A Short Breezy History of Diet Gurus Part 1

The history of dieting is a fascinating subject, filled with some decidedly interesting characters. Some of these people devoted their lives to nutrition, and some accidentally stumbled onto it as part of their other lives. While you might not have heard of some of these people, many were the Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil of their times. I’ve done a lot of reading on the history of diets and dieting and below is an incomplete list of some of the ones that stuck in my head.

It is interesting to note their ages and compare to the diets they promoted, though you can’t read too much into this: longevity is based on a number of factors, some of which have nothing to do with lifestyle. Still fun, however.

Warning to lazy researchers: do not use this post as a reference! This is just a fun post dashed off from my own amusement and any ‘facts’ presented here might be wrong – I’m not doing any excruciating fact checking. Do real research.

To make absolutely sure no one confuses this with real research done by a real historian, I have added the subheading ‘Cheap Shots’ to each listing so that I could list unsubstantiated personal attacks by others as well as my own snarky remarks. Continue reading “A Short Breezy History of Diet Gurus Part 1”

Advertisements

Newsflash! Researches Are Human, Don’t Want to Believe Study That Contradicts Their Beliefs

We all love to read things that confirm our biases, which is why, a day after I made the statement that a little extra weight is good for your health (which I didn’t make up, but came from previous research), another study gets blasted all over the media that being a little fat reduces death rates a bit.

You can find this pretty much everywhere, but here’s a typical link.

Of the many stories on this, most follow the same structure:

1. Report the findings

2. Have researchers who have spent their life stating otherwise go to great lengths to trash the results.

3. Commenters on the story hurl insults at fat people and the research.

Sigh…this is all getting so tiresome. It’s so predictable, like watching the same episode of a TV show over and over. Continue reading “Newsflash! Researches Are Human, Don’t Want to Believe Study That Contradicts Their Beliefs”

Research from 1934 Shows a Diet that Induces Ketosis Kills Harmful Bacteria

popscijun1934cover

In doing research for my book, I came across this article from the June, 1934 issue of Popular Science:

If you eat a diet consisting of 140 grams of fat, twenty-five of protein and fifteen of carbohydrate, you can increase the germ-killing ability of your body, researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., have just discovered. Dr. A. E. Osterberg, of the clinic, reported at a meeting of the American Chemical Society that such a diet has been found to increase the production of ketones, or bacteria-destroying acids which are normally manufactured from the fat of the body in the process of digestion.

popsciketonearticleInteresting that the article calls such a diet ‘balanced’ – perhaps science was smarter then about nutrition than we are now? This is a ketogenic low carb diet the researcher was discussing.

It is also interesting that I have never heard the notion that ketones might act as an internal natural bacterial-fighting mechanism. If that is indeed true, it is another benefit of a low carb diet I was unaware of.

You can check out the article yourself at this link:

Starving Monkeys for Pointless Research

In an article that hit the Internet as if it meant anything, a bunch of starving monkeys seem to show that you don’t live longer on a calorie-restriced diet. But even a cursory read of the article, bleary eyed, tells me that this wasn’t a particularly good experiment and really a way to starve some monkeys and pretend something of worth was found.

Tell me if I’m reading this wrong:

Eating less cut rates of cancer and heart disease by half, for example. More than 50% of the animals were still alive, but the team detected a survival trend. Although overall mortality was the same, only 13% of the calorically restricted monkeys had died from age-related conditions, versus 37% of the control animals.

So you’re saying that the starving monkeys didn’t die of age-related illnesses, but died nonetheless? What did they die of – nothing?

They don’t answer that question, but they do go on to note a number of reasons why this might be:

One possible cause of the discrepancy, de Cabo says, is a difference in the animals’ diets. The Maryland monkeys noshed on more healthful food that included plenty of complex plant compounds, whereas the Wisconsin monkeys consumed processed food high in refined sugar. Control animals in Wisconsin also ate more than control animals in Maryland, which may even be slightly calorically restricted, de Cabo says. He notes that calorie restriction produces a bigger effect on longevity “if the control group is couch potatoes.”

Genetic variability between the groups could also be a factor. The Maryland group was more diverse, including Indian and Chinese animals, whereas the Wisconsin monkeys all came from India. Studies of other organisms have shown that genetic differences between individuals can affect the response to calorie restriction, notes molecular biologist Matt Kaeberlein of the University of Washington, Seattle, who wasn’t involved with the research.

Oh – you mean the control group is genetically different, their diets not only differed in quantity but quality, and from my quick read, one scientist discusses that the control group might be couch potatoes?

With that many variations, what will they ever prove – except that ‘more research is needed’?

Good news though: they have another 10 years of monkey-starving to go before these miserable animals finally pass – plenty of time for them to find funding for another monkey-starving experiment – and maybe this time they’ll have an actual control so that we might learn something.

Now maybe it’s the fault of the article itself – mashing up 2 different studies and confusing the hell of of readers and the author alike.

I gotta say though: good job all around, folks.

 

Can The Soap You Use Make You Fat AND Cause a Heart Attack?

Maybe – if it’s antibacterial soap.

First, let me point out that ‘antibacterial’ soap is completely unnecessary. The FDA says so:

the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

It’s a marketing ploy – a magic word on a label that is supposed to make you feel one particular soap is better than another. We’re scared of germs, and some sharp tack came up with ‘antibacterial’ soap to play to this fear.

And we fell for it.

Now it’s an antibacterial arms race of sorts. The chemical that gives soap – and a lot of other products – an antibacterial action is triclosan, which is a pesticide approved by the FDA in 1969 – betcha you won’t find that fact on the soap label.

There’s also the potential that the stuff can disrupt our endocrine systems – the system that regulates our hormones and can make us fat:

‘In animals studies triclosan lowers thyroid hormone levels

As well as a concern in the medical community that all this ‘antibacterial’ this and that is sort of a Crossfit workout for germs, making them stronger and more resistant as they evolve to resist these chemicals – causing more antibiotic-resistant germs to exist – which means that when you *do* actually get a bacterial infection that is life-threatening, it is becoming more likely that docs will have a hard time finding an antibiotic that can effectively treat it.

But let’s not quibble over these minor issues, right? We’re going for bigger fish here – new research that shows that triclosan actually weakens your muscles. If you’re not a jock and think this doesn’t concern you, remember: your heart is a muscle. While the entire article is worth a careful read, let me cherry-pick a single quote from a probably disreputable source – Smithsonian Magazine:

”The effects of triclosan on cardiac function were really dramatic,” said co-author Nipavan Chiamvimonvat. “Although triclosan is not regulated as a drug, this compound acts like a potent cardiac depressant in our models.” He speculates that in some cases, triclosan may be responsible for exacerbating heart problems in patients with an underlying condition.

Oopsies.

The good news is the FDA is ‘looking into the matter’ at present and might or might not do something about this ingredient appearing in adhesives, fabrics, vinyl, plastics (toys, toothbrushes), polyethylene, polyurethane, polypropylene, floor wax emulsions, textiles (footwear, clothing), caulking compounds, sealants, rubber, carpeting, and a wide variety of other products. They are going to ‘begin the process of reviewing in 2013‘.

Don’t you feel better?

Finishing up my little rant here, the Smithsonian piece ends with a quote from one of the researchers. It’s a classic of scientific understatement:

”Triclosan can be useful in some instances, however it has become a ubiquitous ‘value added’ marketing factor that actually could be more harmful than helpful,” said study co-author Bruce Hammock.

Ya think?!?

 

A Call for Civility in Alternative Nutrition

I’m going to start this post discussing Sigmund Freud – but it’s not what you think – really. This post is not about psychology.

Sigmund Freud was a cokehead in a time when it wasn’t a big deal. The notion of doing drugs at the time was not a counterculture phenomenon – it was something that was considered more a bad habit at most. Freud was a doctor in Vienna and possessing an active imagination, as well as a coked-up personality, invented psychoanalysis as a means to make a living.

It was quite popular with the well-heeled Viennese women of the day, and this quack became quite famous. It wasn’t all a waste of time: Freud invented the notion of ‘ego’, which is something that we probably should have had if he hadn’t invented it.

The problem, as I see it, was that as interesting as some of his theories were, it wasn’t science. A doctor listened patiently while women complained – and they felt better. That’s not science. While Freud provided an air of science to the proceedings with his amusing theories, it was nothing of the sort.

Very early on there was dissention: Carl Jung was one of his students but soon parted ways. He was best known for his notion of the ‘collective unconscious’ – a common underpinning that all humans supposedly had. Later on, Abraham Maslow came along with his ‘hierarchy of needs’ which is insightful – but again, it isn’t science, but more a sort of observational philosophy.

This observational philosophy permeated psychology well until the late 20th century, at least in my 4am unsourced and highly subjective narrative here, but early in the 20th century, there was a response to what was being viewed at the time as a mish-mash of theories of the mind that were fun, but really weren’t actionable science.

The result was a new school pf psychology called behaviorism.

Behaviorists purposely didn’t care what went on inside the mind. They cared what the organism did as the result of stimuli. My take on it was if you give a rat a small rat yummy every time he steps on a little lever, he’ll learn to click the lever to get rat yummies.

Yeah, sure – boring compared to imagining the rat having penis envy or the Electra complex, but it was observable, measurable, and certainly seemed more like science than all that other stuff.

In my horrible overview of the history of psychology here, behaviorist considered the workings of that little rat mind a ‘black box’. This is important because it begins to get to the point of this post – which I’m sure you’re still wondering about. In a quote I found on the Internet (the link promptly didn’t work the next day), I found this description, which I like and will use:

A metaphor of black box is usually described to explain the behaviorist approach about learning, i.e. the learner is a black box and nothing is known about what goes on inside. Knowing what’s inside the black box is not essential for determining how behavior is governed by its environmental antecedents and consequences. The behaviorists believe that the psychology as a science to develop a reliable and useful theory of learning have to use observable, reliable data as evidence.

I like that. It’s sciency. It’s also history: behaviorism, like Freud, has been put in the garbage heap of history for the most part. Psychology has moved on to more subtle means of understanding the human mind and more practical therapies for changing behavior than the nonsense that was the foundation of psychoanalysis or the crude observations of behaviorism.

The behaviorists served their purpose. They brought psychology back from pseudoscience to science again, and while it was discarded as too simple and replaced with a more effective combination of cognitive therapy and medication, it was a great launching point to a real science of psychology.

I was thinking that perhaps the example of the behaviorists ought to be applied to nutrition.

In my ninth year of doing low carb, I still don’t know why it works for me. Theories abound, and on other sites on the Internet, fierce and vicious debates surround the mechanisms by which some people lose weight on low carb. Gary Taubs is vilified. Atkins is called ‘Fatkins’. Even Jimmy Moore, the decent human being that writes livinlavidalowcarb.com, is viciously attacked. Every time I read these debates, my head hurts.

The truth is – we really don’t know. To paraphrase Michel Pollan: Nutrition science is where surgery was in about 1650 – interesting potential, but I’m not sure I’d want to have an operation then.

I suppose I feel a bit like those behaviorists in the early 20th century looking for refuge in some real, actionable science rather than these ‘I’m smart – he’s an idiot’ debates between Atkinistas, Paleos, Vegetarians, Vegans, and so on.

How about this:

  • People try low carb – and it works for them. They feel better. Their blood work improves. They lose some weight.
  • Some people try low carb and it doesn’t work for them. They don’t lose weight and or don’t feel good. They try something else.
  • Some people try ANY diet and it works for them. Then it doesn’t. They try something else then.
  • And none of us prance around feeling smarter or superior to other people who hold a different opinion or seek to try a different approach than ours. Instead, we compare notes – what works, what doesn’t. We respectfully disagree if we need to, and we encourage one another to find our own roads to optimal health through empirical research on ourselves.

Just because some study says such and such doesn’t mean that embracing or avoiding a certain behavior or food will have the same effect on you – it does mean that there might be some merit in trying it and see what happens. It also doesn’t give anyone the right to engage in name-calling.

Now – none of this is for those of us who play it safe, and follow the guidelines set out by the medical authorities currently in vogue. If we choose to take personal responsibility and consciously ignore their advice, we must also bear the risks.

And for those of us willing to do this, a call for civility. A vegan and a low carber have more in common with each other than we do with someone eating the Standard American Diet. Stop making a way of eating into a religion with notions of good and evil, saints and heretics.

Maybe there’s multiple paths to optimal health, and maybe those of us searching for new ways deserve each other’s respect for at least trying.