Is Fat Killing You, or Is Sugar?

The title of a recent New Yorker essay by Jerome Groopman.

The problem with most diet books, and with popular-science books about diet, is that their impact relies on giving us simple answers, shorn of attendant complexities: it’s all about fat, or carbs, or how many meals you eat (the Warrior diet), or combinations of food groups, or intervalic fasting (the 5:2 diet), or nutritional genomics (sticking to the foods your distant ancestors may have eaten, assuming you even know where your folks were during the Paleolithic era). They hold out the hope that, if you just fix one thing, your whole life will be better.

In laboratories, it’s a different story, and it sometimes seems that the more sophisticated nutritional science becomes the less any single factor predominates, and the less sure we are of anything. Today’s findings regularly overturn yesterday’s promising hypotheses.

On top of that:

. . . research seems to undermine the whole idea of dieting: extreme regimens pose dangers, such as the risk of damaged kidneys from a buildup of excess uric acid during high-protein diets; and population studies have shown that being a tad overweight may actually be fine. Even studying these issues in the first place can be problematic. Although the study of the Mediterranean diet, for example, reflects randomized controlled experiments, most nutritional studies are observational; they rely on so-called food diaries, in which subjects record what they remember about their daily intake. Such diaries are notoriously inexact. No one likes admitting to having indulged in foods that they know—or think they know—are bad for them.

What to do?

Amid the constant back-and-forth of various hypotheses, orthodoxies, and fads, it’s more important to pay attention to the gradual advances, such as our understanding of calories and vitamins or the consensus among studies showing that trans fats exacerbate cardiovascular disease. What this means for most of us is that common sense should prevail. Eat and exercise in moderation; maintain a diet consisting of balanced amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates; make sure you get plenty of fruit and vegetables. And enjoy an occasional slice of chocolate cake.

The problem with that, common sense is not common.

Self Sabotage

It’s 9:30a.m. Here are some of the decisions I’ve made today, January 2, 2013:

  • I decided to wake up at 5:22 a.m.
  • I decided to put on running pants and two thin, long-sleeve running shirts since Weatherbug was reporting -1 degrees C at the nearby elementary school (0 C and higher=shorts). Plus medium gloves, hat, reflective vest, headlamp.
  • At 5:44 a.m. I decided to walk outside into the pitch black fog.
  • At 5:45 a.m. I decided to run 6+ miles with the Right Wing Nutter and Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man (inexplicably, the PrinciPAL is still in Hawaii). I decided to take the posse around Safeway via North and Eskridge.
  • After some curbside chitchat, at 6:42 a.m., I decided to remove my sweaty running clothes and walked almost naked (still had my socks on) the length of the house to my bedroom where I put on dry running shorts and a dry t-shirt.
  • Upon returning to the kitchen, I decided to eat a banana with peanut butter after which I filled up a water bottle—half orange juice, half water.
  • At 6:58 a.m. I decided to spin 26k (213 watts, 1:01:25) while watching a combination of the Dan Patrick Show, CNN, MSNBC, and ESPN.
  • At 8:05 a.m. I decided to do 60 push ups broken up with some foam roller goodness, planking, and stretching.
  • At 8:30 a.m. I decided to have a large bowl of oatmeal with raisons, brown sugar, butter, and molasses.
  • I decided to skim the Wall Street Journal while eating.
  • For desert, I decided to have one of those new-fangled smallish oranges that darn near unpeel themselves.
  • Shortly before 9 a.m., I decided to shower.
  • Shortly after 9 a.m., I decided to put on long underwear, thus outsmarting Old Man Winter; plus wool socks (important to do that before the long underwear), pants; a t-shirt; and my ace, moth eaten, expedition weight thermal top.
  • Around 9:10 a.m., I decided to go upstairs to my desk where I checked on the stock market rally and chuckled at the Lakers’ boxscore.
  • After aimlessly surfing the internet for fifteen minutes, I decided to reply to a few emails and start Thursday’s blog post, tentatively titled “Self Sabotage”.

A friend of mine has high blood pressure, but that doesn’t stop him from obsessing about things over which he has very little control. A conservative Republican who is sympathetic to the Tea Party, he went darn near silent after the election, depressed by what he sees as a “serious loss of freedom”.

Determining the most appropriate size of the government is an important and legitimate debate, and I understand that 48% or so of U.S. citizens wants to reduce it, but my friend, who has no international frame of reference, lets things like Obamacare, gun control proposals, Bloomberg’s proposed soda regulation, helmet laws, and the unemployment benefits extension get him seriously down. Oddly, he takes each of those proposals and policies personally.

As a result, he completely slights the freedom he does have to make hundreds of decisions every day—ones that directly influence his health and well being—like how much sleep to get, when and how to exercise, and what to eat and drink. That all important trifecta—sleep, exercise, and diet—probably account for at least half of a person’s health and happiness.

But I’m losing the argument. He seems determined to let distant politicians get him down. Ironically, in losing, I’m illustrating another daily freedom he routinely overlooks—the freedom to tune others out.