A good synapses of how we were duped into getting fat

Here’s a great post from Matt Ridley on the conventional, but wrong, wisdom of low-fat diets. He writes:

There is a strong possibility that the “diabesity” epidemic has been caused largely by the diet police themselves.

The chief source of the anti-saturated-fat message was a politically astute scientist named Ancel Keys. In 1961 he persuaded the American Heart Association to issue guidelines on saturated fat intake. The main evidence came from his study of heart disease in six countries in Europe plus Japan, from which he concluded that low-fat diets led to less heart disease.

…the fat effect was weak: an order of magnitude less than the effect of cigarettes on cancer, for example.

Ridley’s writing here is based on the work of Nina Tiecholz, which I wrote about here and appears to be nearly identical to the work that Gary Taubes did in his books, who I’ve written about before, as well.

This from Ridley’s post is also interesting:

In the past ten years, study after rigorous study has found that animal fat per se is not harmful, does not cause obesity, does not raise the kinds of cholesterol that predict heart attacks, does not increase death rate and is healthier than carbohydrates. For instance, one two-year trial in Israel found that a fat-and-meat “Atkins” diet lowered weight more than either a low-fat or a Mediterranean diet. As Teicholz puts it in her book: “Every plank in the case against saturated fat has, upon rigorous examination, crumbled away.”

Such findings remain too heretical for most diet experts. Those who make them struggle for years to get published and have to couch their findings in cautious language. Those such as Teicholz and Gary Taubes who write books pointing out that this fat emperor had no clothes are treated as pariahs. If anything, the official committees of the diet police are doubling down, demanding that we eat ever less saturated fat.

If you are at all interested in losing weight, Gary Taubes’ books are worth a read.

Experts vs Trial and Error

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Nina Teicholz casts doubt on the ‘conventional wisdom’ that saturated fat causes heart disease (thanks to The Pretense of Knowledge for the pointer).

Of course, Gary Taubes laid out much of the same story line in his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. I mention it here and here.

Teicholz mentions President Eisenhower’s heart attack. She didn’t mention the additional detail that Taubes provided. His doctor cut his cholesterol intake and his cholesterol levels went up.

Teicholz, perhaps, summarizes the beginning of the Type II diabetic and obesity trends when unreliable health studies were used to guide the American diet:

As Harvard nutrition professor Mark Hegsted said in 1977, after successfully persuading the U.S. Senate to recommend Dr. Keys’s diet for the entire nation, the question wasn’t whether Americans should change their diets, but why not? Important benefits could be expected, he argued. And the risks? “None can be identified,” he said.

This is where I’ve gained much appreciation for what Nassim Taleb identified as the expert problem, as he describes here.

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Random Considerations for Fitness New Year’s Resolutions

I hadn’t thought of these before and thought they were interesting and sharing for your consideration.

I think they both stemmed from Taleb’s Antifragility book, but I’m not so sure about the first one.

1. It’s good to eat a random variety foods rather than the same things every day, or week. Why? All foods contain some natural toxins. If you eat the same things, the levels of those same toxins can build up  in your body.

I have no idea if this is true but I don’t know of too many (any?) downsides in having more variety in a diet, so why not?

2. I just read this one in Taleb’s book (it triggered my memory of #1) and made me think of a personal experience:

Randomness in the quantities and macro nutrient composition (fat, protein, carb) of your daily intake may also be good for you.

Dietary guidelines and diets assume consistent quantities and proportions of things at each meal, or each day. I think we automatically assume that too.

But, Taleb contends our bodies get stronger, more fit, with a bit more randomness. Lots of carbs one day, all protein and fat the next. Skip a meal here and there. He notes most dietary studies are based on consistent intakes, while the effect of random intakes have escaped even being a consideration in those studies.

A personal experience:

As I lost weight 12 years ago, I allowed myself one splurge every five to seven days. I figured if I was “good” the rest of the days, one bender wouldn’t hurt too bad, and would help keep me good the rest of the days.

I would splurge on random things — but it was usually carbs. One week might be a banana split. The next might be a pasta dinner.

I expected to hop on the scale the day after my splurge and see a temporary reversal in my progress. Yet, I was often surprised, on occasion to see the positive progress had continued, sometimes accelerated.

I can’t say for sure how many times that happened. It wasn’t even something I considered that could be a cause. But, it happened enough for it stick in my memory.

I never thought much about that. I thought those were flukes. I was sure there was no way that the splurge would help me temporarily. That didn’t fit with any mental model on diet and weight loss that I knew about.

Then I read #2 and it made me wonder. Maybe that 5-7 day splurge helped more than as a reward for being “good” the rest of the time. Maybe it even played a bigger role in my overall weight loss than I ever imagined.

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Free Market Masterpiece

I agree with Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, that John Cochrane’s health care essay is a must read.

I first titled the post, “Health Care Masterpiece,” but then changed it to “Free Market Masterpiece”. In his essay, Cochrane does a masterful job of contrasting free market success stories to our government-restrained market for health care.

Here are a few snippets.

I bet you didn’t know:

About 70% of hospitals and 85% of health‐care employment is in non‐profits,whose legal and regulatory treatment protects much inefficiency from competition.

Maybe for‐profit companies pay too much attention to stock prices. But non‐profits can go on inefficiently forever, with no stockholders to complain.  The whole point of a non‐profit is to pursue goals other than economic efficiency.

Here he summarizes the competing goals of various government actions in health care:

…here we have the government forcing small size in order to boost competition with one hand, stopping entry to protect hospitals from competition with another, trying to force larger “networks” through “Affordable Care Organizations” to obtain the needed economies of scale with the third, but laws preserving doctor independence with the fourth.

And:

On reflection, it’s amazing that computerizing medical records was part of the ACA and stimulus bills. Why in the world do we need a subsidy for this? My bank computerized records 20 years ago.

Why, when you go to the doctor, do you answer the same 20 questions over and over again, and what the heck are they doing trusting your memory to know what your medical history and list of medications are?

He answers that question (read it to find his answer) and OMG:

No, we did not get cheap and amazing cell phones by government ramping up the pressure on the 1960s AT&T. Southwest Airlines did not come about from effectiveness panels or an advisory board telling United and American (or TWA and Pan AM) how to reorganize operations. The mass of auto regulation did nothing to lower costs or induce efficient production by the big three.

When has this  ever worked?  The post office? Amtrak? The department of motor vehicles? Road construction? Military procurement? The TSA? Regulated utilities? European state‐run industries? The last 20 or so medical “cost control” ideas? The best example and worst performer of all,..wait for it…public schools?

I will post more quotes later. But, I also agree with Boudreaux that you should take the time to read the whole thing.

We have far too much faith in “science”

Over at Cafe Hayek, Russ Roberts points to an article from Reuters, In cancer science, many ‘discoveries’ don’t hold up.  This is from the article:

 A former researcher at Amgen Inc has found that many basic studies on cancer — a high proportion of them from university labs — are unreliable, with grim consequences for producing new medicines in the future.

During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 “landmark” publications — papers in top journals, from reputable labs — for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development.

Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

That’s not science, folks. That’s randomness or noise.

No surprise. Scientists, after all, are humans and like all of us they respond to incentives. They want to get their studies published, they want to get their names out, they want to prove their theories. This satisfies their egos and keeps them employed. They aren’t monks. They’ll report noise if it gets them attention.

This was confirmed later in the article:

“If you can write it up and get it published you’re not even thinking of reproducibility,” said Ken Kaitin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. “You make an observation and move on. There is no incentive to find out it was wrong.”

Begley’s experience reminds me of what Gary Taubes’, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, discovered as he reviewed landmark diet and health studies from over the past century. He found the “scientific foundation” on which much of the conventional wisdom and government dietary recommendations are based is shaky.

Here’s one of the best stories from the article that demonstrates the deception that we often call science:

“We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure,” said Begley. “I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they’d done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It’s very disillusioning.”

That should have been an important fact to mention before publishing the results.

I deal with this often in the business world too. Many folks play fast and loose with the facts. I often hear people support their position by saying, “Research shows that this is the best way” or “this is what customers prefer.”

Refer to “research” and most people will hear that and accept on blind faith that the research must be correct and correctly interpreted. Much to the chagrin of some of my business partners, I don’t.

I ask, “Would you mind if I took a look at that research?”

So far, about 10% of the folks I’ve asked showed me the research they referred to. The other 90% backed off their point quickly. And, of those 10% who did show me the research, I managed to point out several potential issues with the research method and interpretation that dramatically lowered the confidence in their conclusions in all cases.

I call that “pushing on the putty.” Backing your conclusion with flimsy research is like building a wall with putty. Push on it just a little bit and the wall crumbles.

Why an infomercial may be better than a TV doctor

“Do you mind if I ask, what do you base that on?”

Learning to ask this twelve word question can improve your reasoning ability.

Many people put too much stock into what certain others say because “he’s a medical doctor” or “a scientist” or “an economist” or a “Harvard grad”.

You cannot determine if something is correct simply by establishing who said it.  That’s called the appeal to authority fallacy.  It is easily defeated by considering that other medical doctors, scientists, economists or Harvard grads say something different.  Discussion on such matters usually turn into an unproductive he said/she said.

One of physicist Richard Feynman’s specialties was reviewing the experiments of other people to find the holes in their experimental design and logic.  He once said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself…and you are the easiest person to fool.

Even experts can fool themselves.

A family member recently mentioned diet advice that the TV doctor, Dr. Oz, had shared.  It didn’t sound right to me.  I asked if Dr. Oz had provided any reasoning or evidence to support his claim.  Did he explain why that particular diet would work or if anybody had followed that diet and had success?  No.  

So, I asked, Why do you believe him?  

She replied, He’s a medical doctor.

I researched Dr. Oz’s advice on the internet and I couldn’t find any evidence to support it.  I looked for studies and individual stories from folks who claimed success following that advice.  I found one study that did not support his advice.  And I found no individuals claiming to follow the advice with success.

I thought this was a good example to illustrate that just because someone who appears to be expert says something, it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Dr. Oz may be correct, but I’d like to know what he based that advice on.

I always put more weight on results over opinions.

Which brings me to the infomercial.  I recently saw a part of an infomercial for a set of exercise DVDs.  The promise was that if you follow these DVDs for 45 minutes a day, six days a week, you too could look like some of the people in the infomercial.

I applaud the creators of the infomercial for showing me actual results.  That’s why an infomercial might be better than a TV doctor.  The infomercial sells you on results.  The TV doctor relies on his credentials.