Wednesday, December 31, 2014

No Crazy Diets...But What's Crazy?

A "sensible diet" must be the one of the hardest things to figure out, even for a sensible person. There's always been conflicting advice, but with medical studies in respected journals being retracted and authorities admitting they were wrong about fat, and various laymen flip-flopping on dietary advice, we're living in confusing times. This post is to help readers sort it out for themselves.

First, what is "sensible," or more to the point, what is the truth? I think it's something that meets one or more of these criteria:

  • Something observable, directly or indirectly
  • Something that stands up to scrutiny (i.e., it's not a trick)
  • Something that fits with everything else you know
  • Something that can be used to reliably predict other things

Note that something sensible or truthful isn't necessarily balanced, it doesn't matter who does or doesn't believe in it, or how long it's been around. It's independent of all those things. Think of things that used to be common sense: creation myths, the sun going around the earth, illness due to "humors" being out of whack. Even though they were popular ideas, they didn't stand up to scrutiny, didn't fit with other facts that were discovered, and couldn't reliably predict things like eclipses* or reduced rates of illnesses. The truth wasn't "balanced" (the sun never goes around the earth, humors don't exist, and the myths were just that) and believing in the old ideas, even to the point of repeating them tirelessly and prosecuting skeptics, didn't make them so. As physicist Lawrence Krauss put it, "There are no authorities in science."

Why sort all this out--why not get a short-term diet that works? General observation is that once you go back to your old eating habits, you go back to your old health problems or weight--and then some. There are also diets that don't provide enough nourishment or can cause health problems, long-term. I was on such a diet once, and if I'd read the book with a more critical eye, I could have avoided GERD and a mouthful of cavities. Therefore, you need a diet you can live with and live on for the rest of your life.

So where do you go for facts about diet? Studies on diet abound, but many of them don't stand up to scrutiny (the researchers use tricks of design and statistics to get desired results, or they start out with unreliable data). If you don't know how to parse diet studies, don't bother with them.

Two sources of information come from groups who don't have any dog in the dietary fight: endocrinology textbooks and books on human evolution. For laymen, one the best books I know of on the subject of endocrinology is It Starts with Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. (They do promote a particular diet.) I've fact-checked this book with endocrinology textbooks, and everything I looked at was accurate (see this and this). The Hartwigs also treat many clients with their diet--they observe what works and what fails.

A wonderful book on evolution is by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman, Wisdom of the Bones. Although it isn't specifically about diet, it describes, in places, how scientists know our ancient ancestors, from 2.5 million years ago on, ate meat as a significant part of their diet. Grains and dairy, of course, weren't eaten at that time since it was millions of years before agriculture began. In other words, humans adapted through evolution to eat a significant amount of meat, plus plants that could be eaten raw (and later on, starting perhaps 100,000 years ago, those that could be cooked).

In fairness, eating fatty meat and veg and avoiding dairy and grains probably doesn't fit with everything else you know. But what we "know" about diet has lately been the subject of scrutiny and exposed as bad science: statistical and methodological tricks, bad data, and out and out fraud in some cases. It isn't true or sensible, and it doesn't fit with what is sensible in endocrinology and human evolution.  Two books criticizing the science behind conventional dietary wisdom are Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes and The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz.

A very simple method you can use to figure out what's sensible is to use a blood glucose meter. You squeeze a drop of blood on a test strip and check your blood sugar before and one and two hours after meals. Even blood sugar (around 70-90) is good. High blood sugar is less good, and can be a sign of impending diabetes (blood sugar of over 200). Sustained blood sugar levels over 140 damage all the tissues in your body. Low blood sugar is uncomfortable, can make you cranky and hungry, and tends to be caused by eating too much carbohydrate: it can make your blood sugar go way up, then way down. Blood glucose meters sell for $10 and up at drugstores. No need for a prescription. And no need for authorities or detection of craziness or trickery.

*ETA: I've since read that some ancient astronomers could predict eclipses, but once the earth-round-the-sun model was adopted, the calculations became a lot simpler.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Megan Fox's "Audit" of the Field Museum's Evolving Earth Exhibit: A Review

Homeschooler and creationist Megan Fox (not the actress) recently "audited" the Evolving Earth Exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. "Audit" is a strong word: I work for real auditors (CPAs), who are highly educated experts in their subfields and concerned with accuracy (because they can be sued). When they don't know something, they look for the answer. They've also passed the long and difficult CPA exam administered by the State of Colorado. Megan Fox doesn't have the equivalent of any of these qualifications in the field of biology: what she's produced isn't an audit, but a silly video that I'm watching so you don't have to.

Megan Fox at the Field Museum. Image from via Google images.

Fox jumps right in with eukaryotes, which she doesn't know how to pronounce. The exhibit says that at first, all eukaryotes were single celled, and some are still single-celled, implying that others are not.   Fox says this means that eukaryotes have always been single-celled. No: it means some of them have changed. If they changed after becoming single-celled eukaryotes, they might have changed before that, too. The conclusions she draws from her faulty logic--that living things have always been made of eukaryotic cells--doesn't even follow her first premise: that eukaryotes have always been single-celled organisms.

Then Fox goes on an angry, confused, frustrated tirade about how angry and confused she is, and she doesn't want scientists to tell her they know how animals came to exist, because they don't know. At least she loves looking at the fossils--"real science," she calls them. Make a note of that.

The next exhibit discusses changes in the atmosphere 470 million years ago. "How do they know this? This sounds so stupid." Unfortunately, the exhibit did lack the footnotes to scholarly work that Fox was apparently looking for. Maybe the atmostphere just came into existence, Fox says. Maybe aliens did it. It reminds me of Judge Jerry Scheindlin's quip to defendants: "Maybe I did it."

The early plant exhibit draws just as much contempt, along with a demand for a videotape from 470 million years ago, proving that green algae and moss at shorelines were the first plants. Fox snorts at the plant fossils (which she called "real science" just a moment before) as proof of nothing. My layman's guess about the assertion that these were the first plants: algae and moss are very simple plants, and there were no fossils of other plants below the first algae and moss fossils.

Next up for attack is the exhibit stating that it took around 50 million years for plants to evolve from tiny, vascular things to leafy trees. Fox again laments the lack of a videotape from the era and wonders how scientists know it's not 40 or 60 million years ago--that they just want people to believe. Through the video, Fox, apparently a young earth creationist, goes on about the purported lack of evidence and appeal to faith without a hint of irony. The object of her contempt this time: an exhibit stating that plants evolved and that roots allowed plants to grow farther inland, along with an explanation of cladiograms, or branch drawings, to depict evolutionary changes.

Like any good young earth creationist, Fox trots out the gaps argument: where are the missing links between one life form and another that it evolved into? She asserts that every "missing link" found has been a hoax. In fact, many real "missing links" have been found, but there's the rub: every missing link creates more gaps. Let's say you have a fossil from 10 million years ago and another from 20 million years ago. There's a gap. If you find a fossil from 15 million years ago, you end up with two gaps of five million years each. But if you don't find a missing link--and you might not since living things usually decompose instead of fossilize, and things can happen to a fossil over the course of millions of years--there's just no proof that one thing evolved into another. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Moving on to early tetrapods, or animals with four feet, Fox says, "They want you to believe that the fins fell off and they grew feet. That's the dumbest theory I've ever heard in my whole life." It IS dumb and it's incorrect: fins evolved into feet--scientists aren't asserting they fell off. Fox compares this evolution to a Coke can: a Coke can can't fall from the sky with letters in a disarray and right itself. It's a version of the pocket watch argument, the problem with which is that non-living objects don't reproduce and therefore cannot evolve. Again, Fox wants to see the video. As much a I dislike smart-mouthed kids, I'd love seeing one ask her for the videotape of the six-day creation of the earth and all its life forms.

Next, Fox gets to the cool part: the dinosaurs, or dragons as she calls them. She knows they are dragons because one of her children told her so, and the skeletons look like drawings of dragons--artists of the 20th and 21st centuries knew what dragons looked like. Yes, they did. (And Harry Potter apparently belongs in the biography section of the library.) Fox asserts that humans and "dragons" lived alongside one another at one time, waving away the idea that long ago, people might have found dinosaur fossils and drew them and made up stories about them, while scientists performed carbon dating and observed that human fossils don't appear under dinosaur fossils. But no, scientists are covering up evidence (like the "dinosaur cave paintings" she saw in Creation magazine) because it would throw off the evolutionary timeline by hundreds of millions of years.

The argument of the gaps comes up again as Fox looks at the human ancestor exhibits. Of course, she's less impressed with fossil evidence here than she was earlier. Neanderthals are just stocky humans (like Eastern Europeans with those big brows). Maybe Leonid Brezhnev did have a little more Neanderthal DNA in him than most of us, but yes, Neanderthals are genetically distinct from Homo sapiens. 

Asking for evidence and wanting to know how something came to be known are great things--except when they're asked rhetorically with arrogance and deliberate ignorance. And it's amusing when the person asking obviously hasn't applied the same demands to their own pet ideas. A suggestion for readers: look at the video with the sound off. You'll get a free tour of an interesting exhibit.

ETA: Fox is not only stupid and annoying, but she's being sued for being a creepy stalker.

ETA 2: I've been informed that the exhibit is actually called "The Evolving Planet Exhibit." (In fact, it's simply called "Evolving Planet" according the Field Museum's web site.) I thought it was called "Evolving Earth Exhibit" because that's what Megan Fox used in the title of her video. This, from a woman who went on about "words matter[ing]." Did you know that the fact that there's a dinosaur named in honor of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books (Dracorex hogwartsia) means that dinosaurs were dragons? Lest I be accused of any more inaccuracy, Dracorex doesn't literally mean the animal was a dragon. Dracorex is a genus of the pachycephalosauridae family (part of the dinosaur clade, of course). Pachycephalosaurus means "thick headed lizard." You can't make this stuff up.

After careful consideration, I've decided to leave the blog post title as is. It's more likely to be found in searches.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Gifts for Diabetics and Other Low-Carbers

Having been a low-carber for five years and having a mother with type 2 diabetes, a lot of gifts we get are thrown out: food and restaurant gift certificates, in particular. Almost anything that's labeled "Healthy" or "For diabetics," isn't. If the recipient of your gift is strict about their diet, gifts on the no-no list will end up re-gifted or in the trash. Here's some help in making a good choice.


  • Sweets. There's a reason they used to call it sugar diabetes: it's a disease of disregulated blood sugar. Sugary foods are out.
  • Starches. Starches are made of chains of glucose. The chains break apart in the digestive system, turning into glucose--a type of sugar. Bread, crackers, beans, noodles, potatoes, muffins, cornbread--no. 
  • Sugar-free or "for diabetics." "For diabetics" doesn't mean anything--literally. It should probably say "for diabetes," meaning enough of it, in the right person, will cause diabetes. Sugar-free foods can be loaded with carbohydrates, which raise blood sugar. Some products, like bread from Julian's Bakery, have been found to be deliberately mislabeled and are, in fact, high-carb foods.
  • Fruit. Fruit may be natural--so is radon--but it's full of sugar. Cross the fruit basket off your list.
  • Restaurant gift certificate. Maybe. Check the menu to make sure there's something they can eat: eggs or unbreaded meat for the entree. I once got a gift certificate from someone who said, "I don't know if there's anything you can eat there." And the place was at the opposite end of downtown from where I worked. Gee, thanks.
  • Diabetic cookbooks or magazines. These are full of high-carbohydrate recipes that can make you diabetic.
  • A donation to the American Diabetes Association. The ADA is largely funded by pharmaceutical companies that sell diabetes medications. These businesses have nothing to gain by reducing their customer base, which is why the ADA recommends eating a portion of starchy food (a quarter of a dinner plate) at every meal. That's more than enough to give diabetics blood sugar levels that, experienced day after day, are toxic and can lead to blindness and amputation. I'd sooner make a donation to Al Quaeda. 

Better Choices

  • Homemade low-carb goodies. Yes--but make sure they're actually low carb. An apple pie made with Splenda still has a flour crust and fruit. (Remember the part about starches and fruit being bad for blood sugar?) On the other hand, a pumpkin pie made with canned or fresh pumpkin (not "pumpkin pie filling"), Splenda, a nut crust and heavy cream or coconut milk instead of sweetened condensed milk should be low carb. For cookies, breads and pastries, get a recipe book like Cooking with Coconut Flour (and don't use any sugar, honey or maple syrup--use Splenda). You cannot swap regular flour with coconut flour or almond flour; you need a recipe written for those ingredients. A word about sweetness: someone who has been on a low-carb diet for a while has probably seen their taste for sweetness ratcheted down. I typically use half the sweetener called for in recipes, except when making cookies: baked goods need the whole amount for the texture. To get an idea of the right level of sweetness, eat a square of Dove dark chocolate. 
  • A low-carb food basket. A basket of smoked salmon, avocados, hard cheese, olives and nuts--ain't no way this will be regifted.
  • Wine. Maybe. A lot of us enjoy it, but it interferes with some common medications and blood sugar levels for some people. If you're not sure about it, find another gift.
  • Restaurant or coffee shop gift certificate. Again, maybe. Make sure it's a place they'll like to eat or drink and that it's convenient for them to get to. Places with the word "grill" in the name are best: there's something they can eat there and it's hard to screw up a hamburger. But I've seen it done! I've found that my taste sensitivity to everything has gone up, and bad food and coffee aren't merely bad, they're dreadful. Choose carefully.
  • Books and magazines. Low-carb enthusiasts are aware of all the new books out there. But for a newbie, Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution and Blood Sugar 101 are indispensable for diabetics. Dana Carpender has written many low-carb cookbooks with carbohydrate counts for the recipes. Long-term low-carbers are often avid readers--an e-reader or gift certificate to Amazon or Barnes and Noble might be a great gift.
  • Donation to Heifer International. The very poor often subsist on low-nutrient, high-carb, grain-based diets. Heifer International (fka The Heifer Project) provides needy people with livestock and training to care for the animals. The people they serve get the benefit of a more nutritious diet from the animals' milk, eggs and meat, more fertile land, and income from wool and extra food.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Stress + Lack of Nutrients Led to Tooth Decay

It's been a stressful year: my father rapidly declined and died, and my mother ended up in the hospital and then in a nursing home for a while. While she was staying with me for a few weeks, a relative told the county I was starving and stealing from her. (Of course, the county determined this was a load of horse shit.) Lately, the same relative has been meddling in my mother's financial affairs, making messes as fast as I can clean them up.

From the time early this year when I was doing a lot of work on my parents' house (e.g., insulating their attic), I wasn't taking my vitamins regularly or eating liver and oily fish weekly. A few years before, I started what I called the cavity-healing diet to heal my teeth; surprisingly, it made my TMJ better.

Given my gum graft surgery last summer, I should have really been diligent about the diet, but I wasn't. I ended up with redness in the area of the graft, roaming TMJ, and the beginning of a cavity between two molars.

My new dentist (Dr. Michelangelo retired) said he liked my plan to take better care of myself and--get this--said he wanted to give the cavity time to remineralize. My last dentist said cavities couldn't do that. The dental hygienist recommended more brushing in the red area on my gums to get rid of the bad bacteria and using high-fluoride toothpaste on the cavity. She also said that stress hormones can affect your gums. Other than the small cavity and redness in one area, my teeth looked good.

This was a few weeks ago. The extra brushing helped within a few days--the gum graft area felt better and the redness went away. Paleolithic people--and even people with good teeth in Weston A. Price's day--may not have brushed, but people did get some cavities. Even Turkana Boy--from 1.8 million years ago--may have died of an abcessed tooth. And there was a Cro-Magnon skull with only one tooth; the others were lost, but the area healed. So eat low carb, nutritious foods, but brush your teeth, too. I use a Sonicare and let the brush do the work--no need to apply pressure.

I've gone back to eating oily fish (salmon patties) and liver every week, too. Result: no more TMJ. I thought that too much caffeine was causing my TMJ. It might not have helped it, but since going back to my old diet, coffee, tea and cold water don't bother my teeth or TMJ anymore.

I've been more diligent about taking my vitamins every day for about a couple of months now. I seemed to have burned through a lot of magnesium, since I have to take more of it now.

For daily inspiration to take care of myself, I started reading the Living Stingy blog. The author says people have a duty to take care of themselves; to get out of the car before your friend with a problem drives it off a cliff; that saving the world is the bailiwick of looneys. (Remember Lierre Kieth, who adopted a vegan diet to help save the planet and the animals, only to permanently damage her health? Her web site boasts of how many times she's been arrested.) I especially love his checklist for activists who want to save the day: "Does the day need saving? Are you really doing what is right for the community or just stroking your own ego? Do you have your own shit together?" (Come to think of it, a few nutrition bloggers would do well to consider the checklist, too, along with one or two busybody relatives.)

To that end, I've started telling the mess makers they need to help straighten out their own messes. Things had gotten to the point that I didn't have my own shit together: I was neglecting a diet I knew I should have been on, vitamins I knew I should have been taking, and ending up with the beginning of dental problems. Fortunately, it's probably early enough to turn things around.