What Does It Mean To Be A Man?

What exactly is a real man?

What exactly is a real man?

There’s a great scene (one of several, actually) in the movie The Right Stuff. Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who earlier in the movie had become the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound, was now test-flying a new fighter jet, the F-104 Starfighter, to determine its altitude ceiling and to possibly break the high-altitude record currently held by the Russians. The flight plan called for Yeager to climb as high as he could, using the jet’s afterburner until it’s fuel was exhausted. At that point he would shut down the main engine (to prevent overheating and to conserve fuel in the main tanks) then light off an auxiliary booster rocket which would provide the thrust for the remainder of the flight. Once that, too, was exhausted—hopefully at an altitude higher than any man had thus far traveled—Yeager was supposed to force the nose of the Starfighter over into a dive and hold it there until sufficient air was flowing through the main engine to permit an in-flight restart. Then he’d simply fly the jet back to base.

Yeager’s plane reaches 104,000 feet, still short of the record. Of course, Yeager is disappointed, but undaunted. He figures he’ll return to base and try again another day. But something goes wrong. The mechanism which is supposed to cause the nose of the aircraft to drop, and which will in turn allow critical airflow through the engine’s intake for restart, fails in the too-thin air of the upper atmosphere. The plane begins to fall in what is called a steady-state flat spin. The lack of airflow (the relative air is hitting the plane perpendicularly) renders the jet’s monstrous engine, as well as the various control systems which depend on it, useless.

As the plane falls, spinning around “like a length of pipe in the sky,” Yeager tries desperately to pull it out of the spin, to no avail. He finally ejects from the crippled plane after falling nearly 100,000 feet—only to be nearly killed when his ejection seat, still gushing flaming rocket propellant, crashes into him while he hangs in his parachute.

Yeager hits the ground, landing in desert mesquite, then manages to stand up, amazed he’s still alive. But he’s mightily injured, with third and second-degree burns to his face and one hand. Blood is caked in a baked mass over his left eye. Nevertheless, he starts walking, carrying his rolled-up parachute and his flight helmet. Soon he is on the runway of Edwards Air Force Base, from where he’d taken off just a short time earlier.

At the other end of the runway, a rescue vehicle with two men inside speeds toward Yeager, who walks resolutely out of a cloud of smoke and burning wreckage of airplane (a little Hollywood embellishment). The driver of the vehicle points through the windscreen. “Sir,” he says, “is that a man?” “You’re damn right, it is!” says the other rescuer.

Okay, it’s a long story with a short punch line, but the gist of the episode is this: Chuck Yeager is a real man. And he proves this unequivocally in the film by having the balls to ride a shuddering hunk of metal into the nether reaches of the atmosphere, thence to survive the return to earth when everything goes to hell in a hand basket and tries to take him with it. It’s a great story. I remember cheering at the end of the movie. And while I drove back that night from Fresno, California down to the Lemoore Naval Air Station, where I was myself actively pursuing a career in flying as a carrier jet pilot, I couldn’t help feeling just a little smug, being a part of that same small community of “real men.”

Alas, $#!+ happens. (What was that saying from the Bible—”pride goeth before a fall?”) Less than a year later, I found myself suddenly, permanently, “out of the cockpit.” The reasons don’t matter, at least for now. What did matter was how it affected me. I was angry, of course. But I was also scared. The way I saw it, I’d been stripped of a critical facet of my identity: my manhood. The sense of loss was palpable, almost physical. When I finally said goodbye to the Navy several months later and drove away to a non-flying future in the civilian world, I felt as if I’d been told to check my balls at the gate. I’d no longer be needing them.

The obvious question that was forming in my mind, and which I would carry with me unanswered for the next twenty-five years, was this: if, as I seemed to believe, I was no longer a real man, then what was I? What, exactly, is a real man? And, finally, how does an otherwise ordinary male achieve that illustrious state?

More to come. I welcome your comments here, and in the forum.

The Best Way To Have A Long Term Relationship (A Two-Step Program)

Step One: Learn The True Meaning Of Love
I remember hearing an anecdote several years back about a famous Hollywood couple. My recollection is, they were Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, but I won’t swear to it. The story went thusly: Natalie apparently awoke one morning and looked over at her sleeping husband and realized she no longer knew who he was. “I had no feeling for him at all,” she was (as I recall) quoted as saying. The way Natalie saw it, the relationship was clearly over. She filed for divorce and, soon after, ran off with Warren Beatty.

The story, gossip-fueled or not, stuck with me over the years, not because of what I thought of Wagner and Wood (I happened to like them both, the rumors surrounding their tumultuous relationship notwithstanding), but because the basic tenet of this brief story–the experience of “falling out of love”–is a common refrain in relationships lasting more than, say, just a few months.

  • She says: he’s not the exciting (or romantic) man I fell in love with; he spends too much time in front of the TV (or in the garage, or at work, or on the golf course); all we do is fight over finances (or child-rearing techniques or leaving the toilet seat up); he tells me he’ll change (spend more time at home, do the dishes once in awhile, make love to her more often), but he never does; sometimes I think I don’t love him anymore.
  • He says: she’s changed; she nags me all the time, just like my mother; she’s not sexy anymore; she’s gotten fat (or old, or sick); we don’t see eye to eye on anything (raising the kids, frequency of sex, finances); the feeling is gone; I guess I’ve just fallen out of love with her.

The tragedy is that couples who might well have all the ingredients for a successful and satisfying marriage often split up because one or both of the partners has “fallen out of love” with the other one.

Well, here’s a shock, boys and girls: the truth is, you’re supposed to”fall out of love.”

Notice I’m not saying you are supposed to stop loving your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever. Because there is a world of difference between loving someone and being in love with that person, even if they seem to be closely related. In fact, I would go so far as to say, you can’t really begin the business of truly loving your partner until you’ve moved past being in love with him.

A brief aside here: I’m not referring to relationships which are physically or emotionally abusive or otherwise burdened with alcoholism, drug abuse, and the like. Those are matters which must addressed and eliminated first, for there is virtually no chance of building and maintaining a healthy relationship while any of these issues is a component of either partner’s life.

With that caveat, then, I will reiterate: you cannot begin to love your partner until you have moved past being in love with him. It is only then that you can make the conscious choice to love.

Wait a minute, I hear you say. We choose to love? How is this possible? I can’t just make myself feel something I don’t feel.

And you are exactly right. You can’t, as Bonnie Raitt laments, “make your heart feel something it won’t.” But here’s the good part: you don’t have to feel it. Why? Pay attention here, because understanding this point is perhaps the single most important key, if not the key, to having a healthy long term relationship: love is not a feeling. I’ll say it again: love is not a feeling.

Wait a minute, I can hear you protesting, of course love is a feeling. When I first met my wife, I was nearly exploding with feelings of love. There was excitement in the air, this feeling that I couldn’t live without her. I wanted to make love to her constantly, to spend every moment with her. And being without her was like– dying!

Indeed. But I would counter that what you were feeling wasn’t love at all, but rather a psychological phenomenon known as “ego boundary collapse.”

In his seminal work entitled The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, M.D. offers this insight into the collapse of ego boundaries, and how it relates to what he calls “the myth of romantic love.”

…[People] know that they are individuals, confined to the boundaries of the flesh and the limits of their power…isolated from others by their individual identities, boundaries, and limits….It is lonely behind these boundaries….most of us feel our loneliness to be painful and yearn to escape from behind the walls of our individual identities to a condition in which we can be more unified with the world outside ourselves. The experience of falling in love allows us this escape–temporarily. The essence of the phenomenon of falling in love is a sudden collapse of a section of an indvidual’s ego boundaries, permitting one to merge his or her identity with that of another person. The sudden release of oneself from oneself, the explosive pouring out of oneself into the beloved, and the dramatic surcease of loneliness accompanying this collapse of ego boundaries is experienced by most of us as estatic. We and our beloved are one! Loneliness is no more!

[But sooner] or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher….She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begin to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from the other’s. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving.

Peck adds this sobering thought:

The unreality of these feelings when we have fallen in love is essentially the same as the unreality of the two-year-old who feels itself to be king of the family and the world with power unlimited.

From the above, I might point out that the state of being in love is not unlike being insane. Hence my earlier comment that one must move past the in love state in order to make the conscious (i.e., in possession of one’s mental faculties; not insane) decision to love someone.

I’ll say it again: love is not a feeling. But that isn’t to say you can’t feel a strong affection for the one you love. More on that later.

But for now, the question is begged: if love isn’t a feeling, then what is it?!?

Love is, as I’ve said above, a conscious choice. It is making the decision to love, as well as making a commitment to honor that decision. But Peck sums up the essence of love in two elegant words: work and courage.

Peck elaborates with this:

[The] definition of love implie[s] effort. When we extend ourselves, when we take an extra step or walk an extra mile, we do so in opposition to the inertia of laziness or the resistance of fear. Extension of ourselves or moving out against the inertia of laziness we call work. Moving out in the face of fear we call courage. Love, then, is a form of work or a form of courage. Specifically, it is work or courage directed toward the nurture of our own or another’s spiritual growth. We may work or exert courage in directions other than toward spiritual growth, and for this reason all work and all courage is not love. But since it requires the extension of ourselves, love is always either work or courage. If an act is not one of work or courage, then it is not an act of love. There are no exceptions.

…and, finally, with this:

The principal form that the work of love takes is attention. When we love another we give him or her our attention; we attend to that person’s growth. When we love ourselves we attend to our own growth. When we attend to someone we are caring for that person. The act of attending requires that we make the effort to set aside our existing preoccupations and actively shift our consciousness….By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening.

I might summarize this first step by observing that the common mistake (as I see it) made by couples is confusing the in love state with the act of love. The former is merely a feature of the latter, in the same way enjoying the taste of a great hamburger is a feature of nourishing our bodies. We will continue to nourish our bodies even though we might eventually grow tired of hamburgers. We might, for instance, eat spaghetti. My point is that it is the eating–the nourishment of our bodies–that is important, not what it is we are eating, or whether we particularly enjoy what we are eating.

Still, one might ask, why should I continue to eat hamburgers–of which now I’m not particularly fond–when there’s a plate of spaghetti over there which smells wonderful!?! In other words, what if I’m not happy in my current relationship? What’s wrong with choosing to love someone else, especially when the one I’m with now is so difficult to love? Do we practice and learn to develop love merely for its own sake? Can’t I be happy, too?

Which, now, leads me to the second step in this series, based on the work of Harville Hendrix, Ph.d. and his book Getting The Love You Want. In this second article I will discuss why you should turn around and re-commit to a love relationship which, at least on the surface, appears doomed, and ways to do it.

The Best Way To Have A Long Term Relationship (A Two-Step Program: Cont’d)

If you think falling out of love is a good reason to end a love relationship, think again.

If you think falling out of love is a good reason to end a love relationship, think again.

I concluded Part One of this two-part article with a question:

“What if I’m not happy in my current relationship? What’s wrong with choosing to love someone else, especially when the one I’m with now is so difficult to love? Do we practice and learn to develop love merely for its own sake? Can’t I be happy, too?”

Let’s continue.

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., author of the bestselling book Getting the Love You Want offers this sober observation in an article about what he sees as a universally common complaint in today’s marriages:

“At some point in their relationship, couples often find themselves struggling with anger and shock, despair and sadness. Some are newlyweds, and can’t understand how they have plummeted from the heights of love and glory into a swamp of hopelessness and conflict. Others have been married for many years, and though they have been slogging along – in calm or storm – their days of wine and roses are a dim memory. Even if life at home is relatively peaceful, couples lament that they have “nothing in common anymore.” And so they lead a disappointed or angry co-existence, each with their own friends and interests, in a marriage of convenience, or an arrangement they endure “for the sake of the children.”

Most of us feel pressured to keep the marriage alive, from church, and/or well-meaning relatives and friends. And they are right: unless there is physical or psycholgical abuse, or the presence of alcohol or drug abuse, we should work to keep our marriages alive–but the reasons for doing so might not be so obvious.

Most of us think we ought to continue to stay married because of our commitment or the sacredness of the institution of marriage. Those are certainly valid considerations. But for the purposes of this article, there is an equally important reason to stay in our troubled marriages: they are our only viable path to happiness and a sense of completeness.

Hendrix continues:

“Shattered dreams, whatever form they take, are painful. But there is hope. In fact, the pain and conflict of committed relationships arise not out of lack of love for our partners, but from a misunderstanding of what love relationships are about. Your conflict can be the very fuel for the fulfillment you seek.”

The Real Reason We Marry–The Imago

Hendrix bases his beliefs about love relationships on years of experience working with hundreds of couples seeking a solution to their relationship ills. His observations led him to co-develop, along with his partner Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., a program they call Imago Relationship Therapy, or IRT. IRT was based on their deep knowledge of psychology, clinical experience, and the lessons of their own relationship, and is comprised of these core tenets (from Wikipedia):

  • We were born whole and complete.
  • We became wounded during the early nurturing and socialization stages of development by our primary caretakers (usually inadvertently).
  • We have a composite image of all the positive and negative traits of our primary caretakers deep in our unconscious mind. This is called the Imago. It is like a blueprint of the one we need to marry someday.
  • We marry someone who is an Imago match, that is, someone who matches up with the composite image of our primary caretakers. This is important because we marry for the purpose of healing and finishing the unfinished business of childhood. Since our parents are the ones who wounded us, it is only they who can heal us. Not them literally, but a primary love partner who matches their traits.
  • Romantic Love is the door to marriage and is nature’s selection process that connects us with just the right partner for our eventual healing and growth.
  • We move into the Power Struggle as soon as we make a commitment to this person. The Power Struggle is necessary, for imbedded in a couple’s frustrations lie the information for healing and growth.

But I Didn’t Have A Wounded Childhood!
I’ve run into people who insist they weren’t wounded as children. They had loving parents and extended family. The friends they made as children remained their friends for life. The mailman, the grocer, and their schoolteachers were all wonderful people.

While all of their circumstances might have been exactly so, I contend that it is impossible not to have been wounded as a child, even by loving parents.

My wife Jeanie gives me a great example to share. Jeanie grew up in what I consider the most loving family on the face of the planet. She tells me stories about her mother and father that make me green with envy. Her mother cooked wonderful meals and sewed all of Jeanie’s clothes. Her father worked hard, smoked a delicious-smelling pipe and took the family camping and fishing regularly. I’ve seen home movies of Jeanie as a child, and the affection her parents felt for her is undeniable. She can’t recollect a single instance of ever feeling her parents didn’t adore her.

Jeanie eventually married a workaholic, an architect who was rarely in the house, and when he was at home, he was holed up in the home-office working on his projects. Jeanie felt abandoned.

Jeanie and I talked about it when I first brought up the subject of Harville Hendrix and Getting The Love You Want, and what it meant. If Jeanie was initially attracted to this man in order to heal childhood wounds, then why would she have chosen (unconsciously) a man who was never available to her?

Jeanie thought back to her childhood–and realized that, as much as her father loved her, he was rarely at home. He worked long hard days as owner of a service station. And when he was home, he was too tired to do much more than sit in front of the TV until he fell asleep.

It’s our suspicion that Jeanie has abandonment issues, which she developed because her father wasn’t around as often as Jeanie needed him, and when he was physically present, he was often too tired to pay Jeanie the attention she needed from him (I might also point out that Jeanie’s previous husband was, as she saw it, notoriously unavailable emotionally).

As for myself, my own mother was a product of the Depression, with parents born and raised in the stoic Midwest. She rarely experienced anything like love from her own parents. Consequently, she learned at an early age to be generally distant emotionally. I believe she passed that lesson on to me, by being emotionally unavailable to me when I needed her love the most. As a result, I have consistently attracted into my life women who didn’t have the capacity for intimacy, believing that I could somehow change them if only I loved them enough. Sadly, it never worked–because neither they nor I fully understood the underlying basis for our initial attraction, and hence didn’t have the tools to redefine the relationship–tools which I eventually learned reading Harville Hendrix’s Getting The Love You Want.

How Imago Relationship Therapy Works–Merging The “Old Brain” With The “New Brain”

Most of us, as it turns out, are using what Hendrix calls our “old brain” to call the shots in our relationships.

Hendrix describes the relationship between the “old” and “new” brains. From his book:

“…I use the term “old brain” to refer to the portion of the brain that includes both the brain stem and the limbic system. Think of the old brain as being hard-wired and determining most of your automatic reactions….[while the “new brain”] is the cerebral cortex, a large, convoluted mass of brain tissue that surrounds [the brain stem and limbic system]. This portion of the brain…is the site of most of our cognitive functions….I refer to the cerebral cortex as the “new brain” because it appeared most recently in our evolutionary history. Your new brain is the part of you… that makes decisions, thinks, observes, plans, andticipates, responds, organizes information, and creates ideas….To a degree, it can moderate some of the instinctual reactions of your old brain.”

It is the “old brain,” Hendrix contends, which is ultimately behind the strong attraction we feel for a potential love partner–trying to recreate our wounded childhood and sensing the traits in that person which confuse it into believing we are literally in the presence of our parents. Hence, we are attracted to this person, not because they are particularly young or beautiful or rich, etc., but out of a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.

Unfortunately, this person 1) isn’t our parents, and 2) is still quite likely to behave exactly as our parents did (having those same traits). All of which is to say, unless something intervenes to give us a different understanding of our relationship–and ourselves–we are doomed to be wounded again by our new partner in exactly the same way we were as children.

That something is Imago Relationship Therapy.

It is the purpose of Imago Relationship Therapy to help the relationship partners understand and acknowledge when they are letting their “old brains” run their relationship, as well as teach them to bring in their “new brains” to view their relationship from a more mature and rational point of view. Above all, it teaches partners new ways of interacting based on their new understanding of why they are in the relationship in the first place.

The result is the gradual development of what Hendrix calls a conscious marriage.

What is a “Conscious Marriage?”


1. You realize that your love relationship has a hidden purpose – the healing of childhood wounds. Instead of focusing entirely on surface needs and desires, you learn to recognize the unresolved childhood issues that underlie them. When you look at marriage with this X-ray vision, your daily interactions take on more meaning. Puzzling aspects of your relationship begin to make sense to you, and you have a greater sense of control.

2. You create a more accurate image of your partner. At the very moment of attraction, you began fusing your lover with your primary caretakers. Later you projected your negative traits onto your partner, further obscuring your partner’s essential reality. As you move toward a conscious marriage, you gradually let go of these illusions and begin to see more of your partner’s truth. You see your partner not as your savior but as another wounded human being, struggling to be healed.

3. You take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner. In an unconscious marriage, you cling to the childhood belief that your partner automatically intuits your needs. In a conscious marriage, you accept the fact that, in order to understand each other, you have to develop clear channels of communication.

4. You become more intentional in your interactions. In an unconscious marriage, you tend to react without thinking. You allow the primitive response of your old brain to control your behavior. In a conscious marriage, you train yourself to behave in a more constructive manner.

5. You learn to value your partner’s needs and wishes as highly as you value your own. In an unconscious marriage, you assume that your partner’s role in life is to take care of your needs magically. In a conscious marriage you let go of this narcissistic view and divert more and more of your energy to meeting your partner’s needs.

6. You embrace the dark side of your personality. In a conscious marriage, you openly acknowledge the fact that you, like everyone else, have negative traits. As you accept responsibility for this dark side of your nature, you lessen your tendency to project your negative traits onto your mate, which creates a less hostile environment.

7. You learn new techniques to satisfy your basic needs and desires. During the power struggle, you cajole, harangue, and blame in an attempt to coerce your partner to meet your needs. When you move beyond this stage, you realize that your partner can indeed be a resource for you – once you abandon your self-defeating tactics.

8. You search within yourself the strengths and abilities you are lacking. One reason you were attracted to your partner is that your partner had strengths and abilities that you lacked. Therefore, being with your partner gave you an illusory sense of wholeness. In a conscious marriage, you learn that the only way you can truly recapture a sense of oneness is to develop the hidden traits within yourself.

9. You become more aware of your drive to be loving and whole and united with the universe. As a part of your God-given nature, you have the ability to love unconditionally and to experience unity with the world around you. Social conditioning and imperfect parenting made you lose touch with these qualities. In a conscious marriage, you begin to rediscover your original nature.

10. You accept the difficulty of creating a good marriage. In an unconscious marriage, you believe that the way to have a good marriage is to pick the right partner. In a conscious marriage you realize you have to be the right partner. As you gain a more realistic view of love relationships, you realize that a good marriage requires commitment, discipline, and the courage to grow and change; marriage is hard work.

Of all of these characteristics, it is number ten, the need to accept the difficulty involved in creating a good marriage, that is key in importance, because none of the other nine ideas will come to fruition unless you first cultivate your willingness to grow and change.

Having a conscious marriage: sweet

Having a conscious marriage: sweet

If You Want To Have A Conscious Marriage…
The benefits of having a conscious marriage are self-evident. And attending therapy sessions with a certified IRT therapist (there are thousands across the world who subscribe to the Hendrix program) is certainly a great way to begin working toward the goal of a conscious marriage. But if you can’t afford the program, at least read the book, Getting The Love You Want. I can tell you from personal experience, the program works–even if it is self-administered. It’s been in print for twenty years, so there are likely plenty of used copies available if you don’t want to pay full price.

A couple of caveats: first, the program is not a magic-bullet (none, as far as I know, exist) which will instantly and effortlessly heal your damaged marriage. But, at the risk of being repetitive: it does work. Go to the web site and take a look around. You’ll find plenty of testimonials. Better yet, study the book and try it out for yourself.

Which brings me to caveat number two: both people need to be on the same page, and this is for the simple fact that your relationship is symbiotic. By that I mean you each have what the other person needs in order to heal him/herself. But if one partner doesn’t understand the underlying bases of your relatationship, it’s likely she’ll interpret the pain and frustration of your relationship as a sign that she’s chosen the wrong person to love.

If she’s ready to bolt, hand her a copy of Getting The Love You Want as she’s heading out the door and ask her if she’ll at least give it a look-see.

And notice how differently she looks at you when she finally comes back, as if she’s seeing you for the very first time.

How To Kill Your Husband

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


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.

World Peace Begins At Home

A mask created by my good friend SueI have a friend, Sue B. Sue is an artist of considerable talent. No, this isn’t a picture of Sue. It’s a photo of a mask Sue created while she was still attending art school in the Pacific Northwest. I look at this and I think, My God…she made this when she was still learning her craft. , about eight years ago. You can imagine how beautiful her work is today, having practiced it for so long.

But I’m not writing about Sue because of her artistic talent. She’s not my friend because of how she draws or puts together a mask or anything that she does. Sue B is my very dear friend because of who she is. Period.

That’s not to say I agree with Sue on everything. I received an email from her the other day, a multiple-recipient blast she’d sent out to everyone in her address book. It was cordial, as Sue’s emails usually are, apologizing first for the multiplicity of addressees, before getting to the real purpose of her note–which was, to paraphrase, a plea to be left out of the political loop which seems to have wound itself around the necks of her large circle of friends and relatives. Apparently most of this circle thinks Sue should be sticking her own neck into that loop as well. Sue’s email was her way of saying, thanks for the invite, but she’s not going there.

Frankly, reading the email rankled me just a bit. It also brought to mind an earlier encounter I’d recently had with Sue. My wife Jeanie and I visited Sue and her husband Paul when we went up to the Puget Sound area this past summer to pick up our remaining household goods (Jeanie and I had purchased a new home in Fort Collins, Colorado, back in June). We were sitting at a table in a local Italian restaurant, chatting over Chianti and breadsticks, and the subject of the upcoming election sort of nosed its way into the conversation. I don’t remember who first brought it up. What I do remember was mentioning that I wasn’t quite sure whom I would be voting for: Obama seemed a little too slick and inexperienced; McCain struck me as too old and a bit hot-headed for a job that, I thought, required an abundance of energy, tact and diplomacy.

“I’m not voting,” Sue said simply.

It was one of those out-of-the-blue comments that can take a pleasant conversation and jerk it around the corner and down a dark one-way street dead-ending in a seedy neighborhood: suddenly a feeling of danger blossomed in the air around our table. Too late, I remembered some sage advice offered by a distant, unremembered someone warning against discussing politics with people you love.

“Okay,” I said. I deliberately avoided asking Sue why she wasn’t going to vote, hoping to turn the vehicle we rode in around somehow and head it back to the friendly, well-traveled street we’d just left.

But oftentimes several things can go wrong simultaneously. Not only had we taken a wrong turn, but now the brakes on our conversation failed. We careened down the darkened street toward what I saw as certain disaster. “The political system in the United States is too divisive,” Sue said. “What we need is something to bring us together as one people. I don’t want to add my energy to anything that can’t possibly do that. So I refuse to participate.”

That’s my good friend Sue, telling it like it is. I don’t remember much more about that particular topic of conversation. Jeanie and I exchanged furtive glances at one another (we’d already had plenty of discussion between us on the relative merits of voting), and someone thankfully swung us around to talking about the latest movies–something less volitile. The thick air grew thinner, more breatheable, and soon the four of us were laughing and carrying on as we had been before.

But Sue’s comments stuck with me, floating high in the pool of memories in which I was still swimming when Jeanie and I finally said goodbye to Sue and Paul at the end of the evening and drove away. Not voting? How could anyone believe that not participating was a valid way of dealing with the political issues our nation was/is facing?

And so, given all of the above, I wasn’t particularly surprised by Sue’s blanket email asking friends and relatives to not involve her in the political loop, to not ask or expect her to take some sort of stand. But I still couldn’t help being a little bothered by her attitude, believing, as do most of us who call ourselves activists, that “if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

I re-read Sue’s email two, three more times. I kept coming back to this part here: “Paul and I have made a committment,” she’d written, “to bring peace to the world–beginning right here in our own home, and move outward from there. If everyone in the world does the same thing, there will be no more wars, no strife.”

I remember thinking, Yeah, well, it’s a nice thought, Sue, but…

It wasn’t until I’d put Sue’s email away and had begun my daily reading from A Course In Miracles, that it hit me. Or, more accurately, it settled over me like a soft, warm, comforting blanket. I came across this passage: “Peace is clearly an internal matter. It must begin with your own thoughts then extend outward.”

Then I suddenly remembered an old saying I’d heard for years while attending the Unity Church: “Peace begins at home.” Of course.

The election this year is (as they all are) ugly. Nasty. And Sue is right: the overall feeling one gets whenever actively participating in our political process (or, sometimes, merely observing it) is always one of separation, division, anger, and sometimes even hatred. It seems unavoidable. And it can be argued that merely participating in the process contributes to the problem, because the only language being spoken is…well, I can’t think of a term for it. But I’m sure it has nothing to do with love.

So, I guess the bottom line is this: Who has the stranger ideas? Sue and her largely invisible minority (remember, they aren’t participating), who choose to stay out of the muck and work on changing the world one small thought at a time? Or the vocal majority, who for some unfathomable reason believe that adding their own energy to the ugly fray will in some miraculous way (and contrary to the laws of physics) diminish it?

You decide. I welcome your own ideas on this.