Tag Archives: Aaron Carroll

The Bad Food Bible: A Well-Written, Sensible and Science-Based Approach To Diet

The skeptical cardiologist has been searching for some time for a book on diet that he can recommend to his patients. While I can find books which have a lot of useful content, usually the books mix in some totally unsubstantiated advice with which I disagree.

I recently discovered a food/diet/nutrition book which with I almost completely agree. The author is Aaron Carroll,  a pediatrician, blogger on health care research (The incidental Economist) and a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine.

He writes a regular column for the New York Times and covers various topics in health care. His articles are interesting,  very well written and researched and he often challenges accepted dogma.

Like the skeptical cardiologist, he approaches his topics from an unbiased perspective and utilizes a good understanding of the scientific technique along with a research background to bring fresh perspective to health-related topics.

Last last year he wrote a column, within which I found the following:

Studies of diets show that many of them succeed at first. But results slow, and often reverse over time. No one diet substantially outperforms another. The evidence does not favor any one greatly over any other.

That has not slowed experts from declaring otherwise. Doctors, weight-loss gurus, personal trainers and bloggers all push radically different opinions about what we should be eating, and why. We should eat the way cave men did. We should avoid gluten completely. We should eat only organic. No dairy. No fats. No meat. These different waves of advice push us in one direction, then another. More often than not, we end up right where we started, but with thinner wallets and thicker waistlines.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment and as I surveyed the top diet books on Amazon recently, I saw one gimmicky, pseudoscientific  diet after another. From the Whole30 approach (which illogically  completely eliminates any beans and legumes, dairy products,  alcohol, all grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes (see how absurd this diet is here)) to Dr. Gundry’s Plant Paradox (aka lectin is the new gluten (see here for James Hambling’s wonderful Atlantic article on the huckster’s latest attempt to scare you into buying his useless supplements).

It turns out Carroll published a useful book recently, The Bad Food Bible which critically examines diet and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it.

The first three chapters are on butter, meat, eggs and salt. His conclusions on how we should approach these 4 are similar to ones I have reached and written about on this site (see here for dairy, here for meat, here for eggs and here for salt).  Essentially, the message is that the dangers of these four foods have been exaggerated or nonexistent, and that consuming them in moderation is fine.

The remaining chapters cover topics I have pondered extensively,  but have not written about: including gluten, GMOs, alcohol, coffee, diet-soda and non-organic foods.

I agree with his assessments on these topics. Below, I’ll present his viewpoint along with some of my own thoughts in these areas.

Gluten

Carroll does a good job of providing a scientific, but lay-person friendly background to understanding the infrequent (1 of 141 Americans), but quite serious gluten-related disorder, celiac disease.

However, surveys show that up to one-third of Americans, the vast majority of whom don’t have celiac disease, are seeking “gluten-free” foods, convinced that this is a healthier way of eating. Carroll points out that there is little scientific support for this; there are some individuals who are sensitive to wheat/gluten, but these are rare.

He concludes:

“If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. If you have a proven wheat allergy, you need to avoid wheat. But if you think you have gluten sensitivity? You’d probably be better off putting your energy and your dollars toward a different diet. Simply put, most people who think they have gluten sensitivity just don’t.

I do agree with him that the “gluten-free” explosion of foods (gluten-free sales have doubled from 2010 to 2014) is not justified.

However, I must point out that my 92 year old father has recently discovered that he has something that resembles gluten sensitivity. About a year ago, he noted that about one hour after eating a sandwich he would feel very weak and develop abdominal discomfort/bloating. He began suspecting these symptoms were due to the bread and experimented with different bread types without any symptom relief.

Finally, he tried gluten-free bread and the symptoms resolved.

If you have engaged in this type of observation and experimentation on your self, and noted improved symptoms when not consuming gluten, then I think you’re justified in diagnosing gluten sensitivity, and by all means consider minimizing/avoiding wheat.

GMOS

Carroll begins his chapter on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with a description of the droughts that plagued India in the 1960s and the efforts of Norman Borlaug to breed strains of wheat that were resistant to fungus and yielded more grain. By crossbreeding various strains of wheat he was able to develop a “semi-dwarf” strain that increased what was produced in Mexico by six-fold.

Despite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.

This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed in detail the health effects of GMOs in 2016. Their report concludes:

While recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects in health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engi-neered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. GE crops have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers in early years of adoption, but enduring and widespread gains will depend on institutional support and access to profitable local and global markets, especially for resource-poor farmers

Carroll does a good job of looking at the GMO issue from all sides. He touches on environmental downsides related to herbicide-resistant GMO crops and the problems created by patenting GMO seeds, but asserts that “these are the result of imperfect farming and the laws that regular agribusiness, not of GMOS themselves.”

Ultimately, despite these concerns, I agree with Carroll’s conclusion that:

“Foods that contain GMOs aren’t inherently unhealthy, any more are  than foods that don’t contain them. The companies that are trying to see you foods by declaring them ‘GMO-free” are using the absence of GMOs to their advantage–not yours.”

Alcohol, Coffee, and Diet-Soda

Carroll does a good job of summarizing and analyzing the research for these three topics and reaches the same conclusions I have reached in regard to coffee, alcohol and diet-soda:

-alcohol in moderation lowers your risk of  dying, primarily by reducing cardiovascular death

-coffee, although widely perceived as unhealthy, is actually good for the vast majority of people

For those seeking more details a few quotes


on alcohol:

“Taken together, all of this evidence points to a few conclusions. First, the majority of the research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. Second, it also seems to be associated with increased rates of some cancers (especially breast cancer), cirrhosis, chronic pancreatitis, and accidents, although this negative impact from alcohol seems to be smaller than its positive impact on cardiovascular health. Indeed, the gains in cardiovascular disease seem to outweigh the losses in all the other diseases combined. The most recent report of the USDA Scientific Advisory Panel agrees that “moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns.”

Keep in mind that moderate consumption is up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks for men (my apologies to women in general and the Eternal Fiancee’ of the Skeptical Cardiologist in particular) and be aware of what constitutes “one drink.”

Also keep in mind that any alcohol consumption raises the risk of atrial fibrillation (see here) and that if you have a cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol you should avoid it altogether.


on coffee:

“It’s time people stopped viewing coffee as something to be limited or avoided. It’s a completely reasonable part of a healthy diet, and it appears to have more potential benefits than almost any other beverage we consume.
Coffee is more than my favorite breakfast drink; it’s usually my breakfast, period. And I feel better about that now than ever before. It’s time we started treating coffee as the wonderful elixir it is, not the witch’s brew that C. W. Post made it out to be.”

Strangely enough, coffee is usually my breakfast as well (although I recommend against adding titanium oxide to your morning java).  Why am I not compelled to consume food in the morning?  Because breakfast is not the most important meal of the day and I don’t eat until I’m hungry.


on diet-soda:

Carroll notes that many Americans are convinced that artificial sweeteners are highly toxic:

“no article I’ve written has been met with as much anger and vitriol as the first piece I wrote on this subject for the New York Times, in July 2015, in which I admitted, “My wife and I limit our children’s consumption of soda to around four to five times a week. When we let them have soda, it’s . . . almost always sugar-free.”

He notes, as I have done, that added sugar is the real public enemy number one in our diets. He reviews the scientific studies that look at toxicity of the various artificial sweeteners and finds that they don’t convincingly prove any significant health effects in humans.

Some believe that artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity, but the only evidence supporting this idea comes from observational studies. For many reasons, we should not highly value observational studies but one factor, “reverse causation,” is highly likely to be present in studies of diet sodas. If diet soda consumption is associated with obesity, is it the cause, or do those who are obese tend to drink diet soda. Observational studies cannot answer this question but randomized studies can.

Carroll points out that:

the randomized controlled trials (which are almost always better and can show causality) showed that diet drinks significantly reduced weight, BMI, fat, and waist circumference.”

Simple Rules For Healthy Eating

Carroll concludes with some overall advice for healthy eating:

-Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods

-Eat lightly processed foods less often

-Eat heavily processed foods even less often

-Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, preparing it according to rules 1, 2, and 3

-Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation

-When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules

-Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee, and other beverages are fine

-Treat all calorie-containing beverages as you would alcohol

-Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible

These are solid, albeit not shocking or book-selling, rules that  correspond closely to what I have adopted in my own diet.

In comparison to the bizarre advice from nutrition books which dominate the best-selling diet books, I found The Bad Food Bible to be a consistent, well-written, extensively researched, scientifically-based, unbiased guide to diet and can highly recommend it to my readers and patients.

Semibiblically Yours,

-ACP

Ignore The New York Times and The American Heart Association and Feel Free to Skip Breakfast

A friend recently sent the skeptical cardiologist  a link to a very disappointing NY Times article  entitled “The Case For A Breakfast Feast”

The writer, Roni Rabin (who has a degree in journalism from Columbia University)  struggles to support her sense that there is a “growing body of research” suggesting we should all modify our current dietary habits in order to eat a  breakfast and make breakfast the largest meal of the day.

Many of us grab coffee and a quick bite in the morning and eat more as the day goes on, with a medium-size lunch and the largest meal of the day in the evening. But a growing body of research on weight and health suggests we may be doing it all backward.

Rabin’s first  discussion is of an observational study of Seventh Day Adventists published in July which adds nothing to the evidence in this area because (as she points out):

The conclusions were limited, since the study was observational and involved members of a religious group who are unusually healthy, do not smoke, tend to abstain from alcohol and eat less meat than the general population (half in the study were vegetarian)

She then discusses experiments on mice from 2012 with a Dr. Panda, a short term feeding trial in women from 2013 and studies on feeding and circadian rhythm in a transgenic rat model from 2001.

There is nothing of significance in the NY Times piece that changes my previous analysis  that it is perfectly safe to skip breakfast and that it will neither make you obese nor give you heart disease.


In what follows I’ll repost my initial post on breakfast (Breakfast is Not The Most important Meal of the Day: Feel Free to Skip it) followed by a follow up post (Feel Free To Skip Breakfast Again) I wrote in 2015.

Finally, I’ll take a close look at a statment from the American Heart Association  from earlier this year which Rabin quotes and which many news outlets somehow interpreted as supporting the necessity of eating breakfast for heart health when, in fact, it confirmed the lack of science behind the recommendation.


Feel Free To Skip Breakfast

It always irritates me when a friend tells me that I should eat breakfast because it is “the most important meal of the day”. Many in the nutritional mainstream have propagated this concept along with the idea that skipping breakfast contributes to obesity. The mechanism proposed seems to be that when you skip breakfast you end up over eating later in the day because you are hungrier.

The skeptical cardiologist is puzzled.

Why would i eat breakfast if I am not hungry in order to lose weight?

What constitutes breakfast?

Is it the first meal you eat after sleeping? If so, wouldn’t any meal eaten after sleeping qualify even it is eaten in the afternoon?

Is eating a donut first thing in the morning really healthier than eating nothing?

Why would your first meal be more important than the last?

Isn’t it the content of what we eat that is important more than the timing?

The 2010 dietary guidelines state

eat a nutrient-dense breakfast. Not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight, especially among children and adolescents. Consuming breakfast also has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake

The US Surgeon General website advises that we encourage kids to eat only when they are hungry but also states

Eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight

Biased  and Weak Studies on the Proposed Effect of Breakfast on Obesity (PEBO)

A recent study anayzes the data in support of the “proposed effect of breakfast on obesity” (PEBO) and found them lacking.
This is a fascinating paper that analyzes how scientific studies which are inconclusive can be subsequently distorted or spun by biased researchers to support their positions. It has relevance to how we should view all observational studies.

Observational studies abound in the world of nutritional research. The early studies by Ancel Keys establishing a relationship between fat consumption and heart disease are a classic example. These studies cannot establish causality. For example, we know that countries that consume large amounts of chocolate per capita have large numbers of Nobel Prize winners per capitaChocolate Consumption and Nobel Laureates

Common sense tells us that it is not the chocolate consumption causing the Nobel prizes or vice versa but likely some other factor or factors that is not measured.

Most of the studies on PEBO are observational studies and the few, small prospective randomized studies don’t clearly support the hypothesis.

Could the emphasis on eating breakfast come from the “breakfast food industry”?

I’m sure General Mills and Kellogg’s would sell a lot less of their highly-processed, sugar-laden breakfast cereals if people didn’t think that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

My advice to overweight or obese patients:

-Eat when you’re hungry. Skip breakfast if you want.
-If you want to eat breakfast, feel free to eat eggs or full-fat dairy (including butter)
-These foods are nutrient-dense and do not increase your risk of heart disease, even if you have high cholesterol.
-You will be less hungry and can eat less throughout the day than if you were eating sugar-laden, highly processed food-like substances.


Breakfast Cereal

The “must eat breakfast” dogma reminds me of a quote  from Melanie Warner’s excellent analysis of the food industry, “Pandora’s Lunchbox.”

“Walk down a cereal aisle today or go onto a brand’s Web site, and you will quickly learn that breakfast cereal is one of the healthiest ways to start the day, chock full of nutrients and containing minimal fat. “Made with wholesome grains,” says Kellogg’s on its Web site. “Kellogg’s cereals help your family start the morning with energy by delivering a number of vital, take-on-the-day nutrients—nutrients that many of us, especially children, otherwise might miss.” It sounds fantastic. But what you don’t often hear is that most of these “take-on-the-day” nutrients are synthetic versions added to the product, often sprayed on after processing. It’s nearly impossible to find a box of cereal in the supermarket that doesn’t have an alphabet soup of manufactured vitamins and minerals, unless you’re in the natural section, where about half the boxes are fortified.”

The Kellogg’s and General Mills of the world strongly promoted the concept that you shouldn’t skip breakfast because they had developed products that stayed fresh on shelves for incredibly long periods of time. They could be mixed with easily accessible (low-fat, no doubt) milk to create inexpensive,  very quickly and easily made, ostensibly healthy breakfasts.

Unfortunately, the processing required to make these cereals last forever involved removing the healthy components.

As Warner writes about W.K. Kellogg:

“In 1905, he changed the Corn Flakes recipe in a critical way, eliminating the problematic corn germ, as well as the bran. He used only the starchy center, what he referred to as “the sweetheart of the corn,” personified on boxes by a farm girl clutching a freshly picked sheaf. This served to lengthen significantly the amount of time Corn Flakes could sit in warehouses or on grocers’ shelves but compromised the vitamins housed in the germ and the fiber residing in the bran”

This is a very familiar story in the world of food processing;  Warner covers, nicely, the same processes occurring with cheese and with milk, among other things.


The AHA (Always Horribly Awry) Weighs In

I pick on the American heart Association (AHA) a lot in this blog but the AHA scientific statement on “Meal Timing and Frequency: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention” published earlier this year in Circulation is for the most part a balanced summary of research in the field.

Unfortunately, the media grossly distorted the statement and we ended up with assertive headlines such as this one from Reuters:

Eating Breakfast and Eating Mindfully May Help The Heart

Reuters went on to say (red added by me for emphasis):

“Planning meals and snacks in advance and eating breakfast every day may help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, new guidelines from U.S. doctors say.”

however, the AHA statement says nothing close to that.

This is the summary that was actually in the AHA paper:

“In summary, the limited evidence of breakfast consumption as an important factor in combined weight and cardiometabolic risk management is suggestive of a minimal impact. There is increasing evidence that advice related to breakfast consumption does not improve weight loss, likely because of compensatory behaviors during the day. …… Additional, longer-term studies are needed in this field because most metabolic studies have been either single-day studies or of very short duration”

The lead author of the paper, Marie-Pierre St-Onge, (Ph.D., associate professor, nutritional medicine, Columbia University, New York City) apparently very clearly told Reuters in an email:

“We know from population studies that eating breakfast is related to lower weight and healthier diet, along with lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” .

“However, interventions to increase breakfast consumption in those who typically skip breakfast do not support a strong causal role of this meal for weight management, in particular,” St-Onge cautioned. “Adding breakfast, for some, leads to an additional meal and weight gain.”

“The evidence, St-Onge said, is just not clear enough to make specific recommendations on breakfast.”

Health New Review published a  nice summary of news reports on the AHA statement with a discussion on the overall problem of making broad public policy dietary recommendations from very weak evidence.

New York Times Gets It Right

The New York Times does have writers who can put together good articles on health. One of them, Aaron Carroll wrote a piece in 2016 entitled “Sorry, There’s Nothing Magical About Breakfast” which does a great job of sorting through weak evidence in the field.

Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and writes excellent articles on The New Health Care blog for the Times.

His conclusions are identical to mine from 2013:

“The bottom line is that the evidence of breakfast is something of a mess. If you’re hungry, eat it. But don’t feel bad if you’d rather skip, and don’t listen to those who lecture you. Breakfast has no mystical powers.”

Mindful and Intentional Eating

If you read the AHA statement completely you come across a lot of mumbo-jumbo on intermittent fasting, meal frequency and “mindful” eating.  The abstract’s last sentence is

Intentional eating with mindful attention to the timing and frequency of eating occasions could lead to healthier lifestyle and cardiometabolic risk factor management.

and they reference this table:

 Yikes! I have no idea what they are talking about.
For those of us who need to get to work early in the morning, breakfast is likely to be the worst time for “mindful” eating.
I have a cup of coffee first thing upon arising and only eat much later in the day when I feel very hungry.
Dinner, on the other hand we can plan for, prepare with loved ones and consume  in  a very mindful and leisurely fashion with a glass of heart healthy wine or beer while enjoying good conversation.
So, ignore what apparently authoritative sources like the New York Times, Reuters, and  the AHA tell you about eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper, mindfully or otherwise.
After all, in the Middle Ages, kings likely didn’t eat breakfast as the Catholic church frowned on it. Per Wikipedia:
Breakfast was under Catholic theological criticism. The influential 13th-century Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica (1265–1274) that breakfast committed “praepropere,” or the sin of eating too soon, which was associated with gluttony.[2]Overindulgences and gluttony were frowned upon and were considered boorish by the Catholic Church, as they presumed that if one ate breakfast, it was because one had other lusty appetites as well, such as ale or wine.
Gluttonously Yours,
-ACP
 Image of king and pauper eating from the New York Times article created by Natalya Balnova.