I’m an American, Scientifically

Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.

  –Albert Einstein

I picked up an issue of Scientific American while in the airport recently. I’ve gone to doing all my travel reading on electronic devices, for convenience. But, inconveniently, there are those long periods on flights when one cannot use electronic devices, even if they aren’t cell phone capable and have everything about them that transmits turned off. I’m very tempted at this point to go off on a tangent, but I’ll show some rare self-restraint and come back to the main point.

To fill in the gaps of time I usually pick up a magazine. I chose Scientific American this time because it was their “special food issue.” I highly suspected I would find both interesting and insane things in this magazine, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Coincidentally, the Sister sent me a link to an online article from SA not long after I landed. So there’s a lot to cover today, and I haven’t even mentioned CNN yet.

Let’s start with the article in the paper edition entitled “The Food Addiction.” The author has some research for the beginning of his article. He mentions some trials with rats–trials where rats fed normal “chow” (“The best nutrition for your rat! From Purina”) could be trained to stop eating upon seeing a blinking light that warned them a painful shock was coming if they did not stop. When they saw the light, they abandoned the chow. However another group of rats–who knew just as well as the first group what the light meant–would not stop eating their very fatty, sugary food. Though they feared the shock, their fear was not enough to stop them snorking down cheesecake. This really tells us something, doesn’t it?

Rat chow must be ghastly.

This particular experiment was wildly popular in the scientific community. CNN blasted us with the headline: “Fatty foods may cause cocain-like addiction.” In the first paragraph they singled out bacon as a possible addictive substance. They even go so far as to say that we have all been suspecting for years that bacon was addictive, and it’s just now been proved. They then go on to describe the food given to the rats, once again, as “fatty, high-calorie” without a mention of sugar in sight.

So what were the rats actually fed? Bacon, sausage, cheesecake, and plain old frosting. After being allowed to gorge themselves 23 hours a day on this food, the rats’ brains changed. Their brains reacted like the brains of rats on cocaine or heroin.

This study, by the way, is utter nonsense.

Allow me to provide an alternate, and more accurate, headline for CNN:

“One Study Suggests That Fatty or Sugary–But We’re Not Sure Which Because We Didn’t Bother To Separate Confounders But Just Assumed That It’s The Fat Causing The Problem And Not The Sugar–Foods Seem To Have A Similar Effect On The Brain of Rats As Heroin.”

Of course, that headline probably won’t cause you to abandon your bacon, so it wasn’t good enough.

One of the biggest problems with the study is that rats are not people. They act on instinct. We have reason, culture, sin natures, grace, education, mothers, etc to affect our decisions. Even the CNN article admits at the end that weight loss drugs tested in rats showed 30% body weight reductions, but those same drugs only achieved a 5% reduction in human beings.

Suggesting we might not be exactly the same thing as a rat.

But bigger than that problem is the confounding of sugar and fat in this experiment. There’s absolutely no way to tell which of those two macronutrients the rats were responding to. Not only that, but some of the food also contained dwarf wheat: a further confounder. And that problem is carried over into the Scientific American article.

The article goes on to explain how the human brain gets “hooked on food.” There’s a lot about dopamine receptors, stimulated reward centers, leptin, insulin, genetics and tolerance. It’s all very interesting, but it doesn’t address any of the confounding questions:

1. Why single out fat? There’s wheat and sugar in very large quantities in what these rats were eating. Every “addictive” substance mentioned in the article for humans was a sugar bomb of some kind. The representative food in the picture was a giant cinnamon bun–fat, yes, but sugar more than anything else. Upon what scientific basis was fat ripped out of the mix and made the sole whipping boy?

2. Why is this suddenly such a problem? If this is the explanation for obesity, why didn’t millennia of fatty diets cause obesity in other populations? I’ve talked about two or three historic ones in the past, but there are modern ones too: the French and the Greeks. (Google “the French Paradox” and you’ll find all kinds of nonsense by scientists trying to figure out how cheese and butter guzzling Frenchmen aren’t all getting fat and having heart attacks, without those scientists having to abandon their pet thesis that fat is evil) Eating cheesecake and canned frosting 23 hours a day is quite a new phenomenon in human history: but we’ve been chowing down on pigs or their equivalent in all forms since we’ve existed.

3. What about the proven opiate-like response of the brain to the gliadin protein in modern dwarf wheat? Was that accounted for, as these rats snarfed their cheesecake? Is it accounted for in the cinnamon bun? No, of course it wasn’t. Once again, scientists fed something enormous amounts of refined carbohydrates and then blamed the fat attached to it for all the ills.

CNN says we have all suspected this. Let me ask you, as a hopefully thinking person: have you always suspected this?

Hi. My name is Ralph, and I’m an addict.

Hi Ralph.

It kind of started when I was a kid. At first I thought, “Hey, I can control this. I’m ok.”

That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. Keep going, man.

But then, you know, it just got out of control. I just couldn’t get enough.

Preach it brother! Come on!

I tried to hide it from my friends. My family. *Sob*

We’ve all been here Ralph. You can do it, man. We’re with you.

Then I started running out of money. I started spending my savings. Then it was my kids’ savings.

Yeah, man. Speak the truth!

Then I started stealing. I’d steal anything, just to get that next fix.

That’s the way.

But bacon’s not going to control me anymore! I’m laying it down! I’m taking back my life, and I’m starting today!

*Wild cheering*

In all seriousness, did you ever worry that anyone you know is addicted to bacon? Or sausage? Or steak? Or butter? I’m pretty sure you haven’t. But have you ever worried that someone you cared about was addicted to sweet stuff? Or starches? I have.

I’ve never in my life seen anyone run out and buy a pack of bacon at 10pm because they had an “irresistible” craving. (For our purposes today, pregnant women do not count either way.) But I’ve seen people do it with ice cream and cookies. I’ve never known a human being to careen into Kroger, looking to see if they’ve got a fresh batch of unsalted butter in. But I’ve seen people endanger the lives of themselves and their children by whipping the car around to get into the Krispy Kreme when that light goes on. I’ve never seen someone browsing the fridge in the afternoon for a couple sausages. But I’ve seen people bring out yesterday’s birthday cake and finish the whole thing off. I’ve never heard anyone say: “Man, I didn’t mean to finish that whole tub of sour cream. I just can’t help myself. Hahahahahaha!” But I’ve seen people do it with bags of jelly beans, boxes of doughnuts, leftover pie, Doritos…and whether they were fat or skinny, we all cringed a bit at that “hahahahahaha!” that’s meant to imply: Hey. This is no problem. It’s all good. I’ve got it under control. Laugh with me, will you? Don’t we all kind of lose control with sweet stuff? Hahahahahaha?

If any food is truly addictive, and I’ll grant that there seems some evidence that there are such substances, it’s sugar and starch. It’s not fat. People may inhale cheesecake, true, but the fat only makes the sugar that much more delightful. It’s not the fat that’s causing the lack of control. If it was, there wouldn’t just be people who can’t pass up the cheesecake at the coffee shop every afternoon: people would be just as likely to sit in the parking lot of the grocery store inhaling Philadelphia cream cheese directly from the box. In fact, given that you could buy a whole box of cream cheese for half the price of a tiny slice of cheesecake, it ought to be even more common.

You don’t see people just snorking fat without the sugar. But you DO see them stuffing down sugar without the fat, usually in the form of candy advertised as “low fat!” You don’t see people stuffing themselves secretly with fat that has no starch. But you DO see them vacuuming up boxes of Cheese Nips and pretzels late at night as if the world was going to end tomorrow.

Our next Scientific American article is entitled: “Everything You Know About Calories is Wrong.”

This was a fascinating article:

New research has revealed that this assumption [that the calories contained in a food are what we get from them] is, at best, far too simplistic. To accurately calculate the total calories that someone gets out of a given food, you would have to take into account a dizzying array of factors, including whether that food has evolved to survive digestion; how boiling, baking, microwaving or flambeing a food changes its structure and chemistry; how much energy the body expends to break down different kinds of food; and the extent to which the billions of bacteria in the gut aid human digestion and, conversely, steal some of the calories for themselves.


He goes on to explain how fruits, vegetables, and nuts, in particular, resist digestion so that many of them release far fewer calories than one would expect. He then describes proteins–which require as much as five times the energy to unravel and digest that fats do. Expenditure of energy means calories used. And then he explains how some foods prompt more of an immune response than others: a response that again uses up calories as the body rushes to defend you from those microbes on your raw organic spinach leaves.

The biggest problem in calorie counting, in his mind, is that we don’t account for cooking. Cooking completely changes the cellular structure of a food, meaning it dramatically changes how much nutrition and how many calories you get from it.

Finally, and to my mind most fascinating, there are gut microbe issues that are so complex this author (and the author of the online article, which I’ll talk about tomorrow) doesn’t see any hope that we’ll ever fully unravel them. Two people can eat exactly the same thing in the same quantity, yet the bacteria in their respective digestive tracts and the enzymes their body produces for digestion will change how much nutrition and how many calories they derive from it.

Measuring people’s colons has not been popular for years, but when it was the craze…studies discovered that certain Russian populations had large intestines that were about 57 cm longer on average than those of certain Polish populations. Because the final stages of nutrient absorption occurs in the large intestine, a Russian eating the same amount of food as a Pole is likely to get more calories from it….most adults do not produce the enzyme lactase, which is necessary to break down the lactose sugars in milk. As a result, one man’s high-calories latte is another’s low-calorie case of the runs.

Just another reason that counting calories isn’t the answer.


Plato says he’s hungry

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