Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Ambiguity of Scientific Research

It always boggles my mind how, in so much of the health research focusing on diet that we see today, there is little to no emphasis on the types of foods eaten by participants in the studies. One case in point is a study that Stephan Guyenet recently blogged about, called "Effect of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Blood Glucose Control in People With Type 2 Diabetes." This study is a typical example of diabetics who go on a low-carbohydrate diet and experience positive results in moderating blood glucose levels. The participants were split into two groups -- one high-carb, the other low-carb. The authors describe the diets as follows (emphasis mine):

The control (15% protein) diet was designed according to the recommendations of the American Heart Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The diet consisted of 55% carbohydrate, with an emphasis on starch-containing foods, 15% protein, and 30% fat (10% monounsaturated, 10% polyunsaturated, and 10% saturated fatty acid). A second diet was designed to consist of 20% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 50% fat. The saturated fatty acid content of the test diet was ∼10% of total food energy; thus, the majority of the fat was mono- and polyunsaturated.

The authors also describe their low-carb diet as a diet "in which readily digestible starch-containing foods have been de-emphasized."

Okay. Is it just me, or are studies like this almost completely worthless? Yes, it's fascinating that when carbohydrates are lowered in the diet, blood sugar levels normalize -- this a very consistent finding throughout the scientific world. But, why? Why does this happen? What is the mechanism behind it? Is it simply a reduction in carbohydrates that makes the difference? Or could it be a reduction in harmful foods like sugar that does the trick?

In other words, the study is setting itself up for ambiguity. Do the results mean that everyone who is near-diabetic should immediately "cut the carbs?" Or should they "de-emphasize" starch containing foods? Or should they reduce sugar consumption? What is the real problem here?

Well, let's see. Maybe -- just maybe -- we can determine the composition of the diet and dive deeper into these questions. Let's take a look at a nifty table from the study:

Not real helpful is it? Now we know that the participants on the high-carb diet ate 274 grams as "starch" and the rest (114 grams) as sugars of some kind. That tells us absolutely nothing about what foods the participants actually ate. For all we know, they could be eating nothing but waffles and sodas for carbs!

Now, the reason this frustrates me is because certain foods -- namely wheat, trans fats, and sugar/high-fructose corn syrup --- can have profound effects on human metabolism in and of themselves. For example, Dr. William Davis of The Heart Scan Blog recently had this to say about the metabolic effects of wheat (emphasis mine):

A patient would come to the office ... with a blood sugar of 118 mg/dl (in the pre-diabetic range) and the other phenomena of pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high inflammation/c-reactive protein, low HDL, high triglycerides, small LDL), and the characteristic wheat belly. Eliminate wheat and, within three months, they lose 30 lbs, blood sugar drops to normal, blood pressure drops, triglycerides drop by several hundred milligrams, HDL goes up, small LDL plummets, c-reactive protein drops.

As for trans fats, check out what the authors of this study (done on rats) conclude:

In this study, we observed profound metabolic responses to a low-fat diet enriched with trans-fatty acids that were associated with hyperphagia, increased hepatic and visceral fatness, and diminished whole-body glucose disposal, all hallmarks of metabolic syndrome.

(This particular study, it should be noted, has its own flaws in terms of isolating factors, but the stuff on trans fats seems pretty solid.)

And then there's refined fructose-containing foods, such as high-fructose corn syrup and sugar -- don't get me started!

So would somebody please explain to me why these harmful foods aren't taken into consideration in so much of the mainstream dietary research out there (such as the low-carb study that I began this rant with)? It would seem to me that, due to the significant metabolic effects of these foods (vegetable oil, I haven't forgotten about you!), any dietary study not detailing complete food logs is not even worth a glance. It's great that reducing carbohydrates has a positive effect on the health of diabetics, but would simply reducing wheat or sugar or trans fats have the same effect? If there's a study out there that dives into this molotov cocktail of franken-foods, I'd love to see it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Health Profile (part 3): The Turnaround

At a friend's potluck in Tucson, I said "what-the-heck" and ate a palm-sized portion of New Zealand Grass-Fed lamb. After all, the meat seemed ethical, and my friend -- who I respected as a morally responsible, spiritually-savvy person -- was enjoying the meat, too. After a few hours, I found myself asking an attractive woman for her phone number. Something was definitely different. My 2.5 year vegetarian streak was over.

The next morning, I woke up with muscles where I hadn't felt muscles in years. My head felt crisp and clear. It was the first time in years that I felt genuinely excited about the day ahead. A gratifying, "Ahhhhh ... " came out of my mouth. That's when I decided that I had found an answer.

A few days later, I was visiting that same friend who fed me my first tasty morsel of meat in over two-and-a-half years, and it just so happened that he had a very intriguing and pertinent book on his book shelf that I was drawn to: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. I borrowed the book and devoured the information whole like a wolf scarfing down a fresh post-famine kill. I had an intuitive hunch before diving into this book that animal foods were a necessary part of the diet -- after all, I'd felt much better after eating some meat and butter -- but Ms. Fallon, bless her heart, provided me with the reason behind this vague feeling and assisted me in further understanding the whys and wherefores.

Now, I was on a mission to rebuild my body and my life with nutrient-dense foods. I tried eating meat more often and didn't deny myself of Thankgiving turkey or Christmas ham. My first "meat-fest" trials ended in pain and agony as my body had forgotten just how to digest the rich proteins and fats. For a few weeks I had horrible indigestion headaches and a heavy feeling that permeated my entire body. But I was determined to feed myself and get through the adjustment period. Researching information on the internet, I found that the body can take weeks to months to rev up digestive juices for meat after being without it for a long time. This is probably why vegetarians often say, "I tried eating meat again -- I felt horrible!" After about a month's time, I was beginning to feel stronger and lighter in my body. After a few more months I was back to my ideal weight and body composition, my facial hair grew in thicker and more evenly, and my libido was definitely back. And I was genuinely happy and outgoing -- a big change from my low-energy, slightly-depressed vegetarian days.

Nowadays, I feel grateful and blessed to have pulled myself out of the vegetarian abyss that seems to suck so many people in. Many intelligent, environmentally sensitive, and/or health-driven individuals fall far into this black hole of nutrition and can't get out. My hope is that by sharing my story and disseminating nutrition and health information based on evolution, history, traditional cultures, personal experience, and modern-day science, I can influence others to change their bodies -- and their lives -- for the better.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Health Profile (part 2): Seeking Wellness

After summer was over and my muscles had shrunken significantly, I decided college wasn't for me and rejected a scholarship to the University of Arizona, resolving to fulfill philosophical fancies I'd had since age sixteen to live in the wilderness and learn how to survive with nothing and need nobody.

I ended up in central Arizona as a farm intern at the Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance, a living, working homestead eight miles deep into the Superstition Wilderness. It was here that my foray into alternative health and healing began (and my muscles continued to shrink). Despite the fact that the founder of the school, Peter Bigfoot, was a former vegetarian of 30+ years -- fully fruitarian for one of those years -- and was unabashedly eating plenty of meat when I arrived, somehow (possibly from the media and word of mouth) I got the bright idea that vegetarianism was the healthiest diet to consume. Now for the downward spiral.

As I got deeper and deeper into wilderness survival following my time at Reevis, I also got deeper and deeper into simple vegetarian staples: amaranth, quinoa, oatmeal, peanut butter, raisins, beans, huge salads with olive oil, and other "healthy" whole foods. I also got more and more interested in restricing my food intake -- maybe someday I would have to eat so little that I could survive in the mountains all by myself and be a hermit! Wouldn't that be nice? Oh, to be 19 again.

The skinnier I got, the healthier I thought I was becoming. Anyone that ate the typical American diet became a glutton and destroyer of the earth in my eyes. After all, it was the problem of over-consumption that was bringing the planet to an early demise, and food was one of those products that was almost certainly abused and taken for granted. So I was going to be better than that. Yes, I was going to be a low-calorie vegetarian, save myself and save the planet.

Now, not only was I a vegetarian for health and survivalist reasons, but I also had the entire world's suffering behind me to rationalize my choice. I ate less and less. I fasted. I dumpster-dived. I ate wild edibles and garden veggies. I harvested citrus in Tucson over the walls of neighbor's yards. I learned to survive in a brutal, unforgiving, and unethical world. I felt empowered, independent, free. Yeah, I weighed 155 pounds and looked gaunt and sickly -- so what? I was healthy! Wasn't I?

It took about 3 years of that behavior -- that way of relating to myself and the world -- to finally give meat a try again. I was at my body's breaking point. I felt dizzy when I stood up, fatigued and weak. Daily yoga two or three times a day was all that seemed to keep my limbs, joints, and muscles feeling relatively pain-free. My lower back was worn and aching constantly. Anything physical became a chore. My libido was completely shot -- I hadn't thought about being with a woman for years. Then came the miracle.

Friday, September 4, 2009

My Health Profile (part 1): The Formative Years

Health awareness and a desire to be in the best health I could be began at an early age for me. I can recall being six or seven-years-old and eating the crust on my bread -- not because I liked it, but because I was told it was good for me. I would choke down green peas or iceberg lettuce in order to satisfy the arbitrary requirement for something "green" with dinner. Last at the dinner table, I sat slowly chewing gristly, lean meat until every morsel was gone. Then, and only then, could I indulge in some ice cream.

A craving for real food seemed to permeate my childhood. Lean, well-cooked meat, cereal, 2% milk, enriched wheat bread and pasta, and the occasional cookie (or two or three) didn't seem to satisfy this craving. I often found myself nibbling on margarine when clearing the dinner table or spreading some other butter substitute on bread so thick that it would leave teeth marks. Naturally, I desired something fatty and rich and nutrients, but since no such thing was available (besides cheese), I went for the trans-fat laden, unreal goop that was as close to real butter as I could find in the refrigerator.

All that being said, I'd like to believe that I ate better than most kids growing up in America in the 80s and 90s. Or maybe I just ate less junk food than most kids. It seemed to be rare in my friends' households to limit soda and candy as my family did, or to only have dessert when dinner was finished. My family also emphasized exercise, and my brother and I were engaged in sports by age 4. Also, as much as I hated it as a kid, I have to give lots of credit to my dad for insisting that I play outside during the day and only watch a maximum of 2 hours of television daily. This certainly kept me active and physically fit growing up.

At the tail end of elementary school, it was time for that orthodontist-assisted rites-of-passage we call "braces." Pictures of me before the procedure reveal that I was your typical crooked-teeth, pinched nostrils, narrow-faced kid.

When middle school approached and I began to have more responsibility for my health, I would frequently spend some of my lunch money on the soda machines on school grounds. I was up to a 3 soda per day habit, and I felt guilty because I knew soft drinks were "bad" for me in any amount besides moderation. Fast forward to Freshman year in high school when I began abstaining from sodas completely after making a deal with my mom that if I stopped, she would stop, too. From then on, it was mostly water, orange juice, and occasionally gatorade as my beverages of choice. To this day, I haven't taken up drinking sodas again.

High school was a time of pumping iron, playing sports, building muscle, and trying my best to eat "right" according to what the bodybuilders at the gym were recommending: egg whites, protein powders, and lean meat -- essentially an emphasis on protein as the ultimate food and keeping fat as low as possible. Yes, I was attempting to adhere to a low-fat diet. That's probably why I ate so many fructose-fueled Power Bars. I was compensating for the lack of fat in my diet. Looking back, it's astonishing to see how "puffy" my face and overall musculature was. It was also during this time that I had my wisdom teeth removed, a "necessary" procedure (according to the orthodontist) if I was to prevent future dental disasters.

Following high school graduation, I thought, "Time to start being realistic." The expensive protein shakes and Power Bars were not economically viable options if I was to survive in the real world. Nor was a gym membership. I drastically changed my diet and lifestyle to appeal to my economic sensibilities. I stopped lifting weights and pounding protein shakes and began experimenting with hiking for exercise and eating cheap staple foods like beans and rice, pasta and tortillas. A month later, my muscles deflated.