Monday, December 23, 2013

You can eat a lot during the Holiday Season and gain no body fat, as long as you also eat little

This post has been revised and re-published. The original comments are preserved below. Typically this is done with posts that attract many visits at the time they are published, and whose topics become particularly relevant or need to be re-addressed at a later date.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Dried mussels: A little plate with 160 g of protein (plus some comments on high-protein low-carbohydrate dieting)

Many hunter-gatherer groups employed various methods of drying to preserve meats. Drying also increases significantly the protein content of meats; this is the case with dried mussels. I discussed this effect of drying before here with respect to small fish (). The photo below is of a plate with about 240 g of dried mussels that I prepared using the simple recipe below.

To prepare your mussels as in the photo above, you will have to steam and then dry them. You can season the mussels after you steam them, but I rarely season mine. Almost none of the food I eat requires much seasoning anyway, because I use nature’s super-spice, which makes everything that has a high nutrient content taste delicious: hunger ().

- Steam the mussels for about 10 minutes, or until all are open.
- Remove the mussels from the shells; carefully, to avoid small shell pieces from coming off into the mussels (they are not kind to your teeth).
- Preheat the oven to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and place the mussels in it (on a tray) for about 1 hour.
- Leave the mussels in the oven until they are cold, this will dry them further.

About 240 g of mussels, after drying, will yield a meal with a bit more than 160 g of protein – i.e., the proportion of protein will go from about 20 percent up to about 67 percent. In this case, most of the calories in the meal will come from the protein, if you had nothing else with it, adding up to less than 800 calories.

This comes in handy if you need to have lunch out, as the dried mussels can be carried in a plastic bag or container and eaten cold or after a light re-heating in a microwave. To me, they taste very good either way; but then again anything that is nutritious tends to taste very good when you are hungry, and I rarely have breakfast. I often eat them with pre-cooked sweet potato, which I eat with the skin (it tastes like candy).

You may want to think of dried mussels prepared in this way as a protein supplement, but a very nutritious one. You will be getting a large dose of omega-3 fats (3.11 g) with less omega-6 fats than you usually get through fish oil softgels (where n-6s are added for stability), about 1,224 percent of the recommended daily value (RDV) of magnesium, 461 percent of the RDV of selenium, 1,440 of the RDV of vitamin B12, a large dose of zinc, and (interestingly) almost 100 percent of the RDV of vitamin C.

Since mussels are very low in the food chain, accumulation of compounds that can be toxic to humans is not amplified by biomagnification (). But, still, mussels can be significantly affected by contaminants (e.g., petroleum hydrocarbons), so sourcing is important. The supermarket chain I use here in Texas, HEB, claims to do very careful sourcing. Telltale signs of contamination are developmental problems such as thin shells that shatter easily and stunted growth ().

For those readers who are on a low-carbohydrate diet, please pay attention to this: there is NO WAY your body will turn protein into fat if you are on a low-carbohydrate diet, unless you have a serious metabolic disorder (see this post: , and this podcast: ). And I mean SERIOUS; probably way beyond prediabetes. Do not believe the nonsense that has been circulating in some areas of the blogosphere lately.

A high-protein low-carbohydrate diet is one of the most effective diets at reducing body fat, particularly if you do resistance exercise (and you do not have to do it like a bodybuilder). That is not to say that a high-fat low-protein diet (like the "optimal diet") is a bad idea; in fact, the optimal diet is a good option if you do not do resistance exercise, but that is a topic for a different post.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Latitude and cancer rates in US states: Aaron Blaisdell’s intuition confirmed

In the comments section of my previous post on cancer rates in the US states () my friend Aaron Blaisdell noted that: …comparing states that are roughly comparable in terms of number of seniors per 1000 individuals, latitude appears to have the largest effect on rates of cancer.

Good point, so I collected data on the latitudes of US states, built a more complex model (with several multivariate controls), and analyzed it with WarpPLS 4.0 ().

The coefficient of association for the effect of latitude on cancer rates (path coefficient) turned out to be 0.35. Its P value was lower than 0.001, meaning that the probability that this is a false positive is less than a tenth of a percent, or that we can be 99.9 percent confident that this is not a false positive.

This was calculated controlling for the: (a) proportion of seniors in the population (population age); (b) proportion of obese individuals in the population (obesity rates); and (c) the possible moderating effect of latitude on the effect of population age on cancer rates. The graph below shows this multivariate-adjusted association.

What is cool about a multivariate analysis is that you can control for certain effects. For example, since we are controlling for proportion of seniors in the population (population age), the fact that we have a state with a very low proportion of seniors (Alaska) does not tilt the effect toward that outlier as much as it would if we had not controlled for the proportion of seniors. This is a mathematical property that is difficult to grasp, but that makes multivariate adjustment such a powerful technique.

I should note that the 99.9 percent confidence mentioned above refers to the coefficient of association. That is, we are quite confident that the coefficient of association is not zero; that is it. The P value does not support the hypothesized direction of causality (latitude -> cancer) or exclude the possibility of a major confounder causing the effect.

Nonetheless, among the newest features of WarpPLS 4.0 (still a beta version) are several causality assessment coefficients: path-correlation signs, R-squared contributions, path-correlation ratios, path-correlation differences, Warp2 bivariate causal direction ratios, Warp2 bivariate causal direction differences, Warp3 bivariate causal direction ratios, and Warp3 bivariate causal direction differences. Without going into a lot of technical detail, which you can get from the User Manual () without even having to install the software, I can tell you that all of these causality assessment coefficients support the hypothesized direction of causality.

Also, while we cannot exclude the possibility of a major confounder causing the effect, we included two possible confounders in the analysis and controlled for their effects. They were the proportion of seniors in the population (population age) and the proportion of obese individuals in the population (obesity rates).

Having said all of the above, I should also say that the effect is similar in magnitude to the effect of population age on cancer rates, which I discussed in the previous post linked above. That is, it is not the type of effect that would be clearly noticeable in a person’s normal life.

Sunlight exposure? Maybe.

We do know that our body naturally produces as much as 10,000 IU of vitamin D based on a few minutes of sun exposure when the sun is high (). Getting that much vitamin D from dietary sources is very difficult, even after “fortification”.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Aging and cancer: The importance of taking a hard look at the numbers

The table below is from a study by Hayat and colleagues (). It illustrates one common trend regarding cancer – it increases dramatically in incidence among those who are older. With some exceptions, such as Hodgkin's lymphoma, there is a significant increase in risk particularly after 50 years of age.

So I decided to get state data from the US Census web site (), on the percentage of seniors (age 65 or older) by state and cancer diagnoses per 1,000 people. I was able to get some recent data, for 2011.

I analyzed the data with WarpPLS (version 4.0 has been just released: ), generating the types of coefficients that would normally be reported by researchers who wanted to make an effect appear very strong.

In this case, the effect would be essentially of population aging on cancer incidence (assessed indirectly), summarized in the graph below. The graph was generated by WarpPLS. The scales are standardized, and so are the coefficients of association in the two segments shown. As you can see, the coefficients of association increase as we move along the horizontal scale, because this is a nonlinear relationship. The overall coefficient of association, which is a weighted average of the two betas shown, is 0.84. The probability that this is a false positive is less than 1 percent.

A beta coefficient of 0.84 essentially means that a 1 standard deviation variation in the percentage of seniors in a state is associated with an overall 84 percent increase in cancer diagnoses, taking the standardized unit of the number of cancer diagnoses as the baseline. This sounds very strong and would usually be presented as an enormous effect. Since the standard deviation for the percentage of seniors in various states is 1.67, one could say that for each 1.67 increment in the percentage of seniors in a state the number of cancer diagnoses goes up by 84 percent.

Effects expressed in percentages can sometimes give a very misleading picture. For example, let us consider an increase in mortality due to a disease from 1 to 2 cases for each 1 million people. This essentially is a 100 percent increase! Moreover, the closer the baseline is from zero, the more impressive the effect becomes, since the percentage increase is calculated by dividing the increment by the baseline number. As the baseline number approaches zero, the percentage increase from the baseline approaches infinity.

Now let us take a look at the graph below, also generated by WarpPLS. Here the scales are unstandardized, which means that they refer to the original measures in their respective original scales. (Standardization makes the variables dimensionless, which is sometimes useful when the original measurement scales are not comparable – e.g., dollars vs. meters.) As you can see here, the number of cancer diagnoses per 1,000 people goes from a low of 3.74 in Utah to a high of 6.64 in Maine.

One may be tempted to explain the increase in cancer diagnoses that we see on this graph based on various factors (e.g., lifestyle), but the percentage of seniors in a state seems like a very good and reasonable predictor. You may say: This is very depressing. You may be even more depressed if I tell you that controlling for state obesity rates does not change this picture at all.

But look at what these numbers really mean. What we see here is an increase in cancer diagnoses per 1,000 people of less than 3. In other words, there is a minute increase of less than 3 diagnoses for each group of 1,000 people considered. It certainly feels terrible if you are one of the 3 diagnosed, but it is still a minute increase.

Also note that one of the scales, for diagnoses, refers to increments of 1 in 1,000; while the other, for seniors, refers to increments of 1 in 100. This leads to an interesting effect. If you move from Alaska to Florida you will see a significant increase in the number of seniors around, as the difference in the percentage of seniors between these two states is about 10. However, the difference in the number of cancer diagnoses will not be even close to the difference in the presence of seniors.

The situation above is very common in medical research. An effect that is fundamentally tiny is stated in such a way that the general public has the impression that the effect is enormous. Often the reason is not to promote a drug, but to attract media attention to a research group or organization.

When you look at the actual numbers, the magnitude of the effect is such that it would go unnoticed in real life. By real life I mean: John, since we moved from Alaska to Maine I have been seeing a lot more people of my age being diagnosed with cancer. An effect of the order of 3 in 1,000 would not normally be noticed in real life by someone whose immediate circle of regular acquaintances included fewer than 333 people (about 1,000 divided by 3).

But thanks to Facebook, things are changing … to be fair, the traditional news media (particularly television) tends to increase perceived effects a lot more than social media, often in a very stressful way.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How to handle a dog attack

For most people, dog attacks are not very common. But they happen occasionally, and the experience can be traumatic. Incidentally, they are also a good reason why I am not a big fan of barefoot walking or running. Broken glass pieces and nails can be a problem if you are barefoot; so can dog attacks.

The photo below, from, shows a charging dog. It reminds me of an incident many years ago where a dog attacked my two oldest sons, who were very young at the time. They were unsuspectingly playing at a park in Southern New Jersey, when I saw a dog running in their direction across the park. Part of what I will say in this post is based on experiences like that.

I should also say that I grew up around dogs. My grandfather had a farm that was managed by my uncle, and dogs were critically important in managing the farm. One problem we had was that domesticated pigs would often become feral, or would mate with wild boars, in some cases leading to a particularly vicious breed of large feral pigs. I was once attacked by one of these feral pigs while hunting. One of the farm dogs came to my rescue and probably saved my life.

If you are like most people, when you go walking outdoors, you do not carry a walking stick or a cane. Maybe you should. But if you don’t, thick-soled sneakers can be used in a reasonably effective defense in a dog attack situation.

Dogs attacks’ main targets: The faces of children

Dogs tend to be loyal friends, but they must be monitored for signs of aggression, and can be particularly dangerous to children. A significant proportion of dog attack victims are children 5 years of age or younger, who more often than not sustain injuries to the face, with secondary target areas being the hands and feet ().

At the time of this writing the web sites and had some grisly photos of dog attack victims (, ). They show evidence that the face is often targeted, and some possible consequences of real dog attacks.

Artificial selection: Dogs and Moby-Dick

Modern dogs are descendants of wolves who came into contact with humans about 12,000 year ago. (This general date is often cited, but is the subject of intense debate, with DNA studies suggesting much earlier contact.) Wolves are apex predators; this was true also for wolves that lived around the time they first came into contact with humans. They hunt and live in packs, and rely on fairly complex body language, a variety of sounds, and a keen sense of smell to communicate.

Even being apex predators, wolves were no match for humans. Therefore, as humans and groups of wolves co-evolved, dogs emerged. Dogs evolved instincts that made them sociable toward and submissive to humans, particularly those humans who fed them and also asserted authority over them – those become their “owners”.

Humans, in turn, came to rely heavily on dogs for protection and hunting, and probably evolved instincts that are still largely unexplored today. For example, there is strong evidence suggesting that having pet animals, many of which are dogs, is generally health-promoting (, ).

The evolution of sociability and submissiveness traits is an example of what is often referred to as “artificial selection”, where animals and plants evolve traits almost exclusively in response to the selection pressure applied by humans. In the case of dogs, this was later taken to new heights through selective breeding; leading to the emergence of a variety of dog breeds, some for utilitarian purposes and others for pure vanity, each with very distinctive characteristics.

Interestingly, artificial selection applied by humans does not always produce more sociable and submissive animals. The opposite happened around the mid 1800s due to excessive hunting of sperm whales. The least aggressive were easier to kill, so they were overhunted. Over generations, this placed selection pressure in favor of the evolution of aggressiveness toward humans. The attack on the Essex by a large bull sperm whale, which served as inspiration for Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, was one of the first incidents that resulted from this selection pressure (). Whaling increased, and, predictably, attacks started becoming more and more frequent.

When a dog attacks, stand your ground in a non-threatening way

Dogs, like wolves, are territorial animals. Many dog attacks are likely motivated by humans invading what a dog perceives as its territory at a given point in time. I mentioned earlier in this post that a dog once attacked two of my children. They were playing at a park during the winter. Nobody else was there. I saw this large black dog running from a distance in their direction, and I immediately knew that it was trouble. The dog probably saw us as invading its territory.

Having grown up surrounded by dogs, I pretty much knew what to do. I walked toward my children and placed myself between them and the charging dog. I told the children not to move at all, just freeze. The dog came running until it realized that we were not running. It was a “fake charge”, like most are. It stopped close to me, and barked very aggressively, coming closer. I was wearing boots. I raised one of my boots toward the dog’s snout, and when it bit it, I pushed the boot against its snout.

Here is where I think most people would tend to make a key mistake. They would probably try to hurt the dog to scare it off, by, say, kicking the dog as they would kick a soccer ball. The problem is that, because the dog is a lot faster than they are, if they do that they may end up missing the dog entirely and worse - they may end up losing their balance and falling to the ground. This is when dogs can do the most damage, since they would go for the face of the fallen person.

As a side note, often you hear that dogs attack the throat of their human victims, but that is not what the statistics show. Most victims of dog attacks display injuries on the face and extremities. The "myth" that dogs target the throat is probably based on the notion that dogs attack humans because they see them as prey. However, with exception of feral dogs such as Australian dingos, evidence of dogs preying on humans is very rare. I've reviewed many dog attack photos for this post, and could not find one with evidence that the throat was targeted.

So I pushed my boot against the dog’s snout a few times, firmly but not with the goal of hurting the dog, and did not do anything threatening toward the dog otherwise. This calmed the dog down a bit, but it was still acting aggressively and would not go away. Sometimes firm commands to "seat", "stop", "go away" make the dog react submissively. I tried them but they didn't work; instead they probably made the dog more excited. Then I did what probably is the one thing that most land animals instinctively fear from humans …

Sapiens the thrower

I picked up a few pieces of ice from the ground and threw at the dog. One piece of ice hit the dog on the side of its body; a couple of others were glancing blows. As a result the dog became visibly confused and submissive (telltale sign: tail between the legs), and ran away. Here is where another big mistake may happen. People may try to hurt the dog and become too excited when throwing objects at it. In doing so, they may end up not only missing the dog with the flying objects that they are throwing, but they may also excite the dog, and face another attack.

The best approach here is to focus on having whatever you are throwing at the dog land on top of or as close to the dog as possible; explicitly without trying to hurt it, in part because this improves your aim. Having flying objects coming from you toward the dog is enough to trigger the dog’s instinct to get out of the way of “Sapiens the thrower”. Moreover, if you don’t try to hurt you’ll be relatively calm, displaying the type body language that will trigger submissiveness.

I’ve long suspected that throwing has been a key component of Sapiens’ climb to the top of the food chain, to the point that all land animals have an instinctive fear of humans – even large predators, and much bigger animals such as elephants (as long as they are not “in musth”). One short video has been circulating on YouTube for years; it has various hunting scenes where primitive spears are used (). Many find this video cruel. It clearly shows the enormous evolutionary advantage of humans being able to throw pointy things at other animals. If humans happened to live when Tyrannosaurus rex was around, there is no doubt in my mind that the latter would be the prey.

Keep your face away and your hands closed

Typically you’ll avoid a full-blown dog attack by only standing your ground for a while and not acting aggressively toward the dog. After a short standoff period, you’ll just walk away unharmed. Unfortunately this may not happen if you are facing a dog that has been trained to attack. In this case, having a stick or something like it will help a lot. (In circus acts lions are “pushed around” by trainers holding objects like sticks and wooden chairs; sometimes that doesn't end well - .) If you don’t have one it would be useful to be wearing shoes that can withstand several bites. If not, you can use a piece of clothing, such as a bundled jacket, as a shield.

If you have a stick, or something like a stick, you should not try to hit the dog with it. You should place it near the snout, and push the stick against it each time the dog bites. If you do this calmly and firmly, without trying to hurt the dog (remember, the dog is a lot faster than you are), you will probably discourage biting after a while, turning the attack into a standoff.

What if you don’t have anything with which to defend yourself at first, and a dog attacks you? Keep your hands closed into fists, to avoid having fingers bitten off, and do your best to keep the dog away from your face. As desperate as these situations may be, try to be calm and look for objects that you can use to push the dog away, that you can throw at the dog, or that can be used to wrap around your arms. Frequently there will be objects around that can be of use – e.g., sharp stones, glass bottles, pieces of canvas, loose pieces of a fence, a hose, a tree’s branch. If you fall, try to stand up right away. Very likely you'll sustain injuries to your arms, and possibly legs.

Military and law enforcement personnel are often trained on fighting techniques to handle dog attacks barehanded, such as neck cranks, sharp blows to the throat of the animal, and blinding techniques. I am not sure whether these would be really useful to the average person. In any case, this post is not aimed at military and law enforcement personnel who deal with dog attacks on a regular basis.

Eat beef liver

Beef liver is nature’s super-multivitamin. (Beef heart is just as nutritious.) Dogs, like wolves, have an exquisite sense of smell. If you have seen one of the documentaries about the groundbreaking research by Shaun Ellis (a.k.a., “The Wolfman”), you probably know that wild wolves tend to strongly associate consumption of organ meats with very high status in a pack, to the point that they will instinctively act submissively toward humans that consume organ meats. It is quite possible that dogs do that too. So if you eat beef liver, maybe a dog will “think twice” before attacking you.

Offer the dog a cigarette and a beer

Most dogs can become aggressive from time to time, but not dogs that know how to chill. Therefore, you may consider carrying special dog cigarettes and beer around - only some brands work! Okay, a clarification: the "eat beef liver" advice is not a joke, nor are the others above it.

Notes and acknowledgements

The “charging dog” photo is from The “drunken dog” montage was created with photos from the blog Agrestemundica.

Cesar Millan's site has a number of good suggestions on how to handle dog attacks (). However, I personally think that the way he handles dogs (e.g., often with open hands) is dangerous if copied by an inexperienced person. There is a great deal of "hidden" information that is conveyed to dogs by nuances of Cesar's body language. Those nuances are difficult to copy by an inexperienced person.

An interesting source of information on how to handle dog attacks is the web site (, ).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Waist-to-weight ratios in pictures: The John Stone transformation

John Stone is a bodybuilder and founder of a bodybuilding and fitness web site (). There he has provided pictures and stats of his remarkable transformation, which were used to prepare the montage below.

John’s height is reported as 5' 11.5". Below the photos are the months in which they were taken, the waist circumferences in inches, the weights in lbs, and the waist-to-weight ratios (WWRs). Abhi was kind enough to provide a more detailed plot of John Stone’s WWRs ().

Assuming that minimizing one’s WWR is healthy, an idea whose rationale was explained here before (), we could say that John was at his most unhealthy in the photo on the left.

The second photo from the left shows a slightly more healthy state, at a reported 8 percent body fat (his lowest). The two photos on the right represent states in which John’s WWR is at its lowest, namely 0.1544. That is, in these two photos John minimized his WWR; at a reported 14 and 13.8 percent body fat, respectively.

When we look at the WWRs in these photos, it seems that he is only marginally healthier in the second photo from the left than in the leftmost photo. In the two photos on the right, the WWRs are much lower (they are the same), suggesting that he was significantly healthier in those photos.

Interestingly, in both photos on the right John reported to have been at the end of bulking periods. Whenever he entered a cutting period his WWR started going up. This suggests that his ratio of lean body mass to total mass started decreasing just as soon as he started cutting. I suspect the same would happen if he continued gaining weight.

Which of the two photos on the right represents the best state? Assuming that both states are sustainable, over the long run I would argue that the best state is the one where the WWR was minimized with the lowest weight. There whole-day joint stress is lower. This corresponds to the photo at the far right.

By sustainable states I mean states that are not reached through approaches that are unhealthy in the long term; e.g., approaches that place organs under such an abnormal stress that they are damaged over time. This kind of damage is essentially what happens when we become obese – i.e., too fat. One can also become too muscular for his or her own good.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Could we have evolved traits that are detrimental to our survival?

Let us assume that we collected data on the presence or absence of a trait (e.g., propensity toward risky behavior) in a population of individuals, as well as on intermediate effects of the trait, downstream effects on mating and survival success, and ultimately on reproductive success (a.k.a. “fitness”, in evolutionary biology).

The data would have been collected over several generations. Let us also assume that we conducted a multivariate analysis on this data, of the same type as the analyses employing WarpPLS that were discussed here in previous posts (). The results are summarized through the graph below.

Each of the numbers next to the arrows in the graph below represents the strength of a cause-effect relationship. The number .244 linking “a” and “y” means that a one standard deviation variation in “a” causes a .244 standard deviation increase in “y”. It also means that a one standard deviation variation in “a” causes a 24.4 percent increase in “y” considering the average “y” as the baseline.

This type of mathematical view of evolution may look simplistic. This is an illusion. It is very general, and encompasses evolution in all living organisms, including humans. It also applies to theoretical organisms where multiple (e.g., 5, 6 etc.) sexes could exist. It even applies to non-biological organisms, as long as these organisms replicate - e.g., replicating robots.

So the trait measured by “a” has a positive effect on the intermediate effect “y”. This variable, “y” in turn has a negative effect on survival success (“s”), and a strong one at that: -.518. Examples: “a” = propensity toward risky behavior, measured as 0 (low) and 1 (high); and “y” = hunting success, measured in the same way. (That is, “a” and “y” are correlated, but “a”=1 does not always mean “y”=1.) Here the trait “a” has a negative effect on survival via its intermediate effect on “y”. If I calculate the total effect of “a” on “w” via the 9 paths that connect these two variables, I will find that it is .161.

The total effect on reproductive success is positive, which means that the trait will tend to spread in the population. In other words, the trait will evolve in the population, even though it has a negative effect on survival. This type of trait is what has been referred to as a “costly” trait ().

Say what? Do you mean to say that we have evolved traits that are unhealthy for us? Yes, I mean exactly that. Is this a “death to paleo” post? No, it is not. I discussed this topic here before, several years ago (). But the existence of costly traits is one of the main reasons why I don’t think that mimicking our evolutionary past is necessarily healthy. For example, many of our male ancestors were warriors, and they died early because of that.

What type of trait will present this evolutionary pattern – i.e., be a costly trait? One answer is: a trait that is found to be attractive by members of the other sex, and that is not very healthy. For example, a behavior that is perceived as “sexy”, but that is also associated with increased mortality. This would likely be a behavior prominently displayed by males, since in most species, including humans, sexual selection pressure is much more strongly applied by females than by males.

Examples would be aggressiveness and propensity toward risky behavior, especially in high-stress situations such as hunting and intergroup conflict (e.g., a war between two tribes) where being aggressive is likely to benefit an individual’s group. In warrior societies, both aggressiveness and propensity toward risky behavior are associated with higher social status and a greater ability to procure mates. These traits are usually seen as male traits in these societies.

Here is something interesting. Judging from our knowledge of various warrior societies, including American plains Indians societies, the main currency of warrior societies were counts of risky acts, not battle effectiveness. Slapping a fierce enemy warrior on the face and living to tell the story would be more valuable, in terms of “counting coup”, than killing a few inexperienced enemy warriors in an ambush.

Greater propensity toward risky behavior among men is widespread and well documented, and is very likely the result of evolutionary forces, operating on costly traits. Genetic traits evolved primarily by pressure on one sex are often present in the other (e.g., men have nipples). There are different grades of risky behavior today. At the high end of the scale would be things that can kill suddenly like race car driving and free solo climbing (, ). (If you'd like to know the source of the awesome background song of the second video linked, here it is: Radical Face's "Welcome Home".)

One interesting link between risky behavior and diet refers to the consumption of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Risky behavior may be connected with aggressive behavior, which may in turn be encouraged by greater consumption of foods rich in omega-6 fats and avoidance of foods rich in omega-3 fats (, ). This may be behind our apparent preference for foods rich in omega-6 fats, even though tipping the balance toward more foods rich in omega-3 fats would be beneficial for survival. We would be "calmer" though - not a high priority among most men, particularly young men.

This evolved preference may also be behind the appeal of industrial foods that are very rich in omega-6 fats. These foods seem to be particularly bad for us in the long term. But when the sources of omega-6 fats are unprocessed foods, the negative effects seem to become "invisible" to statistical tests.

Monday, July 1, 2013

An illustration of the waist-to-weight ratio theory: The fit2fat2fit experiment

In my previous blog post, I argued that one’s optimal weight may be the one that minimizes one’s waist-to-weight ratio. I built this argument based on the fact that body fat percentage is associated with lean body mass (and also weight) in a nonlinear way.

The fit2fat2fit experiment (), provides what seems to be an interestingly way to put this optimal waist-to-weight ratio theory to test. This is due to a fortuitous event, as I explain in this post.

In this experiment, Drew Manning, a personal trainer, decided to undergo a transformation where he went from what he argued was his fittest level, all the way to obese, and then back to fit again. He said that he wanted to do that so that he could better understand his clients’ struggles. This may be true, but it looks like he planned very well his experiment from a marketing perspective.

His fittest level was at the start, with a weight of 193 lbs, at a height of 6 ft 2 in. That was his fittest level according to his own opinion. At that point, he had a waist of 34.5 in, and looked indeed very fit (). At his fattest level, he reached the weight of 264.8 pounds, with a 47.5 waist.

As he moved back to fit, one interesting thing happened. Toward the end of this journey back to fit, he moved past the level that he felt was his optimal. He dropped down to 190.1 lbs, and a 34 in waist; which he perceived as too skinny. He talks about this in a video ().

As a self-defined “fanatic” personal trainer, I figured that he knew when he had gone too far. That is, he is probably as qualified as one can get to identify the point at which he moved past his optimal. So I thought that this would be an interesting way of putting my optimal waist-to-weight ratio theory to the test.

Below is a bar chart showing variations in waist-to-weight ratio against weight for Drew Manning during his fit2fat2fit experiment. I included only three data points in this chart because I would have to view all of his video clips to get all of the data points.

As you can see, at the point at which he felt he was too thin, his waist-to-weight ratio clearly started going up from what seems to have been its optimal at 34.5 in / 193 lbs. This is exactly what you would expect based on my optimal waist-to-weight ratio theory. You probably can’t tell that something was not right at that point, because he looked very fit.

But apparently he felt that something was not entirely right. And that is consistent with the idea that he had passed his optimal waist-to-weight ratio, and became too lean for his own good. Note that his waist decreased, and probably could go down even further, even though that was no longer optimal.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Dr. Jekyll dieted and became Mr. Hyde

One of the most fascinating topics for an independent health researcher is the dichotomy between short- and long-term responses in successful dieters. In the short term, dieters that manage to lose a significant amount of fat mass, tend to feel quite well. Many report that their energy levels go through the roof.

A significant loss of fat mass could be considered one of 30 lbs, or 13.6 kg. This is the threshold for weight loss used in the National Weight Control Registry. Ideally you want to lose body fat, not lean mass, both of which contribute to weight loss.

So, in the short term, significant body fat loss feels pretty good for the dieters. In the long term, however, successful dieters tend to experience the symptoms of chronic stress. This should be no surprise because some of the same hormones that induce a sense of elation and high energy are the ones associated with chronic stress. These are generally referred to as “stress hormones”, of which the most prominent seem to be cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).

Stress hormones display acute elevations during intense exercise as well ().

This is all consistent with evolution, and with the idea that our hominid ancestors would not go hungry for too long, at least not on a regular basis. High energy levels, combined with hunger, would make them succeed at hunting-gathering activities, leading to a period of feast before a certain threshold of sustained caloric restriction (with or without full fasting) would be reached. This would translate into a regular and cyclical hunger-feast process, with certain caloric costs having to be met for successful hunting-gathering.

After a certain period of time under sustained caloric restriction, it would probably be adaptive among our ancestors to experience significant mental and physical discomfort. That would compel our hominid ancestors to more urgently engaged in hunting-gathering activities.

And here is a big difference between those ancestors and modern urbanites: our ancestors would actually be working towards getting food for a feast, not restraining themselves from eating what they have easily available at home or from a grocery store nearby. There are major psychological differences here. Dieting, in the sense of not eating when food is easily available, is as unnatural as obesity, if not more.

So what are some of the mechanisms by which the body dials up stress, leading to the resulting mental and physical discomfort? Here is one that seems to play a key role: hypoglycemia.

Of the different types of hypoglycemia, there is one that is quite interesting in this type of context, because it refers to hypoglycemia in response to intake of any food item that raises insulin levels; that is, food that contains protein and/or carbohydrates. More specifically, we are referring here to reactive hypoglycemia, of the same general type as that experienced by those on their way to type II diabetes.

But reactive hypoglycemia in successful dieters is often different from that of prediabetics, as it is caused by something that would sound surprising to many: successful dieters appear to become too insulin sensitive for their own good!

There is ongoing debate as to what is considered a blood glucose level that is low enough to characterize hypoglycemia. Several factors influence that, including measurement method and age. One important factor related to measurement method is this: commercial fingerstick glucose meters tend to grossly underestimate low glucose levels (e.g., 50 mg/dl shows as 30 mg/dl).

Having said that, glucose levels below 60 mg/dl are generally considered low.

Luyckx and Lefebvre selected 47 cases of reactive hypoglycemia for a study, from a total of 663 standard four-hour oral glucose tolerance tests (OGTT). They classified these 47 cases as follows, with the number of cases in each class within parentheses: obesity (11), obesity with chemical diabetes (9), postgastrectomy syndrome (3), chemical diabetes without obesity (1), renal glycosuria (7), and isolated reactive hypoglycemia (16).

Postgastrectomy is the period following a gastrectomy, which is removal of part of one’s stomach. The modern term for this stomach amputation procedure is “bariatric surgery”; admittedly a broader term, which many people say they would do as if they were referring to a walk in the park!

In the cases of isolated reactive hypoglycemia, the individuals had normal weight, normal glucose tolerance, and no glycosuria (excretion of glucose in the urine). As you can see in the paragraph above, this, isolated reactive hypoglycemia, was the category with the largest number of individuals. The figure below illustrates what happened in these cases.

The cases in question are represented in the left part of the graph with dashed lines (the full lines are for normal controls). There a reasonably normal insulin response, lower in fact in terms of area under the curve (AUC) than for the controls, leads to an abnormal reduction in blood glucose levels. They are 9 out of 16, the majority of the isolated reactive hypoglycemia cases. In those 9 individuals, insulin became “more potent”, so to speak.

Reactive hypoglycemia is frequently associated with obesity, in which case it is also associated with hyperinsulinemia, and caused by an exaggerated insulin response. About 40 percent of the reactive hypoglycemia cases in the study were classified as happening in obese individuals.

This study suggests that, if you are not obese, and you are diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia following an OGTT, chances are that the diagnosis is due to high insulin sensitivity – as opposed to low insulin sensitivity, coupled with hyperinsulinemia. A follow-up test should focus on insulin levels, to see if they are elevated; i.e., to try to detect hyperinsulinemia.

I have been blogging here long enough to hear from people who have gone the full fat2fit2fat cycle, sometimes more than once. They start dieting, go from obese to lean, feel good at first but then miserable, drop the diet, become obese or almost obese again, then start dieting again …

Quite a few are folks who do things like ditching industrial foods, regularly eating organ meats, and doing resistance exercise. How can you go wrong doing all of these, generally healthy, things? Well, they all increase your insulin sensitivity. If you don’t build in plateaus to slow down your progress, you may not give your body enough time to adapt.

You may become too lean, too fast, for your own good. The more successful the diet, the bigger is the risk. No wonder the paleo diet is being targeted lately as a “bad” diet. How can you go wrong on a diet of whole foods; “real” whole foods, not “whole wheat”? Well, here is how you can go wrong. The diet, if not managed properly, may be too successful for your own good; too much of a good thing can be a problem, you know!

See the graph below, from a previous post on a related topic (). I intend to discuss a method to identify the point at which weight loss should stop, in a future post. This method builds on the calculation of a simple index, which is unique to each individual. Let me just say now that I suspect that, with exceptions, frequently people are hurting their health by trying to have six pack abs.

But what does all this have to do with stress hormones? The connection is this. Hypoglycemia is only “felt”, as something unpleasant, due to the body’s frequent acute stress hormone response to it. Elevated levels of stress hormones also increase blood glucose levels, countering hypoglycemia. Our body’s priority is preventing hypoglycemia, not hyperglycemia ().

And here is an interesting pattern, based on anecdotal evidence from HCE () users. It seems that folks who have abnormally high insulin sensitivity, also have medium-to-high HbA1c (a measure of glycation) and fasting blood glucose levels. By medium-to-high HbA1c levels I mean 5.7 to even as high as 6.2.

Since cortisol is elevated, one would expect higher fasting blood glucose levels – the “dawn phenomenon”. But higher HbA1c, how? I am not sure, but I believe that HbA1c will be found in the future to be something a bit more complicated than what it is believed to be: a measure of average blood glucose over a period of time. I am not talking here about cases of anemia.

One indication of this complicated nature of the HbA1c is the fact that blood glucose levels in birds are high yet HbA1c levels are low, and birds live much longer than mammals of comparable size (). Some birds have extremely high glucose levels, even carnivorous birds who consume no or very small amounts of carbohydrate (e.g. hawks), with fairly low HbA1c levels.

The title of this post is inspired in the classic short novel “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson; who also authored another famous novel, “Treasure Island”. In “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, gentle Dr. Jekyll becomes nasty Mr. Hyde (see poster below, from Wikipedia).

Mr. Hyde had a bad temper, impaired judgment, and was prone to criminal behavior. Hypoglycemia has long been associated with bad temper, impaired judgment, and criminal behavior (, ).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Trip to South Korea: Hidden reasons for the leanness of its people

In September last year (2012) I went to South Korea to speak about nonlinear data analysis with WarpPLS (), initially for business and engineering faculty and students at Korea University in Seoul, and then as a keynote speaker at the HumanCom 2012 Conference () in Gwangju. Since Seoul is in the north part of the country, and Gwangju in the south, I had the opportunity to see quite a lot of the land and the people in this beautiful country.

(Korea University’s main entrance, Anam campus)

(In front of Korea University’s main Business School building)

Korea University is one of the most prestigious universities in South Korea. In the fields of business and engineering, it is arguably the most prestigious. It also has a solid international reputation, attracting a large number of highly qualified foreign students.

I wanted to take this opportunity and try to understand why obesity prevalence is so low in South Korea, which is a common characteristic among Southeast Asian countries, even though the caloric intake of South Koreans seems to be relatively high. Foods that are rich in carbohydrates, such as rice, are also high-calorie foods. At 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates are not as calorie-dense as fats (9 calories per gram), but they sure add up and can make one obese.

Based on my observations, explanations for the leanness that are too obvious or that focus on a particular dietary item (e.g., kimchi, green tea etc.) tend to miss the point.

Let us take for example a typical South Korean meal, like the one depicted in the photos below, which we had at a restaurant in Seoul. If you are a foreigner, this type of meal would be difficult to have without a local accompanying you, because it is not easy to make yourself understood in a traditional restaurant in South Korea speaking anything other than Korean.

(Main items of a traditional South Korean meal)

(You cook your own meal)

The meal started with thin-sliced meat (with some fat, but not much) and vegetables, with the obligatory side dishes, notably kimchi (). This part of the meal was low in calories and high in nutrients. Then we had two high-calorie low-nutrient items: noodles and rice. The rice was used in the end to soak up the broth left in the pot, so it ended adding to the nutrition value of the meal.

Because we started the meal with the low-calorie high-nutrient items, the meat and vegetables, our consumption of noodles and rice was not as high as if we had started the meal with those items. In a meal like this, a good chunk of calories would come from the carbohydrate-rich items. Still, it seems to me that we ingested plenty of calories, enough to make one fat over the long run, eating these types of meals regularly.

A side note. As I said here before, the caloric value of protein is less than the commonly listed 4 calories per gram, essentially because protein is a multi-purpose macronutrient.

In our meal, the way in which at least one of the carbohydrate-rich items was prepared possibly decreased its digestible carbohydrate content, and thus its calorie content, in a significant way. I am referring to the rice, which had been boiled, cooled and stored, way before it was re-heated and served. This likely turned some of its starch content into resistant starch (). Resistant starch is essentially treated by our digestive system as fiber.

Another factor to consider is the reduction in the glycemic load (not to be confused with glycemic index) of the rice. As I noted, the rice was used to soak up the broth from the pot. This soaking up process significantly reduces the rice’s glycemic load, because of a unique property of rice. It has an amazing capacity of absorbing liquid and swelling in the process.

This was one of several traditional Korean meals I had, and all of them followed a similar pattern in terms of the order in which the food items were consumed, and the way in which the carbohydrate-rich items were prepared. The order in which you eat foods affects your calorie intake because if you eat high nutrient-to-calorie ratio foods before, and leave the low nutrient-to-calorie ones for later, my experience is that you will eat less of the latter.

Another possible hidden reason for the low rate of obesity in South Korea is what seems to be a cultural resistance to industrialized foods, particularly among older generations; a sort of protective cultural inertia, if you will. Those foods are slowly being adopted – my visit left me with that impression – by not as quickly as in other countries. And there is overwhelming evidence that consumption of highly industrialized foods, especially those rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars, is a major cause obesity and a host of other problems.

Cultural resistance to, or cultural inertia against the adoption of, highly industrialized foods among pregnant mothers limits one’s exposure to those foods at a particularly critical time in one’s life – the 9-month gestation period in the mother’s womb. This could have a major impact on a person’s propensity to become obese or have other metabolic derangements later on in life. Some refer to this phenomenon as a classic example of modern epigenetics, whereby acquired traits appear to induce innate traits across generations.

Another reason I was excited about this trip to South Korea was my interest in table tennis. I wanted to know more about their table tennis “culture”, and how it was influenced by their general culture. China dominates modern table tennis, with such prodigies as Ma Lin, Ma Long, Wang Hao, Wang Liqin, and Zhang Jike. South Korea is not far behind; two of my all-time favorite South Korean players are Kim Taek-Soo and former Olympic champion Ryu Seung-Min.

Another side note. The best table tennis player of all time is arguably Jan-Ove Waldner (), from Sweden. I talked about him in my book on compensatory adaptation (). Waldner has been one of the few players outside China to be able to consistently beat the best Chinese players at times when they were at the top of the games, including Ma Lin ().

But, as I soon learned, as far as sports are concerned, it is not table tennis that most South Koreans are interested in these days. It is soccer.

A nice surprise during this trip was a tour in Gwangju in which we visited a studio that converted standard movies to stereoscopic three-dimensional ones (photo below). These folks were getting a lot of business, particularly from the USA, in a market that is very competitive.

(A standard-to-3D movie conversion studio in Gwangju)

Let’s get back to the health angle of the post. So there you have it, two possible “hidden” reasons for the low prevalence of obesity in South Korea, and maybe in other Southeast Asian countries. One is the way in which foods are prepared and consumed, and the other is cultural inertia. These are not very widely discussed, but future research may change that.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cabeza de Vaca: Supernaturalism and psychosomatic disorders

Andrew Weil, a major proponent of the idea of self-healing (), has repeatedly acknowledged the influence of osteopaths such as Robert C. Fulford () on him, particularly regarding his philosophy of health management. Self-healing is not about completely autonomous healing; it is about healing by stimulation of the body's self-repair processes, which in some cases can be achieved by simply reducing stress.

Interestingly, there are many reported cases of osteopaths curing people from various diseases by doing things like cranial manipulation and other forms of touching. We also have much evidence of health improvement through prescription of drugs that don’t appear to have any health benefits, which is arguably a similar phenomenon.

The number of such reported cases highlights what seems to be a reality about diseases in general, which is that they often have a psychosomatic basis. Their “cure” involves making the person affected believe that someone can cure him, a healer, with or without drugs. The healer then cures the person essentially by her power of suggestion.

Paleoanthropological evidence suggests that this healer-induced phenomenon has always been widespread among hunter-gatherer cultures, so much so that it may well have been the result of evolutionary pressures. If this is correct, how does it relate to health in our modern world?

I am very interested in hunter-gatherer cultures, and I have also been living in Texas for almost 10 years now. So it is only natural for me to try to learn more about the former hunter-gatherer groups in Texas, particularly those who lived in the area prior to the introduction of horses by the Europeans.

There are parks, museums, and other resources on the topic in various parts of Texas, which are at driving distance. Unfortunately much has been lost, as the Plains Indians of Texas (e.g., Comanches and Kiowas) who succeeded those pre-horse native groups have largely been forcibly relocated to reservations in Oklahoma.

Anthropological evidence suggests that the earliest migrations to America have occurred via the Bering Strait, initially from Siberia into Alaska, and then gradually spreading southward to most of the Americas between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Much of what is known about the early Texas Indians is due to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who survived a shipwreck and lived among the Amerindians in and around Texas between 1528 and 1536. He later wrote a widely cited report about his experiences ().

(Cabeza de Vaca and his companions; source:

In Spanish, “cabeza de vaca” means, literally, “cow’s head”. This odd surname, Cabeza de Vaca, clearly had a flavor of nobility to it in Spain at the time.

You may have heard that early American Indians were uniformly of short stature, not unlike most people at the time, but certainly shorter than the average American today. Cabeza de Vaca dispels this idea with his description of the now extinct Karankawas, a description that has been born out by anthropological evidence. The male members “towered above the Spaniards”, often 6 ft or taller in height, in addition to being muscular.

The Karankawas were a distinct indigenous group that shared the same environment and similar food sources with other early groups of much lower stature. This strongly suggests a genetic basis for their high stature and muscular built, probably due to the “founder effect”, well known among population geneticists.

Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, two Spaniards and one Moroccan slave, were believed by the Amerindians to be powerful healers. This enabled them to survive among early Texas Indians for several years. Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues at times acknowledged that they were probably curing people through what we would refer today as a powerful placebo effect.

Having said that, Cabeza de Vaca has also come to believe, at least to a certain extent, that he was indeed able to perform miraculous cures. He repeatedly stated his conviction that those cures were primarily through divine intervention, as he was a devout Christian, although there are many contradictory statements in this respect in his reports (possibly due to fear from the Spanish Inquisition). He also performed simple surgeries.

Much has been written about Cabeza de Vaca’s life among the early Indians of Texas and surrounding areas, including the report by Cabeza de Vaca himself. One of my favorites is the superb book “A Land So Strange” () by Andrés Reséndez, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis ().

The Spanish explorer’s experiences have been portrayed in the film “Cabeza de Vaca” (), which focuses primarily on the supernatural angle, with a lot of artistic license. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with this film, as I expected it to show more about the early Indians’ culture and lifestyle. Juan Diego, the Spanish actor portraying Cabeza de Vaca, was razor thin in this film - a fairly realistic aspect of the portrayal.

It is quite possible that modern humans have an innate tendency to believe in and rely on the supernatural, a tendency that is the product of evolution. We know from early and more recent evidence from hunter-gatherer societies that supernatural beliefs help maintain group cohesion and, perhaps quite importantly, mitigate the impact that the knowledge of certain death has on the mental health of hunter-gatherers.

Homo sapiens is unique among animals in its awareness of its own mortality, which may be a byproduct of its also unique ability to make causal inferences. Supernatural beliefs among hunter-gatherers almost universally address this issue, by framing death as a threshold between this existence and the afterlife, essentially implying immortality.

Yet, supernatural beliefs seem to also have a history of exploitation, where they are used to manipulate others. Cabeza de Vaca himself implies that, at points, he and his companions took personal advantage of the beliefs in their healing powers by the various indigenous groups with which they came into contact.

Modern humans who are convinced that they have no supernatural beliefs often perceive that to be a major advantage. But there could be disadvantages. One is that they may have more difficulty dealing with psychosomatic disorders. The conscious knowledge that they are psychosomatic could possibly pale in comparison with the belief in supernatural healing, in terms of curative power. Another potential disadvantage is a greater likelihood of suffering from mental disorders.

Finally, those who are sure that they have no supernatural beliefs; are they really correct? Well, subconsciously things may be different. Perhaps a good test would be to go to a “convincing” movie (i.e., not a laughable “B-level” one; for lack of a better word) about supernatural things, such as possession or infestation by evil spirits, and see if it has any effect on you.

If the experience does have an effect on you, even a small one, couldn't this suggest that your subconscious belief in the supernatural may not be so easy to control in a conscious way? I suspect that having no supernatural beliefs is unnatural and unhealthy. In most cases it probably creates a conscious-subconscious conflict, and a fairly pessimist view of the world.

My guess is that it is better to have those beliefs, in some form or another, and be on guard against exploitation.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Dried meat: Homemade beef jerky

You can dry many types of meat, including beef, pork, goat, deer, and even some types of seafood, such as mussels. Drying meat tends to significantly increase the meat’s protein content per gram, often more than doubling it. It also helps preserve the meat, as bacteria need an aqueous environment to grow; adding salt helps further prevent bacterial growth.

Dried meat preparation and consumption was common among the Plains Indians (e.g., of the Cheyenne, Comanche, and Lakota tribes), and also a valuable trade item for them. They often ground the dried meat into a powder, mixing fat and berries with them; the result of which was pemmican. Many other hunter-gatherer cultures around the world have incorporated dried meat into their diets.

Below is a recipe for homemade beef jerky, which is very close in terms of nutrition content to the dried meat of the Plains Indians's time; that is, the time when the Plains Indians subsisted mostly on bison. Commercial beef jerky typically has a lower nutrient-to-calorie ratio, in part because sugar is added to it. The recipe is for beef jerky, but can be used to make jerky with bison meat as well.

- Cut about 3 lbs of beef muscle into thin strips (see photo below). Ideally you should buy it partially cut already, with most of the fat trimmed. Cutting with or against the grain doesn’t seem to make much difference, at least to me.

- Prepare some dry seasoning powder by mixing salt and cayenne pepper.

- Season the strips and place them on a tray with a grid on top, so that the fat that will come off the meat is captured by the tray and doesn’t drip into the oven.

- Preheat the oven to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and place the strips in it until you can easily pull a piece of the meat off with your fingers (see photos below, for an idea of how they would look). This should take about 1 hour or so. You will not technically be “baking” or "cooking" the meat at this temperature, although the digestibility of the final product will be comparable to that of cooked meat – i.e., greater digestibility than raw meat.

- Leave the strips in the oven until they are cold, this will dry them further.

Homemade beef jerky, prepared as above, is supposed to be eaten cold. In this sense, it could be thought of as a bit like salami, but with a higher protein-to-fat ratio. If your kids eat this on a regular basis, I suspect that their future orthodontist needs will be significantly reduced. Homemade beef jerky, like the commercial one, requires some serious chewing.

The dried strips of meat can be kept outside the fridge for a long time, but if you intend to keep them for more than a few weeks, I would suggest that you keep them in the fridge. Interestingly, adding sugar apparently increases the non-refrigerated shelf life of beef jerky even further. It doesn’t improve the flavor though, in my opinion.

This is a zero-carbohydrate food item, which may be a good choice for those who are insulin resistant or diabetic, and also for those on low-carbohydrate or just-enough-carbohydrate diets. Often I hear bodybuilders who eat multiple meals per day to say that it is hard for them to prepare high-protein snacks that they can easily carry with them. Well, beef jerky is one option.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Drs. Francisco Cervantes and Marivic Torregosa, and the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium

Last year I traveled to South Korea to give presentations on nonlinear structural equation modeling and WarpPLS (). These are an advanced statistical analysis technique and related software tool, respectively, which have been used extensively in this blog to analyze health data, notably data related to the China Study.

I gave a couple of presentations at Korea University, which is in Seoul, and a keynote address at a conference in Gwangju, in the south part of the country. So I ended up seeing quite a lot of this beautiful country, and meeting many people. Some of my impressions regarding health and lifestyle issues need separate blog posts, which are forthcoming.

One issue that kept me thinking, as it did when I visited Japan a few years ago as well, was the obvious leanness of the South Koreans, compared with Americans, even though you don’t see a lot of emphasis on dieting there. Interestingly, this phenomenon also poses a challenge to many dietary schools of thought. For example, consumption of high-glycemic-index carbohydrates seems to be relatively high in South Korea.

The relative leanness of South Koreans is probably due to a combination of factors. A major one, it seems, is often forgotten. It is related to epigenetics. This term, “epigenetics”, is often assigned different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Here it is used to refer to innate predispositions that don’t have a primarily genetic basis ().

Epigenetic phenomena often give the impression that acquired characteristics can be inherited, and are frequently, and misguidedly, used as examples in support of a theory often associated with Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, better known as Lamarck.

A classic example of epigenetics, in this context, is that of a mother with type II diabetes giving birth to a child that will develop type II diabetes at a young age. Typically type II diabetes develops in adults, but its incidence in children has been increasing lately, particularly in certain areas. And I think that this classic example is in part related to the general leanness of South Koreans and of people in other cultures where adoption of highly industrialized foods has been relatively slow.

In other words, I think that it is possible that a major protection in South Korea, as well as in Japan and other countries, is the cultural resistance, particularly among older generations, against adopting modern diets and lifestyles that deviate from their traditional ones.

This brings me to Drs. Francisco Cervantes and Marivic Torregosa (pictured below). Dr. Cervantes is the Chief Director of Laredo Pediatrics and Neonatology, a pediatrician who studied and practiced in a variety of places, including Mexico, New Jersey, and Texas. Dr. Torregosa is a colleague of mine, a college professor and nurse practitioner in Laredo, with a Ph.D. in nursing and a research interest in child obesity.

As it turns out, Laredo, a city in Southwestern Texas near the border with Mexico, seems like the opposite of South Korea in terms of health, and this may well be related to epigenetics. This presents an enormous opportunity for research, and for helping people who really need help.

In Laredo, as well as in other areas where insulin resistance and type II diabetes are rampant, there is a great deal of variation in health. There are very healthy folks in Laredo, and very sick ones. This great deal of variation is very useful in the identification of causative factors through advanced statistical analyses. Lack of variation tends to have the opposite effect, often “hiding” causative effects.

Drs. Cervantes, Torregosa, and I had a presentation accepted for the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, organized by the Ancestral Health Socienty (). It is titled “Gallbladder Disease in Children: Separating Myths from Facts”. It is entirely based on data collected and analyzed by Dr. Cervantes, who is very knowledgeable about statistics. Below is the abstract.

Cholesterol’s main role in the body is to serve as raw material for bile acids; the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids by the liver accounts for approximately 70 percent of the daily disposal of cholesterol. Bile acids are then stored in the gallbladder and secreted to aid in the digestion of dietary fat. It is often believed that high cholesterol levels cause gallbladder disease. In this presentation, we will discuss various aspects of gallbladder disease, with a focus on children. The presentation will be based on data from 2116 patients of the Laredo Pediatrics & Neonatology. The patients, 1041 boys and 1075 girls, are largely first generation American-born children of Hispanic descent; a group at very high risk of developing gallbladder disease. This presentation will dispel several myths, and lay out a case for a strong association between gallbladder disease and abnormally high body fat levels. Gallbladder disease appears to be largely preventable in children through diet and lifestyle modifications, some of which will be discussed during the presentation.

Many people seem to be unaware of the fact that cholesterol production and disposal are strongly associated with secretion of bile acids. Most of the body's cholesterol is used to produce bile acids, which are reabsorbed from the gut, in a cyclical process. This is the reason behind the use of "bile acid sequestrants" to reduce cholesterol levels.

The focus on gallbladder disease in the presentation comes from an interest by Dr. Cervantes, based on his many years of clinical experience, in using gallbladder disease markers to identify and prevent other conditions, including several conditions associated with what we refer to as diseases of affluence or civilization.

Dr. Cervantes is unique among clinical practitioners in that he spends a lot of time analyzing data from his patients. His knowledge of data analyses techniques rivals that of many professional researchers I know. And he does that at his own expense, something that most clinical practitioners are unwilling to do. Dr. Cervantes and I will be co-authoring blog posts here in the future.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The 2013 PLoS ONE sugar and diabetes study: Sugar from fruits is harmless

A new study linking sugar consumption with diabetes prevalence has gained significant media attention recently. The study was published in February 2013 in the journal PLoS ONE (). The authors are Sanjay Basu, Paula Yoffe, Nancy Hills and Robert H. Lustig.

Among the claims made by the media is that “… sugar consumption — independent of obesity — is a major factor behind the recent global pandemic of type 2 diabetes” (). As it turns out, the effects revealed by the study seem to be very small, which may actually be a side effect of data aggregation; I will discuss this further below.

Fruits are exonerated

Let me start by saying that this study also included in the analysis the main natural source of sugar, fruit, as a competing variable (competing with the effects of sugar itself), and found it to be unrelated to diabetes. As the authors note: “None of the other food categories — including fiber-containing foods (pulses, nuts, vegetables, roots, tubers), fruits, meats, cereals, and oils — had a significant association with diabetes prevalence rates”.

This should not surprise anyone who has actually met and talked with Dr. Lustig, the senior author of the study and a very accessible man who has been reaching out to the public in a way that few in his position do. He is a clinician and senior researcher affiliated with a major university; public outreach, in the highly visible way that he does it, is probably something that he does primarily (if not solely) to help people. Dr. Lustig was at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium, and he told me, and anyone who asked him, that sugar in industrialized foods was his target, not sugar in fruits.

As I noted here before, the sugar combination of fruits, in their natural package, may in fact be health-promoting (). The natural package probably promotes enough satiety to prevent overconsumption.

Both (unnatural) sugar and obesity have effects, but they are tiny in this study

The Diabetes Report Card 2012 () provides a wealth of information that can be useful as a background for our discussion here.

In the USA, general diabetes prevalence varies depending on state, with some states having higher prevalence than others. The vast majority of diabetes cases are of type 2 diabetes, which is widely believed to be strongly associated with obesity.

In 2012, the diabetes prevalence among adults (aged 20 years or older) in Texas was 9.8 percent. This rate is relatively high compared to other states, although lower than in some. So, among a random group of 1,000 adult Texans, you would find approximately 98 with diabetes.

Prevalence increases with age. Among USA adults in general, prevalence of diabetes is 2.6 percent within ages 20–44, 11.7 percent within ages 45–64, and 18.9 percent at age 64 or older. So the numbers above for Texas, and prevalence in almost any population, are also a reflection of age distribution in the population.

According to the 2013 study published in PLoS ONE, a 1 percent increase in obesity prevalence is associated with a 0.081 percent increase in diabetes prevalence. This comes directly from the table below, fifth column on the right. That is the column for the model that includes all of the variables listed on the left.

We can translate the findings above in more meaningful terms by referring to hypothetical groups of 1,000 people. Let us say we have two groups of 1,000 people. In one of them we have 200 obese people (20 percent); and no obese person in the other. We would find only between 1 and 2 people with diabetes in the group with 200 obese people.

The authors also considered overweight prevalence as a cause of diabetes prevalence. A section of the table with the corresponding results in included below. They also found a significant effect, of smaller size than for obesity – which itself is a small effect.

The study also suggests that consumption of the sugar equivalent of a 12 oz. can of regular soft drink per person per day was associated with a 1.1 percent rise in diabetes prevalence. The effect here is about the same as that of a 1 percent increase in obesity.

That is, let us say we have two groups of 1,000 people. In one of them we have 200 people (20 percent) consuming one 12 oz. can of soft drink per day; and no one consuming sugar in the other. (Sugar from fruits is not considered here.) We would find only about 2 people with diabetes in the group with 200 sugary soda drinkers.

In other words, the effects revealed by this study are very small. They are so small that their corresponding effect sizes make them borderline irrelevant for predictions at the individual level. Based on this study, obesity and sugar consumption combined would account for no more than 5 out of each 100 cases of diabetes (a generous estimate, based on the results discussed above).

Even being weak, the effects revealed by this study are not irrelevant for policy-making, because policies tend to influence the behavior of very large numbers of people. For example, if the number of people that could be influenced by policies to curb consumption of refined sugar were 100 million, the number of cases of diabetes that could be prevented would be 200 thousand, notwithstanding the weak effects revealed by this study.

Why are the effects so small?

The effects in this study are based on data aggregated by country. When data is aggregated by population, the level of variation in the data is reduced; sometimes dramatically, a problem that is proportional to the level of aggregation (e.g., the problem is greater for country aggregation than for city aggregation).

Because there can be no association without correlation, and no correlation without variation, coefficients of association tend to be reduced when data aggregation occurs. This is, in my view, the real problem behind what statisticians often refer to, in “statospeech”, as “ecological fallacy”. The effects in aggregated data are weaker than the effects one would get without aggregation.

So, I suspect that the effects in this study, which are fairly weak at the level of aggregation used (the country level), reflect much stronger effects at the individual level of analysis.

Bottom line

Should you avoid getting obese? Should you avoid consuming industrialized products with added sugar? I think so, and I would still have recommended these without this study. There seems to be no problem with natural foods containing sugar, such as fruits.

This study shows evidence that sugar in industrialized foods is associated with diabetes, independently from obesity, but it does not provide evidence that obesity doesn’t matter. It shows that both matter, independently of one another, which is an interesting finding that backs up Dr. Lustig’s calls for policies to specifically curb refined sugar consumption.

Again, what the study refers to as sugar, as availability but implying consumption, seems to refer mostly to industrialized foods where sugar was added to make them more enticing. Fruit consumption was also included in the study, and found to have no significant effect on diabetes prevalence.

Here is a more interesting question. If a group of people have a predisposition toward developing diabetes, due to any reason (genetic, epigenetic, environmental), what would be the probability that they would develop diabetes if they became obese and/or consumed unnatural sugar-added foods?

This type of question can be answered with a moderating effects analysis, but as I noted here before (), moderating effects analyses are not conducted in health research.