out of it by not wanting to go himself, I remembered what the attendant had told me previously about the ride being renovated because of the increase in obesity.  I wondered if it were an urban legend or if it were really true.  When I got back to a computer, I checked it out.

There are a number of investigative reports on the idea, and the consensus seems to be that the renovation was due to the boats bottoming out due to the increased weight of the passengers.  Based on what I saw, I suspect that’s the case because just taking the average weight gain over the last 40 years means the boats are carrying 200 extra pounds more than they were designed for..  Disney officials are staying mum, however.

During my own investigation on the issue, I ran across an interesting article on Snopes.com.  A new twist has been added to many of the rides at Disneyland, especially the ones that hurtle you along in the dark.  Cameras are placed in strategic locations and take photos as the ride comes through.  After you get off, you can go see a photo of yourself and your entire boat or log or train car or whatever conveyance dropping over a precipice projected on a screen near the exit.  Most people are pictured screaming and holding on for dear life.

One of the rides – Splash Mountain – has achieved some notoriety because it has become common for female riders to pull up (or down) their tops as they approach the cameras.  This flashing has become so common that the ride has become known as Flash Mountain.  All of the photos are looked at by park officials before being put up on the screens for all to see.  Here is the Snopes link to the article – a little (very little, actually) navigating will get those with a prurient bent to a page of these photos.  I, of course, had to look as part of my investigation for this blog post.

The Disney officials are good at weeding out these bawdy photos and they are very good at feeding the hordes of overweight people exactly what they want.  Disneyland is carb heaven.  That’s just about all you can find.  There are sweetened cold drinks, a variety of ice cream products, cotton candy, gummy sweets, funnel cakes and other high-carb junk of every stripe.  It is almost impossible to avoid carbs there.  It can be done, but it is difficult and requires a lot of effort.  The vast majority of the people I saw weren’t making the effort.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to avoid the Magic Kingdom for at least another couple of years. When I do get dragged there again, I’ll stumble along as I normally do, putting one tired foot in front of the other counting the hours until it’s over. But, admittedly, I will approach Splash Mountain with a little more exuberance than I have in the past.

Odds and ends June 28, 2009

globe-trotter

Product review: Globe Trotter luggage

The photo you see above is of my beloved Globe Trotter Cetenary roll aboard.  I took it with me on this last trip to Hong Kong and London, much to the chagrin of MD, who hates this piece of luggage with a passion.

MD is a packer extraordinaire and is totally practical.  When it comes to packing, ‘cool looking’ isn’t in her vocabulary.  Since we travel so much, we have gone through many pieces of luggage over the years, and she has found the Hartmann bags best for her particular style of packing.  She can cram more into her Hartmann bags than any one believes possible.  And when she pulls her packed stuff out, it all looks great.

She has evaluated other luggage (usually at my insistence), but always defaults to Hartmann whenever she needs a new bag.  She picks the Hartmann bag she thinks looks the best, but would never, ever trade looks for utility.

I, on the other hand, will put up with a little loss in utility for a big load of cool.  And, in my opinion, the Globe Trotter luggage is maximally cool.  I’ve lusted over this stuff since the first time I read about it and saw a picture.  Every time we go to London, I would head for the Burlington Arcade where the main Globe Trotter store is housed and slobber over all the different pieces.  Finally, a few years ago, much to MD’s displeasure, I succumbed and purchased the above roll-aboard or trolley, as they call it.

Every time I try to take it anywhere, MD whines.  It isn’t divided into dual compartments- it’s just one empty box on wheels.  And it doesn’t open completely so that the top lays flat.  She feels it limits the amount that can be packed and easily retrieved, and she’s no doubt correct, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.  It has hard sides, so stuff is protected, and it has leather straps so it can’t pop open, and it has a great wheel system, so it’s easy to pull.  But those virtues mean nothing to her, so she always beats me down when I want to take it on one of our trips.

This time, however, I manned up and took it despite her protestations.  It functioned okay at best.  It was a real pain to get into in the overhead of the airplane, what with having to deal with the straps and the locks and the lid.  It’s much easier to simply unzip a bag and reach in.  All the gripes MD had about it turned out to be correct.  I’ve realized that Globe Trotter bags, which have been made since the late 1800s, were designed and built for a time when someone else handled all of your bags when traveling.  They’re made for durability and for unloading once you get to your destination – they’re not worth a flip if you live out of your suitcase as we often do while on the road.

I no doubt looked dashing as I wheeled my trolley across the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, but that didn’t make up for the  all the downside.  Globe Trotter luggage does look great, but in this case, at least for my purposes, the looks don’t trump the lack of utility.

The placebo effect and observational studies

I got the following comment (reprinted here in part) on my last post:

Dr Mike, I must say I’m a bit uneasy about your attitude to observational studies. Doesn’t that in effect disparage most “traditional” knowledge, whether architectural (”If we build things in this way, they don’t seem to fall down”), medical (”People seem to recover from their fever when I give them this combination of herbs”), societal (”If we set up this kind of committee, things seem to function more or less peacefully and efficiently”)? I understand that an observational study doesn’t prove anything by itself but it seems that it’s a more formalized kind of traditional observation, one that, crucially, makes itself transparent and therefore open to future reinterpretation. I may be misunderstanding your stance, but I worry that in effect it negates most of humankind’s historical progress, and any kind of inquiry that doesn’t fit your preferred methods.

This commenter sets up the problem in a way that it can be explained easily.  And probably more clearly than I’ve explained it in the past.

As I pointed out in my post on observational studies, these kinds of studies are worthless for proving causality, but useful in defining hypotheses that can be tested.  Let’s take one line from the comment and is it to demonstrate what I mean.

“People seem to recover from their fever when I give them this combination of herbs.”

A perfect example.  Let’s say that some witch doctor sometime in the past came up with an herbal concoction that helped his ‘patients’ recover from a fever.  Over the years this herbal therapy was passed down from witch doctor to witch doctor, and it worked without fail.  A traditional doctor heard of the cure, tried it on a few patients and found that it did indeed seem to work.  Every time the good doctor prescribed this herbal remedy, patients had their fevers break and began to get well.  This doctor told other doctors, many of whom began using the herbs, and their patients, too, recovered from their fevers.  Patients swore by the stuff and rushed to their doctors to get it whenever they got sick.  Traditional doctors and witch doctors alike were in agreement that the potion works like magic.

Then comes a scientist who looks at the data and says, hey, here is a great observational study.  All the observational data indicate this stuff works like a charm, so let’s make that our hypothesis, which, simply stated, is that Herbal Mixture X reduces fever in those who take it.

Now that the hypothesis has been developed, it needs to be tested.  The best way to test it is with a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.  Our scientist recruits doctors in several clinics across the country who are familiar with the workings of Herbal Mixture X (HMX) and provides them with a study protocol and unlabeled HMX and placebo, both of which look identical.  As per the protocol, any patient who comes into the clinic with a temperature above 101 [degrees] F gets a randomly generated number and either the HMX or the placebo.  Neither the patient nor the doctor knows who is getting the real stuff and who’s getting the placebo, which makes the study double blind.  If the doctor knew who was getting the HMX, then the study would be single-blind, not double-blind, which would not remove the physician bias from the study.  The assumption is that if the doctor doesn’t know which is which, he/she will treat all patients the same and not let some subtle bias slip into the experiment.

When a patient presents to the clinic with a fever, the doctor gives either HMX or placebo and waits to see what happens.  The doctor or staff contact the patients daily and have them report their temperatures.  When temperature has returned to normal, the data point is entered on the patient’s chart.  After a specific number of patients have gone through the protocol, the codes are broken to see which patient got the HMX and which got placebo.  The scientist then crunches the data to see whether the supposed fever-lowering ability of HMX is statistically significantly different from that of placebo.  And, lo and behold, let’s say for argument’s sake there is no difference.

There is a huge outcry from all the docs who have used the treatment.  The study was flawed, they scream.  We know this stuff works.  We’ve used it for years, and we’ve seen it work.  Same goes for the patients who have taken HMX over the years: they swear by it, too.  They say, We don’t care what one stupid study showed – we know it works.

So, another group of scientists takes on the project and repeats the study.  And gets the same results.  HMWX works no better than placebo.  All the same outcries arise, and so the study is repeated a few more times, all with the same result.  Clearly, HMX works no better than placebo when compared in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, yet thousands of doctors and countless patients firmly believe in its efficacy.  What happened?  The observational data seemed to strongly ‘prove’ that HMX worked, but the actual testing showed it to be worthless.  What’s going on here?

What’s going on and what makes HMX work is the magic of the healer telling the patient that the therapy is potent along with the patient’s belief in both the healer and the strength of the remedy.  In other words, the placebo effect.

Don’t believe me?  With the recent death of Michael Jackson, reported by some as due to an overdose of a potent painkiller, said painkiller, Demerol, is much in the news.  I just read a piece written by a doctor on the placebo effect that describes the strength of this phenomenon.  Most physicians who have been in practice for any length of time have similar stories:

Jane D. was a regular visitor to our ER, usually showing up late at night demanding an injection of the narcotic Demerol, the only thing that worked for her severe headaches. One night the staff psychiatrist had the nurse give her an injection of saline instead. It worked! He told Jane she had responded to a placebo, discussed the implications, and thought he’d helped her understand that her problem was psychological. But as he was leaving the room, Jane asked, “Can I get that new medicine again next time instead of the Demerol? It really worked great!”

A placebo as strong as Demerol?  You bet.  Happens all the time.

I’ve been lambasted by many readers over my comments on the lack of efficacy of HCG treatment for weight loss.  Many have received what they consider to be significant benefit from HCG therapy and can’t possibly believe what they were experiencing is the placebo effect.  However, based on the many studies in which HCG was compared to placebo in double-blind testing, it is no better than placebo.  But that doesn’t deter those who don’t believe.  They know it works because it worked for them.  Which, of course, is how the placebo effect operates.  According to the results of at least 20 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, these people would have experienced the same weight loss had they been given saline (salt water) injections or drops under their tongues and been told that the therapy they were given would keep hunger at bay and make their excess weight magically disappear as it had worked for thousands of others.  Of course, the 500 kcal/day diet helps, but in the minds of those who have had success with HCG, it is the hormone that does the trick.

Fat cells and adolescence

It has long been thought that fat cell number became fixed at about the time of late adolescence, and now a study using carbon-14 labeling pretty much confirms that hypothesis.

People get fat in childhood and up to late adolescence by increasing the number of their fat cells; people who get fat after adolescence do so not by adding more fat cells, but by increasing the size of the fat cells they already have.

What this difference in method of storing fat means is that it is more difficult to lose weight after a fat childhood than after gaining excess weight as an adult.  Why?  Because obese children have a large number of normal-sized fat cells that they carry on into adulthood.  To lose weight, they must reduce normal-sized fat cells to subnormal-sized ones, a more difficult prospect than reducing the abnormally-enlarged fat cells that are a consequence of adult weight gain back to normal size.  It can be done as evidenced by all the people who were overweight as children who have lost in adulthood, but it’s a tougher row to hoe than for those who got fat as adults.

Exercise and weight loss

Gary Taubes has taken a lot of heat as have I for publishing the idea that exercise doesn’t bring about weight loss.  The body compensates for increased exercise with increased food intake, and it takes surprisingly little food to replace whatever calories were lost by exercise.  Exercise has multiple benefits, and I recommend it to everyone because of those benefits, but, sadly, increased weight loss isn’t one of them.

This concept is one like the placebo effect that many people have difficulty grasping.  I’ve had countless comments from readers who have related their own stories of how they lost weight by a rigorous exercise regimen.  And they may have, but how do they know it was the exercise that did the trick?  How do they know they were losing weight because they were exercising instead of exercising because they were losing weight?  That statement seems ridiculous on the surface because it appears so obvious that the calories expended in exercise are what causes the weight loss.  But how do we know?  Perhaps because of a change in diet the body needs to ditch a bunch of excess calories from fat stores that are being emptied and does so by increasing the desire to exercise or increase fidgeting in an effort to dissipate this energy.  The increased weight loss brought about by this increase in exercise would be perceived as being caused by the exercise whereas in reality the exercise was caused by the need to lose weight.  It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but it has pretty much been shown in controlled studies that simply increasing exercise doesn’t reliably bring about weight loss.

As I wrote above, when people exercise, they generally increase their food intake to compensate.  But it’s not just the exercises itself that increase food intake, it could be simply thinking about exercise.

Researchers from the University of Illinois reported on two studies in which they correlated food intake with advertising encouraging exercise and even with subliminal words that had exercise connotations.  People ate more when simply hearing about exercise or hearing such words as ‘action’ in the context of something else.

Wrote they:

Alarming rates of overweight and obesity in the United States have led to the development of preventive communications and interventions to promote weight loss. As weight loss is contingent on energy expenditure exceeding caloric intake, one popular approach comprises promotion of physical activity. Media and community campaigns often encourage audiences to increase their physical activity by engaging in structured exercise or active routines. The present research was designed to explore potential effects of such campaigns on eating behavior.

Their conclusion:

Overall, the findings from these two experiments are suggestive in demonstrating that exercise messages can exert inadvertent immediate effects on food intake. Such consequences may not be apparent if exercise is the only measured outcome, but could potentially jeopardize weight loss.

The body likes to keep things on an even keel and maintain homeostasis and has all kinds of mechanisms for doing so.  If you walk past a bakery and smell the aroma of freshly baked bread, your pancreas figures there is going to be some carb coming its way soon, so it releases a little insulin in anticipation.  Apparently the same thing happens if you even think about exercise.  You eat just a little bit more to compensate – even before you exercise.

The dark side of fiber

You just about can’t read anything these days without hearing the virtues of fiber extolled.  It seems that fiber is on everyone’s good list.  Even low-carb and Paleo diet advocates go to the trouble of making all aware that their diets contain plenty of fiber.  No one has anything bad to say about it.

Well, I do.  I can’t let one of these odds and ends posts end without linking to one of my own favorite posts from back in the days when I had only three readers.

Take a look here at a post about a pretty good study showing how fiber really exerts its effects.

My slogan has become: Fiber…who needs it?

Video fun
And, finally, I can’t quit without a video.  I saw a guy like the one in the YouTube below on the Johnny Carson Show years ago.  I was stunned back then that someone could do this, and I’m just as stunned now.  It just doesn’t seem possible.  Enjoy.

Low-carbohydrate diets increase LDL: debunking the myth

Instructor teaches Friedewald equation and bad cholesterol

Instructor teaches Friedewald equation and bad cholesterol

This week sees the publication of yet another study showing the superiority of the low-carbohydrate diet as compared to the low-fat diet.  This study, published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demonstrates that subjects following the low-carb diet experience a decrease in triglyceride levels and an increase in HDL-cholesterol (HDL) levels; and that these changes are accompanied by a minor increase in LDL-cholesterol (LDL), which prompts the authors to issue a caveat.

Yes, although just about all the parameters that lipophobes worry about improved with the low-carb diet, the small increase in LDL has caused great concern and has prompted the authors to gravely announce that this small increase is troublesome and should be monitored closely in anyone who may be at risk for heart disease.  Since most people who go on low-carb diets do so to deal with obesity issues, and since obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, it would appear that this small increase in LDL often seen in those following a low-carb diet could put these dieters at risk.  Does it?  We’ll see.

Let’s take a look at the study. But before we do, let’s digress for just a bit and look at low-carb diet studies in general.

As we’ve discussed in these pages before, there are a couple of ways to do dietary studies in which on diet is compared to another.  You can compare a low-carb diet to a low-fat diet in a way that reflects what happens in real life.  For example, you could randomize your study subjects into two groups, then give those in one group a low-carb diet book (Protein Power, maybe) and those in the other a low-fat diet book (an Ornish or McDougal book, perhaps).  You would instruct both groups to follow their respective diets and come back periodically for evaluation.  When these kinds of studies are done, the low-carb diet invariably brings about more weight loss and greater changes for the better in just about all parameters.  But the folks who are proponents of low-fat diet cry foul.  Why?  Because in virtually all of these studies the subjects on the low-carb diet consume fewer calories than those on the low-fat diets.  Lower-carb, higher-fat diets are satisfying, and it has been shown over and over that those following such diets actually consume fewer calories while still feeling full than do those following ad libitum (eat all you want) low-fat diets.

So, the low-fatters attribute all the improvement in those on the low-carb diets as simply a result of their lower caloric intake.

If you want to eliminate this caloric-deficit difference from your study, then you design a protocol in which calories are the same in both the low-carb and the low-fat arms of the study.  This strays from the real-life way of looking at what is likely to happen when people buy diet books and follow them, but it does offer the advantage of getting rid of the calorie issue.

In these kinds of studies you randomize your subjects into either a low-carb or a low-fat diet group and put both groups on the same number of calories.  At the end of your study, you can see the differences between the two diets – if any – that are brought about without calories being an issue.

The study under our consideration today is of the latter type; it’s one in which both groups were kept on an equal number of calories, a so-called isocaloric diet.

Here’s the setup for the study titled Long-term effects of a very-low-carbohydrate weight loss diet compared with an isocaloric low-fat diet after 12 mo.

The researchers recruited 118 subjects who had abdominal obesity and at least one other metabolic syndrome risk factor and randomized them to either a low-carb or a low-fat diet for one year.

The diets were designed to be isocaloric with moderate energy restriction (≈6000 kJ/d [1433 kcal] for women, ≈7000 kJ/d [1672 kcal] for men). The planned macronutrient profile of the LC diet was 4% of total energy as carbohydrate, 35% as protein, 61% as total fat (20% saturated fat) with the objective to restrict carbohydrate intake to <20 g/d for the first 8 wk and to <40g/d (with the inclusion of an approved 20-g carbohydrate exchange) for the remainder of the study. The target profile for the LF diet was 46% of total energy as carbohydrate, 24% as protein, and 30% as total fat with the objective to restrict saturated fat intake to <10 g/d and <8% of total energy, with the inclusion of an approved food exchange (equivalent to the energy content of 20g of carbohydrate;) between weeks 9 and 52, so that the diets remained isocaloric.

Sixty nine subjects completed the study, and, fortunately, all the results reported in the paper were for the 69 completers, so we don’t have to worry about data contamination we would have gotten had the researchers done an intention-to-treat analysis.  We know how the people fared who actually hung in there for the entire study period, which is what we want to know.

And how did they fare?

Those on the low-carb diet lost 26 percent more weight than those on the low-fat diet (14.5 kg vs 11.5 kg), but the difference wasn’t statistically significant.  As you can see from the graph below of the weight loss between the two groups over time, the difference was widening, and we can extrapolate that the difference would have become statistically significant had the study gone on longer, but we can’t say for sure.

ajcnfig3

As for the other parameters, blood pressure, glucose, insulin, insulin resistance and C-reactive protein were the same for both groups.  There was a difference in lipid outcomes, however.

The LC [low-carbohydrate] diet also provided greater improvements in triglycerides and HDL cholesterol than did the LF [low-fat] diet, which occurred independently of differences in energy intake and weight loss. This finding is consistent with those of long-term ad libitum studies. High triglyceride and low HDL-cholesterol concentrations are 2 of the MS risk factors, a syndrome that is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and CVD. Elevated triglyceride concentrations have also been identified as an independent CVD risk factor, and the triglyceride:HDL cholesterol ratio is considered a strong predictor of future cardiac events and is a surrogate measure of insulin resistance. Our data show that the triglyceride:HDL cholesterol ratio was halved after the LC diet and was approximately double the improvement observed with the LF diet. A recent review suggests that biological markers typically associated with the MS are those improved by carbohydrate restriction, which suggests that LC diets may offer the greatest clinical benefits for overweight populations who are insulin resistant and have several metabolic risk factors.

So far, so good.  But now the other shoe is ready to drop.

Whereas the LC diet improved a range of cardiometabolic risk factors, greater increases in total and LDL cholesterol also occurred. Other studies that compared LC and LF diets reported similar findings, although the overall magnitude of the differences was smaller: 0.60 and 0.20 mmol/L in favor of the LF diet.

Let’s see how much the total cholesterol and LDL changed.

Those in the low-fat group started with an average total cholesterol of 212 mg/dl (5.5 mmol/L) and ended up a year later at same number.  These same subjects also started out with average LDL levels of 131 mg/dl (3.4 mmol/L) and ended up the same at the end of the study.  The low-carb dieters began the study with average total cholesterol levels of 209 mg/dl (5.4 mmol/L) and ended the study a year later with average total cholesterol levels of 232 mg/dl (6.0 mmol/L).  Their average LDL levels started at 124 mg/dl (3.2 mmol/L) and ended up at 147 mg/dl (3.8 mmol/L).

The authors of this study bestow great significance on this fairly minor increase in LDL levels in those subjects on the low-carb diet.  In their summary of the results of this study, they list the many benefits of the low-carb diet, then end on an ominous note:

However, these potential benefits may be counteracted by the detrimental effects of an increase in LDL cholesterol, which should be monitored…

The abstract of the study echoes this warning.

However, the increase in LDL cholesterol with the LC diet suggests that this measure should be monitored.

It was my impression that the tone of the authors was one of a little foreboding.  Kind of a ‘this looks too good to be true, and, hey, look at those LDL levels; it is too good to be true’ aura about it.  But is it too good to be true?  Is the rise in LDL seen in most low-carb diets the hidden stinger?  Is what all the lipophobes say true?  You know, the old ‘Well you may lose weight on those diets, but you’ll clog your arteries at the same time.’

It’s all hogwash, of course, but before we get to the heart of the explanation as to why, let me remind you that numerous studies have shown that whenever subjects go on low-carb diets, they end up increasing the size of their LDL particles.  Large, fluffy LDL particles are not only harmless, but may be protective.  If they are protective, what’s wrong with having a bit more of them?

At the same time, numerous studies have shown that low-fat diets usually decrease LDL levels, but do so while reducing the particle size.  Followers of such diets end up with lower levels of LDL made of smaller, denser, more atherogenic particles, which, in my mind, isn’t a good trade off.

The authors of our paper acknowledge this fact and cite some of this research, but they are still fixated – as are most lipophobes – on LDL levels.  They just can’t get their heads around the notion that there is more to cardiovascular risk and health than LDL-cholesterol.

Since these researchers placed so much emphasis on LDL levels in their interpretation of all the data from their study, I got to wondering how they measured LDL levels.  I looked in the Methods section of their paper and found the following:

Plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, serum lipids, and apolipoprotein B (apo B) were also measured by using standard methods (11).

The #11, of course, means that the description was in another paper that I had to go to the trouble of looking up.  I always find it annoying when authors do this when they could just as easily stick a short paragraph in their paper and save people who really want to read it critically a lot of trouble.

Tracking down the other paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, I found the following:

The LDL-C was calculated according to the method described by Friedewald et al.

What this means is that the researchers did not measure LDL levels directly in their study subjects, but calculated them using the Friedewald equation.

For reasons we don’t need to go into here, LDL is fairly difficult (as compared to total cholesterol and HDL) to measure.  It can be done, but it’s expensive.  So instead of measuring it directly, most labs calculate it based on an equation derived by William Friedewald and others in 1972.

Friedewald realized that it was pretty simple to measure total cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol and triglycerides.  He knew that total cholesterol was the sum of all the various subfractions of cholesterol, which can be presented by the following equation:

Total cholesterol = HDL-cholesterol + LDL-cholesterol + VLDL-cholesterol

Rearranging this equation to solve for LDL gives us this one.

LDL = Total cholesterol – HLD – VLDL

Friedewald knew that it was easy to measure total cholesterol and HDL but difficult to measure the others.  His insight was that the triglyceride level if divided by five could give a close approximation of VLDL.  In running his experiments he also realized that this relationship held only if triglyceride levels were 400 mg/dl or under.  If they were over this, all bets were off.

So, Friedewald substituted triglycerides (TGL) divided by 5 for VLDL in the above equations, giving us the so-called Friedewald equation for calculating LDL.

LDL = Total cholesterol – HDL – TGL/5

And this is how it is still done in labs all over the world 27 years after Friedewald’s paper.   If you’ve had a lab report showing an LDL figure, I can guarantee it was calculated by the Freidewald equation and not measured directly.

What’s wrong with this if it works?  Nothing.  If it works.  Problem is, it doesn’t always work.  Friedewald himself found that in subjects with triglyceride levels greater than 400 mg/dl the equation didn’t hold.  Anyone reading this who has had a lipid test showing triglycerides greater than 400 will have note on their lab report saying that LDL couldn’t be calculated because triglycerides were too high.

I’ve always thought the same held true for triglycerides under 100 mg/dl, which would apply to almost everyone who sticks to a low-carb diet for any length of time.  Triglyceride levels of 40-90 mg/dl are not uncommon, and are, in fact, typical.  When Friedewald did his work, the triglyceride levels were mainly up in the 150 – 250 mg/dl range, and in this range his equations match pretty well to directly measured LDL levels, but all bets are off with triglycerides above 400 mg/dl and, I suspect, triglyceride levels below 100 mg/dl. MD and I did find this ourselves in a few patients that we did direct LDL measurements on in our practice.

A paper published a few years ago in a pathology journal corroborating what we found. (Full text here.)

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

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

More recently a paper appeared in – of all places – the Archives of Iranian Medicine showing the same phenomenon.  These authors tested 115 subjects with low triglyceride levels.  You can get the full text of the paper, but a line in the abstract says it all:

Statistical analysis showed that when triglyceride is <100 mg/dl, calculated low-density lipoprotein cholesterol [LDL] is significantly overestimated (average :12.17 mg/dL or 0.31 mmol/L), whereas when triglyceride is between 150 and 300 mg/dL no significant difference between calculated and measured low-density lipoprotein cholesterol is observed.

The authors of this paper derived their own equation to be used in lieu of the Friedewald equation when the triglyceride levels are below 100 mg/dl.  I suspect that if we were to apply this equation to the labs of the 33 subjects who finished the low-carb arm of the study we started out discussing in this post, whose average triglyceride levels were under 100, the LDL levels would have averaged much lower than the 147 mg/dl they were calculated to be by the Friedewald equation.  If you subtract the 12.17 mg/dl that the Iranian paper estimates as the difference from the average triglycleride levels (an admittedly extremely unscientific and non-statistically valid way to do it), you find that the average drops to 135 mg/dl, which I doubt is significantly different than the 131 average of the low-fat dieters. If you did it the right way – subject by subject and then average – I suspect it would be greater yet.

The moral of this story is that if you have been following a low-carb diet and your triglycerides are low (or if your triglycerides are just low) and your LDL reading comes out a little high – or even a lot high, don’t let anyone mule you into going on a statin or undergoing any therapy for an elevated LDL.  Demand to have a direct measurement of your LDL done.  Or if you get an insurance physical and your triglycerides are low and your LDL up a little, fight to get a direct measurement so they don’t stick you with higher premiums because they think you’ve got an increased risk for heart disease.

What we do know based on the work of many is that low-carb diets change LDL particles to the large, fluffy, harmless variety.  Thanks to these other papers we also know that the LDL levels so many people end up with on their lab reports after being on low-carb diets for a while are artificially high.

Now when you hear people say that low-carb diets may help you lose weight but run your LDL levels up and increase your risk for heart disease, you’ll know this is just so much gibberish.  Sadly, your doctor will probably spout the same thing, and it will be up to you – who after reading this post will know more about this point than 99.9 percent of doctors practicing today – to educate your trained professional.

And if you are a researcher studying the effect of the low-carb diet on LDL, for crying out loud, hit your grant up for the extra few bucks it takes to get LDL cholesterol measured directly in your subjects so you won’t be in the embarassing position of having your data become worthless.

A toxic environment

obesity-stats

In the last post I wrote that I would explain why George Bray and his brethren in the academic obesity research world are in great measure responsible for the toxic world they all blame for the obesity epidemic.  We live in a world, they say, filled with impossible to resist foods that throw us into hedonic overdrive.  As long as we live in such a world, there is no hope – other than drugs, of course – for the obesity epidemic to be reversed.  They may be correct.  But, as I said, they are in part responsible.  Let’s see why.

You can’t just go around gibbering as they do about a toxic environment without defining what it is that is toxic about it.  If pressed, these folks almost always default to the position that it is the elevated levels of fat in the diet that are toxic.  They will often say – as Bray did in his rebuttal to Taubes – that the ready availability of high-fat, high-sugar foods is what makes the environment toxic, but that is just a kind of code for high fat, which is what they really believe causes obesity.

total-energy-intake

The statistics show a different story however.  Most food consumption data indicates that fat consumption has actually been falling or, at worst, has remained about the same.  Caloric intake has been on the rise, however.

NHANES data

The latest NHANES data show that the average American consumes about 250 calories more per day.  If fat is falling or remaining the same, and calories are increasing, those calories can come from only two sources: protein or carbohydrate.  Since protein intake pretty much mirrors fat intake, it’s most likely that the increase in calories has come from an increase in carbohydrate intake.  Which is what the data actually show. NHANES data confirm that this 250 calorie increase comes from carbohydrates.

So, if anything has changed in the diet over the past 40 years, it is that carbohydrate intake has increased, which is a pretty good argument to say that if the food environment has become toxic, it is the increased carbohydrate intake that has made it so.

If you look at the scientific literature and try to find a study that shows that consuming more fat causes health problems, you’re going to come away empty handed.  Sure, there are a lot of studies out there showing that bad things happen when fat intake goes up, but subjects in those studies are eating a ton of carbs along with the fat.  I religiously read the medical literature, and I haven’t found any studies showing a decline in health with an increase in fat without an increase in carbs or calories going along with it.

It ain’t the same with carbohydrates.  The scientific literature is crawling with papers showing detrimental effects from overconsumption of carbohydrates.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who cares to look that if there is indeed a toxic environment out there luring us all to overeat and become obese, that toxic environment is made of carbohydrate.

If this is true – and I think it is – then why are Dr. Bray and his henchmen responsible?

Easy.  They encourage carb consumption by focusing the public’s attention on fat and away from carbohydrates.  Bray and friends are the go-to experts driving the recommendations of various governmental agencies that ultimately drive large food manufacturers to produce products adding to the toxicity of the environment.

General Mills, Nestle, General Foods, Kellogg, and other giant food companies aren’t managed by intrinsically evil people who set out to make us all fat.  These companies – just like Microsoft, IBM, Exxon and others – are in business to make an honest buck for their shareholders.  Shareholders want to see growth in value and a steady income for their investments, and management wants to deliver.  But these companies are constrained by what they sell.

Basically they sell calories.  If you take the number of people in the United States (we’re just talking domestic production here) and multiply that number by the average caloric intake per person, you can arrive at the total number of calories consumed by the population.  That’s the market for these companies.

If you are running a food company selling calories, you can grow your company in just a few ways.  You can do nothing and just grow as the population grows, but all food companies can do that so you don’t achieve any advantage over the competition.  You can improve your branding and merchandising and/or develop new products to try to gain a bigger market share of the calories consumed.  You can buy one of your competitors.

And you can work to simply increase the average number of calories consumed by each person and therefore make the overall caloric intake of the country rise.  How do you make people eat more?  Simple.  You make products that are convenient, tasty, inexpensive and widely available.  And you make them addictive.  What makes them addictive?  Carbohydrates, of course.  What gets the blame?  Fat, of course.

These processed foods are typically a mixture of fat and sugar, which provides a taste sensation that most people seem not to be able to resist.  They want more and more of it.  And food companies are happy to provide it.  The USDA’s School Nutrition Dietary Assessment from 2007 showed that the three products groups consumed the most in schools were candy; cookies, cakes and brownies; and soft drinks.  All fat and sugar and, in the case of soft drinks, sugar alone.

All of these foods are thought of as sweets.  People who crave them are often said to have a sweet tooth.  Yet most academic obesity experts criticize these products because they are high in fat.  In their minds, it’s the fat that’s the problem, not the sugar.

Since these academicians fill the seats of all the government panels that convene to come up with solutions to the obesity problem, the usual message is to cut the fat.  So the food companies cut the fat or change the type of fat…and leave the sugar.  The addictive part of the equation doesn’t change.

Lest you think this is a problem only for children in schools, I would encourage you to go to just about any office in America and take a look in the break room.  You’ll find cakes and cookies and brownies and chips and all the rest of the stuff you find in schools.  The problem is endemic.

And it is going to be extremely difficult to change.
I just finished one of the better books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s a book that opened my eyes as to why it will be difficult to change and why Bray et al are going to make it even more difficult.

The book, titled Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, was written by Hank Cardello, a former executive in the food industry who spent his career at General Mills, Coca Cola and other food giants.  Mr. Cardello got sick and, after experiencing an epiphany about his own diet and health, realized stuffedthat the companies he had worked for (along with many others) were in great measure responsible for his illness.

If you are interested in finding out how the food industry drives us to overeat, you need to read this book.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I had no idea how the various arms of the food industry – food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – all work hand in hand to make us fat.  The government is in there, too, always making the wrong moves and usually making the situation worse.  I was always naïve enough to think that if only McDonalds or one of the other fast food giants would make some minor changes, the world would be a better place.  But after reading this book, I can see why those changes are almost impossible to effect because of the structure of the industry.  Who would have thought that purchasing agents are responsible for much of the problem?  Yet they are trapped in the system and can’t change without creating huge problems for themselves (read: their own unemployment).

The first four fifths of the book are a brilliant expose of the food industry.  It’s actually not so much of an expose as it is an accurate description of why the industry is locked into the way it is and why change is damn near impossible.  The book shows why food manufacturers makes foods that make us fat, why the grocery stores are set up to beguile us into buying things we shouldn’t, and why restaurants trick us into ordering not what’s best for us, but what’s best for the restaurant’s bottom line.

The first four fifths more than justify the price of the book, which is a good thing because the last couple of chapters are pretty weak.  Pretty weak, but not without their highlight moments, one of which we will soon see.

The last chapters are weak because, sadly, Mr. Cardello has bought into the idea that what really makes us fat is that we eat too many calories.  In his mind, it doesn’t matter what those calories are made of, they’re all the same.  Except for saturated fat, or course.  He’s convinced that saturated fat will do us in.  He has pretty much bought into the notion that fat and calories make us fat, and the last couple of chapters of the book are a compilation of his ideas as to how to change the food industry.  He thinks that people love nasty processed food and they’re going to eat it no matter what, so why not make it lower in calories and lower in fat.  Most of his ideas revolve around making smaller portion sizes and products with lower fat and calorie counts.

Why does he buy into all this?  Because of Dr. Bray, among others.

Writes Mr. Cardello about a conference in which nutritional scientists sit down with food industry people to discuss how to solve the obesity problem:

It also was refreshing for me to listen to and learn from Dr. George Bray, the esteemed biomedical researcher and professor of medicine at Louisiana State Medical Center in Baton Rouge.  To many insiders, he’s known as the founding father of the obesity issue.  Bray is a doctor and scientist who has been practicing his craft for fifty-one years, and he still has the energy and curiosity of colleagues who are half his age.  When he first began studying obesity, he was a doctor gently sounding a warning bell, but nobody was listening.  The American population was about 14 percent overweight at the time.  Now 30 percent of us are fat, so he said the problem has doubled since he began his work.

Now there is a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever seen one.   I don’t think the author was being ironic, but it sure came out that way.  And it corroborates my suspicions.

Bray truly has been a founding father of the obesity issue in ways that he probably doesn’t like.  When he started working on the problem, the rate of obesity was 14 percent.  After 51 years of effort on his part, the rate of obesity has more than doubled.  That should tell anyone with sense enough to listen that Bray is a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

Let’s imagine a world in which nutritional scientists actually pay attention to the growing mountain of studies showing that high-carbohydrate diets are bad and that low-carbohydrate diets do all the good things the readers of this blog know they do.  Let’s imagine that these nutritional scientists make recommendations to the government to limit the advertising of carbohydrates in an effort to improve the health of the nation.  Let’s imagine that people stores and restaurants started stocking and serving low-carb foods and that overweight people who were face down in the carbs were looked at with disdain.  And let’s imagine that when someone suffers a heart attack or is obese, everyone says, well, he/she deserves it because he/she was a carbaholic.

If all this came to pass, public opinion would turn against high-carb consumption and my guess is that the obesity epidemic would end.

But is this all a pipe dream?  Could it really happen?  Not while Bray and friends are around ignoring the scientific evidence and continuing to push carbs on us all.  But if these guys ever shuffle on off, there is a chance.  It’s happened before.

Fifty years ago everyone and his brother smoked.  It was the thing to do.  When I was a kid my parents smoked and all my friends’ parents smoked.  Every time I ate dinner, my mother had a cigarette going at one end of the table while my father had one going at the other.  A haze of smoke always hung in our house. But I didn’t think anything of it because a haze of smoke hung in the houses of all my friends.  Whenever I went someplace in the car with my parents or with the parents of my friends, the car was full of smoke.  It was a way of life.  As my mother – who is now a nonsmoker – never tires of telling me, back then if you didn’t smoke, you were considered some kind of freak.

If you watched TV at that time, it seemed that every show was sponsored by a cigarette company.  It’s difficult to believe now how pervasive smoking and cigarette commercials were at that time.  I’ve posted videos of a few of these commercials here and here.  Everyone got into the act.  Even the Beverly Hillbillies.

And actors.

chesterfield-reagan

And professional athletes.

mickey-mantle-smoking

There were no nonsmoking sections in restaurants.  People smoked on planes and even in theaters.  If you want to get some notion of what is was like, look at a few episodes of Prime Suspect, the terrific Brit detective series starring Helen Mirren.  You can almost get nicotine toxic just watching.  Granted, this series was filmed in the UK, but it presents smoking the way it was so widely done in the US a generation or two ago.

Now substantially fewer people smoke, and those who do are, for the most part, apologetic about it.  Now there aren’t just nonsmoking sections in restaurants, the entire restaurant is nonsmoking.  People can’t smoke in office buildings, public buildings, or much of anywhere else.  There are no ads for cigarettes on TV or in magazines or newspapers and there are no billboards encouraging smoking.  As far as smoking is concerned, it’s a different world.

What happened?

The scientific community figured out that smoking was a huge health problem.  Scientists worked through the government to launch an enormous public health campaign to get people to quit smoking.  It started with warnings on cigarette packages and went from there to a prohibition against advertising, first on television, then ultimately to just about everywhere else.  And it has worked.  Rates of smoking have plummeted, which is amazing considering how addictive nicotine is.

If this kind of scientific driven public health campaign can work to get people to give up a tremendously addictive and enjoyable habit, why wouldn’t it work to change the way people eat?  I’m sure it would if it were ever initiated.  But the problem is that as long as you have Bray and others telling the powers that be that the only thing causing the problem is calories and that carbs are wonderful, it never will happen.

When the public health campaign against smoking started, the only scientists who spoke out against it were those hired by the tobacco companies.  And, of course, people realized that these spokesmen had a dog in the fight and pretty much ignored them.

Now we would have scientists who are not in the employ of the food industry who are telling us that carbs are good, fat is bad, and the reason we are all obese is simply that we eat too many calories and don’t exercise enough.  As long as these people are spouting off, there will be no change.

Just like there were nonsmokers back then who bucked the trend (and were thought of as freaks by my mother and other smokers), there are those of us who buck the high-carb trend now (and are probably thought of as freaks by the rest of the population).  We all have to rely on our own internal public health campaigns to keep us going.

I don’t know that there will ever be a public health campaign against the high-carb diet, but I know that if there is, it will work.  If people can be broken from the chains of tobacco, they can certainly be weaned from carbs.

There has been a nutritional public health campaign of sorts, but unfortunately it has been misguided.  Bray and others have gotten the government on board for a jihad against fat, particularly saturated fat.  And, as anyone can see, the campaign has been successful.  Sadly, they picked the wrong macronutrient to campaign against, as is evidenced by both the generalized fear of fat along with a doubling of the rate of obesity.

Public health campaigns do work.  We’ve just got to work to get the right one.

Hat tip to Whole Health Source blog for the nutrient intake graphs