Are You A Carbohydrate Addict?!?

I first joined the US Navy thirty years ago, while I was still a junior in college. The recruiter was happy to sign me up, but he was blunt about the rigors of the physical exam, which I was scheduled to undergo thirty days after I signed the enlistment papers. “If you don’t lose about twenty pounds,” he said, “you’ll never pass. My advice is to start cutting the calories and fat.” I fully intended to make the Navy a career, and the window of opportunity for the job specialty I wanted was closing fast. I certainly didn’t want to blow this chance over something as trivial as my weight. I took his suggestion seriously.

“Portion control” became my new mantra, as did “low fat” and “low calorie”. I dutifully threw out my loaded-with-sugar Raisin Bran, my five pound stash of sugar, the half gallon container of butter brickle ice cream, barely touched in the freezer, as well as the loaf of recently purchased white bread and the carton of whole milk I hadn’t even opened yet. Then we drove to the market and shopped carefully, looking for whole grain cereals without added sugar, honey, fresh vegetables, white-meat chicken, nonfat milk and margarine. Back at home, my wife-at-the-time dusted off a thousand-calorie-a-day diet she’d used periodically during her days as a college cheerleader, and handed it to me with a promise to help me stick with it.

By the end of the third day I was nearly incapacitated with hunger. I imagined I smelled doughnuts in the air anytime I ventured out of the house. My part-time job at the college, which was cooking mornings and evenings in the school cafeteria, became torture: I was preparing oatmeal, pancakes, fritters, bacon and toast in the mornings; enchiladas, spaghetti, and macaroni-and-cheese for dinner—most of which I wasn’t allowed to eat. I was miserable. I was hungry to the point I could barely concentrate on my studies.

Then, while I happened to be browsing the school bookstore, I ran across a book entitled Dr. Atkins’s Diet Revolution. The title intrigued me, and, curious, I began flipping casually through the pages. What I read there was, indeed, revolutionary—and thrilling: Calories didn’t count, I recalled reading. The real culprit in weight gain was carbohydrates. And the key to weight loss was limiting carbohydrates, while eating moderate amounts of fat and lots and lots of protein. My heartbeat quickened as I read how I could eat virtually unlimited amounts of red meat, pork, eggs, cheese, cream, and butter—as much as I could stuff into my face (I’m not sure it actually said that, but I remember thinking it had), and the pounds would literally melt off your body—as much as five to ten pounds a week! I nearly cried. Here, it seemed, was a new and exciting way to lose weight which didn’t involve starving! I bought the book, nearly shaking with anticipation as I handed the cashier the five bucks. I took the book home and devoured the entire thing that very day.

I got up from finishing the book, a man on a mission. While my bewildered wife watched, I cleared the pantry and refrigerator of the low-fat, low calorie garbage I’d been eating and threw it into the trashcan. Then we drove to the store. I bought everything I could find that was high protein and low carbohydrate. And over the next week I did exactly as the book (I thought) said I could: I stuffed myself with bacon and eggs in the morning, stacks of deli meats and cheeses for lunch, and broiled beef, chicken, or fish and fresh vegetables for dinner.

Amazingly, at the end of a week, I was even hungrier and more miserable than I had ever been on the low calorie, low fat regimen. How was this possible? I couldn’t stand Atkins. The thought of eating another rib eye steak nearly made me retch. I finally dismissed Atkins as a well-meaning quack, and his diet as just another stupid fad, like the banana-and-hot-dog diet I’d tried a couple of years earlier. I cleared my shelves of the high protein stuff, and loaded them up again with the low-cal, low fat things. It was easier, so much easier, I could eat pretty much anything I wanted as long as I limited the portions so that I stayed below my thousand-calories a day. I increased my exercise, and gutted it through the rest of the month. By the time I took my physical for the Navy, I was barely under my max weight. Relieved, I walked from the recruiting station and immediately went to a nearby diner and ordered a stack of pancakes and eggs with sausage and lots of warm syrup and melted butter, and ate myself into a sugar stupor.

Fast forward twenty years. It was now 1998. I was now out of the Navy. But over the years I’d watched my weight slowly crawl upward until I was now embarrassed to look at myself in front of the mirror. And my blood pressure had starting to climb, too. It’s time to lose some weight.

Enter “Protein Power”

A friend and work associate asked me if I’d ever heard of a new diet program called Protein Power. I told her I hadn’t, and she handed me a paperback with a picture of a husband-and-wife medical team, Michael and Mary Dan Eades, surrounded by dozens of ordinary-looking, but apparently happy clients. “Give it a try,” she said. “I think you’ll be impressed.”

I took the book home and read it. It seemed to be based on the old Atkins diet, and I wasn’t particularly excited about getting back into that again. Still, the writing style was engaging, and more important, the book had extensive scientific research and clinical studies to back up the Drs Eades’s claim that, not only was low-carb, high protein eating the best way to lose weight and keep it off, it was the only style of eating appropriate for humans, period. Additionally, the book contained a section of sample menus, comprised of several recipes that looked downright delicious. I was cautiously optimistic. I cleaned out my pantry and refrigerator, and drove immediately to the store to buy everything I could find that fit the low-carb regimen.

I was more successful with Protein Power than I had been with the Atkins diet. But after several weeks of struggling with low energy, bad breath, and a persistent craving for the high-carb foods I’d been used to eating for the past four decades, I finally abandoned it for the (I thought) more reasonable portion-control, low calorie approach. I was troubled about this for awhile: the Eadeses had, in my mind, adequately demonstrated how much less healthy the low-cal, low-fat, high-carb diet was for humans. But it was just too damned difficult to do it their way. I simply turned away from the subject whenever it came to mind, until eventually I quit thinking about it altogether.

Fast forward another ten years. I was forty pounds heavier than my max ideal weight. My blood pressure was riding at the high end of the ohmygod section of the chart, and my feet were beginning to swell. I couldn’t seem to control my eating, often putting away an entire box of cereal or a pound of spaghetti in a single sitting. I looked in the mirror and saw a stuffed sausage shaped to look roughly like a human; certainly I didn’t look anything like myself anymore. And my closet was filled with clothes I’d officially dubbed my “fat boy” wardrobe.

I told myself I couldn’t do much to improve my situation. Apparently the source of my weight problem was rooted in my very genes. In fact, my mother had struggled with obesity much of her life, eventually developing Type 2 diabetes in her later years. And my uncle, my mother’s brother, had blood pressure so high he finally quit having it checked, it scared both him and the technicians measuring it. What could I do? The only remote possibility I could think of was to begin a serious and extreme exercise program. Unfortunately, my exercise of choice—running—had, over the years, begun having deleterious effects on my joints and my back, and I soon had to abandon it. It quickly occurred to me that I would have to content myself with being fat. Like most people who feel helpless, I simply tried not to think too much about it. And in large part, I was successful.

But when my wife, whom I love more than life itself, began having many of the same health symptoms, I couldn’t ignore the situation any longer. We were both in our fifties. If we expected to live into our sixties, we needed to lose weight, and a lot of it. In fact, between the two of us, we had more than a hundred pounds to lose.

Our look <strong>before.</strong> With a friend at Tavern On The Green, NYC.

Our look before: my wife Jeanie (center) and me (left) with a friend at Tavern on the Green in NYC.

Enter Weight Watchers

Of course, we went with the easier low-calorie, low-fat, high-carbohydrate approach. This time, it was with Weight Watchers. The choice seemed logical at the time. WW had the highest documented success rate of any weight loss program in existence, ever. It was rated number one for weight loss programs in Consumer Reports. Best of all, they had recently developed what they called the Core Program, where we could eat as much as we wanted from a huge list of Core Foods! We jumped on the program, bought all the right foods (WW even had its own brand of desserts!), and stuck religiously to the program, tracking our progress on line.

In a matter of months, averaging the requisite two pounds per week, we’d shed pretty much all of our excess baggage. To celebrate, we went to the local mall and bought ourselves an entire “skinny person” wardrobe.

From the weight loss standpoint alone, we should have felt great. But there were little nagging problems that had me perplexed. Number one, my digestion didn’t seem to be working quite right: I had chronic constipation, coupled with a resultant case of—no surprise here—hemorrhoids. (Add to this the public embarrassment of an outrageous flatulence problem.) And, as I would discover later, while I’d lost a lot of weight, I had also lost a lot of lean muscle mass. But most troubling was the fact that I was still hungry much of the time. My wife and I would eat a huge breakfast at seven a.m., high in fiber (the only recommended treatment for constipation outside of a stool softener) and by ten a.m. we’d be ready for a large snack. We were eating five, sometimes six meals a day. Large meals.

ReEnter Protein Power, And The Low Carb Lifestyle

I finally had to start looking for some alternative remedies for my constipation issues. I hit the Internet, and came up with some interesting possibilities. Then I happened upon this startling item in Google:

“In the past year, I cut out most of the fiber from my diet (very few veggies, very little grain, etc.). Lo and behold, my constipation disappeared. This past year has been great.”

Two things interested me about this bit of text, which Google had apparently lifted from a forum. The first was the idea that constipation can actually be caused by too much fiber (Weight Watchers, along with ninety-percent of the nutritionists in the world prescribe more fiber and more water to relieve constipation. Additionally, Weight Watchers insists on its adherents ingesting huge quantities of fiber in its Core Program). The second thing that caught my attention was the source of the comment: Protein Power Forums. My good friends the Drs Eades, were still going strong. In fact, they’d written two more books expanding on the earlier work they’d done with Protein Power.

I felt suddenly as if I had come home after a long journey to the other side of the planet. And, just as suddenly, I felt as if a part of my brain which had been asleep for many years had now awakened. I spent hours poring over the forum, as well as the individual blogs written by each of the Drs Eades. Questions I’d had years earlier, but which generally went unanswered (blogs and online forums were still fairly unknown to me back in 1998) were now there for me to view, asked by many others. And the Eadeses, along with many of the online Protein Power community, were offering solidly credible answers backed by solid science. The Eadeses had refined their original program to include new research conducted since I had last encountered Protein Power—much of which completely upended much of the earlier nutritional thought which has been the basis for our ideas about what constitutes “healthy” eating to this very day. Ideas which are still fundamental to many of the popular diet programs—including Weight Watchers.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) I couldn’t go back to eating on the Weight Watchers program. And after doing some independent research on her own, my wife joined me in pursuing the low carb lifestyle. We have been successful beyond our wildest dreams, enjoying better health now than we did back when we were very young adults.

But that isn’t to say it was easy.

Jeanie and me, after (finally) breaking our carbohydrate addiction!

Jeanie and me, after (finally) breaking our carbohydrate addiction!

The Difficulty–Carbohydrate Addiction

One of the questions I’ve had for much of my dieting life is this: Why is eating on a low carbohydrate program so hard in the beginning? If eating low-carb is so healthy for us (and there is now a considerable, ever-expanding body of evidence showing this is the case), why do our bodies seem to resist it so vociferously?

The answer came to me via Dr Mike Eades’s blog. The title to one of his later posts pretty much says it all: Carbohydrates Are Addictive. Please take the time to look at this post, it is a real eye-opener. But to briefly summarize here: Dr Mike (as he’s affectionately referred to) came upon an article in Time Magazine, which reported on a study to determine if a high-fat, high-protein diet, eliminating carbohydrates, would have an effect on cancer. Apparently, this study had as its population a group of terminally-ill cancer patients who were offered this experimental therapy. All they had to do for the study (and, if the hypothesis was correct: to save their lives) was to eliminate carbs from their diet. Here’s a quote from the Time article:

“The good news is that for five patients who were able to endure three months of carb-free eating, the results were positive: the patients stayed alive, their physical condition stabilized or improved and their tumors slowed or stopped growing, or shrunk.”

But here’s the kicker, and the point of this post:

“[Some] dropped out because they found it hard to stick to the no-sweets diet: “We didn’t expect this to be such a big problem, but a considerable number of patients left the study because they were unable or unwilling to renounce soft drinks, chocolate and so on.”

Here is Dr. Mike’s comment on what this means exactly:

“Let me see if I’ve got this right. A lifesaving therapy is offered to patients who have undergone the misery of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, and who are beyond hope, and this therapy requires nothing more than eating a lot of butter, meat, cream, cheese, etc. while avoiding most carbohydrates. And a ‘considerable number’ drop out because they can’t give up carbs?

I say it again. And you don’t think carbs are addictive?”

Of course they are. More, perhaps, than even nicotine, which was at one time considered the most addictive substance on the planet, more so than even heroin and cocaine. Not only has it been shown conclusively (thanks again to Dr Atkins’s research so long ago, finally proven accurate over thirty years after having first being ridiculed) that carbohydrates are, generally, the real culprit in weight gain, obesity, and adult-onset diabetes; but carbs have also been shown to be the real culprit behind the difficulties in restricting them from our diets. Our bodies have been tricked into believing we need carbohydrates. Lots of them. The more, the better. They’re a monkey that refuses to get off our backs.

Of course, I had a hard time embracing the low-carb lifestyle. How could I not? I was addicted to carbohydrates. And dealing with that addiction is probably not much different from an alcoholic dealing with his/her addiction to whiskey.

You work the program, one day at a time.

How To Kill Your Husband

Bacon and eggs--better for you than you thought?

What???

I recall, sometime in the late ‘seventies, an article appearing in the pages of Reader’s Digest. On the cover was this provocative title: “How To Kill Your Husband.” Of course, the article’s true subject was exactly opposite: how to keep your husband alive, and it extolled the virtues of eating a low-fat diet. Fat, it argued, was the bane of our existence, and was singularly responsible for a number of maladies, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, and diabetes. If you really want to kill your husband, the article warned, “just feed him eggs and bacon for breakfast–every day.”

Most of us, I think, took that article–and everything else appearing on the media scene decrying the presence of the now-evil fat in our diets–seriously. And we’ve been ultra-serious about reducing our fat consumption ever since. In fact, the low-fat ethos is so ingrained into our nutritional thinking that we automatically dismiss anything challenging it.

That said, it is my contention in this hub that it is high time we re-evaluated the low-fat requirement to reveal it for what it is: a myth. The truth is, there is no scientific basis for our continuing to eliminate fats from our diets. Furthermore, we are actually doing ourselves grievous harm by doing so. I will explain just how, momentarily.

So I’m going to resurrect the old Reader’s Digest article, but with this slight modification: If you really want to kill your husband, close out this hub right now and serve your husband up some extra-lean chicken and non-fat yogurt and any of the other thousands of low and non-fat products lining our grocer’s shelves.

But if you want to learn something that might save his and your own life, read on. Then, when you’ve done reading, go rustle up a big plate of bacon and eggs for the man you love. Chances are, he’s been needing it.

Why Are Nutritionists Still Pushing Low-Fat?!?

It’s hard to pick up any of the top women’s magazines and not find a plethora of fitness and nutrition-related articles scattered throughout their pages. Okay, I’m a guy, but I still flip through the small collection of More and Vogue and Vanity Fair my wife Jeanie has gathered in our “reading room.” I swear to you, I just read them for the articles and stories. Anyway, most of the time, I find them amusing. Some are truly enlightening. And then, there are some that get my blood to boiling.

The story I’m thinking of right now is from the September issue of More, the one with a very attractive Felicity Huffman on the cover. Go to page 190, and you’ll find a story about how three different women managed to beat heart disease. At first, I was impressed: there was a lot of information on the different signals of heart disease (many of which are subtle or confusing, and hence often ignored), and some useful techniques to help dodge that deadly bullet.

But then I noticed something curious about one of the stories. It involves a woman named Gina Jones who, throughout her life, exercised regularly, but ate pretty much whatever she wanted–until, in her mid-thirties, she experienced a heart attack. Doctors performed an angioplasty (an operation which makes use of a balloon in the heart to widen an artery). Jones recovered, but over the next several years, neglected to stay on her regimen of cholesterol drugs, which led to the need for two more angioplasties. The last of these was performed when she was forty-two. Finally scared literally half to death, she made and kept the commitment to stay on her drugs, and to eat a healthy, low-salt, low-fat diet.

But here’s the curious part. Three years later, during a routine medical exam, Jones was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the diagnosis (I’ll explain shortly). But what had me concerned, almost angry, was the off-handed disclosure of this important fact, almost as an afterthought, coupled with the obvious implication that a family history of the disease (Jones’s mother had been previously diagnosed with type 2 diabetes) was to blame. Nothing else is said about it. Her story ends with the observation that Jones manages to keep her blood sugar down by a strict regimen of six small (presumably low-fat) meals a day. Apparently, the writers didn’t think the matter was important enough to pursue, reasoning (I assume) that the focus of the story was the woman’s heart disease, not her diabetes.

Why Would Someone Eating Low-Fat Develop Diabetes?

The question I had hoped would be addressed was this: if Gina Jones was exercising regularly and eating a low-salt, low-fat diet, why would she still develop type 2 diabetes? The obvious answer, at least according to the way the story was written, was the fact that her mother had also been diagnosed with the disease. In fact, so their reasoning appears to have gone, that had to be the only possible answer, because there is no way eating a low-fat diet can lead to type 2 diabetes.

But there are two big problems with this quick and dirty answer: 1) it presumes a predisposition to develop diabetes based solely on genetics, when in fact that causal link hasn’t been proven, and 2) it presumes a low-fat diet itself will not lead to diabetes. And there’s the stumbling block. Because, in fact, a low-fat diet can easily lead to type 2 diabetes, regardless of your genetics.

An Increased Risk For Diabetes Is No Guarantee You Will Develop It

There is no genetic test for diabetes. Researchers agree that you can inherit a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, but there is no scientific evidence pointing to a purely genetic inheritance of the disease. According to this article, published on GeneticHealth.com, there have historically been a number of problems in finding a specific gene which will without exception lead to inheriting type 2 diabetes. Most notably is this (from GeneticHealth.com):

“We inherit more than just genes from our parents; we also inherit lifestyle. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise are learned behaviors that children can pick up from their parents. This type of inheritance has nothing to do with genes, and makes it hard for researchers to identify a genetic risk for diabetes.”

As I see it, Gina Jones might very well have “inherited” her type 2 diabetes from her mother. But it just might have been in the form of learned behaviors–which could easily (given the prevailing beliefs about nutrition) have included limiting fats from her diet.

Eating A Low-Fat Diet Does Not Prevent Diabetes

Gina’s untold story–the one about her diabetes, which wasn’t truly addressed–and similar stories of thousands like her, point to what many far-sighted doctors see as a global health problem: nutritionists are still prescribing a low fat diet (often combined with a low-calorie regimen) to treat and prevent diabetes. Historically, it is not clear where the belief behind this practice originated. In fact, before the low-fat era, diabetes was treated with a low-carbohydrate diet in order to control blood sugar. What caused the switch in thinking? Most likely it is the train of thought that currently links diabetes with obesity. Obesity is the fast track to developing diabetes. Treat the obesity, the reasoning goes, and the incidence of diabetes will be reduced. And, indeed, there seems to be some validity to that argument.

The problem lies in presuming a low-fat diet is at all effective in treating obesity. It is not. In fact, research studies have proven the exact opposite is true: low fat diets actually promote obesity along with the associated incidence of diabetes.

If you’re having a hard time swallowing this, just take a look around you. Our nation has been on a low-fat kick since the “discovery” in the 1970s that fat was bad for us. Strangely, the rate of obesity and adult-onset diabetes began a steady climb upward at about the same time. We have been consuming less and less fat, but at the same time have been packing ever-increasing amounts of it onto our bodies. How is this possible?

It Is Carbohydrates—Not Fat—Which Cause Obesity And Diabetes

In fact, it is entirely possible to eat virtually no fat at all, and yet become morbidly obese at the same time, for this very important reason: it is carbohydrates, and not fat, which make us fat.

The basics of biochemistry prove this to be true. Here’s how:

Our food is comprised of a combination of only three macronutrients (foods providing energy in the form of calories): fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. During digestion, fats are burned as an immediate source of energy, and proteins are broken down to be used as building blocks for various parts of the body. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose, or blood sugar. Like fat, glucose is also used as an immediate form of energy. But unlike fat, glucose also stimulates the secretion of the powerful hormone insulin. Insulin is an extremely important chemical whose primary duty (it actually has many functions throughout the body) is to take excess glucose from the blood, convert it to fat, and store it in the cells for later use as energy. It is important to note that calories from fats and proteins are not stored in this fashion. This is because insulin–in the role of fat-storer–is not secreted in response to fat or protein calories by themselves, as they are not converted to glucose in the same way carbohydrates are. The bottom line is this: if there is no glucose in the blood (as there would be if you consumed carbohydrates), there can be no insulin-driven storage of fat in the cells, and you will not gain weight.

But we can even go a step further and say this: limiting carbohydrates is the healthiest, most effective way to not only maintain, but to lose weight.

The simple reason for this is: for any particular caloric need (and we need at least a certain number of calories to sustain our lives), decreasing one of the three macronutrients forces an increase in the others to make up the caloric deficit. If, for example, you limit your fats, the resultant loss in calories must be made up by a commensurate increase in carbohydrates and/or proteins. And since most fats are bound together with proteins, eliminating fats often means a reduction in protein as well. The body’s only adequate source of calories, then, becomes the carbohydrates.

Too Many Carbs–Too Much Insulin

And that, as they say, is when things start going to heck in a handbasket. Here are some results you can expect from adopting a low-fat, high-carb lifestyle (and please don’t make the potentially-fatal mistake of believing, because you are exercising regularly and are symptom-free, or because there is no history of diabetes in your family, that these results cannot apply to you. Medical history begs to differ. Review Gina Jones’s story above.):

  • A lack of fat results in decreased energy levels, a loss of essential fatty acids, a reduced absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and a pronounced deficiency in magnesium.
  • If your low-fat regimen is used in conjunction with a low-calorie diet for weight loss, you can certainly lose fat…but you’ll also lose much needed lean body mass (muscle) as a result of the associated loss of protein.
  • Carbohydrates are addictive (see my article here); the more you eat, the more you want to eat, in ever-increasing amounts, stimulating an even greater secretion of insulin into the blood.
  • While insulin, in the right amounts, is a critically-needed hormone in our systems, too much insulin can wreak havoc on the metabolic system. Adverse effects include higher blood pressure, increased cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and, penultimately, insulin resistance–a condition which occurs where an over-abundance of insulin causes the cells to develop a desensitization to it. Hence, an increasingly greater output of insulin is required to process the same amount of calories–leading to more health problems. Finally, when insulin resistance progresses to the point that the cells no longer respond to insulin, the ultimate result is a condition known as type 2 diabetes.

This is precisely how someone–like Gina Jones, above–religiously following a low-fat, high-carbohydrate program can develop type 2 diabetes, and why I said earlier that I wasn’t particularly surprised by her diagnosis. Sadly, this scenario is all-too typical.

Sometimes, The Scientists Are Wrong

My wife Jeanie and I, for one reason or another, got to talking the other day about smoking. How annoying and nasty the habit is, how grateful we are that neither of us ever got started on it, and how sad we feel for the people we know who smoke and are now suffering the inevitable health-consequences of a life spent smoking. That sort of thing. Then Jeanie related something that took me by surprise: her mother, Claudia, who had smoked for close to fifty years before quitting, once told Jeanie that, back in the days prior to WWII, a doctor had actually prescribed cigarettes for her husband-at-the-time—as a treatment for his asthma. The act of inhaling cigarette smoke, the doctor’s reasoning apparently went, would improve her husband’s breathing. Of course, we both got a good laugh out of that.

It was such a kooky notion—that cigarettes might actually benefit you—that my curiosity was piqued, and so I decided to do some research into the recent history of tobacco in the US. What I discovered wasn’t so funny. It was a decades-long road built by tobacco industry greed, aided and abetted by deft Madison Avenue hustling and outright manipulation of the “facts” (read, lying) combined with a general state of ignorance and stupidity shared equally by the medical establishment and its blindly-trusting American public.

Here is just a sampling of the relevant milestones along that road (thanks to Gene Borio of History Net):

  • 1912: First strong connection made between lung cancer and smoking. Dr. I. Adler is the first to strongly suggest that lung cancer is related to smoking in a monograph.
  • 1934: The American Medical Association accepts tobacco advertising in their journals. These ads include statements like, “We advertise KOOL cigarettes simply as a pleasant combination of fine tobaccos made even more pleasant by the cooling sensation of menthol. They won’t cure anything. They won’t harm anybody. They will prove enjoyable.”
  • 1948: The Journal of the American Medical Association argues, “more can be said in behalf of smoking as a form of escape from tension than against it . . . there does not seem to be any preponderance of evidence that would indicate the abolition of the use of tobacco as a substance contrary to the public health.”
  • 1964: 1st Surgeon General’s Report, asserting that cigarette smoking is responsible for a 70 percent increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers.

What I found particularly stunning was this: it wasn’t until fifty-two years had passed since discovering the first hard evidence linking smoking and lung cancer that the medical establishment finally admitted—publicly—that smoking is likely to kill us. Remember this point. I’ll come back to it later.

Question: What has all of this to do with changing our ideas about nutrition?

Ah, good question. Outside of the fact that we put both into our mouths, there would appear to be little similarity between tobacco and food. This is especially true when we consider that tobacco is a known toxic substance clinically linked (as of this writing) to nearly 440,000 of the more than 2.4 million annual deaths in the US (American Heart Association). But then I ran into this eye-opening article published on About.com dated June 21, 2007, which revealed this: poor diet and physical inactivity was, in fact, the second leading cause of death in the US in the year 2000 (the latest such figures available), accounting for 365,000 deaths or 15.2% of the total deaths. (One might assume that, given the significant rise in the incidence of diabetes, obesity, and other diet-related health issues since 2000, those figures have likely increased as well.)

Evidently—just like tobacco—food can kill us. But obviously, unlike tobacco, we need food to survive. How then does one interpret the simple statement “food can kill us?” Are we talking about all foods, or just some? Which ones? Processed foods? Foods containing dairy? Wheat? Protein? Carbohydrate? Low-fat? And what about quantities?

How are we to eat healthily, you ask, when we have so many choices, and so much conflicting information about those choices to wade through?

Ah, another good question. The answer that immediately pops to mind is: science. We will enlist the aid of science to help us make educated decisions. Science will tell us which foods are good to eat, and in what quantities.

Which brings me, finally, to the meat of this introductory article, Questioning the Science.

I realize you might have concerns about this. You might be thinking, unless we are ourselves scientists, who are we to question the science of nutrition? More important, why would we question it?

(A brief aside: I have always been amused by some interpretations of the oft-affixed car bumper sticker which exhorts us to “Question Authority” to mean “Reject Authority.” I mean nothing of the kind. In the context of this article, when I use the word “question,” I mean “examine closely.” )

There are a number of reasons why we might question the science we are using to help us live safe, productive and happy lives.

The first reason involves the limitations inherent in the way modern scientific theories are developed and tested: the venerable scientific method. The scientific method is the gold standard of accepted science. It is the only protocol for scientific reasoning recognized virtually everywhere in the scientific community.

It is also flawed.

Robert Persig, author of the landmark book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and a former student of biochemistry, had much to say about the scientific method. Here is a sampling:

  • "The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite."
  • "If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge."
  • "Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20 – 20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go."

Persig’s assertion—that it is impossible to know all of the possible hypotheses that might apply to a given phenomenon—means that scientists are forced to come up with ideas to test solely from their (collective or individual) imaginations, which are obviously limited. And for every idea that presents itself, there are ten more lurking just around the next corner. All theories are, at best, educated guesses. And nothing is ever actually proven.

Does this mean that all scientific pronouncements are bogus? Of course not. But many of them are definitely suspect, and for a variety of reasons.

Consider this excerpt from a recently published article on NewScientist.com:

"Most published scientific research papers are wrong, according to a new analysis. Assuming that the new paper is itself correct, problems with experimental and statistical methods mean that there is less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true.

"John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece [and Tufts University in the US], says that small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias, and selective reporting and other problems combine to make most research findings false. But even large, well-designed studies are not always right, meaning that scientists and the public have to be wary of reported findings."

 

One possible way to identify flawed studies is to rigorously examine their adherence to a basic tenet of the scientific method: replication. The question must be asked: is the outcome of a particular hypothesis-test consistently repeatable?

Remember the two characters (oops, I meant scientists) in Utah who came up with Cold Fusion? The scientific world was abuzz for months over this ostensible panacea for the world’s energy woes. It looked great—on paper. Unfortunately, no one else in the scientific community could replicate the process.
Never mind that the theory behind the process couldn’t be proven ; it couldn’t even be demonstrated.
(It might be useful to recollect here that the so-called Law of Gravity (a misnomer) has yet to be proven, but it has obviously been replicated.)

But even studies replicated over and over again can be inherently flawed, this time by an effect difficult to guard against in the scientific community: researcher bias (otherwise known as confirmation bias).

Leo Tolstoy once observed:

"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the
greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most
obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity
of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues,
which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven,
thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."

The term hadn’t yet been coined in Tolstoy’s era, but the phenomenon he refers to here is well-known in psychological circles as cognitive dissonance. (For an in-depth and entertaining discussion of cognitive dissonance, take a look at Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (2007 Harcourt Books) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.) Of course, Tolstoy was likely referring to people in general; but the problem of cognitive dissonance (or any other form of confirmation bias) takes on greater significance when ascribed to research scientists, who are rightly expected to maintain a high degree of impartiality in their research—even when it appears to be leading in an unexpected and/or undesirable direction.

All of which illustrates the second reason to question the results of any scientific inquiry: scientists are people.

This might be hard for many readers to swallow. As a culture, we worship our scientists, our doctors, our researchers, our physicists, chemists, biologists. We put them up on their ivory pedestals, shower them with our adoration, and give to them our undying promise to unquestioningly believe their every utterance and to promulgate it as truth.

Alas, would that God Himself commanded such respect.

So where does this leave us? Obviously, we still must rely on scientific inquiry—conducted by scientists—to help us make our own decisions regarding our health and fitness. But, as was mentioned above, we must be wary of the information we encounter. We must examine it under our own microscopes for procedural flaws. We must demand strict adherence to the scientific method (despite its flaws, still the best research tool around when used properly), and we must demand that our researchers do everything in their power to take their humanity out of the scientific process.

It sounds as if we have to become scientists ourselves to ensure the validity of our scientific information. Of course, that’s hardly practical. But I do believe that, by making ourselves more scientifically aware, and by making the effort to learn some practical techniques for critical examination, we can certainly improve the overall quality and impact of our personal decisions.

Here’s one way to start:

Award-winning science writer Gary Taubes, a correspondent for Science Magazine, has written an exhaustive and enlightening (some might say, depressing) exposé on scientific study, entitled Good Calories, Bad Calories. The book focuses (obviously) on the thought currently in vogue throughout the nutrition industry, and exposes the hugely convoluted body of information being tossed around without scrutiny—in virtually every corner of the diet movement—as a veritable house of cards, based on a combination of (among other things) unsubstantiated hearsay, post-hoc fallacies, and (surprise!) incredibly bad science. If there is any one book which can teach us how to critically evaluate the scientific information we are constantly bombarded with, this is it.

Among the book’s salient points (from the book jacket):

  • For decades we have been taught that fat is bad for us, carbohydrates better, and that the key to a healthy diet is eating less and exercising more. Yet with more and more people acting on this advice, we have seen unprecedented epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Taubes argues persuasively that the problem lies in refined carbohydates (white flour, sugar, easily digested starches)—via their dramatic effect on insulin, the hormone that regulates fat accumulation—and that the key to good health is the kind of calories we take in, not the number. There are good calories, and bad ones.
  • Taubes traces how the common assumption that carbohydrates are fattening was abandoned in the 1960s when fat and cholesterol were blamed for heart disease and then—wrongly—were seen as the causes of a host of other maladies, including cancer. He shows us how these unproven hypotheses were emphatically embraced by authorities in nutrition, public health, and clinical medicine, in spite of how well-conceived clinical trials have consistently refuted them. He also documents the dietary trials of carbohydrate-restriction, which consistently show that the fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
  • With precise references to the most significant existing clinical studies, he convinces us that there is no compelling scientific evidence demonstrating that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease, that salt causes high blood pressure, and that fiber is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Based on the evidence that does exist, he leads us to conclude that the only healthy way to lose weight and remain lean is to eat fewer carbohydrates or to change the type of carbohydrates we do eat, and, for some of us, perhaps to eat virtually none at all.

In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss some specifics about looking critically at current scientific thought on nutrition.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc?!?

One of the few things I remember clearly from my seventh grade year at Harvey Lewis Junior High School was taking Social Studies class. Mrs. Hancock, a portly but not unattractive woman, was the teacher. The Vietnam War was gaining momentum, and it seemed appropriate to Mrs. Hancock to teach us how to wade through all of the media coverage of the war, and to help us to understand how that coverage can actually create our perspective. Her first lesson was on the various propaganda tools currently employed by the media to—as she saw it—promote the war to the American public in its rhetoric. We were introduced to such terms as “glittering generalities,” “argument against the man,” and “red herring,” among others.

The one that stuck with me over the years was what was called the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, which is Latin for: after this, therefore because of this. It has stuck with me so tenaciously, I think, because we so often use this fallacious reasoning to explain a lot of what occurs in our daily lives. For example, if we wash and wax the car and then it rains, our resultant thinking is that it was the act of washing and waxing the car that caused the rain: it rained after the wax job, therefore, it rained because of the wax job.

It’s a natural tendency of humans to employ post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning. And it’s even a little funny when we realize just how ridiculous the idea is that, because one particular event follows another-which is to say, the two events are closely associated, or corrolated- the one event must have caused the second event. Washing the car caused the rain. Yeah, right. Ha ha.

And yet, funny as it might seem, some of us actually believe the “corrolation means causation” fallacy. My wife, Jeanie, who was at one time a practicing doula (a birth and post-partum coach for mothers) tells me of some of the strange beliefs pregnant women have had throughout history: eating strawberries will give your kids a birthmark; if your back gets cold, your milk will dry up. And who hasn’t heard this one from his or her parent: you cross your eyes like that and they’ll get stuck that way? We listen to these and laugh.

But it’s not so funny when the scientific community, whose practitioners should know better, and the media who report on that community’s research studies, fall into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc trap. Unfortunately, and often incredibly, it happens all the time. What makes their falling into this trap such a travesty is that the American public holds its scientists and its media in such high esteem. We believe what they have to say, on just about anything-and in particular, about what is and what is not healthy for us. And we will alter our lifestyles according to their pronouncements, with sometimes disastrous results.

I mention this because of an article I ran into just this morning on MSN.com entitled “Surprising Signs You’ll Live Longer Than You Think.” The article listed thirteen “signs” that you’re likely to live longer if you tend toward meeting certain “science-based” criteria. Here are those alleged signs, together with why, briefly, the scientists believe them to be true:

  • Your mother had you young (her ovum were healthier at a younger age)
  • You’re a tea lover (tea contains substances beneficial to the heart)
  • You’d rather walk (“fit” people live longer)
  • You skip soda-even diet (sodas contain substances known to be harmful)
  • You have strong legs (lower-body strength decreases your likelihood of falling and injuring yourself as you age)
  • You eat purple food (grapes, blueberries, etc. contain substances that aid the heart and help ward off Alzheimer’s Disease)
  • You were a healthy-weight teen (being overweight as a teenager has been linked to developing Diabetes as an adult)
  • You don’t like burgers (red meat and processed meats have been linked to the development of colorectal cancer and other cancers)
  • You’ve been a college freshman (folks who went to college are statistically less likely to begin smoking)
  • You really like your friends… (good interpersonal relationships help ward off stress)
  • …and they’re healthy (having fat friends increases your own likelihood of gaining weight)
  • You don’t have a housekeeper (doing your own housework is a great way to burn calories)
  • You’re a flourisher, not a languisher (flourishers are optimistic and derive meaning from their lives, both of which lead to behaviors likely to increase longevity)

Of course, I was amused by the article. My first response was to see where I fit within the schematic laid out in the list. I have always had strong legs; my mother gave birth to me when she was nineteen; I love tea. Hmmm. So far, so good. Then I got to the item that says “You don’t like burgers.” Immediately something seemed to grab me in the stomach and twist: I’ve always loved burgers. Then I read this in the explanation:

“A few palm-size servings (about 2 1/2 ounces) of beef, pork, or lamb now and then is no big deal, but eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week ups your risk of colorectal cancer-the third most common type, according to a major report by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Colorectal cancer risk also rises by 42 percent with every 3 1/2-ounce serving of processed meat (such as hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats) eaten per day, the report determined. Experts aren’t sure why red and processed meats are so harmful, but one of their suspects is the carcinogens that can form when meat is grilled, smoked, or cured-or when preservatives, such as nitrates, are added. ‘You can have an occasional hot dog at a baseball game, but just don’t make it a habit,’ says Karen Collins, R.D., a nutrition advisor at AICR.”

More twisting in my gut: I love hot dogs, and kielbasa, and corned beef. Jesus, I thought, was I at risk for cancer? Did this mean I had to make a radical change in my dietary habits, or else?

Then I remembered Mrs. Hancock and my seventh-grade social studies class, and the old post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. I wasn’t entirely certain that that was what I was witnessing here, but I thought I’d do a little research into the subject to find out. Here’s what I discovered:

The most recent research into the link between red meat/processed meat and the development of colorectal cancer was conducted less than a year ago, and was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This study has been fodder for a slew of articles citing causality between the consumption of red meat/processed meat and the development of cancer. Here’s a link to the actual abstract of the study. It is the Conclusions section that is the most interesting. It reads:

Higher intake of a Western dietary pattern may be associated with a higher risk of recurrence and mortality among patients with stage III colon cancer treated with surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy. Further studies are needed to delineate which components of such a diet show the strongest association.

Key words to pay attention to: “…may be associated” and, “strongest association.”

Ah. I was glad to have read it. I breathed easier and resurrected my wife’s and my meal plan for the week, which calls for bacon, steak, corned beef, and kielbasa, and generous amounts of animal fats. I’m not a scientist. But I have been around the block enough to know this: any researcher worth his salt (which, by the way, has been shown to not raise blood pressure, as previous scientific studies indicated) will tell you that an “association” (indicated by observational studies and epidemiological evidence) proves exactly nothing. It’s a flag, nothing more, pointing to a relationship which hasn’t even begun to be defined, and to the need for further inquiry via studies rigorously adhering to the tenets of the scientific method.

The problem, as I see it, is this: the scientists in the aforementioned study never claimed to have proven a causal link between eating red meat/processed meat and developing colorectal cancer. They merely cited an association. Unfortunately, the media don’t seem to understand what “association” means. They hear “association” and report “cause.” And we, the reading public, who hold our media in such high esteem, believe their reportage. And why wouldn’t we? We have to trust someone, don’t we? Aren’t the media supposed to know better? Don’t they check their facts?

Indeed. I have ideas about that which I might explore in a later post. But for now, I think it’s prudent to remember the few odd lessons we encounter during our lives which, if we pay attention to them, can help us to navigate through the morass of conflicting information we’re bombarded with, even from sources we believe to be authoritative. For myself, I’m thanking Mrs. Hancock who, forty-four years ago, taught me to “believe only half of what you see, and nothing that you hear (read),” and–most important–to “question authority.”

It’s probably the best lesson I ever learned.

Fred Hahn, Fitness Prophet…

Being a prophet can be a frustrating experience–especially when the people you’re trying to help don’t seem to be getting your message, no matter how true it is, or how insistently or persistently you might be delivering it. This has certainly been the case for many religious evangelists. The power of a listener’s disbelief, often fueled by the comfortable familiarity of lifelong entrenched convictions, can be a seemingly insurmountable barrier to receptivity. Consequently, they will often turn away from the knowledge they’re being offered, though embracing it would certainly nourish their souls.

Of course, this observation holds true for more secular prophets and evangelists, which include everything from political activists to investment gurus, to garment-district pundits predicting upcoming trends in fall fashion wear. And it has certainly held true for folks like Fred Hahn, a fitness expert whose revolutionary ideas about exercise and nutrition are finally starting to catch on with the American public–but only after years of relentlessly spreading his truth and battling traditional, outdated beliefs about fitness, which, like brain-eating zombies, simply refuse to die.

Fred is the author of two books on changing America’s fitness thinking, most notably “The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution” which he co-wrote back in 2002 with Drs. Mike Eades and Mary Dan Eades, authors of the highly successful “Protein Power Lifeplan” and recognized leaders in the nutrition and fitness reformation slowly taking shape in America today. Slow Burn is a wonderful book. And its central premise–that thirty minutes of strength training a week is the only physical exercise necessary to achieve optimum fitness–is solidly backed by a plethora of scientific studies researched meticulously by Fred and demonstrated repeatedly in his own fitness studio. The book also provides a simple, elegant workout and nutrition program (courtesy of the Drs. Eades) that will bring health and well-being to anyone who gives it an honest go.

If reviews of Fred’s book-and his turn-the-fitness-world-upside-down ideas-are any indication of just how beneficial joining his “fitness revolution” can be, then the decision to get fit the Slow Burn Way should be a no-brainer. But, like most prophets in history, Fred Hahn and many of his forward-thinking compatriots in the health and and fitness industry are still looking to be “recognized in their own land.” Consider this: despite a wealth of new evidence strongly suggesting the low-calorie, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is exactly the wrong way for humans to eat, (take a look at Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories for an enlightening report on nutrition and fitness-related science) people persist in touting its benefits. Equally mystifying is this: despite new evidence that hard and sustained aerobic exercise is not the way to lose weight and keep it off (again, see Taubes, above)–and is, in fact, a leading cause of injury in sports-exercise gurus and even a majority of physical trainers (who should know better) are still recommending increased aerobic exercise to trim the waistline.

Apparently, people can be as resistant to a new way of thinking about their nutrition and fitness habits as they are to a new religious cult.

But Fred is undeterred, methodically putting the word out about his fitness revolution. His second book, entitled Strong Kids Healthy Kids, is due to be released mid-October, and there’s a possible e-book in the works aimed at adapting Slow Burn to folks who live full-time in RVs. He’s making public appearances, even actively writing a blog, which he updates regularly. And nearly every day he takes the stairs down to his narrow below-street-level studio-dubbed, appropriately, the Serious Strength Personal Training Studio–on New York City’s Upper West Side (one of three locations in the area, including one in the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel!)–to continue proselytizing to his steadily growing congregation of converts to the Slow Burn way of thinking, helping them to find their way to the narrow path of righteous fitness.

Still, there are times when Fred wonders why things are taking so long, given the obviousness of his program’s benefits. Here he muses on a recent post to his blog:

“Why does the American Heart Association continue to advocate aerobic exercise when orthopedic injuries caused by such activities dwarf the amount of benefit received?

“If we do have a finite number of heartbeats available to us why would we want to waste them doing daily cardiovascular exercise?

“Why do so many think weight lifting is dangerous for kids yet gladly send them off to football or gymnastics camps?

“Why does the American Diabetes Association advocate the ingestion of blood-sugar raising dietary carbohydrates when doing so requires taking medication to lower it?

“Why does the American Medical Association support the use of statins when ALL of the scientific evidence shows no benefits to taking them and instead shows tremendous detriment? Worse, far worse, why is it that when you educate people as to this fact they fight with you about it?

“Since eating fat and protein is known to be essential for health, why are we being taught that is is bad?

“How come the government food pyramid indicates that most of our daily calories should come from grain based carbohydrates – a food group that is completely non essential to human life?

“If rigorous physical activity is so healthy for us, why are the vast majority of athletes’ careers over at age 30?

“It appears that ethanol (gasoline with added alcohol made from corn or sugar) fuel gunks up the engines of cars. Most engineers agree that this stuff is garbage for the car’s circulatory system and recommend that fuel thinners be used to keep the engines from ceasing up. Might this be true of our circulatory system as well?

“Why did the American Council on Exercise (a leading fitness organization that pledges it’s soul to help educate the gen pop on health and wellness of which I have been a member of for 2 decades) send me 2 letters asking me to let them know about what I do to help the fitness community when I am a bestselling fitness author and the owner of a popular NYC gym?

“Why do we cheer on marathon runners when the activity is so physically detrimental? It would be like cheering on a throng of people trying to see how fast they could smoke 10,000 cigarettes. (If you disagree with this, think about it for more than a second.)

“Explain to me the logic behind an insurance company paying for gastric bypass and not for an exercise program?

“Why do insurance companies ask you if you smoke and what your cholesterol is but not if you are a runner or are vegan?

“Why do we think exercise will cure our obesity when the lack of it is not how we got fat in the first place?

“Why do many women say they don’t want any muscle and then in the next breath say they want to feel tight and toned?

“How come comic book characters and action figures have turned from lean athletic figures into impossibly gigantic muscle monsters? How does this affect a child’s self-perception?

“Why do you need to be 21 to smoke but not to buy a can of Mountain Dew?

“If our normal core body temperature is ~98.6 degrees and 100 degrees is a fever, why are we dictated to warm up before we exercise? I put to you that it is essential to cool down before an exercise program not warm up.”

Fred asks these questions with a thinly-veiled tone of exasperation, evident even in writing. There are things terribly wrong with the way people continue to think about nutrition and fitness, and, frankly, these things anger Fred Hahn.

But then, great people, especially prophets and revolutionaries, are usually angry with the way things are. Maybe that’s what keeps them going. And why we need them so badly.

I’ll talk more about Fred and his Slow Burn Fitness Revolution in later posts. Please come back.

Do Calories Count When Low-Carbing? Yep.

Browse a little around this site, and you’ll probably notice that most of the information and stories I have under the category of Nutrition promote the low-carb lifestyle. Actually, it all does, for the simple fact that, after considerable research and personal experience over the past ten years (thirty years, if you count the time I unsuccessfully tried to manage the Atkins diet shortly after it was introduced), I’ve come to the conclusion that low-carb eating is an amazing tool whereby many of our culture’s nutritional ills can be made to simply disappear from our plane of existence. I’ll have more over the next several posts to describe how I came to believe the way I do.

But for now, let me get to the meat (ha ha) of this post, which is my assertion that calories count in a weight loss program—even a low-carb weight-loss program. Actually, it isn’t my claim, per se; I borrowed it from a nifty little web site that, in my opinion, is perhaps the most comprehensive science-of-low-carb web sites around. It’s called Low-Carb for You. This site is fairly bursting with articles that explain in scientific detail why human beings ought to be eating a low-carb diet full-time.

I was browsing through Low Carb for You this evening, and I ran into this particular post: Calories Count. The title caught my eye, because—being a committed adherant to the low-carb lifestyle—I had always believed exactly the opposite was true: that one could eat as many calories as one wanted, provided the number of carbohydrates one ate was sufficiently restricted. This was a new twist on a subject I thought I was pretty informed about. I opened the article in my browser and began to read.

But let me digress for a moment to mention something pertinent: I had been extremely successful losing weight while working the Weight Watcher’s program, averaging about two pounds per week. Then, when I was within ten pounds of my goal, I switched horses, as it were, and embarked on the Protein Power Weight Loss Program. (To learn why I switched programs, take a look at this article, and this post, both of which, taken together, discuss my rationale). The two programs are, intrinsically, on the opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum: Weight Watchers is low-calorie, low-fat, high carbohydrate; Protein Power is higher protein, moderate-to-high fat, and, of course, low carbohydrate. Here’s the curious part: after I began eating low-carb, my weight loss rate slowed to a crawl. Some weeks it seemed as if I wasn’t losing any weight at all. It didn’t seem to matter how restrictive I was on my carbohydrate count, by the time six months had elapsed, I’d only managed to lose an average of two pounds per month.

Naturally, I was befuddled, and disappointed. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go back to Weight Watchers (for reasons I explain in my other post). I searched the web but could find no believable explanation for why someone limiting his carbohydrate intake to below “intervention” levels should not be losing weight more quickly. Some low-carb advocates I contacted offered that I was “probably gaining muscle weight,” but that didn’t explain why my body-fat percentage was still hovering out of acceptable bounds. Still others made vague observations suggesting that “limiting your calories” was a possible solution to consider, but I dismissed these as ridiculous. After all, I thought, this was low-carb, doggone it. Calories don’t count!

Well, as it turns out after reading this fascinating article, I discovered I had been right all along—but only partly. While it is true that limiting carbohydrates will lessen, often dramatically, the production of insulin—the hormone responsible for storing excess sugar and fat in the cells—that’s only half of the weight-loss equation. Shrinking the insulin response merely makes it so less fat is stored, meaning you’re not as likely to gain weight. But it has nothing to do with retrieving fat out of the cells, which is necessary for actual weight loss. For that, one must create an energy deficit in the body—i.e., expend more calories than you take in.

Calories, in fact, do count.

But before you conclude that I’ve just advocated eating a typical low-fat, low-calorie, high-carb diet, as has been prescribed for decades by the FDA, and rush off to the store to pick up some non-fat ice cream, stop to consider a couple of important ideas. First, there is a substantial body of evidence (again, take a look at my article here) indicating that the low fat, high carbohydrate diet is exactly the wrong way for us to eat—even if we are successful in losing weight. (One important reason is that a low-calorie, high-carb regimen robs the body of critically-needed lean muscle mass.) The second point to consider is this: given that weight loss from both dietary plans results from the same thing—caloric restriction, there is additional evidence showing it can actually be easier to lose weight by restricting your carbohydrates, not calories.

But wait a minute, I can hear you thinking, didn’t you just say that you needed to limit your calories to lose weight?

In fact, I did say that, and I haven’t changed that assertion.

How is this possible, you ask? The author of the Low Carb for You article explains it this way:

Typically in a low-calorie versus a low-carb scientific study, the low-calorie group is given a target number of daily calories while the low-carb group is given a target number of daily carbs. When the results are tabulated, the net caloric intake will be compared between the two groups. Rather surprisingly, the two groups will have ingested almost the same number of calories. Examples are the recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the A to Z Weight Loss Study published last year in JAMA.

He continues:

Why do low-carbers unconsciously limit calories when they count carbs? One reason is the action of the signaling hormone leptin, discussed in the previous two posts. As low-carbers become more sensitive to the signals provided by leptin, they have an improved ability to perceive satiety. Their brains detect the leptin released by their fat stores and turn off the hunger signal at a caloric level that will allow them to use some of their fat stores for energy. The study group that eats a low-calorie diet without carbohydrate restriction will have a harder time getting the satiety signal. The participants in that group will have to turn off their eating at an intellectual level. When they have eaten the allowed number of calories, they have to consciously make themselves stop eating.

Of course, it goes without saying that the weight-loss program that is easiest to stick with is likely to be the program that dieters have the most success with.

I’ll have more to say about low-carb versus the “traditional” ways of eating in future posts. Thanks for visiting, and I welcome your comments.

A Different Food Pyramid?!?

The New Healthy Food Pyramid

The New Food Pyramid


There’s no telling what kind of event will bring about a major change in people’s lifestyles. For some it might be a stroke or heart attack. Cancer is a big one. AIDS. The death of a significant other. Maybe it’s something less personal but no less damaging, say a catastrophic bank failure or the loss of a job.

Sometimes, huge outcomes arise from things that, on the surface, seem minor or insignificant. Remember that old saying, for want of a nail? For me, it wasn’t a nail. It was—to risk offering too much information—a nagging case of, well, constipation. There, I said it. A minor event that ultimately led to the overturning of some very cherished, lifelong beliefs I’d held about nutrition and fitness. And the net result is that, today, both my wife Jeanie and I feel better in our mid-fifties than we did when we were twenty years old.

Here’s what happened. We’d been dieting (like most of the population in the US at one time or another). In our case, we’d been using Weight Watchers. And we were very successful. I won’t divulge just how much weight my wife lost, but I managed to shed close to thirty-five pounds on the program. We both had to go out and buy entire new wardrobes to fit our new bodies.

We should have felt great, being down to our ideal weights. We certainly looked great, which was a tremendous boost to our egos. But something wasn’t quite right. For starters, I’d lost a bunch of muscle mass on the Weight Watchers program. And what I hadn’t lost were cravings: I’d wake up in the morning starving, and I’d always feel the tug of the sweets aisles at the supermarket. Ice cream was a particular problem. We were limiting our fats (eliminating them wherever possible), and increasing our intake of fiber-rich, whole-grain foods. We limited our intake of meats, particularly beef and pork, which were high in fat, a Weight Watchers no-no.

Well. We’d been on the plan for several months, when I began to notice my trips to the toilet were becoming increasingly difficult. Not only was I having trouble eliminating, but I’d developed a very uncomfortable case of hemorrhoids. Uncomfortable enough that I began to seriously contemplate having surgery.

I went to the Internet. Lovely place, the Internet. Gobs of information. You’d be amazed at the thousands of articles dealing with the subject of hemorrhoids. And 99.9 percent of these articles, the majority of which were written by nutritionists and medical doctors, all offered the same advice to relieve this annoying problem: increase your fiber intake, drink a half-gallon or more of water each day, and you might try adding some fish oil and/or aloe to your diet as well. Oh, and getting lots of aerobic exercise is important, too…you gotta get the blood and oxygen flowing to the affected area.

Okay, I thought. If this is the solution offered by the medical professionals, who was I to question them? I dutifully blasted my innards with Shredded Wheat and high-fiber breads and vegetables, drank at least a full gallon of water each day, and took brisk walks over hill and dale for ninety minutes or more. I did everything that was prescribed.

That should do the trick, I thought.

But, alas, outside of a slight improvement over the course of two days, my bowels returned to business as usual–which is to say, I wasn’t able to do my own business without a lot of strain and very little to show for it…except, of course, the hemorrhoids, which stubbornly refused to go away.

So it was back to the Internet. Pages and pages of search results. All of them seemed to be saying exactly the same thing. Then I stumbled on this: buried deep in the bowels of the Google search engine. It was a website promoting a cheesy-looking self-published book entitled Fiber Menace. (The title is actually much, much longer, but the shortened version here will suffice.) The website was hosted by the author, an unknown Ukrainian pharmacist named Konstantin Monastyrsky, who achieved some notoriety when he came to America–in computer programming. Go figure. You can read Mr. Monastyrsky’s biography (which I didn’t bother with at the time) here. But I did take some time to skim his website. I couldn’t believe what he’d written (he actually quoted much of his book right there on the website), including these preposterous (I assumed) notions, some of which I’ve paraphrased from his page entitled Give Me Ten Reasons Why I Should Read Fiber Menace:

  • fiber causes chronic digestive disorders and irreversible colorectal damage — even though your menu choices, conventionally speaking, may be impeccable.
  • many accelerated aging and degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and atherosclerosis, stem from digestive and endocrine disorders caused by fiber consumption.
  • many common digestive complaints, such as heartburn (GERD), gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation, are actually caused or made worse by fiber.
  • there is enormous pressure coming from all quarters to conform to the one century-and-a-half old medical doctrine regarding the ‘health benefits’ of fiber. But if you study morbidity charts, so far the increased consumption of fiber has brought neither ‘health’ nor ‘benefits.’
  • we have become unwitting victims of medical error. Acute digestive disorders directly related to the consumption of fiber — such as appendicitis, ulcers, cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), intestinal obstructions, hernias, and ulcerative colitis — are the leading causes of hospitalization and surgical intervention among people under fifty. Sadly, you’re six times more likely to die from a medical error while hospitalized than from getting killed in a car accident.
  • even dietary supplements are rendered useless when their assimilation is blocked by the ill effects of fiber on the stomach and intestines.
  • if you’re a committed vegetarian, the odds of remaining a “healthy vegetarian” are about as good as beating Russian roulette.

What this guy was saying wasn’t just preposterous; it was laughable. And I did laugh a little derisively while I went back to searching the Internet for more sage–read, believable–advice on how to relieve my steadily worsening hemorrhoid and elimination problems.

But something in the periphery of my mind had begun nagging me about this Monastyrsky fellow, and the outrageous things he’d said about an established fact, unequivocally, irrefutably proven in the medical and nutritional establishment–that dietary fiber was healthy, and the more the better. I was suddenly curious to learn whether there were any scientific studies to back up his claims. So I decided to begin another search, just to settle the question once and for all in my own mind. I brought up my trusty Google page and entered “Fiber Menace” in the window.

What I discovered was, to put it mildly, jaw-dropping.

I’ll get into that in my next installment. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.