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White bread: The next health food? June 15, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. When I was growing up, food was considered a friend, not a foe, something to be enjoyed without guilt. Then came the health police, telling us that salt, butter, cheese, eggs, and white bread (and white everything) were the tools of Satan, leading us on a cholesterol-clogged, sugar-laden path to diabetes, heart attack, obesity and stroke. From then on, on the rare occasions when I’d allow myself to eat a chunk of baguette with butter or Brie, I’d practically die of guilt. Bad dog! No, no!!!

Decades after their initial condemnation, one by one, the “bad” foods began to be rehabilitated. Scientists discovered that the cholesterol in egg yolks didn’t translate into cholesterol in the body, and yes, the egg was the perfect source of protein. Salt is necessary for life itself, and chefs now celebrate it in all its diversity. Butter, it turns out, is far healthier than polyunsaturated fats like safflower oil, and cheeses like blue cheese contain probiotics, the “good” bacteria that keep your gut healthy and free of inflammation.

The latest food to be removed from the death list is, of all things, white bread. If you’re like me, you grew up with those squishable, spongy loaves of what came to be known as “balloon bread” (perhaps because of the plastic bags the loaves were wrapped in, I’ve never been sure). If you squeezed the bag, you could smush the whole loaf into a fist-size blob (if your mother didn’t catch you first). Balloon bread was the go-to option for breakfast toast, French toast and cinnamon toast; for BLTs, PB&J or PB and banana, turkey and tuna fish sandwiches (and all sandwiches); and for toast topped with creamed turkey or creamed white asparagus. The alternative, Pepperidge Farm white bread, was not squishable, not balloon bread, but toast and sandwiches made from it bore no resemblance to the “real thing” because the texture was so different.

Once white bread was vilified (“it’s no different from eating sugar”) and balloon bread in particular came under attack as an empty-calorie diabetes trigger, I, like so many of us, switched to whole-wheat and multigrain breads. No slice of balloon bread has passed my lips my entire adult life, though I still remember those turkey sandwiches and tuna sandwiches and BLTs fondly. (Not to mention the French toast and cinnamon toast.) I dutifully searched for loaves that contained whole grains only, not the despised unbleached white flour with added whole grains. And I learned to enjoy these breads, though I still love baguettes and ciabatta loaves and the delicious dinner rolls of my childhood, hot and dripping with butter.

You can imagine my surprise when I read an article on Yahoo News yesterday in which scientists discovered that eating white bread promotes the growth of gut-healthy, disease- and inflammation-inhibiting Lactobacillus bacteria (one of the kinds of “good” bacteria found in yogurt and probiotic supplements). The scientists also found that pectin, the feel-full substance found in apples and many other fruits, including citrus (and the one that allows fruits to jell into jams, jellies and preserves without added gelatin), inhibited Lactobacillus levels, reducing gut health.

These findings certainly don’t mean that we should stop eating fruit. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” refers to regularity, not beneficial bacteria, and fruits are packed with lifesaving antioxidants as well as vitamins. Nor should it mean that you should rush out and gorge on butter-slathered loaves of balloon bread or any other white bread. What it does mean is that you don’t have to feel guilty for eating the occasional piece of white bread with cheese or as buttered toast with your breakfast egg, or sandwiching the filling of a BLT or egg salad sandwich. Moderation as always is the key.

And given all this reversal of dietary advice once the studies that produced it were fully analyzed, the next time news headlines tell you to give up a basic food (as opposed to junk, fast, and processed food), if I were you I’d take it with a grain of salt.

‘Til next time,



Bad science: Weight loss. January 12, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. God bless scientists, and their constant quest to make life better through research. But when research projects derail due to too-narrow focus and the scientists miss the point, it drives me crazy.

Such was the case with a study published in our local paper today. The scientists wanted to find out if eating more slowly caused people to eat fewer calories, and specifically, if it caused normal-weight people to eat fewer calories than overweight and obese people.

This topic in its wider implications has been on the table, so to speak, for a long time. Most doctors, nutritionists, and research scientists who specialize in the subject of weight loss and obesity maintain that the more slowly you eat, the more time your brain has to process a feeling of fullness, which makes it possible to stop when you’ve eaten half a plate of food or when you’ve reached the Japanese ideal of 80% full rather than gorging on everything in sight.

“Put your fork down between bites. Chew each mouthful 50 times. Sip water between each bite. Never eat in front of the TV. Allow no distractions when you’re eating, just focus on the food. Just eat one kind of food rather than a variety. Use a tiny plate. Get someone else to put away the leftovers.” And so the diet advice goes.

I agree that eating more slowly will make you eat less, but you’ll eat less, in my opinion, because the food becomes less appetizing. Hot food cools down past its perfect temperature; cold food warms up past its ideal temperature. The result is a gloppy, gelatinous, unappetizing mess. If you eat slowly, you’re more likely to eat the three perfect forkfuls or spoonfuls, then look at the increasingly revolting remains on your plate and put your utensils down. Yuck! Thank God for leftovers that can be brought back to the right temperature.

But I digress. In the study, normal-weight and overweight or obese participants were randomly assigned to eat slowly or “as quickly as possible without feeling uncomfortable.” All were given the same dish of vegetarian pasta. A few days later, they were again given the same pasta dish, but this time, they were to eat it in the opposite manner to their first attempt. The scientists measured calories consumed from both groups.

They found that, sure enough, both groups consumed fewer calories when they ate more slowly: The normal-weight group consumed 88 fewer calories, 805 versus 893. The overweight and obese group only consumed 58 fewer calories, 667 versus 725. See, the scientists said, overweight and obese people can’t regulate their calorie consumption as well as normal-weight people!

Well, excuuuse me. But might you have noticed that the overweight and obese group actually consumed far fewer calories than the normal-weight group?! 667 versus 805 and 725 versus 893 seems like a significant number of calories to me, and a finding that refutes the idea of people becoming fat because they gorge on ten times their weight of fast and junk food every day, unable to stop eating. However, the researchers were so focused on slow versus fast eating that they completely failed to notice, much less mention, this glaring discrepancy.

What could it mean? A logical conclusion is that normal-weight people’s metabolisms are simply more efficient than overweight people’s, allowing them to burn more calories. It could also mean that normal-weight people exercise more than overweight people, burning more calories and revving their metabolisms. It could even mean that normal-weight people choose healthier, lower-cal foods than overweight people, so they can eat more and weigh less. What it clearly does not show is that overweight people eat more than normal-weight people. In fact, it appears that, given the same food and the same amount of food, they eat less.

So perhaps the reporters and the doctors and everybody else can finally let go of the gluttony label and start looking at the real causes of weight gain and weight retention, and stop labeling everyone who says they eat almost nothing yet are overweight as liars.

‘Til next time,


Dumb science. July 11, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It looks like the baboons are running the show. Our friend Ben read a report in yesterday’s paper about how researchers had devised an experiment in which participants drew four foods from life: a pizza, a cupcake, a strawberry, and a pepper. The researchers monitored how much drawing each food affected the pleasure centers in the brains of the participants. The food that turned on the pleasure centers most was pizza, followed by the cupcake, then the strawberry. The poor pepper barely registered.

The researchers were at a loss to understand these findings. Maybe people just didn’t like peppers?! Why would pizza outrank a cupcake?

Duh. Our sense of smell is our strongest memory trigger, and of course it follows that a scent that brings back pleasant memories would trigger our pleasure centers. The four test foods have very different strengths of scent, with a cooked pizza being the strongest, followed by a cupcake, then a strawberry. An uncut pepper has virtually no scent. Are the rankings any surprise? Hardly.

You’d think a monkey could figure this out, and they probably would manage it a lot better than these moronic researchers. Which wouldn’t bother our friend Ben except for two things: The gravity with which each and every research project, however stupid and worthless, is reported in national news; and the fact that ultimately, we taxpayers are paying for these experiments, however stupid, repetitive, and obvious they are, however many wrong, illogical, or clueless “results” are drawn from them.

I couldn’t care less if researchers spent their time sticking their hands on hot burners to see if they hurt themselves, as long as I didn’t have to pay for it. Or read the inevitably blaring headline, “Research shows hot burners pose hazard to skin.” Followed in a week or a month or a year with “Researchers find that burning hands on stove is good for weight loss,” or whatever inevitable reversal of the initial research reveals. “Use safflower oil to prevent heart disease.” “Safflower oil promotes heart disease. Use olive oil instead.” Ugh.

Obviously, we need research to discover breakthroughs, make connections, and move ahead as a society. But couldn’t we be a bit more selective about the projects we take on, and more discriminating and logical about drawing a conclusion, if there even is one? I’d prefer not to fund experiments that “discover” what is already common knowledge, or worse, as in this case, fail to even perceive it.

Pizza, anyone?

Food fight! Eat real food, part 1. June 30, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I was absolutely outraged to read an article in the July/August 2013 issue of The Atlantic called “The Cure for Obesity: How Science Is Engineering Healthy Junk Food.”

The author, David H. Freedman, basically says that no one will ever eat real, healthy food, and that the only solution is to eat reduced-calorie junk and fast food that’s been engineered to be better for you than the hi-cal, hi-trans-fat junk we’re all (supposedly) stuffing ourselves with now. As an example, he suggests that manufacturers put somewhat healthy ingredients in the middle of their candy bars and assume no one will notice.

He also demonizes the people who suggest that we try to cut down on processed foods and eat more whole, fresh foods, such as veggies, fruits, and carbs like brown (as opposed to white) rice. And he especially hates proponents of organic and locally grown produce. Using author Michael Pollan as an example, he has a section called “Michael Pollan Has No Clothes,” and refers throughout the article to those who try to promote a healthy whole-foods diet as “pollanites.”

This article is such a tangle of ignorance and pretzel logic that it’s challenging to even know where to begin. So I’ll begin where he does: with three smoothies. Smoothies are an easy target because they’re trendy among health-obsessed stars and athletes, sort of a pretentious excuse for a milkshake. They can also contain stomach-churning combinations of ingredients.

In fact, one of the three smoothies the author tried was made from green vegetables, and despite being super-healthful and low-cal, he couldn’t finish it, noting that it “smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery.” Besides, it was… green.

I have to agree with him there. Drinks just shouldn’t be green, unless they’re limeade, margaritas, or mojitos. I don’t care how healthy it is, it’s just wrong. (I felt the same way when I was served a margarita once that was the precise color of blue mouthwash. It tasted fine, but still. “Blue agave” doesn’t bring that color to mind, and I know my agaves.)

The author also tried a smoothie made fresh tableside at another restaurant using organic produce, including an apple, blueberries, carrots, and kale. Despite the presence of kale (which I love, but would prefer to eat, not drink), he found this one “tasty,” but decided all on his own that it contained 300 calories per 16-ounce cup.

How could the produce that he mentions, without added fat or sugar, add up to 300 calories? Let’s do the math: apple, 95 calories; 1/2 cup blueberries, 42; 1/2 cup chopped raw carrot, 26; 1 cup raw kale, 33 calories. I don’t know how your calculator’s working, but mine says that’s 196 calories, 239 if you use a whole cup of blueberries.

Finally, he tells us, he strikes gold on the third try, “with a delicious blueberry-pomegranate smoothie that rang in at a relatively modest 220 calories.” He bought it at McDonald’s. He may have bought it, but I’m not buying his argument. I looked up the ingredients in a McDonald’s smoothie, and here’s what I found:

True, they have 210-220 calories for a small (12-ounce) smoothie, about the same number as a small order of fries or a medium Coke, according to Martha Edwards on the blog That’s Fit (www.thatsfit.com, “McDonald’s Smoothies: More Calories Than a Cheeseburger?”). It’s cheating to compare a 12-ounce drink to one with 16 ounces, but even so, the 16-ounce, fresh, organic, actually healthy smoothie only had 19 more calories.

Large (22-ounce) McDonald’s smoothies have 330 calories (more than a cheeseburger), and 70 grams of sugar, derived from pureed fruit, fruit juice, added sugar, and of course, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in that low-fat yogurt, which also—vegetarian spoiler alert!—contains gelatin. And needless to say, it’s not organic.

How much sugar is 70 grams, exactly, for those of us metrically challenged types? A teaspoon of sugar weighs about 4 grams. Ten teaspoons of sugar would then weigh 40 grams, and 70 grams of sugar is more than 18 teaspoons of sugar, more than a third of a cup. Forget the obesity epidemic, Mr. Freedman, ever heard of the diabetes epidemic? Sugar is a cause of inflammation, the underlying cause of chronic disease, from diabetes and heart disease to non-genetically induced cancer. Bring it on!!! As he says in the article, “Thanks, McDonald’s!”

This is enough droning on for one day, but, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”

‘Til next time,


Sloppy reporting. June 5, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If you’ve ever taken a class in statistics, you know that by shaping the parameters of a study, you can make it say whatever you want. (“Three out of four people have blue eyes,” you can announce, if you find three blue-eyed people and pair them up with a brown-eyed person. No matter that blue eyes are in fact the second-rarest and brown eyes the most common.) Sponsored studies are conducted all the time at the behest of corporations with agendas. They put up the money, and scientists who have kids to send to college and mortgages to pay off find themselves reporting that people who eat three Big Macs a day or Monsanto-engineered foods live longer, healthier lives.

This is our reality, and caveat emptor, buyer beware. Of course it makes me sick. But there should be a barrier between the public and research of this kind, and that barrier is journalism. Journalists understand the nature of statistics better than most. They should be watching for the corporate-funded studies that amazingly happen to support corporate greed. And they should be watching for studies that are inherently flawed, even if the flaws are inadvertent, before trumpeting results that are dubious at best and inaccurate at worst.

What set me off on this tirade was an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Green Is Good: Vegetarians Live Longer, Study Finds.” You might have thought that I, as a vegetarian, would have been thrilled by this article. But I wasn’t, because the results were flawed, and the reporter didn’t pick up on it.

The good folks conducting the research didn’t compare just any vegetarians with omnivores. They looked at the health history of Seventh-Day Adventists versus the general omnivorous public. Yes, Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarian. But they also don’t drink, smoke, or take drugs.

For the results to be valid, the scientists conducting the study would have to either compare Seventh-Day Adventists to omnivores who also didn’t smoke, drink, or take drugs, or compare vegetarians in the general population to omnivores in the general population, who might or might not indulge in smoking, drinking, or the like. The only appropriate conclusion from this study is “Seventh-Day Adventists Live Longer, Study Finds.” Shame on the reporter for not calling out such an obvious flaw!

Given the prevalence of such sloppy reporting, it’s up to us to keep our eyes wide open when reading the conclusions drawn by statistical research. Who funded the study? Do the conclusions benefit the entity that sponsored it? Is there some inherent logical flaw in the research, something that would throw off the results, even if no one stands to benefit from them? Put on your Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap next time you read about a study that “proves” this or that. Maybe it does. But then again, maybe it’s just bad science.

‘Til next time,