Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Closing down

Just a note that I'll be closing this blog down sometime by the end of the week. I thought it would make sense to separate this one out from my main one by content, but I've decided to split up my writing by how data-rich it is, and then by who it would appeal to. I thought I'd have more time to start up a second blog just about diet and health, but I don't.

All future posts of mine with original looks at a good chunk of data will go up at my for-purchase blog, Patterns in science and culture. Read the details about the data-based site here.

The more casual and observational posts, including reviews of any kind, will go up either at my personal blog or at Gene Expression.

At any rate, the diet / health / nutrition stuff will not have its own blog, but will be worked into either of the above formats, depending on how data-rich it is. I'll probably migrate all the existing posts here to my personal blog, so you'll still be able to pore over those graphs of the changing American diet -- or link to them when some numbnuts on the internet starts whining about how little fruit and veggies we eat now, and how much red meat and eggs we're stuffing ourselves with.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Class bias in the perception of what's healthy

Every day I hang out at a local Starbucks to get an extra shot in the arm of energy and to have a semi-peopled place to get some light reading or equation-solving done. Having gone there for a few months now, and staying roughly an hour each time, I can confidently state that I'm the only one who goes there to buy something without five pounds of sugar in it. A single shot of espresso, maybe a double if I'm going dancing that night, though every once in awhile I'll have them add a little whole milk.

The rest of the stream of upper-middle class people who cycle through are always ordering some damn thing or another that I rarely understand. That's signal number one that it's probably only a bit of coffee and a whole lot of something else. I decided to listen closer today and check out what it's actually made of (using the excellent online resource Nutrition Data). Let's see, a venti caramel mocha Frappuccino with whipped cream....

Holy shit -- 94 g net carbs, fully 79 g of that being straight up sugar! The whipped cream topping only adds another 2 g of sugar, although it more than doubles the fat. Ironically, the health-conscious people who go here would do better to get whipped cream than not -- compared to the massive amount of carbs they're already drinking in their "coffee," that from the whipped cream is only 2% more, and they get more healthy fats in return.

Let's try something without so many words in the title (each one probably standing for an additional source of sugar). How about a tall soy caramel macchiato? (I seriously do here "caramel" with almost every order.) That's much better, but still a sugar bomb at 32 g of net carbs, 28 g of which are pure sugar. And on it goes. My single espresso -- 1 g net, 0 of which is sugar.

Now, if a lower-class couch potato waddled out of a Wendy's with a large Frosty, everyone would gasp at how little the slob cared about his health -- "Yeah, that's just what you need there, another Frosty." All would lament the burden he'd inevitably put on our health care system -- "It's like he doesn't even care!" Well, how much sugar does it have? The largest size, at 16 oz, has 73 g net carbs, 56 g of which are sugar. That's only a bit more sugar than the equivalent size of a caramel mocha Frappuccino (which has 62 g net, with 53 g being sugar).

And yet, no one stops in their tracks to shoot disgusted looks to people power-walking out of Starbucks with a beverage that has roughly the same amount of soul-destroying sugar as a full-size Frosty. Obviously the reason is that people endow higher-status individuals with higher-status everything, including health choices. "Hey, if yuppies are eating it..."

(BTW, that tall caramel macchiato has as much sugar as a Snickers bar -- and who doesn't need more of those in their diet?)

Aside from drinks that are about 10 parts sugar and 1 part coffee, the other upper-middle class beverage that they don't catch any flak for, despite its insane sugar content, is smoothies. Jamba Juice is more for younger people, but there are still a fair amount of nearly middle-aged people there too. It's an upper-middle class joint in any case. Consider an original size Acai Supercharger smoothie -- I mean, it's got to be healthy if it has the most au courant antioxidant in it. Guess again: it has 85 g net carbs, all of which are sugar. Goddamn!

If those kids these days could only drink an acai smoothie with each meal, they'd only be two candy bars short of their daily recommended carb intake of 300 g.

Once more, imagine that pot-bellied guy wearing a wife-beater walking out of 7-11 sipping from a medium slurpee. "Gee buddy, way to ruin your health -- we're gonna have to pay for it, y'know!" Well that thing only has a bit more sugar (95 g) than the Acai Supercharger smoothie.

Updated: let's add tonic water to the list. Just checked my vegetarian housemate's Whole Foods brand "tonic water" -- 36 g of cane sugar per 12 oz can. Ironically he'd do better to just eat a Snickers bar and at least get some fat, protein, and fiber.

Everyone boomed with laughter when they tried to re-classify ketchup as a vegetable for the purposes of meeting health requirements for public school cafeteria slop. And so would they if our be-mulleted 7-11 patron were to defend himself by noting that the syrup tastes like a fruit. However, the smoothies that the well-to-do are so fond of are nothing better -- they also are just a few pounds of slushy sugar that tastes like fruit. The only difference is that 7-11 doesn't offer flavors like acai or goji berry or whatever the next fruit du jour will be, although I do believe I saw a mango-flavored slurpee when I went in there once -- but mango's fashionableness has been on the decline for some time now.

Now, don't misunderstand me -- I'm not trying to defend the dignity of the common slob who's gulping down a frosty or a slurpee. He should know better, given that everyone has told him since he was a small child that sugar is bad for you. If it's a treat he only has once a couple of months, OK. But not if it's frequent. The point is that higher-status people suck this sugary slop down their gullets too, yet no one hectors them about it, and no one laments the ominous direction our health care system is headed due to their poor impulse control and lack of regard for their own health.

Perhaps we should all engage in a bit of social shaming of sweet-toothed yuppies the way that we do for lower-class hogs. Next time you're in line at Starbucks (or wherever) and someone orders a glass full of sugar, give them a disgusted look while asking, "What are you, a 10 year-old girl? Take your coffee like a man. Our health care system will thank you."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Marketing group forecasts greater consumption of lite food

The marketing research group NPD predicts that certain types of "better for you" foods will increase over the next ten years. Unfortunately, it doesn't include animal products. Indeed, the low-calorie / lite foods are typically devoid of fat and high in carbs.

How anyone can think that a container of yoghurt with as much sugar as a candy bar counts as "health food," I'll never understand. Sure, people are bombarded with lots of conflicting advice about what to eat -- but no one ever told you that you needed more sugar.

NPD predicts that the organic category will grow the most, but that's not very reassuring either. Organic agave syrup will still mess up your liver, and local free-range corn will still rot your teeth.

The salty / savory snacks category is mostly empty carbs too -- this is chips, popcorn, etc., not duck liver mousse or dry sausage.

It's worth bearing in mind how long-term the low-carb effort will have to be if we want to see these trends reverse. Even massive popular awareness, as in 2004, won't ensure that it remains. If people view it as a fad, they'll grow bored or move on to whatever the next fashionable diet is.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New layout

I read too many books to write about (and most of them are pretty good and worth reviewing), so rather than put yet another post on the back-burner for each book, I've opted for what you see at the top of the page. They're all really neat and worth reading; click through as normal to see their Amazon entry. If you do buy an item after entering Amazon via my link, I get a small commission that will help defray the costs of the moon-sized death ray pointed at Earth that I'm working on.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Yorker throws in the fact-checking towel for health reporting

The New Yorker is reputed to have legendary fact-checkers. That state of affairs obviously died some time ago, and now it reads just like the rest of the media -- a doe-eyed journalist who sees their role more as a conveyor of what someone told them than as an investigator trying to figure out what's going on.

In the latest issue, there's a risibly clueless article on what makes us fat. First it confuses two levels of explanation -- ultimate or evolutionary causes that made our bodies the way they are today, and proximate causes like "junk food adds pounds." At the level of mechanisms, the author makes no mention of what causes fat to be stored in fat cells rather than flow into the bloodstream to be burned as fuel. It's not very complicated -- it's hormonally regulated, and almost the entire story is how much insulin has been released. The word "insulin" does not appear once in her 4000-word article.

She wouldn't even have had to endorse the Atkins Diet -- she could have chickened out and said that we're eating foods higher in the Glycemic Index, so that we're spiking our blood sugar and insulin levels more than before, although you should still eat those complex carbs, fiber, and stay away from saturated fat and cholesterol. That is a totally politically correct view, and would not expose her to ridicule, yet she can't even manage to say that in order to bring up the role of insulin. She's either a lazy investigator or spineless -- but it all makes sense when we recognize that the journalism market caters not to the demand for truth but to the demand for expert gossip. (Any actual enlightenment you may experience while reading our magazine is entirely unintentional.)

As for the claims about our toxic new environment -- too much cheap junk food, etc. -- I'll simply re-direct readers to Gary Taubes' lectures on that topic. Here's one, and another one.

Easy access to fast food, potato chips, and the like is not necessary to drive up obesity rates, since plenty of other groups have been plagued by metabolic syndrome without any such food. There is a common factor, however: foods that are high in carbohydrates. She ends the article by ominously noting a new offering from Burger King that has lots of beef, bacon, and cheese. But of course, what everyone eats when they go to Burger King, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, or any other cheap human feed lot, has almost no meat or cheese at all. Most of the "hamburger" is the bun, and the rest is fries and soda. Let's see, carbs, carbs, and more carbs -- but that teensy ration of beef is what'll get ya!

Contrast this with what you get when you eat at a place with Michelin stars -- it's animals, animals, and more animals, with a token portion of vegetables on the side or to enhance flavor. And not sissy animal products either -- foie gras and caviar have some of the highest concentrations of saturated fat and cholesterol of any food. Yet somehow well-to-do French, Spanish, and Italians seem to be much thinner and freer of heart disease than lower-class Americans. Not only that, but their food -- loaded with fat -- actually tastes like something!

Monday, July 13, 2009

They put it in everything

Soy that is. The average person thinks that soy is something that only those fruity Whole Foods people eat -- no soy milk for them! However, while this person wasn't looking, the soy industry has managed to get its junk into just about everything. Ketchup and mayonnaise -- soybean oil. Microwave burritos -- soy lecithin. Frozen hamburger patties -- soy protein isolate. Seriously, take a look at just about anything in the grocery store the next time and see for yourself.

I won't re-hash the many dangers of including lots of soy in your diet -- the Weston A. Price Foundation has a nice summary here -- but I am curious about when this change took place. Looking at availability data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, we see that, as high as it was even during the mid-1980s, it was the mid-1990s when things really took off. This is unaffected by how we measure availability.

Unlike other junk food that replaced something good, like margarine edging out butter, soybean oil and soy protein isolate didn't launch an aggressive PR campaign to convince us to change our diet. No, here the processed food industry -- which makes the food that forms the bulk of most Americans' diet -- just started sneaking in all that soy. Given how widespread it is, I wouldn't be surprised if the average lower-class couch potato now consumed more soy than a hoity-toity fitness nut!

Are vegetarians smarter than omnivores?

By now we all know that vegetarians tend to have more education, and they never tire of reminding everyone else. However, this is a mere association, and so is pretty meaningless in trying to understand cause and effect. In particular, choice of diet is a marker of ethnic groups in the broad sense -- these people identify themselves in part by eating this diet, those others by eating that other stuff. All sorts of silly fads catch on among smart people, but it doesn't make them smarter. Does wearing a tie boost your brainpower?

But what about before veganism, organic food, and yoga became mainstream among the educated? Blogger Audacious Epigone looked at data from the General Social Survey, probably the largest and most representative survey of its kind, and found that while vegans were more educated, they weren't brighter than omnivores. (Vocabulary tests are highly reliable intelligence tests.) The survey question about eating meat vs. not eating meat was only asked in 1993 and 1994, so this could be a reflection of its lack of adoption by smarties at that point -- remember, this is nearly a decade or so before Whole Foods became the next Starbucks. (Both of which are great stores, of course.)

I decided to follow up and look at how IQ and diet were related across different age groups. We might expect diet to make a difference at any given age, but might diet choice cause us to cognitively age faster or slower? One weakness here is that the GSS only surveys people who are 18 or older, and it seems like the biggest effect of diet on the brain's horsepower would be at younger ages when it's still developing. With that said, here is how IQ and diet were related across age groups in 1993 - '94:

I've condensed all people who don't eat meat into one group, even though the survey measures three degrees of how frequently you abstain from meat, in order to keep sample sizes big. For the same reason, I've condensed people into 10-year age groups, with the center age ending in a 3. The two graphs show two different ways of measuring smarts -- by their average and by what percent are above the overall average (median to be exact). Each group has at least about 40 people, although the last age group is just about at this value for the vegetarians, so the 70-somethings may not have looked exactly like the data suggest.

In any case, there doesn't seem to be a strong change across the lifespan, since the gap between omnivores and vegetarians is fairly flat from the 20s through the 50s, an unclear change in the 60s, and again a not too reliable finding for the 70s. The aging pattern seems similar. However, at each age, omnivores are smarter than vegetarians by either measure. This means that either the damage was already done to vegetarians early in life, if they had mostly been vegetarian since childhood -- or that, if people face the "meat or no meat?" choice during their dopey-minded college years, brighter people were less likely to abandon animal products, while the dimmer found it more appealing. Who knows why -- it could be just as arbitrary of a choice of ethnic marker as any other, such as baggy vs. skinny jeans.

This point generalizes: if some group that does well in some respect happens to follow some diet, it may well be more of a group membership badge than a cause. You can find genetic freaks who will be ripped and athletic no matter what garbage they consume, so they can quickly move from one fashion to the next without suffering much. Hence the high turnover of nutrition and exercise advice given to people who are already pretty healthy and active, but who want to squeeze out that extra bit of energy. Only controlled studies, including long-term experiments like Darwinian natural selection, can tell us what happens to normal people, as far as cause and effect goes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More data on changing consumption patterns

As a follow-up on a previous post about the changing availability of various foods, where I showed that we'd been following the experts' advice yet getting less healthy, here are some graphs on actual consumption -- not just using availability as a proxy. I've cobbled them together from various editions of The Statistical Abstract of the United States, which has a chapter on food, health, and nutrition.

They only go back to 1985, but the overall pattern is the same -- we've been doing what we were told to do. The higher incidence of heart disease and obesity cannot be blamed on our not eating what the experts bullied us to eat. All the data are per capita consumption, and all units are in pounds. Since the picture is basically the same as before, I don't have anything new to say. The graphs below are to show that consumption data confirm what the availability data suggested.

See Notes at the end for what separate categories are lumped into larger ones, e.g. "animal fats and oils." Click picture to enlarge.


1. Animal fats / oils includes butter, lard, and tallow. Vegetable fats / oils includes margarine, shortening, and salad dressing.

2. Lower-fat milk includes anything but whole -- 2%, 1%, fat-free, etc.

3. Lunchmeat cheeses include American and Cheddar, while Pizza cheeses include Italian and Mozzarella.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tracking fat phobia in pop culture

In 1976, a Senate committee lead by George McGovern listened to expert testimony on diet and health, in which some said fat and cholesterol were bad for the heart, while others said that was nonsense. The committee went ahead and told us to stop eating fat and cholesterol, and we did just that, to the detriment of our health. McGovern was just jumping on the bandwagon that had gotten its first oomph from Ancel Keys in the 1950s. But still, it seems like the 1970s were the transition period.

It would be neat to collect examples of just how entrenched this view became in the culture. So in the interest of a social history, let's have a little audience participation and list the big ones that come to mind. Examples could either be fat-phobic or pro-fat -- to see how long the latter held on. The chronology shouldn't surprise us, but it'll still be a good exercise to see how far back we can find examples.

I'll go first. Born in 1980, I don't remember much pop culture before about 1985, except what I saw later. I used to watch re-runs of All in the Family, and I vividly recall an episode where Archie has to go on a diet or suffer health problems -- and of course it's a low-fat diet with vegetables, vegetables, and more vegetables. Googling around, I found out it came in 1976 -- in February, months before the McGovern committee convened, again showing that the latter was merely a high-profile part of something that had already gotten going.

In Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- the best teen movie after Heathers -- Stacy and Mark go out on a date at a German restaurant. The high school girl, who is surely worried about how she looks, orders -- knockwurst! The camera pans to show all the stuff they've eaten by the end, and most of it is dead animals, plus a pastry here or there. Even in 1982, a movie aiming to be as realistic as possible about every little thing teenagers did portrayed a couple stuffing themselves on animal fat and protein. The anti-fat brigade had not decisively won by then.

The Simpsons had at least two episodes that focused on diet. There's the 1992 episode where Homer has a triple bypass surgery and gets guff about cutting back on animal products. Then there's the 1995 episode where Lisa becomes a vegetarian. It's a great portrayal of how holier-than-thou many such people are, as well as the oneupsmanship that drives people toward veganism -- Lisa is ashamed to learn that there are even more hardcore people than vegetarians. To be fair, you see that among the low-carb people too.

However, one of the greatest capsules of common sense to come out of the show is from the 1990 episode where Bart is training to beat Ned Flanders' son at mini-golf. Lisa tries to persuade Marge not to given Bart steak and eggs but complex carbohydrates instead:

Lisa: Oats are what a champion thoroughbred eats before he or she wins the Kentucky Derby.

Homer: Newsflash, Lisa -- Bart is not a horse! Eat your steak, boy.

Last one that I can think of is Mean Girls, which came out in 2004 during the height of the low-carb craze. The main character Cady tries to sabotage the queen bee of her clique, Regina, by fooling her into eating weight-gaining bars. What jargon does Cady use to convince Regina that it'll really help lose weight? Burning carbs! At one point Regina asks anxiously, "is butter a carb?" It even appears that there's an internet game based on this: Carb Invaders. I don't know how many kids have actually played this game, but still.

You try to keep her from eating starchy and sugary foods -- no more than 30 g or it's game over -- but to eat as much protein and fat as she wants, while still getting 2000 calories. It has one of the best game over screens ever, perfectly capturing the catty nature of teenage girl world:

You ate 44
grams of carbs.

Don't worry, just wear loose
clothes, no one will notice.

And for beating the game:

You ate 8
grams of carbs.

Good work. A Mean Girl
must stay fit to maintain her
social dominance.

OK, so what else is there?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Nutritious, energy-giving food on the go

One worry that people may have about cutting the refined carbs out of their diet and eating more animal products is that making meals will take much longer than before. I mean, it's hard to compete with a microwave pizza that's done in three minutes. So here are 2 quick meals, 2 snacks, and 1 drink that will make you sure get enough protein, fat, cholesterol, and vitamins that only animal products provide.

Meal 1

4 slices of pepperoni
2 slices of pastrami
2 slices of liverwurst (or other liver product)
2 eggs
Cream cheese
2 mini bell peppers (or other low-carb acidic vegetable)

Poach the eggs and cut each in half parallel to the ground, making 4 discs. (If you know you won't have much time to cook on a certain day, poach and refrigerate them beforehand.) Cut each pepperoni slice in half to make 8 half-moon shapes, and stack two of these on top of each other, to make 4 stacks. Place one stack on top of each egg disc. Cut each slice of liverwurst in half to make 4, and place one on top of the pepperoni. Then cut the pastrami slices in half to make 4, and place these on top of the liverwurst, making sure to fold it to keep it from spilling far off the side.

Then cut the stem parts off the peppers and slice each in half lengthwise, to make 4 halves. Put a pat of cream cheese on the inner side of each, and use this to glue them on top of the pastrami slices.

This is definitely a rich meal (it will look like a couple snacks, but it will fill you up). However, the acidity and crunch from the peppers balances it out. It tastes somewhat like an omelette, but without the oxidized cholesterol.

Meal 2

4 oz of smoked salmon
2 eggs
1/2 roma tomato
Cream cheese

This is basically lox and cream cheese but substituting eggs for the bagels.

Poach the eggs and cut in half to make 4 discs. Stack 1 oz of salmon on top of each, and stack 1 slice of the tomato on top of the salmon. Place a pat of cream cheese on top.

If getting 1 oz of salmon to stay is iffy, leave some on the side and use the other half of the tomato (sliced) and more cheese to make similar stacks (just with no eggs). Again, it's pretty rich, but the tomato will provide just enough crunch and sweetness.

Snack 1

2 mini bell peppers (on the large size -- as far as mini peppers go)
1 oz pate or liver mousse
1/4-inch thick slice of cheddar cheese (made from raw milk is best)

Cut the stem parts off the peppers and slice in half lengthwise. Cut the pate or mousse into 4 equal portions, and spread them along the inside of each pepper half. Cut the cheese into 4 equal portions, and use the pate or mousse to glue them on top.

Yep, another super-rich taste but with enough crunch and acidity to make it taste not quite so fatty.

Snack 2

Almond butter made only from almonds (i.e., no added sugar, agave syrup, etc.)
Butter from pastured cows

If you eat a ton of this -- and that's not hard to do -- your carb count will reach non-trivial levels, so make sure to eat this only when the rest of your day's food won't be pushing the per-meal limit for carbs.

Open up the block of butter and use a spoon to shave off a thin piece of the butter, then use the spoon to take a small amount of the almond butter -- there should only be 50-100% as much of the almond butter as the cow's butter. Repeat! The texture is best when the almond butter is crunchy and refrigerated.

My housemate looks at me like I'm crazy when I'm spooning a bunch of butter (cut with almond butter) straight into my mouth, but this is the best tasting savory snack I've ever had. You do have to use butter from pastured cows -- it's not that much more expensive -- because the taste is remarkably different from feed-lot butter.


If you're really in a hurry, just make sure you have some of Turtle Mountain's So Delicious Coconut Milk beverage handy -- unsweetened, of course.

Or else make a cup of tea (caffeinated or not, herbal or not, just unsweetened), and when it's done steeping, mix in a tablespoon or two of coconut oil. It melts at body temperature, so it'll incorporate pretty well into the tea, although there may be some droplets that form on top.

This is a great way to get more anti-microbial lauric acid into your diet, since it's hard to get without coconuts (by far the #1 source of it). And I can't stand the taste of coconuts. The oil tastes pretty mild and is hardly noticeable when mixed in with tea.

None of these takes more than 10 minutes to make, and they will leave you full and energized. They'll also cover most of your vitamin intake for the day. You may need to throw in a handful of almonds or some Atkins ice cream -- AKA, berries drowned in heavy whipping cream -- to cover vitamins E and C, but getting these vitamins rarely takes lots of cooking time. It's A, D, and the B complex that require food that could take a long time to prepare. But by eating cured meats, some of which should always contain liver for vitamin A, you can skip a lot of cooking time when you're in a rush.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Glycation -- how carbs in the diet slacken your skin

Because natural selection did not design us to thrive on carbohydrates, doing so creates myriad problems. The one that most low-carb people focus on is obesity and related symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome. But there are plenty of other reasons to restrict your carb intake. Spreading the word about these other effects is especially important when you're talking to people who clearly don't have a weight control problem.

(And I should know -- at 5'8, I've never weighed more than 140 lbs in my whole life, nor have I ever packed on much body fat at all. I certainly didn't get interested in carb restriction in order to lose weight, but rather to have more even more energy than I normally did.)

Just as no one wants to be fat, no ones wants to age physically. And the clearest sign of aging is not how overweight you are, how tall you are, or even how much hair you have -- it's the quality of your skin. You could take a short, heavyset high school boy and shave him bald, but no one would mistake him for a 30-something. His face would give him away. The same goes for females, of course: even with a pudgy belly and a shaved head, a young girl could not be mistaken for a 30-something woman once you saw the babyfat around her mouth and cheek area and noted the absence of crow's feet wrinkles around the eyes.

There are two proteins that are primarily responsible for giving skin its youthful bounce and elasticity -- collagen and elastin. Through a process called glycation, these proteins can become damaged when a sugar smacks into them. Sometimes a protein and a sugar are designed to fit together, but in this case the process is regulated by an enzyme -- like how an electrician knows which wires are supposed to connect with which doo-hickies, and which tab is supposed to go into which slot. Glycation is when the sugar and protein smack into each other at random, as though you placed all the wires and devices for your entire house into a single box and shook it up -- probably you'd get the wrong wires plugged into a certain device, or the right wire for the device but plugged into the wrong slot. Their function would be compromised, to say the least.

Rather than describe how glycation happens at length, I'll simply direct you to a good and brief review of the process from Skin Inc -- part 1 and part 2 (includes helpful pictures). There are several steps in the process, but what you get in the end are Advanced Glycation End-products -- AGEs (the acronym is not a coincidence).

The total amount of glycation that a protein suffers is just the rate of glycation times the length of time that it's assaulted by sugars. So, proteins with high turnover rates won't hang around long enough to get really screwed up, but one's that have long lives will be hit the hardest. Foremost among them is the collagen in the cardiovascular system. But that also includes the collagen and elastin in your skin. And once they're damaged, they can't perform their function of snapping the skin back into place when you stretch it. The result is wrinkles and slackened skin.

Although you can ingest these freakish protein-sugar combinations, you have to worry most about them forming inside your body. It may sound obvious, but what raises your blood sugar levels? Why, carbohydrates in the diet, especially the ones from sweets and starches that really flood your body with glucose and fructose. The preventative solution is obvious: restrict foods that raise your blood sugar. No Wonder bread, spaghetti, Chinese take-out, french fries, donuts -- or baguettes, penne pasta, basmati rice, artisanal kettle-cooked chips, or almond pastries sweetened with organic free-range agave nectar.

Does that actually work? This doesn't seem to be a very well researched topic, but I did find two studies (one for each extreme) that suggest that it does.

First, there is "Short-Term Low Calorie Diet Intervention Reduces Serum Advanced Glycation End Products in Healthy Overweight or Obese Adults". They split overweight people into a control group and a low-calorie group, and the low-calorie diet resulted in lower concentrations of AGEs. Of course, we know that calories don't have anything to do with it -- did the authors forget what the root word of "glycation" is? -- so let's see what they were fed.

The paper doesn't say exactly what they ate, just that the percent of daily calories that came from protein, fat, and carbohydrates were 47, 7, and 40 (I know, where's the extra 6%?). It's pretty tough to eat more than 30 - 35% of your calories from sheer protein, and 40% energy from carbs is still significantly less than the 45 - 65% that our government recommends. So, this is a lower-carb, low-fat, super-high protein diet. Clearly no one could follow it for long -- they should have reduced protein to about 35, carbs to 5, and fat to 60, and they would've seen an even bigger effect. Still, even this moderate restriction of carbs had an effect.

How do we know it was carb restriction rather than fat restriction that did the trick? The glucose levels of the experimental group dropped by about 5% (other health markers like BMI, blood pressure, etc., also improved by a similar amount). So we know it was the lowered carbs that lowered glucose, and that this lowered the formation of AGEs. That's the most straightforward interpretation based on how AGEs are formed, so that's what we go with.

Second, there is "Plasma levels of advanced glycation end products in healthy, long-term vegetarians and subjects on a western mixed diet". This post is already long enough, so I'll make a new one soon with all the cool charts and tables from this paper, but the up-shot is that all varieties of vegetarians -- semi-vegetarians, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and vegans -- had a higher proportion of the proteins in their blood that were glycated, compared to their omnivorous counterparts.

They were able to rule out a bunch of explanations such as smoking and age, but they couldn't point conclusively to what caused the difference. Glucose levels and overall carb intake were similar. The largest difference was that the vegetarians ate a lot more legumes and pulses, as well as whole grain products and processed cereal products (like muesli). This was especially true for vegans. The authors suggest that there could be some extra factor in these products, or perhaps just the fact that they were more processed. So, even in a dream scenario where you still don't eat more carbs or have higher glucose levels than an omnivore, vegetarians still get zapped with more glycation.

Since, according to the articles from Skin Inc, glycation of collagen and elastin doesn't become obvious until the mid 30s, the massive switch in our diet from fat to carbs may not be so visible among the young. But consider Hollywood celebrities who are in their 30s or beyond -- don't they look much more like mummies these days than they did decades ago? Apparently, there's no effective way to undo the damage done to glycated collagen or elastin, so the present-day luxury of plastic surgery is of no help to them.

On the bright side, since the effects don't immediately set in, if you're well under 35, you can take preventative measures now to make sure its effects will be minimal. And if you've got a son, or any other young dude who you have some influence over, and you want him to still be able to find a wife 10 or 15 years younger when he's 35 years old -- or if you've got a daughter who you want to protect from ever getting divorced -- tell them to throw away their bagels, Ramen noodles, blueberry smoothies from Jamba Juice, and Frappuccino ice cream, and to have some lamb, eggs, and avocados instead. And whatever you do, don't let them experiment with vegetarianism for very long -- persuade them to take up something that will make them more productive, like cocaine.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Did following the experts' diet advice make us any healthier?

To kick things off at my new blog devoted only to health, food, and nutrition, I'm going to show how what we've been eating has dramatically changed in the past 100 years. Most nutrition experts tell us to cut back on red meat and dairy -- and to eat white meat or fish if we must -- while increasing our intake of grains and fruits and vegetables. Since we know that obesity, type II diabetes, and the other symptoms that make up Metabolic Syndrome have been shooting up since roughly the 1970s, we can see whether our changing diet has anything to do with it.

Did we follow the experts' advice? And if so, did it do us any good? Let's see.

The data come from the USDA (see here for the spreadsheets), and they measure the availability of various food types for each year. This isn't the same thing as consumption, but because availability (supply) reflects the demand for it (consumption), when availability goes up or down, we're safe to conclude that consumption is doing so too. The data are all per capita, so we've already accounted for America's changing population size.

We'll start with the demonized foods: red meat (saturated fat! -- actually, most of it is monounsaturated), dairy (more saturated fat! -- which explains why the cheese-eating French have such awful health), and eggs (cholesterol! -- you know, that stuff that gets turned into your pesky sex hormones and vitamin D).

We've been throwing red meat overboard since about 1970. Dairy has been way down since 1940, although there's a moderate rise starting in 1980 (my guess is that it's mostly cheese for pizza). And eggs have plummeted since 1950.

But even the fruits and nuts people will admit that we need some protein -- we should just get it from white meat (chicken breasts with 0 g of fat) or fish (which, unless you eat sardines or salmon, probably won't have any fat either). Have we been choosing these more supposedly healthy forms of protein? You bet. Here are the graphs for poultry and fish:

Poultry has been skyrocketing exponentially since 1940, and fish too has been increasing since 1960.

And what about those cure-all fruits and vegetables? Eat mostly fruits and vegetables, we're told, and you'll be as robust and affable as any PETA member. Unfortunately these data only go back to 1970 instead of 1910, but the trend is still clear -- we've been scarfing down more spinach and blueberries (hopefully not together) than ever before. I've also included graphs for specific foods like the starchy potato vs. the more nutritious dark, leafy green vegetables.

And of course, any healthy diet requires grains -- after all, they form the solid foundation of the Food Pyramid. It's just plain common sense that you can't thrive unless you crunch your way through a sack full of Grape Nuts every morning, isn't it? Here's the graph for grains:

Starting at least in 1910 (and perhaps earlier), we started putting grains to better use -- as bird feed -- but since 1970, we've been steadily reversing that practice. Now when we eat out, it's bread, breadsticks, pasta, rice, noodles, and more bread.

Finally, the one food that everyone agrees is bad for your health -- caloric sweeteners like sugar:

From the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s, we found it necessary to dump more and more sugar on our food -- probably because we'd switched to a tasteless diet of spinach and Special K. Still, for the past 15 years, we've been letting it go (likely as a result of switching to non-caloric sweeteners like Equal). So, we'd misbehaved for awhile, but we've been good -- honest! -- more recently.

To sum up, we've done everything the nutrition experts have told us to do -- and have so for decades. Aside from eating less sugar, all of these supposedly health-promoting changes began no later than 1970, with some beginning as far back as 1940. Surely that's enough time for the benefits to show up in national health statistics, right? Well, let's see what the end results of this gigantic national experiment are.

The experts began telling us what to eat in order to lower rates of heart disease, although once obesity and related metabolic problems became huge, they extended their guidelines to help us get thinner too. Here is a graph showing the incidence of heart disease during the period when all of these dietary changes had begun (from this AHA pdf):

Huh, that's odd -- our hearts seem to stubbornly resist the supposedly heart-healthy food we've been eating. These are total numbers, not per capita rates. Still, the number of people suffering from heart disease doubled from 1970 to 2000, even though the US population was only 1.4 times as big in 2000 (at 282 million) as in 1970 (at 205 million). Therefore, there was a real increase in heart disease rates that cannot be explained simply by a larger population.

Why do we need to look at "hospital discharges with CVD as first listed diagnosis" rather than deaths due to heart disease? Because we could be getting better at saving lives when a person already has heart disease -- in that case, the death statistics will make those sufferers of heart disease invisible. Checking into a hospital due to heart disease sheds better light on the group of people with CVD.

And as if you needed me to tell you what the obesity rates have been like recently, here's a graph showing the prevalence of obesity and overweight:

That's odd -- the lines are pretty flat before the mid-1970s, at least back to 1960 (and possibly before), and they only shoot up sometime in the mid-'70s. Looks like loading up on Total ceral, non-fat salad dressing, and potatoes hasn't done us much good in trimming our waistlines.

So, even though we've been scrupulously following the experts' advice about what to eat -- and those graphs above prove that -- we're more likely to suffer from heart disease, obesity, and other symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome. Does that mean that these so-called experts don't have the foggiest idea what they're talking about? Yes -- that's exactly what it means.

I doubt that eating more spinach has harmed us, obviously. The main culprits are eating more carbohydrates (potatoes, grains, and sweeteners) and eating less of the fatty animals products (red meat, dairy, and eggs). I won't go through the reasons why since, if you're reading a blog called Low Carb Art and Science, I assume you already know why.

But for those of you who, like most of us, weren't aware of how bogus the experts' advice was, here are three links that provide plenty of information in an easily understandable form:

Gary Taubes' lecture at Berkeley
, where he reviews the material in his encyclopedic book Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Tom Naughton's Fat Head blog, where you can buy the DVD of Fat Head, his hilarious spoof of Supersize Me, which lays out how different types of food promote or discourage obesity, depression, and so on. The movie is currently #1 in Amazon's comedy documentary section. (Imagine that -- a documentary that isn't maudlin or obnoxiously political.)

Michael Eades' blog, where the co-author of excellent Protein Power regularly explains the science behind many health and nutrition concerns that we have, especially when new studies come out.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New low carb blog

Just a place-holder post to make sure everything is working fine.