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.

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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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I’m skeptical of the red meat study

We’ve all heard ‘meat and potatoes’ dishes referred to as a ‘heart attack on a plate.’  What we may not have suspected was that it was actually the potatoes that might do the damage, not the meat.

But, I’m sure that’ll be a hard sell after the recent Harvard red meat study.  It’s been getting much press lately. Most press reports say something like: “Eating a lot of red meat will kill you. Guys from Harvard say so.”

The first day that this came out, I asked an associate to identify potential problems with the study. We have to pick apart similar studies all the time for our jobs. I thought this would be good practice. He did a great job.

And so did CNN for including his primary concern in their online article about the study. Something I haven’t seen other media outlets do yet.

Unfortunately you have to make it to the last two paragraphs of the CNN article to read it. Here it is:

Studies like Pan’s are inherently iffy due to red meat’s unhealthy reputation, which makes red-meat consumption difficult to tease apart from a person’s overall lifestyle, Lindeberg says. “Red meat has been perceived as a villain for many years, and people who avoid red meat take all sorts of precautionary measures for their future health,” he says. “It is not possible to statistically adjust for all of these measures.”

Sure enough, Pan and his colleagues found that the men and women in the study who ate the most red meat also tended to be heavier, less physically active, and more likely to smoke and drink alcohol than their peers. However, the researchers did take those and other factors into account in their analysis.

In other words, the researchers may have really found that overall unhealthy people die prematurely. Wow.

For those who would like to know more about the flaws in the diet and health research, I recommend reading Gary Taubes. He has done a fabulous job in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories at casting credible doubts on past health studies like this one, which form the foundation of the of diet and health ‘conventional wisdom’ that has helped drive increases in obesity and Type II diabetes.

Taubes’ book is big. If you don’t have that kind of time, download and listen this Econtalk podcast that had Taubes as the guest (also available on iTunes). The podcast is an 1 hour and 22 minutes. Listen to it while you workout. I do.

Not only does Taubes cast doubts on these studies, he demonstrates that some of these studies never actually proved the hypotheses (that are now conventional wisdom) like “fat is bad for you”.  When the researchers with these hypotheses didn’t prove them, they’d just say, “well, this study didn’t show it, but we’re certain that it’s just a matter of time that other studies will.”

Over time, it was the domineering personalities of these researchers and political connections that eventually thrust their unproven hypotheses into the realm of conventional wisdom.

The nanny government of the 60s and 70s felt they needed to give guidance on healthy eating (hmmm), so they took the conventional wisdom from these researchers (it’s easy to sell BS to the public when you can say things like “research suggests”, even when it doesn’t) and created the food pyramid, which has helped wreck our health and medical system.

For making it to the final paragraphs of this post, I’ll reward you with the hypothesis Taubes’ has to explain our declining health: sugar & flour. Especially refined sugar, starches and flour. Taubes thinks these boost insulin levels, which tells the body to store fat.

When you see an overweight person, don’t think about how much they eat. Rather think about how much sugar and starch they eat. Don’t believe Taubes? Cut back on your sugar (candy, cookies, mochas), flour (bread, pasta) and starch (fries, chips) for a few days, eat a little more fat, protein, fruits and veggies and watch the scale.

“Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public”

William Banting wrote a 16-page diet book in 1863 with this name.  I love that name.

It appears he had it all figured out then.  His advice turned out to be the same advice that a) helped me lose weight and keep it off (going 11 years now) and b) recently helped me improve my cholesterol levels.

His advice:  Eat less sugars and starch, eat more proteins and fat.  Why?  Because too much sugar and starch throws off your hormones and tells your body to store fat.  Proteins and fat don’t.  In fact, too much sugar and starch will lead to diabetes.  Hello, diabetes epidemic coming after several decades of sugar and starch consumption!

I’m reading Gary Taubes longer than 16-page book, Good Calories, Bad Calories.  If you don’t have time to read the whole book, read the Prologue.  In it, Taubes gives great highlights on the evolution in the diet world since Banting’s book.

In the rest of his book, Taubes exhaustively reviews the “scientific” literature on diets to show that much of the conventional diet wisdom (e.g. government guidelines, the calorie balance equation, eating a low-fat diet) actually has no scientific basis.  Shocking.

But, for your own health, here’s the summary:  Follow Banting’s advice.

When I lost weight, I attributed my success to a lot things because I changed a lot of things.  I balanced my calories.  I ate more often.  I watched my portions.  I reduced mindless eating.  And, I increased my intake of fat and protein and decreased my intake of sugars and starches.

In his other book, Why We Get Fat, Taubes said that people with weight loss success like mine tend to confound all the reasons, but there’s really just one, the last one.

It’s worth experimenting.  Cut back on sugars, breads and starches in your diet, eat a little more fat and protein and watch your scale.