Good News on Saturated Fat from the New York Times

I stumbled across this link in the New York times that refers to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine that came to the conclusion that – hey, maybe saturated fat ain’t that bad for you after all.

Read the comments that follow the posting – most react with an almost religious fervor against something that contradicts their world view – oh well, I’m not out to change the world – just myself.

I especially liked the one comment that said that the health impact of saturated fats wasn’t valid because it did so without the ‘normal’ amounts of carbohydrates – if carbohydrates were also in the diet, the health effect would be radically different.

Duh. Everyone who has done any research into low carb has probably come to a similar conclusion to the one I have:

Excessive carbohydrates cause a malabsorption of dietary fat

I happened to work briefly with a nutritionist who had written a number of books and mentioned this to him – his eyes widened, like no one had ever explained it to him in this way before.

“That’s an interesting way of stating it.” He said.

Interesting indeed.

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Hunger, Cravings, Obession, and Food as a Utility

The ironic part of any diet is that so much of the focus is on food. For us low carbers, as well as for anyone following any sort of diet regimen, there is an almost all-consuming immersion in selecting, weighing, calculating, supplementing, hydrating, exercising, logging, and analyzing of just about every input and output our bodies have.

Many of us got fat in the first place not just because of unfortunate food choices, or because of an inherent tendency toward overweight, but also because of an obsession with food.

A diet replaces one obsession – overeating – with another obsession – regimented eating – which is a good thing in a way.

I’ve made the observation that it’s not easy to give up something like an obsession toward food. There’s too many psychological aspects to this. It plays to your strengths to feed your desire for a food obsession by channeling the energy into a diet regimen that allows you to obsess on that, so you trade a less healthy obsession about food for a more healthy one.

Let’s be clear: obsession in and of itself is not a bad thing. When I get on an airplane with my family, or ride in an elevator, I sure hope that the person who designed them was obsessed with making them safe.

I believe that this is a valid, and healthy way to lose weight. There’s a moral overtone to the word ‘obsession’ – one that connotes some sort of weakness or illness. That isn’t always the case. Obsession is just a stronger than average focus and concentration on a particular subject. If the result of this obsession makes you happier and healthier, then there is nothing wrong with it.

But as of late, I’ve been wondering if there is another way to think about weight loss.

As part of this, I first started thinking about the notion of hunger, and I believe that, at least in my case, there are 3 different types. They are:

  1. Cellular hunger. Your body is hungry from a genuine lack of food.
  2. Carbohydrate-triggered hunger. This hunger stems from eating too many carb-laden foods. Some time after eating them, you become consumed by a hunger that feels different that cellular hunger. It’s less reality-based, more irrational. This is about the time that an entire pint of Haagen Daz can disappear in a single sitting.
  3. Psychological hunger. This is where ‘comfort food’ resides. Food is fun, and our modern world has conjured up all sorts of goodies to indulge upon. Look at the commercials for food – eating to sustain ourselves is so old-fashioned – now it’s food as entertainment. This also encompasses our food habits – always eat at certain times, events, or locations when you’re not hungry? Clean plates so as not to waste food? These are all behaviors centered around eating food when not hungry.

Our cellular hunger should always be respected, the carb-driven hunger and the psychological hunger can safely be ignored.

Low carb folks can beat number 2 in the above list by avoiding carbs. This is, in my estimation, one of the big benefits to low carb lifestyles.

This only leaves the hurdle of psychological hunger to tackle, but the word ‘only’ is a misnomer, because psychological hunger can be a real bitch.

Part of the problem with psychological hunger is identifying it as such. How do we tell? And how do we deny ourselves?

Intellectually, a look back at what we’ve eaten and when can allow us to determine when psychological hunger strikes. Did you eat a properly-sized portion of healthy, low carb food just an hour ago? Then it’s probably some sort of psychological hunger. I’m not big into over-analyzing this – the why of this psychological hunger is really not all that important in this particular analysis. The thinking goes: I’m hungry. I ate an hour ago. It isn’t real hunger. End.

Great – you’ve intellectualized the problem – but you’re still hungry. What do you do except deny yourself food when you want it? And folks, there is so much psychological and sociological BS surrounding this denial that you can drown in it.

Hunger in and of itself is a form of discomfort in the body. We all live in a world filled with discomforts – my chair hurts my butt, the lighting in the room is poor, my knees hurt, etc., etc., etc.

The difference in hunger as a discomfort is that, perhaps more than other discomforts, the hunger can bring with it fear. Some people are scared of being hungry. They can’t allow it to happen. This conditioning probably goes back to the caveman, and gave him that extra something needed to take on that angry mastodon that didn’t feel like being a meal for a bunch of hairy ape-like human precursors.

Some of us – probably the thinner folks – don’t have this fear. These are the ‘eat to live crowd’. They get hungry, but they don’t have the same fear attached to the discomfort.

Do you think ‘fear’ is too strong a word? Maybe, but ask yourself this: have you ever stocked up on a food because you were afraid to run out? That’s the fear I’m talking about.

So, in this day and age, with our refrigerators stuffed with food, and the grocery store open 24 hours a day for some of us, why would we somehow have a fear response that would be more appropriate to a person cast adrift on a life raft with a few cans of beans?

I’ve been questioning this response as of late and it seems that one way to explore this is to treat food as a utility. Imagine food as utilitarian as electricity. You’d never buy gourmet electricity – it’s the energy for other processes and just needs to meet a few criteria of voltage, wattage, and amperage to power your electric gizmos.

What if, as an experiment, the effort was made to think about food in the same fashion?

What if we say to ourselves that food is energy for other processes, not an end in itself. It has to meet minimum criteria for nutrients and calories to ensure health.

Nothing more than that.

Food ceases to become all the things that have surrounded it for a few millennium: social ritual, symbol of abundance, sensual pleasure, all disappear, and food becomes once again what it was to Man before the invention of cooking – and to almost all animals today – just an energy source.

If you follow food as a utility to it’s logical end, your life would be much different. Shopping would be damn simple – a few primary foods that you buy over and over. Your condiment shelf would shrink to a few bottles. you’d throw out less food, try fewer recipes, spend less time in the kitchen, eat more leftovers, probably, as freshness of a meal is an aesthetic aspect of food – only after the first few days does the lessening of nutrient quality and the potential for contamination make the food inedible.

You’re probably thinking I’m nuts about now, but this thought-experiment shows very clearly just how much about food has little to do with sustaining our bodies.

All of these thoughts came to mind as I thought about the period of time that I lost the final 15-20 lbs. I had decided to lose when I first went on Atkins. I had stalled at about 200 and stayed there for a year.

Then my family and I started the process of moving to a new area.

I recall the time as being one where I was very busy. There was no time for much more than work, sleep, and preparing for the move. The time for purchasing, preparation, and eating of food had to be compressed as much as possible.

For a few months I had to ‘eat to live’ – and the weight that refused to budge for a year came off seemingly by itself in about 3 months.

Well, that weight came back soon after the hustle and bustle of the move died down and I had some extra time. I then bounced back to that 200 lb. setpoint and hover around that today.

So what strategies might come from reflecting on that ‘live to eat’ experience that I can put into place now?

  • Get busy. Honestly, there is so much I can do other than eating that food frequently becomes a form of procrastination. Clearly outline what these projects are, and get to it.
  • Enforce a personal ‘food austerity’ program. I am compiling a short list of simple, healthy, low carb foods that are quick to prepare. This list is of foods I like, and I can eat over and over – eggs, tuna, fresh meat and fish, romaine lettuce, tomato, squash, Brussels sprouts, cheese, mayonnaise, and nuts are some examples from the list. All fit my criteria for simple and healthy – and not one comes processed in a box with a list of ingredients that looks like an inventory list from a chemicals warehouse.
  • Eliminate as much food preparation as possible. I’ve already written about this, but instead of using these strategies only when time-starved, enforce them at all times. ‘Eat to live’ people don’t spend hours in the kitchen. Salads fit the bill nicely here – and up the healthy veggies. Broiled meats, which might take some time to cook, but little prep time – also work. If you cook for your family, you can still do this and cut the time in the kitchen.
  • Let food go to waste rather than eating it. I don’t know how many unnecessary calories I’ve consumed because a portion size was larger than I needed to be full, or because the kids left behind some food that would have gone to the dog.
  • Notice your ‘Inner whiny child’ – then ignore them. When you hear that voice whining how other people are eating pasta, or ice cream, or any other example of situations where you consider veering off course, step back and recognize that this is only a part of you – it’s not the you that set long-term goals to get healthy and slim. It’s a thought-bubble – a brain fart. Try ignoring it or dismissing it, and you’ll hear it say things like: ‘you are depriving yourself for no reason! You can have a little bit! You’ll feel left out – what if you’re hungry later?’ Etc., etc., etc. Tell your inner whiny child that you’ve set goals for yourself and that they are reasonable – and that there’s nothing to be scared about – getting a little hungry later doesn’t mean you’ll starve to death. It’s funny how easy it is to tell our children that they can’t have an ice cream cone because it’s too close to dinner, but we find it hard to do to ourselves without our minds having a hissy-fit in protest.

Some of you out there reading this might conclude that this would deprive you of food, of choices, and limit you to a restricted regimen. It’s the whiny inner child again saying this. If you base your food list on a limited variety of high-quality food, your food choices will still be far greater and more varied than mankind has had the opportunity to enjoy for almost all of history, and your food obsession is battling reason.

Your inner child is right, in a way: you are depriving yourself of food. But what the inner child, and their short-term interests don’t see, is that an obsession with eating what you want, when you want it deprives you of your goals.

The Great Calorie Debate and the Search for the Metabolic Advantage

I’m sure you’ve heard the mantra ‘a calorie is a calorie is a calorie’. It’s used by many who dispute that there might be some sort of ‘metabolic advantage’ to the Atkins diet. Atkins believed that when you restrict carbs and replace with fat, that you could consume more calories and still lose weight.

This notion really ticks a lot of people off. Anthony Colpo, who wrote a terrific book The Great Cholesterol Con, says this about it:

There’s just one wee problem with the metabolic advantage theory of weight loss: It is complete bullshit.

Ok – so Anthony is a bit strident. Actually, I find a number of people who discuss nutrition a bit ‘over the top’ in delivering their message. These people are so sure of themselves, that there is no room for disagreement, and notions that disagree with their beliefs on nutrition need to be crushed.

Me – I’m OK with not being certain, as I have mentioned before. I keep myself humble by referring to the list of cognitive biases, and reminding myself: there’s a good chance I’m wrong.

I don’t claim to have the answers to this, and I’m not a scientist by any means. I do have questions, however, based on my so-called research.

For example, I’ve read about coconut oil. Coconut oil is comprised of what’s called medium chain tryglycerides – MCT for those of you that love acronyms.

Here’s an interesting fact from Wikipedia (‘If it says so in Wikipedia, it has to be true’):

MCTs passively diffuse from the GI tract to the portal system (longer fatty acids are absorbed into the lymphatic system) without requirement for modification like long chain fatty acids or very long chain fatty acids do. In addition MCTs do not require bile salts for digestion. Patients who have malnutrition or malabsorption syndromes are treated with MCTs because they do not require energy for absorption, utilization, or storage.

So…if I read this correctly, it takes less energy to absorb MCTs than other fats. Now, regarding energy, there’s no free lunch in this universe. If it takes less energy to absorb MCTs than other fats, doesn’t that give them a ‘metabolic advantage’? mean that not all calories are alike?

Next up is sugar. From the always fascinating Weston A. Price Foundation:

Sucrose is a disaccharide composed of 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose.

…Glucose is metabolized in every cell in the body but all fructose must be metabolized in the liver.

So again, we have sugar, with is half glucose and have fructose. One half is directly absorbed by the body, the other half has to go to the liver to be transformed into something we can absorb. Surely it takes more energy to take a trip to the liver and have it do work to convert the fructose, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that a calorie of fructose requires more energy to absorb than glucose?

Here’s what I think the problem is: the truth is – we have no way to measure exactly how food energy is absorbed and what energy is absorbed and what is consumed to absorb it. But we humans love to measure stuff, so we came up with a model.

We took the energy unit, a calorie (a Calorie with a capital ‘C’, or kcal to be anal about it) and used this as a yardstick.

Do you know what a Calorie really is? Again, from Wikipedia:

One food Calorie (1 kcal or 1,000 calories) is the amount of digestively available food energy (heat) that will raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

So a calorie is a unit of energy to heat a kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. This has nothing to do with human metabolism – we aren’t as simple as a bucket of water, are we?

Well, the folks that are aching to measure this stuff aren’t that stupid, so they account for that by that phrase ‘digestively available‘.  What the heck does that mean?

The particular food being measured must be burned in a calorimeter, so that the heat released from the food can be accurately measured. This amount is used to ascertain the G.E.V. of the specified food. This number is then multiplied by, usually, 85%; which represents the loss happening during human digestion.

So – if we want to know how many calories are in that Twinkie, we can put it in a calorimeter, burn it to ashes, and measure how much heat was given off. Then we multiply by 85% to account for our body’s energy overhead to turn the Twinkie into something we can absorb.

Why 85%? I think the answer lies somewhere in the G.E.V. – an undefined acronym in the article. After some head-scratching on this one, I was led to Wilbur Olin Atwater – a fellow born in 1844 who came up with a system that tried to measure the energy in different foods. It is a  noble attempt to understand a complex process, but as the Wikipedia entry itself states:

Its use has frequently been the cause of dispute, but no real alternatives have been proposed.

So…what I see is a very complex system of adjustments and coefficients that try to measure the unmeasurable act of metabolism within a human individual – a best guess at how many calories are really in the food as opposed to how much we measure in the calorimeter.

The problem with guesses, especially when you do a lot of them, is that some are closer than others. So calculating calories for a given food is pretty much a crap-shoot – a statistically justified and rigorously measured crap-shoot, but a crap-shoot nonetheless.

Just because there’s a pile of research data and statistical analysis doesn’t mean anyone really knows with a degree of certainty  how one food might compare to another in terms of a net energy gain when you eat it.

But…it gets worse.

Let’s say you review what I’ve written above and conclude I am totally clueless and that calories are indeed a valid measure of the foods you eat. You believe that counting calories works, and you keep your little book that says this food is 47 calories per serving and that one is 98. You tally this on a little pad you tote around all day and at the end of the day you sum your numbers and come up with 1478 – just shy of your goal of 1500 calories per day.

What you have here is what I call ‘the illusion of exactitude’.

We don’t really know how many absorbable calories are in a given food item, though there’s been some painstaking calculations done to make it appear we do.

Then the manufacturer of our Twinkie doesn’t really put the thing in a bomb calorimeter – they calculate the calories from the list of ingredients and the previously derived values for each of them.

They tally that up, then create the nutrient data label that decorates our Twinkie box.

These labels themselves are more illusion. As stated here:

Because we know how many calories are in a gram of protein (4), carbohydrate (4), or fat (9), you would think you could calculate the number of calories just by knowing the amounts of these nutrients.  But if you do the math, sometimes the result doesn’t match the number of calories shown on the label.

And here, in deciphering how labels can game the system – referring to a food label for ‘fat free’ margarine that claims to have 5 calories per serving but really has 61 (scroll down past the entry on gum):

…but on a technicality they remain hidden from the consumer. A high-fat food is passed off as a low-calorie food. Isn’t this malevolently crafty? It is a very cruel joke played on people who count calories trying to lose weight.

There are other people questioning the ‘calorie is a calorie’ mantra – and my own personal experience tells me that food intake does not necessarily have a direct correlation to energy absorbed – and turned to fat on my ass. So is there a metabolic advantage in eating a certain way? My own experience on myself says yes.

Based on what I’ve seen above, calories as we normally think about them are total bunk.

Calorie-counters: you have my sympathy.

The Dangers of Low Carb Diets – from Barilla Pasta

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it – Aristotle

When all else fails – manipulate the data – T-Shirt I saw in Princeton

Hmm…a pasta company thinks that low carb diets are dangerous. Who’da thunk?

Here’s the link: http://www.barillaus.com/home/pages/dangers_of_lowcarb_diets.aspx

Obviously, no self-interest is involved here – they are just trying to help educate the public.

I’ve mentioned Barilla pasta before – they have a nutrition message on their packaging about the dangers of low carb.

Actually, I think that it’s a well-written attack on low carb, and I’m the sort of fellow that believes in looking at all sides of an issue – even the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. It is also necessary to keep in mind that just because they have a self-interest in low carb being dangerous doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I’ve already written about personal responsibility regarding low carb and I believe part of that is objectively reviewing the case for the other side.

Do I think there are distortions here – perhaps some cherry-picking of the facts?

Yep.

Nonetheless, this is the rationale of the low carb haters – and why us low carbers sometimes come off as crazy uncle Larry:

Here’s an excerpt:

A low-carb diet is simply a low-calorie diet in disguise. But more importantly, low-carb diets are, by design, high-fat diets. The creators of these diets have to figure out what to tell people to eat if they can’t eat carbohydrates. The only other options are fats and proteins, and the result is a dangerous, seriously unbalanced diet.
Low-carb/high-fat diets:
• may increase the risk of contracting serious chronic diseases;
• may increase the risk of birth defects and childhood cancers;
• are not more effective for weight loss;
• may cause fatigue and lethargy;
• may cause cognitive difficulties;
• can make people-especially women-short-tempered.
Low-carb/high-fat diets pose dangerous health risks and may increase the risk of contracting serious chronic diseases.
Studies have linked extreme low-carb/high-fat diets to an increased risk of developing certain disease states, including:
• Alzheimer disease
• blindness and macular degeneration
• some forms of cancer
• cardiovascular and heart disease
• c-reactive protein/inflammation
• metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance
• osteoporosis
• kidney stones

This is due to increased levels of saturated fat and dietary protein in the diet, with inadequate nutrition coming from plant-based phyto-chemicals.

So – like I said in my previous post:

You, dear reader, are alone in this. There will be only one person in your deathbed – you. Experts of all stripes and devotees of this and that will tell you the Only Way – but ultimately you have to make the choice – and live with the consequences.

Kitchen Experiment # 19 – London Broil in Marinade

I am sure that most of you have eaten London broil, so this ‘experiment’ is most likely a big ‘duh!’ for most of you, but for me, London broil was a ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ meal as a kid – and pretty much I haven’t eaten it since.

Over the weekend, I stopped on the way home from work at the grocery store and saw some london broil on sale. I bought it without a clue as to what to do with it.

When I got home, I found this recipe and as it’s pretty low carb-friendly, I only had to substitute low carb ketchup for regular ketchup.

  • 1 London Broil, approximately 1 to 2 lbs.
  • 1/2 c. soy sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 TBS. vegetable oil
  • 2 TBS. ketchup
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

I followed the instructions about poking the london broil with a fork, and I took out my never-used meat hammer and pounded the hell out of one or the two London broils I bought so it was half the thickness of the other. Each went into a ziploc bag with the marinade and each got a massage in the marinade after I closed the bag, then went in the fridge for a few hours.

Events of the day prevented me from putting it on the grill, so I broiled it in the oven until the internal temp was 165 (I love my quick-read meat thermometer).

The one I beat up with the meat hammer was done in about 40 minutes, with me turning them over every 10 minutes – the one I didn’t turn over took another 20 minutes.

It came out very good, though I made a couple of mistakes:

  • should have pounded both – the one I beat up was more tender, cooked faster, and was generally less of a pain to cook.
  • I put the marinade in the baking dish with the meat. It was too much – it made some parts of the meat too salty, and burned the baking dish, creating a cleanup nightmare.
  • I only let it marinade for about 4 hours – I’ll bet that it would have been perfect if I let it marinade overnight and cooked both without the extra marinade.

Despite the booboos made, this was a real crowd-pleaser. All the members of the Low Carb Confidential Taste Panel enjoyed it and 2 days later there are only scraps left.

My takeaway from this was: use the meat hammer more often – and stabbing the meat with a fork was a ‘why didn’t I do this before?’ moment.

You’re never too old to learn, I suppose.