Saturday, December 27, 2014

Eating fast food doesn't make you stupid, stupid

If you read science news regularly you may be tempted to hate the fast food industry. Restaurants like McDonald's, according to the headlines anyway, sell us fattening food, underpay their employees and damage the environment in their rush to mass produce Big Macs and chicken strips. And a recently released study may give us another reason to hate big fast food: their tasty offerings may be making our children stupid.

The idea that our diets affect our cognitive abilities has some evidence behind it. Certain foods make us fat and sick, so it wouldn't be shocking to find out that those same foods are also bad for our brains. But it's worth emphasizing that we don't know yet whether that's correct or not. Anyone who says fast food is harming kids in the classroom is contradicting the available evidence.

To begin I'd like to point out that this is an observational study, so we need to keep the usual caveats in mind as we consider the results. The researchers didn't do anything except ask fifth graders how much fast food they eat and compare those numbers with the kids test scores, so nobody knows if the diet information is accurate. That fact that the study is based on data provided by the people being studied makes it useless until the results are confirmed by some actual science. All we can know until then is that some kids who eat fast food also perform poorly in school.

In fairness, the only reasonable way to find out what people eat is to ask them. Short of putting them in a hospital ward and feeding them a strictly controlled diet, there's no other way to get the information, though every epidemiologist knows it probably isn't accurate. To combat this reliability issue, scientists will often try to control for other variables that could be responsible for the results they found, in this case the kids exercise habits, television viewing time, socioeconomic status, other food consumption and school and neighborhood characteristics.

But I can think of another variable that could jam up this study: IQ. Some individuals have been blessed genetically; they have a leg up on the rest of us in a variety of ways. Some, for example, can't get fat no matter what they eat, while others are naturally athletic. And still other people are just born smarter than the rest of us. Since highly educated people tend to eat healthier, maybe all this new study uncovered was that less intelligent people eat less healthy foods. That conclusion is only a possibility at this point, but I mention it to show that we really don't know conclusively how our diets impact our mental health.

The primary issue with this study, and fast food bashing in general, is that it asks the wrong question. When I was in the most intense phase of my diet two years back, I ate fast food multiple times a week because it was cheap. I got bored of eating hamburgers pretty quickly, but I didn't get fatter; I steadily lost weight and my cholesterol improved markedly. Despite the sensational claims made by idiotic film makers and politicians, I got healthier while eating at McDonald's because I avoided the foods that I know are unhealthy--hamburger buns, soda and french fries.

If fast food does affect our mental health as well as our metabolic health, I suspect that there are certain items on the menu that are responsible, because we have some evidence that foods like sugar and white flour can damage our cognitive abilities. But there's nothing especially harmful about a fast food item because it's fast food.

That leads us to a very important point. You've probably seen the news stories about people who go on fast food diets for a month and come off them healthier than they were before. Those examples go a long way toward demonstrating that fast food isn't the boogie man everybody says it is, but the nutritional value of fast food has been investigated in detail and there is plenty of evidence that McDonald's selection is no worse for you than the same foods purchased at a grocery store or a high-end restaurant. A milkshake is a milkshake, after all, and the sugar in it is bad for you regardless of where it comes from. Particularly striking, though, is science writer Brian Dunning's point that if you eat "four 510-calorie Big Macs a day ... you’ll lose weight ... and get more protein and vitamins than you would from most other similarly caloric diets."

Far from making kids fat, sick and stupid,  fast food can actually be nutritious. People simply have to make good choices when eating, whether their food comes from a fast food joint or a grocery store. This isn't a juicy news story now that we've looked at all the facts, but the good news is that you can enjoy a Big Mac without fretting about your Alzheimer's risk.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The paleolithic diet and the very provable links to our past

As the evidence in support of the Paleolithic diet continues to pile up, it's becoming more and more difficult for popular health writers and government public health agencies to ignore it. Some have gracefully conceded that they may have been wrong, while others are stubbornly doubling down on their criticisms of the diet.

Writing at The Conversation, evolutionary biologist Darren Curnoe typifies the second approach. He argues that the Paleo diet is a " largely impossible dream based on a set of fallacies about our ancestors," even positing that the diet could be harmful. His arguments are similar to Marlene Zuk's criticisms of the Paleo diet, and consequently Curnoe is wrong for the same reasons she is: he ignores evidence that doesn't fit his argument and misstates what proponents of the diet actually recommend.

The first key point to make is that the Paleo diet works. Regardless of the more abstract issues in play, like whether or not human evolution has stopped, the fact remains that people who go on some variant of the Paleo diet lose weight and improve their health, often dramatically.

Several studies back up this conclusion, all curiously absent from The Conversation piece. One 2007 study compared the Paleo diet to the Mediterranean diet and found that the former better enabled men with heart disease and type 2 diabetes to control their blood sugar. Both groups lost weight, but the Paleo group in the study naturally ate fewer calories and saw greater reductions in waist circumference. Every patient in the Paleo group was also able to bring his blood sugar down to normal levels.

Another study from 2009 similarly found that "a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors compared to a Diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes." A study of healthy but obese women found comparable results as well: the patients lost weight, reduced their liver fat; lowered their blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting blood sugar.

There are other studies that could be discussed, but you get the point. Compared to the diets deemed acceptable by the medical establishment, the Paleo diet does a better job of improving every marker for metabolic health we currently measure. Moreover, it's helping people who are most at risk for harm-- fat people, diabetics and heart disease patients.

The foundation of Curnoe's argument is that the link between a healthy diet and our Paleolithic ancestors is dubious. He cites an International Journal of Obesity article in support of this point, which argued that scientists have a difficult time determining how our biology influences our propensity to gain weight, though they know it exerts some influence. From this information, Curnoe says that the Paleo diet is based on "assumptions [that] are difficult to test or even outright wrong." But given this admitted ignorance of how evolution influences obesity, I'm curious how Curnoe or any other critic can so confidently attack the Paleo diet. If the evidence is too limited to draw a conclusion, why is Curnoe drawing a conclusion?

But there is quite a bit of evidence to draw from, and none of it offers Curnoe much help. Though human evolution hasn't stopped, research indicates that most of the human genome is composed of genes selected during the Paleolithic Era. In fact, "Many scientists ... expected that surveys of our genomes would reveal considerable evidence of novel genetic mutations that have recently spread quickly throughout different populations by natural selection... [but] most of the detectable natural selection appears to have occurred at a far slower pace than researchers had envisioned," according to this 2010 piece in Scientific American.

Such a slow pace of natural selection would explain the conclusion of this 2011 paper "that modern Homo sapiens are still adapted to an ancestral environment ... hunter–gatherers ... exhibit superior health markers, body composition, and physical fitness compared with industrialized populations." If you doubt the diseases of civilization hypothesis, follow the link and checkout the copious footnotes listed in support of the argument. Far from dubious, the link between a healthy diet and our evolutionary history has been well established.

Parenthetically, I wonder if Curnoe ever stopped and thought about the modern examples of people successfully following the Paleo diet. These individuals are living by advice he says is unsubstantiated and dangerous, yet they're getting slimmer and healthier. Such outcomes would seem to lend support to the idea that humans are indeed mismatched with their modern environment.

Curnoe also argues that it's a misnomer to describe diet and exercise habits from the Paleolithic as a single lifestyle because studies have found "a great deal of variation in the diet and behaviour" from this period. That's true to an extent, but Curnoe's statement overlooks the similarities running through the diets of all these different Paleolithic populations, particularly foods that would not have been in any of their diets. Table 4 from the 2011 paper in Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology lists items like isolated sugar and oils, cereal grains, alcohol and dairy. The modern western diet contains all of these foods in excess. Combined with too little sun exposure, lack of sleep and limited physical activity, this is a recipe for a very unhealthy population.

 I want to reiterate that a healthier society is what we're after. The questions posed by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists are secondary to this goal, and we've found a diet that helps us reach it. So in summary, I'll say the same thing to Curnoe that I said in response to Zuk's book last year: "We have evidence from thousands of people who have documented their experiences on a Paleo diet, and the results are remarkable. People from all walks of life have lost weight, beaten eating disorders, reversed diabetes and heart disease — and all by living a lifestyle that Zuk says is 'misguided nostalgia.'" Why anyone would attempt to obscure or ignore this fact is beyond me.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The FDA mandates calorie counts on menus. In other news, world still getting fatter

I eat fast food perhaps once every three months. When I do, I break all my usual health rules. I skip my workout, order the biggest portions of everything and then happily enjoy every bite of my heart-stopping meal. One thing I never do on these rare cheat days, however, is fret about how many calories I consume.

But the federal government knows better than I do, and will soon mandate that chain restaurants, vending machines, grocery stores, pizza places and even movie theaters display calorie information on their menus.

This calorie count proposal, like the similar state and city level proposals before it, will fail. Consumers know before they walk into the restaurant that they're about to eat junk food, and there is no reason to think that helpful suggestions from the FDA will make them slimmer.

Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of Americans pay attention to calorie counts in restaurants and grocery stores. There's really no way to know if those figures are accurate, since all the researchers can do is ask people if they look at the calorie counts. But keeping in mind that survey studies like these are usually inaccurate, especially because of self-report bias, I'm willing to bet that people who participate in these studies are lying. Moreover, even if consumers are utilizing calorie counts, they're not eating less, according to researchers who looked at what they actually purchased before and after the calorie counts were implemented.

So we don't have the foggiest idea of how many people are utilizing the calorie information on menus, and nobody's eating any less while we try to answer that question. But even if those two conditions were met, we still wouldn't make a dent in the obesity statistics, because the problem is more complex than that.

A big salad and a small candy bar may contain the same number of calories, but one is much healthier than the other. The nutrients in the food we eat are just as important as the amount of food we eat when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight; the studies are very clear about this now. You'd have to be an idiot to believe otherwise. And since we're talking about a federal initiative, that's probably a fitting description for the people who are pushing to add calorie counts to menus in movie theaters.

But the health mullahs have research, too. They're particularly fond of one study conducted in Seattle which found that some restaurants began using lower-calorie ingredients after implementing calorie counts. The declines, though, were very modest and the study only looked at restaurants in one city. Generalizing the results to the entire country, as the FDA is doing, is inappropriate.

When we do look at the data on obesity around the world, we find that countries tend to get fatter as they get wealthier. The wealthiest countries are the ones with the best health care and education and the most developed health bureaucracies, because they can afford them. If the issue was educating people about healthy eating, America would be the slimmest, sexiest country in the world. Clearly the issue isn't lack of access to information. We all know that cheetos make us fat.

There's really only two ways consumers' eating habits are going to change. We either have to pay them to eat healthier foods, as political scientist Eric Oliver has pointed out, or we have to force them to change their behavior. That can only be done by restricting people's choices--through heavy taxes, product bans and tighter regulations on advertising. The latter option is not tenable just yet on the federal level, but it's probably coming soon, as the calorie count initiative suggests.

Despite their protests that they just want people to make informed choices, public health advocates are not above forcing people to change. These issues always start out as discussions about how we get consumers to eat healthier, drink less or quit smoking, and they almost always end as political campaigns to restrict personal freedom. It's never just about the science.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Shirtgate and the myth of a sexist conspiracy in science

Two weeks ago, a scientist with the European Space Agency wore a tacky shirt during an interview about the Rosetta Project. That seems like an extraordinarily uninteresting news story, but the internet was awfully displeased with Dr. Matt Taylor's supposedly sexist wardrobe, taking his shirt as a sign that women in science still face all sorts of discrimination.

There were a lot of angry tweets and anecdotes about sexism in science, but curiously missing from the uproar was any discussion of the evidence. Why, you may be inclined to ask, did Taylor's shirt receive so much attention? Because there isn't any evidence of sexism in science. In fact, contrary to the claim that science is a refuge for antiquated beliefs about women, it's actually a terrific example of how far our society has gone to eradicate discrimination.

Sexism was entrenched in our scientific institutions until just a few decades ago, and we probably haven't eliminated the problem in such a short amount of time, or so the argument goes. But there's some flaws in this assertion, and the way we do science today reveals the most obvious one.

The majority of scientific research is funded by the federal government, performed at major universities and then promoted by the mainstream media. Judging by the Obama administration's campaign to get more women into the sciences, the government is no friend to sexism. And since the majority of university students today are women, it's fair to say that our schools don't take kindly to sexism, either. The media's coverage of shirtgate similarly illustrates that anyone who openly discriminates against women will be ostracized.

In other words, the institutions that finance, produce and promote science in America, the institutions with the influence to keep women out of the sciences have no interest in such a conspiracy. They have, in fact, voiced their support for women who want to enter STEM fields.

This should end the argument, at least for everyone without an ax to grind. You can't have institutionalized sexism if the relevant institutions are opposed to it. Of course, the ax grinders among us could object to this argument by suggesting that sexism has slipped through the cracks at these institutions. Though discrimination in the sciences has been reduced, there's still an "atmosphere of denigration" surrounding science, as astronomer Phil Plait argued in a column at Slate this week.

Plait's argument is weak, though. He cites some statistics and a few anecdotes from his female colleagues, but he ignores everything that doesn't fit his conclusion. For example, he fails to mention that women earn the majority of PhDs, across all fields. He also skipped over a 2011 study which found that women don't face institutional discrimination when competing for grants and jobs and trying to publish their research. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't mention that girls are now performing just as well as their male counterparts in high school math, which means they're capable of going into math intensive fields like chemistry and physics, should they choose to.

Nonetheless, there are still more men in the hard sciences, so if not discrimination, what explains the disparity? Many feminists will protest this claim, but men and women are very different creatures; the biological evidence for this is overwhelming. I humbly suggest that these differences between the sexes influence everything about our lives, including our divergent career choices.

With all of this information in mind, choice as an alternative explanation makes plenty of sense. Women are the majority on college and university campuses around the country. They're just as intelligent as men; their SAT scores and graduate degrees are evidence of that. Moreover, they're studying and working in an environment that's friendly to their ambitions, thanks to a dramatic shift in the cultural and legal landscape that's taken place over the last several decades. Discrimination can't possibly be the best explanation of these facts.

Women have rightly been given the opportunity to pursue the careers they want; they're just not making the same choices men are making. That's okay. Now, let's go find another problem to solve. There's plenty to choose from.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book review: Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Everyday I go to work in my company's corporate office, just outside of Sacramento. It's a relatively small office, but it's one of the most overwhelming places I spend my time. There are at least a dozen speakers situated over the rows of cubicles, and throughout the day they blast pop music into each work space. The phones ring incessantly, and my job necessitates extended conversations about boring topics with complete strangers. Relief comes only when I crawl into my car for a peaceful 45-minute drive home.

To some, that opening paragraph probably sounds like unnecessary complaining, but according to Susan Cain's book Quieta substantial minority--perhaps even half--of Americans know what an overstimulating hell everyday American life can be. These people are called introverts, and Cain argues that our modern society is constructed almost entirely without them in mind.

Introverts, for anyone who is unaware, thrive in quieter environments; they generally prefer small gatherings with close friends to big parties, loathe small talk and require time by themselves to recharge their emotional energy.

Quiet is a detailed investigation of of this often overlooked personality trait. In it Cain discusses at length how society became so extroverted and why that may not be a good thing in many cases.

What struck me immediately was how well Cain described introversion. I couldn't help but laugh as I read the anecdotes about her experiences at a Tony Robbins seminar and her time as a Wall Street lawyer. Both stories reminded me of situations in my life, both professional and social, when I felt alienated from the people around me or overwhelmed by some task I had to perform, usually in front of a lot of people. Being able to relate to the author made the book that much more enjoyable, but Cain uses her personal anecdotes to launch a discussion about introverts who made a lasting impact on world, many of whom you probably wouldn't consider quiet, introspective people.

When we think about introverts we tend to classify them as outsiders; they're the awkward kids who lack social skills, the others, the weirdos who never figured out how to get along in society. Cain disabuses her readers of this misconception very effectively. Introverts, though typically more reserved and withdrawn than others, often become prominent politicians, powerful CEOs, renown scientists, and successful artists--and they succeed because of their introverted personalities.

Citing study after study, Cain argues that introversion lends itself to the kinds of tasks that ultimately allow people to achieve success. Far from collaborating with others or drawing wisdom from crowds, designing a personal computer, to cite the prominent example of Steve Wozniak, requires the ability to sit alone and turn the concept into a functioning device that everybody can use. The same could be said of creating a timeless piece of music, an influential book or a successful business plan. The process necessitates intense focus in an environment with limited distractions. Such an environment is precisely where introverts feel most comfortable.

My favorite section of the book is the one in which Cain lays waste to the idea that collaboration-- teamwork, group activities, brainstorming, whatever you want to call it--is the source of progress. She notes that herding people into groups in hopes of making them more productive often hinders their productivity. Again drawing heavily on the published research, Cain argues that group settings usually favor outgoing individuals, and these aren't always the people with the best ideas, despite their comfort in the spotlight and ability to persuade others.

But if collaboration isn't a surefire route to good ideas, what Cain calls "the new group think,"why is our society so fond of it? Our teamwork fetish first came into fashion during the Industrial Revolution. It was during this period that people crowded into cities and it became necessary to live among and communicate with people you didn't know. The only way to function was to develop a charismatic personality. From this point forward, it gradually became necessary to sell yourself in job interviews, business transactions and even social interactions. What only naturally follows is a society that favors extroverts, people who thrive on interaction with others.

Nonetheless, this migration into cities didn't change the fact that half the population wasn't suited for such a crowded existence. And none of the open office work spaces and public school classrooms that followed did anything but push these people to live in conditions they weren't designed for. Forcing introverts to stare at their co-workers all day isn't going yield anything fruitful, after all.

So we know that the population is roughly split between introverts and extroverts, yet society is oriented toward only one of these groups. What do we do? Cain offers some good suggestions, all of which boil down to allowing people to function as they're best designed to. Don't, for example, make kids work in groups when they're doing math problems or writing essays, tasks that require sustained focus and little collaboration. Similarly, employers might think twice before tearing down the cubicles in their offices and grouping all of their employees into teams. And for the love of God, stop hugging people you hardly know. It's gross.

Okay, that last idea is mine.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Does Dean Ornish know how to Google? More on the science of low-carb diets

You've probably heard about the latest study of low-carb diets. It's been covered by every major  media outlet in recent weeks. But in case you haven't heard, the study found that low-carb diets are better for weight loss and improving heart health than low-fat diets.

 It wasn't the first paper to find in favor of an Atkins-like diet and it won't be the last, but because of all the media attention it received, every weight loss guru has weighed in on the study, including Dr. Dean Ornish.

Ornish is a scientist, but it's probably more accurate to call him a vegan apologist, because he's never let the facts get in the way of defending his preferred diet. Though I'm not an expert, I have a functioning brain and access to Google, so it was awfully easy to poke holes in Ornish' review of the Tulane study. His criticisms are neatly arranged into a list, so I'll offer a few comments in the same format.

1. It’s not low carb vs. low fat. It’s both: an optimal diet is low in unhealthful carbs (both sugar and other refined carbohydrates) and low in fat (especially saturated fats and trans fats), as well as in red meat and processed foods.
No, it isn't. Even if a good diet can be low in fat, it's not correct to lump saturated fat together with trans fats and processed foods. We know that people who go on high-fat diets usually lose a lot of weight and see their metabolic health improve dramatically. Study after study after study tells us so. We also have evidence that trans fats and processed foods are unquestionably unhealthy. If you were to reduce your intake of carbs, trans fats and processed foods and up your saturated fat intake, as any good low-carb diet requires, you'd almost certainly lose weight.

2. This study did not distinguish between the types of carbs and fats. Patients in the “low-fat” group of the study increased their consumption of “bad carbs” (sugar and refined carbohydrates) during the study.
Indeed it did distinguish between good and bad carbs and fats. And as the New York Times pointed out, the low-fat diet was in line with the federal government's Dietary Reference Intake recommendations.

3. The “low-fat diet” in this study was not very low in fat. Participants in the “low-fat” group decreased from 35% fat to 30% fat over the course of the study, hardly any change at all. 
Fewer than half your daily calories from fat is a low-fat diet by anybody's standard, except for maybe Ornish'. He says his patients follow a plant-based diet as low as 10% in fat and fare much better than the low-fat group in the Tulane study did, but, I'll reiterate, people who drop the carbs and go on high-fat diets see similar results, and in some studies they even do better than people on the Ornish diet.

4. Perhaps most important, risk factors are not diseases; they are important only to the degree that they affect the underlying disease process. An article published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed what happens inside your arteries on different diets.
Yes, that's true, I guess. But if you can lose weight  and keep it off and you're not showing signs of developing heart disease, it's probably safe to say're not going to develop heart disease. But what of this study in the NEJM? Ornish says it shows that a low-carb diet can clog your arteries. What he doesn't say is that the study involved rats, and the chow they consumed was at best a rough substitute for a low-carb diet actual people would follow. Again, for the third time, we have clinical data showing how people do on low-carb diets. I'll leave it to you to figure out why Ornish cites an animal study instead of one the clinical trials I cited above.

I am not aware of a single study published in a peer-reviewed journal showing that a low-carb diet such as the one described in the Tulane study has stopped or reversed the progression of coronary heart disease. 
But we have research, the Tulane study included, showing that low-carb diets reduce risk factors for heart disease. We also have observational studies showing that people who consume more animal fat are less likely to die of heart disease. I wonder if the two are connected?

Ornish goes on to cite some of his own work showing the benefits of a very low-fat diet. I think he's overselling the benefits of his diet, but I don't fault anyone who wants to try it. Compared to the way most Americans eat, it's far healthier. Nonetheless, it's dishonest of Ornish to trash low-carb diets in the process. I'm forced to conclude that he is ignoring data that doesn't fit his narrative, or he doesn't have access to a search engine. I'm not sure which is more likely.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When the evidence changes, so should your opinion

Prominent scientists and science journalists love to proclaim the benefits of science literacy. One point they are particularly fond of is the idea that following the scientific method forces us to change our opinions as new evidence arises. Richard Dawkins comes to mind as the most popular figure to make this point in recent years, but there are others as well.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that many people, scientists included, are fair-weather fans of science; they love science when it affirms their beliefs, but will ignore it when it counters their religious or political views. The evidence of this phenomenon is everywhere.

But there are scientists and educators who buck this disappointing trend. They change their minds when the evidence moves them to, and it's these individuals who really illustrate how our society can benefit from a healthy respect for science. 

Earlier this week, I received an email from Ross Pomeroy, the assistant editor of RealClearScience, one of the best places on the web for science news and commentary, by the way. Ross and I have sparred several times in the last couple of years over the merits of low-carb diets. Following the publication of a big study in the Annals of Internal Medicine which found that low-carb diets are superior to low-fat diets for weight loss, Ross emailed me the following:

The data is swaying to your side, my friend
 ... I'm more inclined to stick to an agnostic attitude on diet. There's evidence that any sort of weight-loss diet can work, so people should do what's best for them. With that said, I don't think the government should be so adamantly pushing their RDIs (roughly 60 - 25 - 15). I think they should definitely come out and say that fat isn't as evil as has been portrayed. 

After I asked him to look at some previous studies that reached the same conclusion as the Annals study he cited, he added:
What I take away from [the studies] is that a LC diet trumps typical calorie restriction in a weight loss setting. After the body has grown obese, what it really needs is something to "shake things up" so to speak 
 It's always validating when someone smarter than you concedes an important point. But beyond my own vanity, Ross' admission is an example of how the process is supposed to work. Researchers make observations, develop a hypothesis to explain their observations and then test it against the evidence. When the hypothesis doesn't fit the evidence, they throw out the hypothesis and come up with a new one, and the world is a better place as a result.

Of course, Ross doesn't have the influence by himself to shift the national conversation about proper nutrition, but there are many people who do--and they're changing their minds, too. The New York TimesTime and Wired have all run stories on the new evidence supporting the efficacy of low-carb diets. Researchers who were openly hostile to the possibility that carbs make people fat are now working with Gary Taubes on a series of studies that may definitively settle the matter.

 This isn't a trivial academic point. Because prominent researchers, writers and even governments (Well done, Sweden) are beginning to accept the benefits of low-carb diets, or at least admit that they're not harmful, average people, when they open their newspapers and turn on the daily news, are going to get accurate information about how they should eat. Provided that these people are willing to act on this new information, we may ultimately see a massive reduction in obesity and the ailments that often accompany it, like heart disease and diabetes. In the long run, that could mean more people living longer, healthier lives.

Think about the implications of such an outcome, and consider the economic costs of obesity while you do. In terms of missed work, higher insurance premiums and lost wages, the costs are significant for everyone. Simply getting accurate information to people is arguably the most important step in eliminating those costs. Add in the fact that being overweight or obese totally sucks, and we have  reason enough to embrace what science has to say about how you make people slim.


Friday, September 5, 2014

There's a gap between e-cigarette science and reporting

Via RealClearScience I learned of a study just published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts. The study is a comparison between the emission rates of particulate metals and organic compounds of e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes. 

The researchers concluded:

Overall, with the exception of Ni, Zn, and Ag, the consumption of e-cigarettes resulted in a remarkable decrease in secondhand exposure to all metals and organic compounds. Implementing quality control protocols on the manufacture of e-cigarettes would further minimize the emission of metals from these devices and improve their safety and associated health effects.
Given what we already know about e-cigarettes, this paper seems to offer just a little bit more evidence that the smoking alternatives are far safer than tobacco. The original news article on the study, though, reaches a strikingly different conclusion. The article ends with a quote from the director of Smoking Cessation Services at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City:

On the one hand, this study is good news for e-cigarettes; it shows they’re safer,” said Seidman. “On the other hand, it’s bad news for them because it supports the notion of regulating them and they don’t want that.
So secondhand exposure to metals and organic compounds from e-cigarettes is much lower compared to traditional cigarettes, so let's regulate e-cigarettes. How could that possibly follow from the study? At first glance, I wanted to accuse Science Insider of misrepresenting the researchers' conclusion, but the story quotes one of the authors and he seems enthusiastic about banning e-cigarettes in public spaces.

Boston University's Michael Siegel has written about this gap between the data on e-cigarettes and the media coverage that most people see. Not only do we have science journalists misrepresenting the science on this issue, but we have scientists and doctors helping them misrepresent it. What's worse is that e-cigarettes have been subject to critical scrutiny for nearly a decade now, yet this obfuscation continues.

The dishonesty is certainly annoying, but it also means that the anti-smoking lobby is losing the debate--and they know it. Watching their arguments devolve has been a hobby of mine for several years now. When the FDA first weighed in back in 2009, noting that e-cigarette vapor contains  far fewer carcinogens than tobacco smoke, the official anti-smoking line was an argument from ignorance--"we need more data, blah blah blah." Then the clinical evidence started to trickle in, and the tobacco warriors switched to the well worn gateway argument by suggesting that e-cigs lead kids to real cigarettes, which was summarily debunked. Now the time has come, as it does in any public health debate, where the losing side simply begins reinterpreting inconvenient data to suit its agenda, however obvious this ploy may be to anyone who's paying attention.

Ironically, the modern tobacco control movement is behaving exactly as the tobacco industry did many decades ago: they're making stuff up. And a lot of smokers may die as a result.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Soda taxes won't stop obesity now, but they will in the future?

If a study neatly conforms to a popular political agenda, the study is probably garbage. This rule has served me well as a writer and voracious consumer of science news. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but when you see Mother Jones or the Huffington Post promoting a study that condemns GMOs as dangerous, snubbing the consensus of experts on the issue, your bullshit detector should go off.

So when you see a study, rather a review in this case, extolling the virtues of a soda tax over any other anti-obesity measure, you'd be among the wise to question the results before accepting the paper's conclusion.

A critical look at this study easily reveals that the authors are ignoring actual data and using statistics to push a political agenda.

Finding flaws in a statistical analysis is an arduous task (and it makes for boring blog posts, I might add), but there's a simple way to determine if researchers are lying to you with statistics: look at the data that went into their models. Even if their work was mathematically sound, they got the wrong answer if they started with bad information. The soda industry's lobby is also guilty of this, by the way.

The authors of the current study found that, compared to after school physical education programs and restrictions on junk food advertising, soda taxes are a slightly more effective way to reduce obesity--at least they will be 20 years from now.

                                                          photo: wikimedia commons

We could ruin the researchers' predictions any number of ways, but the simplest method is to point out contradictory studies -- "long-term, randomized, controlled trials," according to scientists writing in the New England Journal of Medicine -- which show that soda taxes don't work. We also have interesting data from the states with the highest obesity rates: they're still the fattest people in the country despite having to pay higher prices for sugary drinks. This is a hotly contested point, but it's probably accurate since the majority of added sugar Americans consume comes from food, according to the CDC. At minimum, then, the health mullahs are blaming obesity on the wrong part of the American diet.

 The obesity epidemic is a much more complicated beast, however. Here's one of many ways we know that. There are populations around the world who are very poor; they struggle every day just to feed and shelter themselves, and they can't stroll into 7-Eleven and buy a 12-pack of soda. They're also some of the fattest people around. Clearly something else is driving the obesity epidemic.

Soda in large enough quantities is terrible for your health. Nobody doubts this. But we need to think a little deeper about how we treat obesity, and that may require more than condescending to fat people and sticking our hands in their pockets. The factors that drive weight gain are varied, and many of them can't be addressed by telling people to cut back on calories from soda. Our bodies are far more complicated than that, unfortunately. If you're like many overweight people who have earnestly tried to lose weight, then you know what I'm talking about. Your metabolism is literally fighting your weight loss efforts.

Research confirms this point, though we know it individually as well. There are plenty of people who seemingly can't lose weight, or they lose it and can't maintain the loss. Sometimes, fortunately enough, they tweak their lifestyle in just the right and begin to see the results they want, because they addressed the underlying metabolic issue that was at the root of the problem. Rarely is that adjustment as simple as cutting out soda; everybody knows to do that first thing when they start a diet.

The public health establishment needs to get over their obsession with soda, and maybe open a biochemistry textbook.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

American Heart Association: regulate e-cigarettes, for the children

E-cigarettes are far safer and less expensive than cigarettes, and they're allowing  millions of smokers to quit a deadly habit. So it's with great excitement that I report that public health advocates everywhere are embracing e-cigarettes as a victory in the fight against smoking.

If only.

The American Heart Association announced on Sunday that e-cigarettes need to be regulated because they "could serve as a gateway drug to addict young people, who may go on to regular cigarettes or smokeless tobacco." Yep, they trotted out the same trope they always do: ban them for the children.

Everybody loves children, so this argument is usually a good way to tug at heartstrings, but it doesn't work in the case of e-cigarettes. There simply is no scientific case to be made in favor of further regulating the smoking alternatives.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Having used an e-cigarette to quit smoking, I've always suspected that most e-cigarette users (colloquially called "vapers") are in the same position. Researchers have confirmed that this is true of adult vapers, and we now know that it's also true of teenagers. Studies show that teenagers who have tried e-cigarettes were already smokers before trying the smoking alternatives. But this may be a moot point. Recent research shows that e-cigarette use among teenagers is very low anyway, and trying an e-cigarette a few times and regularly using one are very different things, of course. Most teenagers fall into the former category.

15 minutes into writing this blog post and the core of the AHA's argument has been obliterated. Let's have a look at a few peripheral points they make.

Though [e-cigarettes] don't contain many of the harmful chemicals of conventional cigarettes, the FDA found trace amounts of toxic and carcinogenic ingredients in several samples... "
Indeed--the same trace amounts found in pharmaceutical smoking cessation products. Quick, let's ban nicotine patches and gum, for the children of course. The dose makes the poison, friends. Say it until you memorize it, then say it five more times, just for good measure. Absent most of the harmful carcinogens in tobacco smoke and in the low doses found in e-cigarettes, nicotine is nothing more than a mild stimulant. Put two and two together and you get a non-toxic product.

Electronic cigarettes should be classified as tobacco products and subject to the same laws and regulations as other tobacco products,” said Vince Willmore, spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
Why should they be? They contain no tobacco, there's no combustion involved in their use and they're harmless, so far as we can tell. If we're going to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products, we should also put sugar-free juice drinks and makeup in the same category, since all three contain propylene glycol, which the FDA says is safe.

The heart association's statement urges communities and states to include e-cigarettes in their smoke-free laws, to avoid “renormalizing” smoking in public places.
 E-cigarettes do not "renormalize" smoking. They simply allow former smokers to consume nicotine without huddling in an isolated corner for a cigarette. All those people you now see vaping e-cigarettes as they walk down the street were probably smokers who couldn't smoke everywhere they went. Parenthetically, renormalize smoking means "to make smoking common again," which isn't possible since e-cigarettes are not cigarettes.

'Any additional delay of these new regulations will have real, continuing public health consequences,' said Nancy Brown, CEO of the heart association. 
 I hope so. With any luck, science will prevail and these inane regulations will be shot down in short order, and more smokers will continue switching to e-cigarettes.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Internet searches say a lot about our desires--and the results are dirty

If our internet search histories are any indication, people are dirrrty. The things we google when we're sitting alone in our rooms can reveal a lot about us, particularly what we find arousing. So if you were to combine detailed search engine results from millions of people and compare them to the published research on sex and relationships, the result would be an insightful, humorous and occasionally disturbing study of human sexuality. That's exactly what Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam have done in their book A Billion Wicked thoughts.

Studies of human sexuality are plagued by two common problems. They often only involve college students, and the information researchers glean from these participants is collected through surveys. Since most people aren't college students and the incentive to lie about such a sensitive topic is so strong, Ogas and Gaddam sought out a way to access reliable data about people's sexual preferences without engaging in unethical research. Their clever solution: internet searches. Because who's going to lie when looking up their favorite porn or erotic stories?

The book is full of fascinating information about human sexuality, but there are two important themes running throughout A Billion Wicked Thoughts that are particularly important if you want to understand what motivates our behavior in this regard. First, our sexuality is mostly biological, the result of millions of years of evolution. And perhaps more importantly, our innate desires are very often politically incorrect; men and women are judgmental when it comes to whom they pair up with, and very harshly so. This clash between empirical observation and culture is interesting and even amusing by itself, but it also speaks to the valuable role science can play in our society.

Scientists who study human sexuality have discovered that our attraction to other people is governed by signals in our brain that help us determine whether or not those people would make good partners. For men, these signals manifest as preferences for certain female physical attributes called cued interests, which "develop when the brain's natural responsiveness to a particular kind of cue causes the brain to sexually imprint upon a target that exhibits that cue." (p 51) This process usually occurs during adolescence and explains why men develop a lifelong fascination with breasts, butts and other shapely curves, which are indicators that a woman is fit enough to produce healthy offspring.

Much research confirms this finding, though many voices in contemporary society, especially some feminists, find it objectionable. Nonetheless, internet search data from around the world--lest you believe this is a uniquely western phenomenon--confirms that men find women with certain physical features more attractive than others. I'll spare you the search details to keep this post somewhat family friendly, but this is why women in porn tend to be slimmer than the average woman and have the hourglass figure that men typically find attractive. (p 33) Or as Ogas and Gaddam put it, "Men's brains are wired to objectify women." (p 47)

But women aren't victims in this evolutionary story. Though far less visually oriented than men, women, too, respond to a list of cues that help them determine which men to pair up with. Instead of evaluating men merely for their looks, women's brains are also wired to judge men based on their social status, intelligence, confidence, kindness and dozens of other qualities. Women, in short, prefer jerks with a soft side. This is the archetypal hero in almost all romance novels, which Ogas and Gaddam point out are written almost exclusively for female audiences. The hero in these books is usually dominant, aloof and borderline arrogant. He makes his living as a pirate, soldier, cowboy or some other kind of bad ass--but he always falls for the heroine in the end, when he finally exposes his inner nice guy and the two live happily ever after.

Studies have likewise confirmed that women evaluate men in this way, and the kinds of men who win their affection are those who closely match this romance hero. Research shows that women are attracted to men who are disinterested in them, or who are clever enough to feign disinterest. Other studies have found that women prefer so-called benevolent sexists—men who treat women as their inferiors, albeit with good intention—to men who view them as equals. Still more research has concluded that women find dominant men attractive, specifically men who are socially dominant, according to this study. The conclusions of such research are grounded in our evolutionary history. Women's preference for dominant men is a survival mechanism meant to help them select partners who can protect and provide for them, skills which are indicative of reproductive fitness. "[W]omen like bad boys. I suspect it's because our inner cave woman knows that Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger lunch in short order," summarizes one romance fan quoted by Ogas and Gaddam.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is an important book for two reasons. It calls into question a lot of commonly accepted beliefs about sexuality and challenges us to change our opinions based on the evidence--which is what science is all about. It's not polite these days to say that men evolved to judge women based on their looks. Likewise, it's insensitive to tell young men that women will judge them for being socially awkward, but it's true nonetheless, and you'll find it documented in the book. More importantly, however, the authors did a terrific job of presenting a lot of complex information in way a wide audience can understand. Along with taking copious notes, I burst into laughter as I read through every chapter.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"High-fat diets kill!" and other nutrition myths debunked: Keto Clarity book review

The  internet is saturated with terrible dietary advice. It's usually offered by misinformed nutritionists and published by outlets like the Huffington Post, where even the most outlandish stories are passed off as reliable science journalism.

So in this age when we have unlimited access to information, much of it being nonsense, I'm always excited to stumble upon a well-written, well-researched book about nutrition, which is exactly what I found in Keto Clarity (KC), by Jimmy Moore and Eric C. Westman.

The book offers a concise explanation of ketogenic diets and why they're excellent for anyone who wants to lose weight and get healthier, which, I think, includes most of us, judging by the CDC's obesity statistics. For any readers who are unaware, though, a ketogenic diet is one that eliminates most carbohydrates and replaces them with healthy fats and limited amounts of protein, the Atkins Diet being the most popular representation, though Atkins isn't always ketogenic. Nonetheless, diets in this vein have been heavily criticized over the last three decades by journalists, politicians and even doctors who saw them as a threat to public health. Following authors like Gary Taubes, Moore and Westman take on this criticism directly and detail why these diets work so well.

I'm certainly no scientist, but I've written quite a bit about low-carb diets over the last three years, and nearly everything I read in KC is the same information I came across while researching my articles on this topic. Studies have shown over and over, for example, that ketogenic diets are excellent treatments for obesity, and they regularly beat out other diets when compared to them in clinical studies. Likewise, there is ample evidence that the human body functions perfectly well on a high-fat diet, indeed fat is probably the body's preferred source of energy. Strange as that may sound to many readers, it makes sense in light of the fact that our ancestors thrived on high-fat diets.

If you're concerned about the intellectual muscle behind this book, don't be. Jimmy Moore, though a knowledgeable health writer in his own right, wisely recruited Dr. Eric C. Westman as a co-author for the book. Westman is a professor of medicine at Duke University, which means the information in Keto Clarity is coming from an actual scientist, and one with an impressive publication record.

 It's always comforting to know that the authors of a science book are knowledgeable, but it's especially important in this case for one reason: the weight loss industry is dominated by people who simply have no idea what they're talking about; they have never actually had to lose weight and have little or no experience treating obesity. Still, these folks happily write books and give lectures telling the rest of us how we should eat if we want to slim down. KC, however, begins with an interesting anecdote about Moore's struggle with obesity and how he became so interested in nutrition, and each chapter contains commentary from researchers and doctors, 23 by my count, who have extensive experience studying and treating obese patients. After watching food scolds like Meme Roth accuse fat people of gluttony for over a decade now, Moore and Westman's approach to the subject was refreshing.

There's far more information in the book than I can cover in a short review, so I'll close by saying that KC was an informative and entertaining read. Do go buy it. You just might end up smarter and healthier as a result.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Evolution explains our beauty standards

I have a new piece out today over at PolicyMic. Contrary to the claim that our ideas about beauty come from billboards and magazines, I argue that our preferences for certain body types and facial structures are better explained by biology.

There is some truth to the claim that marketing influences how we view the world, but it's not quite correct to accuse advertisers of preying on women's insecurities with arbitrary beauty standards. Instead of a corporate conspiracy against women's self-esteem, our understanding of beauty is in part a product of our biology, and has played an important role in human evolution.
Read the whole thing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

E-cigarette skeptics in the news again

E-cigarettes are growing in popularity and enabling millions of people to quit smoking. Naturally, the federal government wants to regulate them out of existence. Read my full response to the latest wave of e-cig hysteria at PolicyMic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Bill Nye, debating crazy people

I have a new piece for PolicyMic out today, a few comments on Bill Nye's recent debates with crazy people. Go read it. Share it with your friends.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The problem with fat shaming: it doesn't work

Fat shaming is a simple concept. As a means to get people to slim down, society creates an atmosphere in which being overweight is very uncomfortable. It's been a common practice for many years and has been endorsed by obesity researchers and doctors as a solution to the obesity epidemic in America. Even people who have struggled to lose weight have accepted fat shaming.

Ridiculing overweight people sounds like a plausible solution to our collective fatness as a country, because people tend to change their behavior when there are consequences. But solving our obesity problem isn't that simple.We're often told that weight loss is just a matter of willing yourself to eat less and move more. It's not, as you'll see below. But fat shaming advocates treat this oversimplified view of obesity as gospel. Because of this flawed premise, fat shaming has never worked, and it never will.

This is an easy argument to test. Let's say a team of researchers put a group of overweight people on a diet designed to induce weight loss. They all follow the diet strictly because they're under observation by experts who are tracking their progress. If the fat shaming crowd is correct and weight loss is just a matter of willpower, the overweight group would predictably slim down. But this type of study has been done multiple times, and the results suggest that how much we weigh isn't just a matter of how much we eat.

In one study from the 1960s, for example, a group of lean people and a group of obese people were put on the same high-fat, calorie-restricted diet, yet the obese group had a difficult time accessing their stored body fat for fuel, which is what happens when you lose weight. In a more recent example, researchers in the UK asked 10 lean people to double their caloric intake for a month to see how they would respond. Some gained a predictable amount of weight based on how much they were eating, others gained less, while others still gained no weight at all. When the study was finished, all those participants who had gained weight lost it very easily. In a broader context, other studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of dieters fail to keep weight off thanks to a variety of biochemical factors that are working against them.

These few examples illustrate that obesity is a complex problem, one that often has a lot more to do with chemistry than character, as health blogger Tom Naughton pointed out recently. It isn't that overweight people haven't tried to slim down or that society now accepts obesity as a life choice, as many self-improvement writers and health nannies are fond of arguing. Most overweight people have tried at some point to lose weight precisely because obesity has always been so socially unacceptable. Nobody likes fat people, even other fat people, according to the research. Yet despite this disdain for fatness, the obesity epidemic has continued largely unabated.

I want to qualify this post by pointing out that losing weight is possible. A lot of people lose weight; I count myself among them. But in my experience, success requires access to good information about nutrition, which most Americans have been denied, and a solid support system. Telling fat people how much they suck really doesn't serve any purpose.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Does television normalize rape culture? Probably not

It's very common to blame society's problems on the entertainment industry. We see it all the time, and the association usually goes something like this: a television show or film promotes some sort of bad behavior and Americans, too stupid to think for themselves, believe that said behavior is now acceptable because they saw it on their favorite sitcom.

In just the last two years, the entertainment industry has been wrongly blamed for school shootings, underage drinking, obesity, and all other sorts of moral maladies. The link is almost always bullshit, because there often isn't enough evidence to blame our favorite sources of entertainment for our poor choices. Some feminists, too, have taken to this type of argument, accusing popular television shows of promoting rape culture, and they're just as wrong for using it.

Writing at PolicyMic, Elizabeth Plank argued earlier this week that rape culture is everywhere, citing examples from popular sitcoms as evidence.

Among the most common places rape culture hides is in comedy. Rape jokes may seem innocuous, but when they're told over and over again on mainstream television, there's nothing benign about them.

The examples she cites, linked in a YouTube video, don't actually seem to make light of rape, unless simply using the word "rape" in a joke counts, which it really shouldn't. Context matters, after all. But let's assume these prime time shows contain vulgar, disparaging jokes about rape victims. Reading the opening paragraph of the piece got me thinking about how you could demonstrate scientifically that offensive comedy might encourage someone to commit rape or make the public less critical of it. Plank cites a handful of studies which claim to find a link between the two, but after looking up the research, the association seems awfully flimsy.

The social sciences are plagued by a number of well known problems. They are regularly criticized for not being rigorous enough. The results of research in these fields are often highly subjective and difficult to quantify, to the point that researchers in other fields want the National Science Foundation to stop funding social science research. In addition, social scientists have been accused of being ideologically biased and engaging in group think--by other social scientists. These studies of the link between humor and rape culture are perfect examples of why the social sciences have a credibility issue.

In her piece, Plank cites four such studies, all self-reported surveys conducted on college campuses. Studies of this kind are problematic for several reasons. They're usually small surveys of college students, so the results can't necessarily be applied to a wider population, all American men in this case. And...they're surveys. The results are only reliable if the surveys filled out by the study participants are accurate, which the researchers have no way of confirming. They can't determine if sitcoms "normalize the behavior of rapists," as Plank argues. They know this, too. The authors of the first paper Plank cites admit that "our research does not provide conclusive evidence that exposure to sexist jokes results in an increase in the occurrence of actual rapes." The authors also concede that men respond differently to sexist jokes as they age; the older they get, the less likely they are to appreciate sexist humor. Plank mentions neither of these important qualifications her article.

But the limited usefulness of these studies isn't the only problem. For many years, the reported number of rape cases has been declining. Some experts have questioned the dramatic decline in the statistics, claiming that many rape cases are never reported. But as the downward trend continues and women become more willing to work with law enforcement, it's likely that the trend is real.

This is really good news, but it also debunks the feminist argument that humor on television is normalizing rape, since it's really difficult to normalize a crime that is drastically declining. In fact, given the available evidence (and a research grant), I could probably crank out a study showing that rape jokes on TV reinforce society's growing disdain for rape.

I'm only being mildly cynical when I say that. Research suggests that one of humor's functions is to relieve anxiety. Life is often painful and unpredictable, and one of the ways we deal with that fact is by laughing about it. So maybe Plank is correct to link comedy and rape but she has the relationship backwards. Rape and other violent crimes are unfortunate parts of life. And while we don't approve of them, we deal with them in part by making jokes, sometimes even offensive jokes.

Rape is a terrible crime and it shouldn't be trivialized. But if anyone is trivializing it, it's the people who perpetuate this silly idea that Americans don't take rape seriously because of what they see on TV. It's certainly true that the media we consume can affect how we view the world. But similar to the people who blame school shootings on video games and childhood obesity on junk food advertising, feminists are giving television way too much credit for a crime with a variety of complex causes.