Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fasting + low carb = dead sexy, part 1

Nutrition is one of my favorite science topics. I've written a lot about it here as well as at other outlets around the internet. My interest in the subject first sprouted after watching a documentary called Fat Head and eventually losing about 50 pounds by following a relatively strict low-carb diet.

Since late 2012, my weight has hovered between 200 and 210 pounds and my metabolic markers are all very good. With the addition of a simple weight lifting routine, I've added some muscle and improved my body composition a little bit more.

But I've gotten a bit lazy over the last year; it's just too easy to make bad decisions, and my weight has been gradually creeping up. I noticed that late last month when the nurse weighed me at the blood bank where I donate--219 pounds. "Dear, God, I'm going to gain all my weight back," I thought. Irrational, but it spurred me out of complacency, and I decided to tighten up my diet once again. My weight evened out to a more acceptable 208.6 pounds after a 12-hour fast following that weigh in at the blood bank, but my mind was made up. I wanted to see if I could slim down a little more.

As of June 1, I cut out all sugar and grains and began an intermittent fasting regimen, as well. I eat two meals a day, lunch usually at 11 am and dinner around 6 pm. After doing a little research, I decided to start skipping breakfast, because eating in the morning, thanks to elevated levels of cortisol, can actually make you hungrier later in the day.

This routine has been very manageable. I start to get hungry about an hour before each meal, but the fast is easy to maintain otherwise. The results are helping me stay strong, too. Along with the good results I've seen on the scale, I'm wearing shirts and pants that used to be too tight to wear comfortably, and I've had to tighten my belt another notch.

The graph tracks my weight in pounds and percent change  from week to week, total loss to date and body mass index (BMI). 
Weight (lbs)
Weekly % Change
Loss To Date (lbs)





BMI isn't always a reliable indicator of metabolic health, I'm aware. Having said that, body weight still correlates with metabolic health for most people; the 300-pound man who remains sedentary all day has a better chance of becoming diabetic than does the 140-pound marathon runner. So I decided to track my BMI along with the other numbers.

Anyway, my super secret approach to weight loss is as follows: eat nutritious food at the right times during the day, and stop eating once you're satisfied. For me, that means two meals a day, fewer than 50 carbohydrates and as much fat and protein as I want until my hunger is sated. 

I'll check in this time next month with my results from July. My goal by that time is to be down to 185 pounds, then maintain that weight indefinitely, but I want to make a few observations after following this plan for a month so far.

The advice to eat several small meals throughout the day is terrible, no-good bro science. You don't need to eat every few hours to maintain your blood sugar or keep your hunger in check. The published research confirms both points, should you doubt my anecdotal experience. 

Eating fewer calories is a necessary precursor to losing weight, but eating less is not the cause of the weight loss. I accepted the eat less and exercise more dogma before discovering low-carb diets. I lost some weight, because eating a little less and running three miles five days a week was better than nothing. But those lifestyle changes weren't effective enough to repair the metabolic damage I had done by eating cheetos and sitting on my ass for 23 years. There are entire populations that confirm this point.   

I used to come down hard on the idea that exercise could induce weight loss. I've softened my position a little bit, because the right kinds of exercise can stimulate hormonal changes that promote fat loss. With the proper diet, a weightlifting routine, for example, will probably help you lose weight. However, you don't need to exercise in order to lose weight. I cut my weight training back significantly at the start of the month, and stopped going to the gym altogether two weeks in because I was eating so little food. The weight still fell off. 

Finally, I'd like to take a swing at the Splenda haters of every stripe. Organic food aficionados, paleo diet purists and ordinary food scolds all claim that artificial sweeteners emulate sugar so well that they stimulate a comparable insulin response, which ultimately leads to weight gain. Diet soda, then, isn't so diet, perhaps. There is some research to support this conclusion, but we're talking about a handful of  (very small) studies, most of which involve rats. 

I'm not a rodent so I was eager to see how all my diet mountain dew consumption would affect my weight loss effort. So far, it hasn't. Maybe I have some nifty genetic protection against the ill effects of artificial sweeteners, or maybe the anti-diet soda crowd is just wrong. That's what most of the data we have suggests, and I now have my own n=1 experiment to further justify my consumption of the tasty sugar-free beverages. 

That's all for now. Let's revisit this in a month. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Richard Dawkins is an asshole, harms science outreach, study finds

Sometimes science lags behind simple observation. People usually know something is true because of what they see as they live their lives, not because they've considered the issue scientifically. But it can be both interesting and helpful when researchers confirm what we already know, especially if they're studying something as important as science literacy.

So, for example, I could have told you long ago that Richard Dawkins does more harm than good for science outreach because he's an asshole. I mean, even the creators of South Park knew that almost a decade ago. But now we have a peer-reviewed study confirming as much.

There are a few useful pieces of information that have come to light as a result of this paper, but let's look briefly at the study before getting to its implications.

The team used a survey of over 10,000 Americans. Part of the survey asked individuals if they had previously heard of either [Richard] Dawkins or [Francis] Collins. The survey revealed that Dawkins was more widely known among the 10,000 survey participants than Collins (21.4 percent recognition versus 4.3 percent recognition).
Being a vitriolic apologist for atheism, Dawkins has unsurprisingly attracted more attention than the director of the NIH. The key bit of information here, however, is that Dawkins' self-righteousness doesn't win atheism any converts. The individuals surveyed, after reading a brief biography of Collins, were 15 percent more likely to accept the idea that religion and science can co-exist. Those who hadn't heard of Dawkins and read his biography showed no change in their views of the relationship between science and religion.

The takeaway here, and it's really just sales 101, is that your audience needs to like you before they'll believe you. Would you buy a car from a salesman who was a complete jerk? Probably not. Now imagine that same jerk changing your mind about a concept as important as God. Never going to happen. By the way, this is why televangelists are equally ineffective at converting atheists to Christianity. Like Dawkins, televangelists are judgy bitches; they don't know how to communicate with the faithless, nor do they care to learn.

Here's another useful point from the study:

... previous research shows that people are more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure. 

With this in mind, it would be wise for people like Dawkins, those who claim to want to spread science literacy, to stop calling religion a mind virus and treating religious believers like they're idiots. It's an interesting point, I think, because Dawkins has the knowledge and rhetorical skill to change minds. He could get evangelicals to drop their doubts about evolution, and probably de-convert a few of them along the way. But he's too belligerent to keep their attention for any length of time.

So if you want to change people's minds, no matter how ignorant they may be, treat them with a little respect. It's the scientific thing to do. And we all know how much Dawkins loves science.



Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How much does TV affect children? Not much

The idea that television can influence children's behavior for the worse is popular. Conservative Christians, feminists, public health crusaders and culture warriors of every other stripe are very fond of arguing that there is a link between TV and [insert your favorite bad behavior/ disease/disorder here].

Though very influential today, the "Hollywood causes our problems" trope has always struck me as intellectually lazy, especially since there is solid evidence that the association runs the other way. The media we consume is merely a reflection of the ideas and behaviors we already embrace, even the anti-social ones.

Put another way, society's problems have more complex, I would argue biological, causes that science hasn't completely explained yet. So blaming TV for, say, depression in children in light of this information is just pointless.

Nonetheless, the studies investigating this issue are not unanimous. The only way to get a conclusive answer, then, is to survey all the available research to determine if a consensus can be established. This is precisely what two researchers from the University of Sussex did last month. 

The pair conducted a meta-analysis to see what the science says about how scary TV shows impact children's emotions. Writing in Human Communication Research, they conclude:

Scary television has a relatively small impact on children's internalizing emotions ... The overall result contrasts with the dramatic effects found for individual children within studies, suggesting that research is needed to unpick the factors that moderate the effect that scary television has on children. 
There's a couple of points worth making based on this review. First, despite watching ample amounts of TV, the authors report that children in the UK watch a little more than 17 hours per week, and American children watch even more, whatever effect TV has on children's emotions is minimal. So nobody, the FCC for example, is justified in arguing that universally restricting kids exposure to scary programming will improve their emotional health.

That being said, the authors also explain that

Although at the group level the effect of scary TV on children's anxiety is small, it is nevertheless present. This finding has implications for policy-makers because TV guidelines focus on violence but, for some children, scariness will matter and TV can be scary without being violent.
This comment suggests, at least to me, that children differ from one another in a variety of ways, their tolerance for scary programming being just one example. The proper approach to this problem, like so many others we face as a society, is to quit pushing oversimplified, politically-motivated solutions, because they don't work.

If we dig a little deeper, we may figure out which kids are prone to anxiety and depression and actually be able help them lead healthier lives as a result.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Social Science: an (unintentional) outlet for progressive politics

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial decrying social science as a liberal conspiracy. Their accusation is based on the recent discovery that a graduate student at UCLA fabricated data for a study investigating conservative views about gay marriage.

The editorial irritated a lot of people in science media, but I thought Jesse Singal's take on the matter over at Science of Us was particularly interesting. Singal effectively rebutted the Journal's editorial, though his answer to the bigger question about the credibility of social science wasn't as convincing.

So is social science a liberal conspiracy? My reflexive answer to that question is yes. After putting a little more thought into the question, my answer is still yes, however it needs to be qualified. Social science doesn't exist to promote a certain political platform, but that's what happens regardless of intentions, and that's what has happened for the last 50 years.

Before anyone complains, let me point out that I'm not accusing anyone of dishonesty; I'm merely pointing out an unfortunate characteristic of human nature: people believe what they want to believe, and academics are no exception. This is why research funded by cereal companies consistently finds that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, to cite the dumbest example I can think of. The same goes for any study produced by an organization with a vested interest in the subject. Anti-smoking groups, soda companies, big tobacco and conservative think tanks all prove my point nicely.

It's a serious charge to accuse an entire field of promoting a political agenda, even if unintentionally. But I'm not alone in making such an accusation. To plagiarize myself from a post last year on the subject of rape culture, it's no secret that
the social sciences ... 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.
Singal and others would no doubt protest this assessment of the situation. Indeed, in response to the Journal's version of this argument, Singal cites NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has made a name for himself in part by highlighting just how politically slanted social science is as a field. Because of Haidt's work, Singal argues, social scientists are now having an internal discussion about how politics is affecting their research, so they can't be "mindlessly promoting liberal causes."

It's certainly true that Haidt has brought an important issue to everyone's attention, but the fact that one researcher had to come forward and blow the whistle on his colleagues is not a sign of academic rigor in the field, just very clear evidence that social science has a credibility issue. To cite the same paper Singal cites, Haidt's argument can be summarized like this:

[A] lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via ... the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike ...

This isn't to say that social scientists are incapable of conducting sound research, because we've learned a lot about a variety of important subjects from their work, human sexuality and personality psychology being two of my favorite examples. Nonetheless, with the good comes an awful lot of bad: useless studies based on unreliable surveys, conclusions that can't be quantified and results that have been outright fabricated, and the examples of this shoddy research go on for days and outmatch anything you might see in the physical sciences.

So if anything, I'd say the Journal reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. It isn't the one example from UCLA that illustrates how severe of a credibility issue we're talking about, but several decades worth of politically biased, methodologically dubious social science research.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The trend continues: more bad e-cigarette legislation in California

I've mentioned previously that California is a trend setter when it comes to stupid public policy. It's a title our elected leaders must be proud of, because the state senate just voted to regulate e-cigarettes exactly like tobacco, which means they will be banned "...from restaurants, theaters and other public places in California where smoking is prohibited to address health concerns," according to the LA Times.

What health concerns could the senate have in mind? The Times doesn't elaborate except to quote two badly misinformed senators, Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jeff Stone (R-Murrietta). I'll give you a few seconds to guess which limp-wristed arguments they used to defend the bill.

I was going to come up with some witty riposte for this sentence, but the actual answer is comical enough without my input. These two thoughtful legislators want to ban e-cigs in public because they contain nicotine and are popular among teenagers. "'Vaping'” is a gateway to cigarette smoking," says Stone, and those dastardly vape pen pushers are marketing their harmful product to kids by selling fruit-flavored e-liquid.

Never mind the fact that our senators are assuming what's at issue--that e-cigarettes are truly dangerous--and consider the following, please. E-cigarettes are not nearly as popular among teens as is commonly believed, and the kids who do use them were already smokers.

Had the authors of this bill actually looked at the CDC's statistics instead of just reading the agency's press release back in 2012, they would have learned about these two crucial pieces of information. You don't have to be a logician to understand the significance here: e-cigs can't be a gateway to smoking if the teens who use the vaping devices were already smokers.

By the way, I'm quickly approaching 30 and I love fruit-flavored vapor; it certainly beats the taste of burning tobacco. Judging by the popularity of these e-liquids in vape shops, which are already prohibited from selling to minors, I'm not the only former smoker with this preference.