Monday, February 20, 2017

To Breakfast or Not To Breakfast

After several studies were released a few years ago, this nutrition website was just one of many to assure us that breakfast had been declared optional.  It is not your most important meal as we had been told in the past.  If you don’t feel hungry in the morning, skip it.  At the time of the article about 25% of Americans were regularly skipping breakfast.

That conclusion was based on a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  A number of studies came out about the same time in response to the number of people skipping breakfast as a way to lose weight.  They were not losing weight, and some experts worried that the act of skipping breakfast was putting their health in jeopardy.  This new research was intended to reduce that worry.

Researchers found that although studies showed that people who ate breakfast tended to be healthier on average, no one had proven a causal relationship.  It could be coincidence or it could be that breakfast eaters just had healthier habits overall.  Higher-quality studies show that it makes no difference whether people eat or skip breakfast.”

From a standpoint of weight loss, skipping might hold a slight benefit.  Whether you eat or skip breakfast has no effect on the amount of calories you burn throughout the day.”  If you are hungrier at lunch and eat a little more, it will usually not be enough to offset all the calories missed from skipping breakfast.

Furthermore they said, “Skipping breakfast is a part of many intermittent fasting protocols. Intermittent fasting can have numerous health benefits.”

But that article and a similar one from the Huffington Post came out three years ago, February 2014.  Things have changed since then.  This latest article, also from the Huffington Post, tells us that eating breakfast does make a difference after all.  The headline reads:  “Skipping Breakfast Could Increase Your Risk Of Heart Disease.”  New research from the American Heart Association says people who eat breakfast daily are more likely to avoid common risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure.  Those who skip also are more prone to experience other risk factors like obesity, poor nutrition, diabetes or high blood sugar.

They add that the timing of meals may affect the body’s internal clock and it’s smarter to eat more calories earlier in the day than at night.  By doing so and eating a sensible balanced diet, you “reduce the odds of a heart attack, stroke or other cardiac or blood vessel diseases.”

I use the Huffington Post as an example, but I’m sure it’s true of most other news organizations.  They report these new studies, but rarely point out the obvious conflict with information they have previously published - in this case, only three years ago.  Nor do they try to reconcile the apparent contradictions.  It’s up to us to sort it out.  (I found a nice exception to this here at Forbes.  That same article mentions that the health benefits of intermittent fasting have been exaggerated.)

It may have been in response to the news of 2014, or just to the increasingly hectic pace of life, that the proportion of adults in America routinely skipping breakfast has now climbed to about 30 percent.  

Until they get this sorted out, I think I’ll just continue to do what I’ve been doing.  I have time for breakfast and eat a nice bowl of bran flakes, sometimes with a little fruit.  Teachers insist that kids who miss breakfast are less attentive in school, so it seems a smart lifestyle choice, an easy answer for anyone who can just be organized enough to find the five or ten minutes it takes to fill a bowl and eat it.  Meanwhile, it makes no sense to stress over whether or not to eat breakfast, as the experts can't seem to agree. And another study will be along soon.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Luck or Hard Work?

As I was doing research for another entry, I ran across an interesting Quote of the Day on the Forbes website.  “People that work hard and legitimately do everything they can, tend to be luckier” – Julian Edelman.  For those who are not sports fans or happened to miss it, Julian Edelman is the receiver on the New England Patriots who made the spectacular, shoestring catch near the end of regulation time that allowed the Patriots to win the Super Bowl.  It looked like luck was involved as he sprawled between two defenders to keep a deflected ball from barely touching the ground, but a great deal of skill and excellent reflexes were evident in the many replays.  (Google Super Bowl highlights.)

It struck me as a very good thought, along the lines of people making their own luck, the saying popular among motivational speakers.  But do most people really believe this?  And if so, does our behavior reflect it?

My first stop took me to this headline from 2006, again from Forbes:  “Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work.”  Worldwide research, including many studies over the prior decade usually in sports, music and chess where performance is easier to observe and assess, but also in other areas like business, have supported a few surprising conclusions.  The first is that “nobody is great without work…  There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.”  Second, there is a difference between deliberate practice and mere repetition.  “Consistency is crucial.”

Though there are some skeptics, experts pretty much agree that success depends on hard work.  But do ordinary Americans believe hard work is superior to luck in most cases?  I searched for likely poll questions for a clue.

This source shows results from a Pew Research worldwide questionnaire.  In less developed countries citizens believed luck or political connections were more of a factor, but the US led the pack with the opposite stance.  When asked, “Which forces affect your success?” 79% listed hard work and only 19% mentioned being lucky.  (More than two answers were possible with the sum being more than 100%, so some may have answered both.  It wasn’t a pure either/or question.)

A Reason-Rupe Poll from the fall of 2011 asks a similar question but sorts the responses by political affiliation.  They asked which was more important, either hard work or luck and help from others.  Overall, 81% voted for hard work over the luck and help, which got 15%.  The range was surprisingly close. Tea Partiers were at 89%, Democrats at 74%, with Republicans and Independents in the middle.  In a separate analysis by race, findings were similar with the lowest agreement by African-Americans, who still favored hard work by about three out of four, a sizable majority.

More recently, a 2013 Rasmussen Reports of American attitudes found “86% Believe Individuals Make Their Own Success” by hard work and good decisions.

It appears that the sentiment expressed after the Super Bowl is widespread in America and not divided across political, racial or any other lines.  Most Americans think you get ahead through hard work.  It is difficult then to explain how politicians can get any support for notions like the one-percent haven’t worked hard for their wealth and don’t deserve it.  Conversely, why are we expected to assume that everyone who is not making it in America is a victim?  The behavior factor in most cases is totally ignored.  The news media always portray the homeless and others in difficult situations as being “down on their luck,” downplaying at best any poor decisions that may have led to their predicament.  Hence young people today who could benefit by learning from the mistakes of others see only victims of circumstance rather than behavior to avoid.  Great learning is lost by our need to be compassionate in all cases and a failure to be intellectually consistent.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Own the Problem and Solve It

Sometimes there are easy solutions to situations, as long as the principle doesn’t get in the way.  If everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton donated $8.35 to Planned Parenthood once a year they wouldn’t need any government funding.  Problem solved for less than a couple of trips to Starbucks.  And if some of the 90 million who didn’t bother to vote in November joined in, the needed contribution would be even less.  Since the donations are tax deductible, a portion of the contribution would indirectly shifted back to the government.  It would be like stealth government funding.  Of course it’s the principle of the thing.   

Isn’t falling back on the principle of the thing a lot like whether it’s more work for the husband to put the toilet seat back down or for the wife to put it down herself?   Now that’s a worthwhile argument. 

Both cases fall under the heading of responsibility, taking ownership for what you see is the problem.  In the first case the problem is that everyone does not want to be forced to support a cause that some people strongly believe in.  If you don’t think your time protesting is not worth more than $8.35, you are undervaluing yourself.  And think of the anxiety avoided with one simple action of writing and mailing a check.  In the second case, if you really care about domestic tranquility, you make the effort – though it seems almost laughable to call it effort.  In general, if you really care, you don't let principle stand in the way of an easy fix.

But Americans are falling more and more away from taking responsibility for problems that are under their own control.  That's when the law steps in and everyone loses.

“Apple could be facing a class action lawsuit in California, demanding they find a technological solution to prevent their customers from texting and driving."  It stems from a fatal crash caused by the other driver using FaceTime while driving.  First of all, FaceTime is not texting.  Second, how does the phone know if you are driving or just riding in a car (or on a train)?  Finally, and most important, why should Apple or any other company be held responsible for the reckless behavior of their customers? 

In America the last question is never dealt with.  It is just assumed that if a customer misuses a product, it’s the company’s fault for not anticipating every inane use for their product.  For proof of this, look up dumb product warning labels on the Internet.  So much extra time and expense with lawyers and labels to avoid being sued by irresponsible people who refuse to admit to a mistake made by individuals, themselves or others.

But we have not yet gotten as bad a France where they just passed a law making it illegal for restaurants to offer free refills of soft drinks (even if you are not fat and really thirsty).

But that’s what happens.  When a sizable number of citizens act irresponsibly the lawmakers go to work to protect us or steer us in the right direction.  We lose our free choices because so many previous free choices have been poor ones.  So many problems can be easily solved by taking responsibility and so much freedom lost by ignoring those opportunities.

Friday, February 10, 2017

If the Burgers Don’t Kill You, the Packaging Will!

A few days ago I turned to CNN Health to find this distressing headline: “Report finds chemicals in one-third of fast food packaging.”  First, everyone knows chemicals are bad.  Just put the word in a headline and you get attention.  Second, everyone knows that fast food is bad.  It makes you fat and sick.  Put both in a research report and news organizations are bound to jump on it, seeing another opportunity to put everyone in a panic, hopefully guaranteeing that they will comeback for more scary details.  Journalism today is about getting pageviews. And there is no better way to do that than with a hard-hitting health scare.

For the record, my Merriam-Webster defines chemical as a substance obtained by a chemical process.  Such a process may occur by itself, as for example burning or rusting, or be caused by an outside force.

This article, “Everything is Made of Chemicals,” describes a cup of tea as a “cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts.”  So there are many good chemicals, but the use of the word, as in “chemical warfare” or “chemical dependency” has given it an automatic negative connotation.

As for fast food itself, all things in moderation applies.  The 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” did a lot to spread the rumor that all fast food is bad.  But since then it has been debunked by many and characterized as a joke, a stunt, and full of misinformation.  In 2014 an Iowa high school science teacher actually lost weight on a McDiet proposed by his students.  Furthermore, the Super-Size-Me experiment has never been reproduced.  But the original misperception thrives.

So the headline itself, calculated to portray scary health news, is based on a couple of widely held but basically false beliefs.

Now back to the story.  The report featured in the CNN headline came from the Silent Spring Institute, not the most objective source.  It said researchers found fluorinated chemicals in one-third of the fast food packaging tested.  They took 400 samples of packaging from 27 fast food chains.  That seems like a decent sample size, but then they split it into 6 categories.  Now we have sample sizes of about 65 to 70 making it far less reliable for drawing generalizable conclusions.

In conclusion they tell us, “The packaging your food comes in could also have a negative impact on your health” because similar chemicals that have “largely been phased out” have been “linked to” several diseases.  That’s not exactly how they put it, but when you put all the information together it’s hardly very persuasive.

Fluorinated chemicals are used in fast food packaging for their grease-repellent properties, but are also used safely in many different products from carpeting to auto parts, from hospital gowns to the surface of touchscreens, from body armor and other protective clothing to nonstick cookware.

With such a variety of applications, it almost seems silly even to ask how we can protect ourselves from them in fast food packaging, but they do.  "For people who wish to reduce their exposure to these chemicals, they may be able to take some steps ... for instance, by taking the food out of the packaging sooner rather than later.”

Of course standing in most fast food restaurants, it’s easy to observe how little time the food stays in the packaging.  When it comes off the grill or out of the fry basket it goes into the packaging and the cashier generally puts it immediately into the bag and hands it to the customer.  Even if you drive all the way home to eat, the exposure time (to perhaps dangerous chemicals) is probably less than twenty minutes.

People are likely get more exposure from their carpets, touchscreens and nonstick cookware.  But that’s not the point when a journalist can compose scary headlines or a research group can use it as a reason to entice more donors.  Critical thinking, People!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Preying on the Scared and Desperate

Alzheimer's Disease is frequently in the news either promising another advancement toward a cure or presenting another story of heartbreak.  It is dreaded by millions of older Americans, as they see this news or have personal experience of a friend or loved one wasting away.  With so many people so scared, why not take advantage and make some money?  At least that’s the way some thinking goes.

Major news organizations recently carried a story about Prevagen, a highly advertised memory supplement derived from jellyfish protein. “The Federal Trade Commission and New York's attorney general have charged the company with fraud and false advertising.”  The makers sell the pill as a memory booster that can get into the human brain and protect it from deterioration.  The FTC complaint goes on to say that the company “failed to show that Prevagen works better than a placebo for the nine cognitive functions that were tested.”  They further accuse the company of preying on the fears of older consumers to the tune of $165 million.

In the specifics, the FTC charged that claims for clinical proof were invalid.  In the study 218 subjects got either the pill or a placebo.  They failed to find a difference within the whole group.  They then “conducted more than 30 post hoc analyses of the results, looking at data broken down by several variations of smaller subgroups for each of the nine computerized cognitive tasks. This methodology greatly increases the probability that some statistically significant differences would occur by chance alone. Even so, the vast majority of these post hoc comparisons failed to show statistical significance between the treatment and placebo groups.”

The Alzheimer's Association did not comment specifically on Prevagen but noted that to date no product has been proven to help memory.  They went on to express their “serious concerns about people using dietary supplements as an alternative or in addition to physician-prescribed, FDA-approved therapies.”  That’s a pretty clear warning.

Immediately, “the company pushed back hard, insisting its product is safe and calling the FTC a ‘lame-duck’ federal agency with heads who are about to be replaced by the incoming administration.”  But the FTC calls the supplement a hoax.

The resistance on the part of the company is no surprise.  Over 4 years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent them a warning letter about Prevagen.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gets involved in cases of false advertising and consumer protection, while the FDA gets involved in cases of safety and efficacy of drugs.

That letter said that though they are marketed as a supplement, therapeutic claims “establish that these products are drugs because they are intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.”  Plus the company ran clinic trials without making the proper application.  In addition, it cannot be classified as a supplement because the main ingredient no longer comes from jellyfish, but is synthetically produced and is “not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance.”

The company also failed to report complaints of side effects as required by law.  Of more than 1000 adverse events and product complaints they received only two were reported.  “Some of these adverse events resulted in hospitalization.”

This is an important lesson:  Especially the scared and desperate need to exercise high levels of critical thinking and do some research, lest they become easy targets.

But in my own research on this subject, I found that too little research can also be dangerous.

The first entry in Google was labeled as an ad, but the source was Consumer Health Digest and it sounded reliable.  Other articles on the same site gave some good advice and did not appear to be advertising for any particular product.  The Truth about Weight Loss Supplements,” for example, was responsibly presented.  It included: supplements not being necessary if you have a healthy diet; those to avoid, like detoxes, water pills and laxatives; and what might be beneficial.  It advised to check with your doctor first.

Their “Prevagen Review: How Safe and Effective is this Product?” however was in total conflict with the facts as presented above, calling it “a brain power supplement that has been clinically tested and found to improve health performance of the brain.”  The multiple hospitalizations are not mentioned instead calling it “safe and effective” with “no known information regarding its possible side effects.”  The only major drawback they mentioned was the price. 

Then at the very bottom of the article, an article written by someone without any medical qualifications, they rate Prevagen sixth out of six memory supplements.  And remember the Alzheimer’s Association expressed serious concern about all of them.

So we must be doubly careful, both about the marketers trying to lure us in based on scare tactics and deception, and about the quality of resources used to investigate.