Posts Tagged ‘ADA’

The  SBU (Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment) is charged by the Swedish government with assessing health care treatments. Their recent acceptance of low-carbohydrate diets as best for weight loss is one of the signs of big changes in nutrition policy.  I am happy to reveal the next bombshell, this time from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) which will finally recognize the importance of reducing carbohydrate as the primary therapy in type 2 diabetes and as an adjunct in type 1.  Long holding to a very reactionary policy — while there were many disclaimers, the ADA has previously held 45 – 60 % carbohydrate as some kind of standard — the agency has been making slow progress. A member of the writing committee who wishes to remain anonymous has given me a copy of the 2014 nutritional guidelines due to be released next year, an excerpt from which, I reproduce below. (more…)

tarnowerhermanThe only person definitely known to have died as a consequence of an association with a low-carbohydrate diet is Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the Scarsdale diet, although, as they used to say on the old TV detective shows, the immediate cause of death was lead poisoning. His girlfriend shot him. Not that folks haven’t been looking for other victims. The Atkins diet is still the bête noire of physicians, at least those who aren’t on it — a study published a few years ago said that physicians were more likely to follow a low carbohydrate diet when trying to lose weight themselves, while recommending a low fat diets for their patients.

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The joke in academic circles is that there are three responses to a new idea. First, “This is wrong,” second, “There’s nothing new in this,” and third, the sub-title of this post. Priority in a scientific discovery is fundamental in science, however, and “we thought of this first” is not always that funny.  Getting “scooped” can have serous practical consequences like jeopardizing your grant renewal and, if nothing else, most of us are motivated by a desire to solve the problem and don’t like the feeling that, by analogy, somebody came along and filled in our crossword puzzle.  In dietary carbohydrate, all three of the responses co-exist.  While an army of dietitians is still claiming that people with diabetes need ever more carbohydrate, in the background the low-fat paradigm crumbles and, somewhat along the lines of the predictions in A Future History of Diabetes , the old guard are coming forward to tell us that they have been recommending low-carb all along.

The latest discoverer of the need to reduce dietary carbohydrate is David Jenkins whose recent paper is entitled “Nuts as a Replacement for Carbohydrates in the Diabetic Diet.” [1] The title is crazy enough, following the tradition of getting away from nutrients, that is, well-defined variables, and replacing it with “food,” that is, mixtures of everything. It is, in fact, not really a low carbohydrate study but the experimental design is not the problem.  It is the background and rationale for the study which recognizes the disintegration of the low-fat diet paradigm but, at the same time, fails to cite any of the low-carbohydrate studies that have been instrumental in showing the need to replace carbohydrates in the diabetic diet. Given forty years of studies showing the benefits of low carbohydrate diets and forty years of unrestrained attacks on the method, it will be interesting to see how Jenkins shows that it is actually the nutritional establishment that invented carbohydrate restriction.

Disputes over priority are well known in the history of science. Newton’s frequently quoted statement that he had seen farther than others because he had “stood on the shoulders of giants” has been interpreted by some historians as a sarcastic comment aimed at Robert Hooke  with whom he had, among other things, a dispute over the priority for the inverse square law (force of gravity varies as the inverse of the square of the distance: F = GmM/g2). Hooke was short and suffered from kyphosis and is assumed not to have shoulders you would profitably stand on.

Even Einstein had trouble.  His dispute with the mathematician David Hilbert about priority for the field equations of general relativity (also about gravity) is still going on, a dispute that I prefer to stay out of. Cited by his biographer, Abraham Pais, Einstein had apparently made up the  verb to nostracize (nostrazieren) which he accused Hilbert of doing. (He meant that Hilbert had made Einstein’s idea community knowledge.  Googling the word gives you only “ostracize” and “Cosa Nostra.”)

It is not the priority dispute, per se — the original low carbohydrate diet is usually attributed to William Banting who published the Letter on Corpulence in 1863, although Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 Physiologie du goût  understood the principle. He said that some people were carbophores and admitted to being one himself.  It is not just priority but that the people who are now embracing carbohydrate restriction were previously unrestrained in their attacks on the dietary approach and were adamant in denying the strategy to their patients.

David Jenkins: “Nuts.”

In trying to find an appropriate answer to the recent bit of balderdash by the redoubtable Hope Warshaw, Tom Naughton recounted the story of the Battle of the Bulge of WWII.  Towards the end of the war, Hitler launched a massive winter attack around the city of Bastogne where, at one point, American Forces were surrounded. When the Germans demanded surrender, the American General, Anthony McAuliffe, sent the one-word reply: “Nuts!”  I always thought it was a euphemism and that he actually went “Vice-presidential” as it was called in the last administration, but it turns to have been a common expression with him and he really did write “nuts” which, of course, had to be explained to the German couriers. (There is a “Nuts” Museum in Bastogne commemorating the battle which the Americans won somewhat as described in the movie Patton).

For installation in the Nutritional Nuts Museum and as an example of the current attempts to co-opt carbohydrate restriction, one can hardly beat Jenkins’s recent paper [1].

Richard:…Who knows not that the gentle duke is dead? ….

King Edward: Who knows not he is dead! Who knows he is?

Queen Elizabeth: All-seeing heaven, what a world is this!

— William Shakespeare, Richard III

The trick is to act as if the point you are making is already established. The Abstract of Jenkins study: “Fat intake, especially monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), has been liberalized in diabetic diets to preserve HDL cholesterol and improve glycemic control….” It has? Liberalized by whom?  Although the American Diabetes Association guidelines are traditionally all over the place, few would consider that there is any sense of substantial liberalization on replacing carbohydrate with fat from them or any health agency.

“Replacement of carbohydrate by healthy fat … has been increasingly recognized as a possible therapeutic strategy in the treatment of diabetes [2] as concerns emerge over the impact of refined carbohydrate foods in increasing postprandial glycemia and reducing HDL cholesterol.”  Reference [2] ((1) in the original) actually “emerged” in 2002 and is ambiguous at best: “Carbohydrate and monounsaturated fat together should provide 60–70% of energy intake.” (It is not my style of humor, but the behavioral therapists call this “shoulding on people.”) The paper admits that the evidence “is based on expert consensus”  and contains what might be called the theme song of the American Diabetes Association:

 “Sucrose and sucrose-containing food do not need to be restricted by people with diabetes based on a concern about aggravating hyperglycemia. However, if sucrose is included in the food/meal plan, it should be substituted for other carbohydrate sources or, if added, be adequately covered with insulin or other glucose-lowering medication.” (my italics)

In fact, one emerging piece of evidence is Jenkins 2008 study comparing a diet high in cereal with a low glycemic index diet [3].  The glycemic index is a measure of the actual effect of dietary glucose on blood glucose.  Pioneered by Jenkins and coworkers, a low-GI diet is based on the same rationale as a low-carbohydrate diet, that glycemic and insulin fluctuations pose a metabolic risk but it emphasizes “the type of carbohydrate,” that is, it is a politically correct form of low-carbohydrate diet and as stated in the 2008 study: “We selected a high–cereal fiber diet treatment for its suggested health benefits for the comparison so that the potential value of carbohydrate foods could be emphasized equally for both high–cereal fiber and low–glycemic index interventions.” (my emphasis) The Conclusion of the 24-week study was: “In patients with type 2 diabetes, 6-month treatment with a low–glycemic index diet resulted in moderately lower HbA1c levels compared with a high–cereal fiber diet.”  The figure below shows the results for HbA1c and weight loss and just looking at the figures, the results are certainly modest enough.

By coincidence, on almost the same day, Eric Westman’s group published a study that compared a low glycemic index diet with a true low carbohydrate diet [4].  The studies were comparable in duration and number of subjects and a direct comparison shows the potential of low carbohydrate diets (NOTE: in the figure, the units for the change are those of the individual parameters; an earlier version showed this as % which was an error):

 

Fad_Westman_Jenkins_FigWe thought of this first.

Oddly, neither of these papers are cited in the current study by Jenkins, et al.  In fact, according to the paper, the precedents go way back:

“Recently, there has been renewed interest in reducing carbohydrate content in the diet of diabetic patients. In 1994, on the basis of emerging evidence, the American Diabetes Association first suggested the possibility of exchanging dietary carbohydrate for MUFA in dietary recommendations for type 2 diabetes). Although not all studies have shown beneficial effects of MUFAs in diabetes, general interest has persisted, especially in the context of the Mediterranean diet.”

The ADA discovered low carbohydrate diets ? Did my blogpost see it coming, or what? But wait…

 “low carbohydrate intakes have also been achieved on the Atkins diet by increasing animal fats and proteins. This influential dietary pattern is reflectedin the relatively lower pre-study carbohydrate intakes of ~ 45% in the current study rather than the 50–60% once recommended.

The researchers in this area might not feel that 45 % carbohydrate has much to do with the Atkins diet but, in any case, it appears not to have been “influential” enough to actually get the studies supporting it cited.

Again: “Fat intake, especially monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), has been liberalized…” but “… the exact sources have not been clearly defined. Therefore, we assessed the effect of mixed nut consumption as a source of vegetable fat on serum lipids and HbA1c in type 2 diabetes.”  Therefore? Nuts?  That’s going to clearly define the type of MUFA?  Nuts have all kinds of nutrients.  How do we know that it is the MUFA in the nuts?  In fact, the real question is whether any benefit would not be due to the reduction in carbohydrate regardless of what it were replaced with. So what was the benefit? The figure above shows the effect on hemoglobin A1C. As described by the authors:

 “The full-nut dose reduced HbA1c by two-thirds of the reduction recognized as clinically meaningful by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (.0.3% absolute HbA1c units) in the development of antihyperglycemic drugs…”

 In other words, almost meaningful, and

 “the number of participants who achieved an HbA1c concentration of <7% (19 pre-study participants, down to 13 post-study participants) was significantly greater on the nut treatment than on the muffin treatment (20 pre-study participants, remaining at 20 post-study participants…).”

This is some kind of accomplishment but the figure above shows that, in fact, the results were pretty poor.  The statistics do show that the “full nut dose” was significantly different from the half-nut dose or the muffin.  But is this what you want to know?  After all, nobody has an average change in HbA1c.  What most of us want to know is the betting odds. If I down all those nuts, what’s the chance that I’ll get better.  How many of the people in the full-nut study did better than those in the half-nut study (did the authors not know that this would sound funny?).  You can’t tell for sure because this information is buried in the statistics but the overlap of the error bars, highlighted in pink, suggests that not everybody gained anything — in fact, some may have gotten worse.

What kind of benefit is possible in a dietary intervention for people with diabetes?  Well, the studies discussed above from Jenkins himself and from Westman show that, with a low-GI diet, it is possible to obtain an average reduction of about 4 %, more than ten times greater than with nuts and with a real low-carbohydrate diet much greater.  I have added an inset to the Figure from Jenkins with data from a 2005 study by Yancy, et al. [5].  The red line shows the progress of the mean in Yancy’s studied.  If you had diabetes, would you opt for this approach or go for the full-nut dose?

Bibliography

1. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Banach MS, Srichaikul K, Vidgen E, Mitchell S, Parker T, Nishi S, Bashyam B, de Souza R et al: Nuts as a replacement for carbohydrates in the diabetic diet. Diabetes Care 2011, 34(8):1706-1711.

2. Franz MJ, Bantle JP, Beebe CA, Brunzell JD, Chiasson JL, Garg A, Holzmeister LA, Hoogwerf B, Mayer-Davis E, Mooradian AD et al: Evidence-based nutrition principles and recommendations for the treatment and prevention of diabetes and related complications. Diabetes Care 2002, 25(1):148-198.

3. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, McKeown-Eyssen G, Josse RG, Silverberg J, Booth GL, Vidgen E, Josse AR, Nguyen TH, Corrigan S et al: Effect of a low-glycemic index or a high-cereal fiber diet on type 2 diabetes: a randomized trial. JAMA 2008, 300(23):2742-2753.

4. Westman EC, Yancy WS, Mavropoulos JC, Marquart M, McDuffie JR: The Effect of a Low-Carbohydrate, Ketogenic Diet Versus a Low-Glycemic Index Diet on Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2008, 5(36).

5. Yancy WS, Jr., Foy M, Chalecki AM, Vernon MC, Westman EC: A low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet to treat type 2 diabetes. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2005, 2:34.

Doctor:  Therein the patient must minister to himself.

Macbeth: Throw physic [medicine] to the dogs; I’ll none of it.

— William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The epidemic of diabetes, if it can be contained at all, will probably fall to the efforts of the collective voice of patients and individual dedicated physicians. The complete abdication of responsibility by the American Diabetes Association (sugar is okay if you “cover it with insulin”) and by other agencies and individual experts, and the media’s need to keep market share with each day’s meaningless new epidemiologic breakthrough leaves the problem of explanation of the disease and its treatment in the hands of  individuals.

Jeff O’Connell’s recently published Sugar Nation  provides the most compelling introduction to what diabetes really means to a patient, and the latest edition of Dr. Bernstein’s encyclopedic Diabetes Solution  is the state-of-the art treatment from the patient-turned-physician.  Although the nutritional establishment has been able to resist these individual efforts — the ADA wouldn’t even accept ads for Dr. Bernstein’s book in the early editions — practicing physicians are primarily interested in their patients and may not know or care what the expert nutritional panels say.  You can send your diabetes story to Michael Turchiano (MTurchiano.PVP@gmail.com)  and Jimmy Moore (livinlowcarbman@charter.net) at The Patient’s Voice Project.

The Patient’s Voice Project

The Patient’s Voice Project, which began soliciting input on Friday, is a research study whose results will be presented at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) conference on Quest for Research Excellence, March 15-16 in Washington, D.C. The conference was originally scheduled for the end of August but there was a conflict with Hurricane Irene.

The Patients Voice Project is an outgrowth of the scheduled talk “Vox Populi,” the text for which is at the end of this post.  A major stimulus was also our previous study on the Active Low-Carber Forums, an online support group. The March conference will present a session on “Crisis in Nutrition” that will include the results of the Patient’s Voice Project.

Official Notice from the Scientific Coordinator, Michael Turchiano

The Patient’s Voice Project is an effort to collect first hand accounts of the experience of people with diabetes (type 1 and type 2) with different diets.  If you are a person with diabetes and would be willing to share your experiences with diet as a therapy for diabetes, please send information to Michael Turchiano (MTurchiano.PVP@gmail.com) and a copy to Jimmy Moore (livinlowcarbman@charter.net). Please include details of your diets and duration and whether you are willing to be cited by name in any publication.

It is important to point out that, whereas we think that the benefits of carbohydrate restriction have been greatly under-appreciated and under-recommended, the goal is to find out about people’s experiences:both benefits and limitations of different diets. If you have not had good success with low-carbohydrate diets, it is equally important to share these experiences.

  • Indicate if you saw a physician or other health provider, what their attitudes were and whether you would be willing to share medical records.
  • We are particularly interested in people who have switched diets and had different outcomes.
  • Include any relevant laboratory or medical results that you think are relevant but we are primarily interested in your personal reactions to different diets and interaction with physicians and other health providers.
  • Finally, please indicate what factors influenced your choices (physician or nutritionist recommendations, information on popular diets(?) or scientific publications).

Thanks for your help.  The Patient’s Voice Project will analyze and publish conclusions in popular and scientific journals.

The Survey of the Active Low-Carber Forums

The Active Low-Carber Forums (ALCF) is an on-line support group that was started in 2000.  At the time of our survey (2006), it had 86,000 members and currently has more than 130,000.  Our original survey asked members of the forum to complete a 27-item questionnaire and to provide a narrative on any other health issues.  Some of the narrative answers included in the published paper were as follows:

“I no longer have diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, joint pain, back pain and loss of energy.”

“I started low carbing for diabetes. My 3 month blood sugar was 8.9 when diagnosed. It is now 5.4. My doctor is thrilled with my diabetes control and as a side benefit, I lost all that weight!”

 “I’m controlling my diabetes without meds or injecting insulin (with an a1c below 5), my lipid profile has improved, I’ve lost weight, I’ve gained both strength and endurance, and I’ve been able to discontinue one of my blood pressure meds.”

 “I have much more energy, fewer colds or other health problems. I was able to go completely off oral diabetes medication.”

The survey covered a number of topics.  We found that most respondents had the perception that they ate less food than before their low-carb diet, and most felt that the major change in their diet was a large increase in the consumption of green vegetables and a corresponding large decrease in fruit intake.

Physicians Attitudes in the ALCF survey

The Patient’s Voice Project is likely to tell us as much about physicians, or at least their interaction with patients, as about the patients themselves. We found in the ACLF survey that slightly more than half of the people who responded said that they had consulted a physician. We were surprised that about 55 % said that the physician or other health professional was supportive of their diet. Another 30 % or so fit the category of “did not have an opinion but was encouraging after seeing results.” Only 6 % of responders indicated that “they were discouraging even after I showed good results,” which may be a surprising result depending on your feeling about the rationality of doctors vs hostility to the Atkins diet.  Perusal of patients’ opinions on diabetes websites, however, suggests that the story on people with diabetes will not be as encouraging. 

The Survey on Sources of Information

Given the contentious nature of the debate on diet in diabetes therapy, it is not surprising that a  group following a low-carb strategy would  not put much stock in official sources. The table below shows the breakdown on sources of information from the ALCF survey.  Of the half of respondents who said that they relied on original scientific publications, 20 % felt they had generally inadequate access (important articles were not accessible) whereas 61 % felt that access was adequate and were able to see most articles that they wanted.

Voices of Dissatisfaction.

Posts on the ALCLF itself reinforced the idea that official recommendations were not only a limited source of information but that many were perceived as misleading. Typical posts cited in the paper:

“The ‘health experts’ are telling kids and parents the wrong foods to eat. Until we start beating the ‘health experts’ the kids won’t get any better. If health care costs are soaring and type 2 diabetes and its complications, as are most of these expenses why are we not putting a ‘sin’ tax on high glycemic foods to cut consumption and help pay for these cost? Beat the ‘health experts’ – not the kids!”

 While I am not a fan of sin taxes, the dissatisfaction is clear, and…

 “Until I researched it three years ago – I thought the most important thing was low fat. So I was eating the hell out of low fat products and my health continued to get worse.”

Similarly, the recent article in Diabetes Health by Hope Warshaw  http://bit.ly/mYm2O3 with its bizarre recommendation for people with diabetes to increase their carbohydrate intake elicited a number of statements of dissatisfaction:

“Respectfully, this column is not helpful to diabetics and probably dangerous. I am going on 6 years of eating 30-35 carbs/day. My A1c has been in the “non-diabetic” range ever since I went this route and I feel better than I have in years. I am not an exception among the many folks I know who live a good life on restricted carb diets.”

“…carbohydrates are a very dangerous and should be consumed with caution and knowledge. i had awful lipids and blood sugar control on a low fat/high carb diet. now that i have switched to a lower carb diet – all my numbers are superb. and the diet is easy to follow and very satisfying!”

 Summary:

The Project is intended to bring out the patient’s perspective on diet as therapy in diabetes.  The goals are to document people’s experience in finding the right diet. In particular, we are interested in whether switching to a low-carbohydrate diet provided improvement over the recommended diet typical of the ADA. Or not.  We are looking for a narrative that can bring out how people make decisions on choosing a diet and sticking with it: the influences of physicians, the media and personal experimentation. Your diabetes story.

Text of Abstract for the Original ORI Conference

 Crisis in Nutrition: IV. Vox Populi

 Authors: Tom Naughton, Jimmy Moore, Laura Dolson

Objective: Blogs and other social media provide insights into how a growing share of the population views the current state of nutrition science and the official dietary recommendations. We ask what can be learned from online discussions among people who dispute and distrust the official recommendations.

Main points: A growing share of the population no longer trusts the dietary advice offered by private and government health agencies. They believe the supposed benefits of the low-fat, grain-based diets promoted by those agencies are not based on solid science and that benefits of low-carbohydrate diets have been deliberately squelched. The following is typical of comments the authors (whose websites draw a combined 1.5 million visitors monthly) receive daily:

 “The medical and pharmaceutical companies have no interest in us becoming healthy through nutrition. It is in their financial interest to keep us where we are so they can sell us medications.”

 Similar distrust of the government’s dietary recommendations has been expressed by doctors and academics. The following comments, left by a physician on one of the authors’ blogs, are not unusual:

 “You and Denise Minger should collaborate on a book about the shoddy analysis put out by hacks like the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”

“Sometimes I wonder if people making these statements even took a basic course in biochemistry and physiology.”

 Many patients have given up on their health care professionals and turn to Internet sites for advice they trust. This is particularly true of diabetics who find that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is not helping them control their blood glucose. As one woman wrote about her experience with a diabetes center:

 “I was so frustrated, I quit going to the center for check ups.”

The data suggest a serious problem in science-community interactions which needs to be explored.

Conclusions & recommendations: Our findings document a large number of such cases pointing to the need for public hearings and or conference. The community is not well served by an establishment that refuses to address its critics from within the general population as well as health professionals.

Baseball is like church. Many attend. Few understand.

— Leo Durocher.

The movie Moneyball provides an affirmative answer to an important question in literature and drama: can you present a scene and bring out the character of a subject that is boring while, at the same time, not make the presentation boring?  The movie, and  Michael Lewis’sbook that it is based on, are about baseball and statistics!  For fans, baseball is not boring so much as incredibly slow, providing a soothing effect like fishing, interspersed with an occasional big catch. The movie stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in the 1990s.  A remarkably talented high school athlete, Billy Beane, for unknown reasons, was never able to play out his potential as an MLB player but, in the end, he had a decisive effect on the game at the managerial level. The question is how the A’s, with one-third of the budget of the Yankees, could have been in the play-offs three years in a row and, in 2001, could win 102 games.  The movie is more or less faithful to the book and both are as much about organizations and psychology as about sports. The story was “an example of how an unscientific culture responds, or fails to respond, to the scientific method” and the science is substantially statistical.

In America, baseball is a metaphor for just about everything. Probably because it is an experience of childhood and adolescence, lessons learned from baseball stay with us. Baby-boomers who grew up in Brooklyn were taught by Bobby Thompson’s 1951 home-run, as by nothing later, that life isn’t fair. The talking heads in Ken Burns’s Baseball who found profound meaning in the sport are good examples. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s comments were quite philosophical although he did add the observation that getting hit in the head with a pitched ball led him to go into politics.

One aspect of baseball that is surprising, especially when you consider the money involved, is the extent to which strategy and scouting practices have generally ignored hard scientific data in favor of tradition and lore. Moneyball tells us about group think, self-deception and adherence to habit in the face of science. For those of us who a trying to make sense of the field of nutrition, where people’s lives are at stake and where numerous professionals who must know better insist on dogma — low fat, no red meat — in the face of contradictory evidence, baseball provides some excellent analogies.

The real stars of the story are the statistics and the computer or, more precisely, the statistics and computer guys: Bill James an amateur analyzer of baseball statistics and Paul DePodesta, assistant General Manager of the A’s who provided information about the real nature of the game and how to use this information. James self-published a photocopied book called 1977 baseball abstract: featuring 18 categories of statistical information you just can’t find anywhere else. The book was not just about statistics but was in fact a critique of traditional statistics pointing out, for example, that the concept of an “error;” was antiquated, deriving from the early days of gloveless fielders and un-groomed playing fields of the 1850s. In modern baseball, “you have to do something right to get an error; even if the ball is hit right at you, and you were standing in the right place to begin with.” Evolving rapidly, the Abstracts became a fixture of baseball life and are currently the premium (and expensive) way to obtain baseball information.

It is the emphasis on statistics that made people doubt that Moneyball could be made into a movie and is probably why they stopped shooting the first time around a couple of years ago. Also, although Paul DePodesta (above) is handsome and athletic, Hollywood felt that they should cast him as an overweight geek type played by Jonah Hill. All of the characters in the film have the names of the real people except for DePodesta “for legal reasons,” he says. Paul must have no sense of humor.

The important analogy with nutrition research and the continuing thread in this blog, is that it is about the real meaning of statistics. Lewis recognized that the thing that James thought was wrong with the statistics was that they

“made sense only as numbers, not as a language. Language, not numbers, is what interested him. Words, and the meaning they were designed to convey. ‘When the numbers acquire the significance of language,’ he later wrote, ‘they acquire the power to do all the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry … . And it is not just baseball that these numbers through a fractured mirror, describe. It is character. It is psychology, it is history, it is power and it is grace, glory, consistency….’”

By analogy, it is the tedious comparison of quintiles from the Harvard School of Public Health proving that white rice will give you diabetes but brown rice won’t or red meat is bad but white meat is not, odds ratio = 1.32. It is the bloodless, mindless idea that if the computer says so, it must be true, regardless of what common sense tells you. What Bill James and Paul DePodesta brought to the problem was understanding that the computer will only give you a meaningful answer if you ask the right question; asking what behaviors accumulated runs and won ball games, not which physical characteristics — runs fast, looks muscular — that seem to go with being a ball player… the direct analog of “you are what you eat,” or the relative importance of lowering you cholesterol vs whether you actually live or die.

As early as the seventies, the computer had crunched baseball stats and come up with clear recommendations for strategy. The one I remember, since it was consistent with my own intuition, was that a sacrifice bunt was a poor play; sometimes it worked but you were much better off, statistically, having every batter simply try to get a hit. I remember my amazement at how little effect the computer results had on the frequency of sacrifice bunts in the game. Did science not count? What player or manager did not care whether you actually won or lost a baseball game. The themes that are played out in Moneyball, is that tradition dies hard and we don’t like to change our mind even for our own benefit. We invent ways to justify our stubbornness and we focus on superficial indicators rather than real performance and sometimes we are just not real smart.

Among the old ideas, still current, was that the batting average is the main indicator of a batter’s strength. The batting average is computed by considering that a base-on-balls is not an official at bat whereas a moments thought tells you that the ability to avoid bad pitches is an essential part of the batter’s skill. Early on, even before he was hired by Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta had run the statistics from every twentieth century baseball team. There were only two offensive statistics that were important for a winning team percentage: on-base percentage (which included walks) and slugging percentage. “Everything else was far less important.” These numbers are now part of baseball although I am not enough of a fan to know the extent to which they are still secondary to the batting average.

One of the early examples of the conflict between tradition and science was the scouts refusal to follow up on the computer’s recommendation to look at a fat, college kid named Kevin Youkilis who would soon have the second highest on-base percentage after Barry Bonds. “To Paul, he’d become Euclis: the Greek god of walks.”

The big question in nutrition is how the cholesterol-diet-heart paradigm can persist in the face of the consistent failures of experimental and clinical trials to provide support. The story of these failures and the usurpation of the general field by idealogues has been told many times. Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories is the most compelling and, as I pointed out in a previous post, there seems to have been only one rebuttal, Steinberg’s Cholesterol Wars. The Skeptics vs. the Preponderance of Evidence. At least within the past ten year, a small group have tried to introduce new ideas, in particular that it is excessive consumption of dietary carbohydrate, not dietary fat, that is the metabolic component of the problems in obesity, diabetes and heart disease and have provided extensive, if generally un-referenced, experimental support. An analogous group tried to influence baseball in the years before Billy Beane. Larry Lucchino, an executive of the San Diego Padres described the group in baseball as being perceived as something of a cult and therefore easily dismissed. “There was a profusion of new knowledge and it was ignored.” As described in Moneyball “you didn’t have to look at big-league baseball very closely to see its fierce unwillingness to rethink any it was as if it had been inoculated against outside ideas.”

“Grady Fuson, the A’s soon to be former head of scouting, had taken a high school pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman and the kid had a 94 mile-per-hour fastball, a clean delivery, and a body that looked as if it had been created to wear a baseball uniform. He was, in short, precisely the kind of pitcher Billy thought he had trained the scouting department to avoid…. Taking a high school pitcher in the first round — and spending 1.2 million bucks to sign — that was exactly this sort of thing that happened when you let scouts have their way. It defied the odds; it defied reason. Reason, even science, was what Billy Beane was intent on bringing to baseball.”

The analogy is to the deeply ingrained nutritional tradition, the continued insistence on cholesterol and dietary fat that are assumed to have evolved in human history in order to cause heart disease. The analogy is the persistence of the lipophobes, in the face of scientific results showing, at every turn, that these were bad ideas, that, in fact, dietary saturated fat does not cause heart disease. It leads, in the end, to things like Steinberg’s description of the Multiple risk factor intervention trial. (MRFIT; It’s better not to be too clever on acronyms lest the study really bombs out): “Mortality from CHD was 17.9 deaths per 1,000 in the [intervention] group and 19.3 per 1,000 in the [control] group, a statistically nonsignificant difference of 7.1%”). Steinberg’s take on MRFIT:

“The study failed to show a significant decrease in coronary heart disease and is often cited as a negative study that challenges the validity of the lipid hypothesis. However, the difference in cholesterol level between the controls and those on the lipid lowering die was only about 2 per cent. This was clearly not a meaningful test of the lipid hypothesis.”

In other words, cholesterol is more important than outcome or at least a “diet designed to lower cholesterol levels, along with advice to stop smoking and advice on exercise” may still be a good thing.

Similarly, the Framingham study which found a strong association between cholesterol and heart disease found no effect of dietary fat, saturated fat or cholesterol on cardiovascular disease.  Again, a marker for risk is more important than whether you get sick.  “Scouts” who continued to look for superficial signs and ignore seemingly counter-intuitive conclusions from the computer still hold sway on the nutritional team.

“Grady had no way of knowing how much Billy disapproved of Grady’s most deeply ingrained attitude — that Billy had come to believe that baseball scouting was at roughly the same stage of development in the twenty-first century as professional medicine had been in the eighteenth.”

Professional medicine? Maybe not the best example.

What is going on here? Physicians, like all of us, are subject to many reinforcers but for humans power and control are usually predominant and, in medicine, that plays out most clearly in curing the patient. Defeating disease shines through even the most cynical analysis of physician’s motivations. And who doesn’t play baseball to win. “The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you’re very good, you don’t survive in it.”

Moneyball describes a “stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives in the Scouts make their livings.” For the latter, read the expert panels of the American Heat Association and the Dietary Guidelines committee, the Robert Eckels who don’t even want to study low carbohydrate diets (unless it can be done in their own laboratory with NIH money). In this

“space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that baseball has structured itself less as a business and as a social club. The club includes not only the people who manage the team but also in a kind of women’s auxiliary many of the writers and commentators to follow and purport to explain. The club is selective, but the criteria for admission and retention and it is there many ways to embarrass the club, but being bad at your job isn’t one of them. The greatest offense a club member can commit is not ineptitude but disloyalty.”

The vast NIH-USDA-AHA social club does not tolerate dissent. And the media, WebMD, Heart.org and all the networks from ABCNews to Huffington Post will be there to support the club. The Huffington Post, who will be down on the President of the United States in a moment, will toe the mark when it comes to a low carbohydrate story.

The lessons from money ball are primarily in providing yet another precedent for human error, stubbornness and, possibly even stupidity, even in an area where the stakes are high. In other words, the nutrition mess is not in our imagination. The positive message is that there is, as they say in political science, validator satisfaction. Science must win out. The current threat is that the nutritional establishment is, as I describe it, slouching toward low-carb, doing small experiments, and easing into a position where they will say that they never were opposed to the therapeutic value of carbohydrate restriction. A threat because they will try to get their friends funded to repeat, poorly, studies that have already been done well. But that is another story, part of the strange story of Medicineball.

“Headlines” is one of Jay Leno’s routines on The Tonight Show. While low on production values, it provides amusing typos, odd juxtapositions of text and inappropriate couplings from real notices and newspapers. The headlines are frequently very funny since, like fiction in general, authored comedy has to be plausible. There have been many other versions of the same idea including items in the New Yorker but Jay Leno’s audience rapport adds to the impact. Expert as he is, though, Jay seemed a little off guard when nobody laughed at the headline: “The Diabetes Discussion Group will meet at 10 AM right after the pancake breakfast.” It’s probably generational. After 30 or so years having the American Diabetes Association tell you that sugar is Ok as long as you “cover it with insulin” and that diabetes, a disease of carbohydrate intolerance, is best treated by adding carbohydrate and reducing fat, who knows what anybody believes.

One of the headlines on a previous show that did get a laugh said: “To increase gas mileage, drive less.”  (If Jay only knew how much we spent to get the USDA committee to come up with the advice that if you want to lose weight, you should eat less).

“.. Have we eaten on the insane root,
That takes the reason prisoner?”
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

For tragic humor in the bizarre field of diabetes information, it is really hard to compete. About the same time as the headlines sequence on the Tonight Show, DiabetesHealth  an organization and website that is intended to “investigate, inform, inspire” produced an inspiring investigation from the literature. The story is entitled “Maple Syrup – A Sweet Surprise.”  You gotta’ read this:

 “Meet the latest superfood: maple syrup.  Wait a minute…maple syrup? The super-sugary stuff poured on pancakes and waffles and used to glaze hams? That maple syrup? That’s right. Researchers from the University of Rhode Island have discovered that the syrup-produced in the northeastern United States and Canada–contains numerous compounds with real health benefits.”

So how did people with diabetes fare on the maple syrup? Well, there were no people. Or animals. The researchers did not test the effect of consumed maple syrup but only chemically analyzed samples of the stuff.

“‘In our laboratory research, we found that several of these compounds possess anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which have been shown to fight cancer, diabetes, and bacterial illnesses,’ said Navindra Seeram, an assistant professor of pharmacognosy (the study of medicines derived from natural sources) at the university and the study’s lead author”

“Pharmacognosy,” incidentally, is the only English word correctly pronounced through the nose.  The article indicates that “a paper describing their results will appear in the Journal of Functional Foods. Scientists hope that these discoveries could lead to innovative treatments as the beneficial substances are synthesized to create new kinds of medicine.”  The article, however, is nothing if not circumspect:

“You might want to pause for a moment before rushing out and buying jug after jug of Canada’s finest maple syrup, though. It still contains plenty of sugar,…” In fact, by far the major ingredient in maple syrup is sucrose which, again, only has to be “covered” with insulin. So, with all those beneficial compounds, we will need less insulin per gram of sucrose with maple syrup, right?    Would Jay Leno have gotten a laugh if the diabetes meeting followed the pancakes and maple syrup breakfast?  How about if they were whole grain pancakes?

“If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow, and which will not…”
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

Not to be outdone, the American Diabetes Association website offers the lowdown on just how good grain is. Fiber, in general, is so good for you that you should be careful not to snarf it up too fast. As they point out, it is “important that you increase your fiber intake gradually, to prevent stomach irritation, and that you increase your intake of water and other liquids, to prevent constipation.” Doesn’t really sound all that healthy but foods with fiber “have a wealth of nutrition, containing many important vitamins and minerals.” Now, vitamin deficiency has always seemed to me to be the least of our nutritional problems but there’s more: “In fact,” using fact in its non-traditional meaning, fiber “may contain nutrients that haven’t even been discovered yet!” (their exclamation point). Not to belabor all the metaphors here, the ADA, long telling us that people with diabetes deserve to have their carbs, are surely offering pie in the sky.

In 1985 an NIH Consensus Conference was able to “establish beyond any reasonable doubt the close relationship between elevated blood cholesterol levels (as measured in serum or plasma) and coronary heart disease” (JAMA 1985, 253:2080-2086).

I have been making an analogy between scientific behavior and the activities of the legal system and following that idea, the wording of the conference conclusion suggests a criminal indictment. Since the time of the NIH conference, however, data on the role of cholesterol fractions, the so-called “good (HDL)” and “bad (LDL)” cholesterols and, most recently, the apparent differences in the atherogenicity of different LDL sub-fractions would seem to have provided some reasonable doubt. What has actually happened is that the nutrition establishment, the lipophobes as Michael Pollan calls them, has extended the indictment to include dietary fat, especially saturated fat at least as accessories on the grounds that, as the Illinois Criminal Code put it “before or during the commission of an offense, and with the intent to promote or facilitate such commission, … solicits, aids, abets, agrees or attempts to aid… in the planning or commission of the offense. . . ..”

A major strategy in the indictment of saturated fat has been guilt by association.  The American Heart Association (AHA), which had long recommended margarine (the major source of trans-fats), has gone all out in condemning saturated fatty acids by linking them with trans-fats.  The AHA website has a truly deranged cartoon film of the evil brothers: “They’re a charming pair, Sat and Trans.  But that doesn’t mean they make good friends.  Read on to learn how they clog arteries and break hearts — and how to limit your time with them by avoiding the foods they’re in.”. While the risk of trans-fats is probably exaggerated — they are a small part of the diet — they have no benefit and nobody wants to defend them; dietary saturated fat, however, is a normal part of the diet, is made in your body and is less important in providing saturated fatty acids in the blood, than dietary carbohydrate.  Guilt by association is a tricky business in courts of law — just having a roommate who sells marijuana can get you into a good deal of trouble — but it takes more than somebody saying that you and the perpetrator make a charming pair.

The failure of the diet-cholesterol-heart hypothesis in clinical trials as been documented by numerous scientific articles and especially in popular books that document the original scientific sources. It is unknown what the reaction of the public is to these books.  However, amazingly, there is only one book I know of that takes the side of the lipophobes and that is Daniel Steinberg’s Cholesterol Wars. The Skeptics vs. the Preponderance of Evidence. A serious book with careful if slightly biased documentation and an uncommon willingness to answer the critics,  it is worth reading.  I will try to discuss it in detail in this and future posts.  First, the title indicates a step down from criminal prosecution.  “Preponderance of the evidence” is the standard for conviction in a civil court and is obviously a far weaker criterion.  One has to wonder why it is that the skeptics have the preponderance of the popular publications — if the scientific evidence is there and health agencies are so determined that the public know about this, why are there so few —  maybe only this one — rebutting the critics.

The Skeptics vs. the Preponderance of Evidence

In any case, what is Steinberg’s case?  The indictment on page 1 is somewhat different than one would have thought.

“….the [lipid] hypothesis relates to blood lipids not dietary lipids as the putative directly causative factor. Although diet, especially dietary lipid is an important determinant of blood lipid levels, many other factors play important roles. Moreover, there is a great deal of variability in response of individuals to dietary manipulations. Thus, it is essential to distinguish between the indirect “diet-heart” connection and the direct “blood lipid — hard” connection failure to make this distinction has been a frequent source of confusion. (his italics)”

What?  Are we really supposed to believe that diet is an incidental part of the lipid hypothesis?  Are we supposed to believe that our cholesterol is just a question of the variability of our response to diet.  Has the message really been that diet is not critical and that heart-disease is just the luck of the draw (until we start taking statins)?  This is certainly the source of confusion in my mind.  Of course by page 5, we are confronted with this:

“In 1966, Paul Leren published his classic five-year study of 412 patients who had had a prior myocardial infarction. He showed that substitution of polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat-rich butter-cream-venison diet favored by the Norwegians reduced their blood cholesterol by about 17 per cent and kept it down.  The number of secondary current events in the treated group was reduced by about one-third and the result was significant at the p < 0.03 level.”

In a future post, I will describe Paul Leren’s classic five-year study which, by 1970, had a follow-up to eleven years and the results will turn out not to be as compelling as described by Steinberg.  For the moment, it is worth considering that, given the strong message, from the AHA, from the American Diabetes Association, from the NIH Guidelines for Americans, the criterion really should be beyond a reasonable doubt. There shouldn’t be even a single failure like the Framingham Study or the Women’s Health Initiative. In fact, the preponderance of the evidence when you add them all up, isn’t there.