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.