The Twinkie Diet

Making rounds on the internet today is an article about how a professor lost 27 pounds by eating nothing but food available at a 7-11. Not only was the food pre-packaged and processed, but it’s all food that are diet no-nos: Doritos, Twinkies, and Little Debbie bars. But, by limiting his intake to 1800 calories per day and supplementing his nutrient-barren diet with protein shakes and vitamin pills, he was able to keep the weight off.

In a vacuum, this is a revelation of painful common sense: If you take in less fuel than you burn, you won’t store as much of that fuel as embarrassing fat. By riding this rocket-sled of a diet, he, in theory, isolated one variable (calorie content) to show that weight and calories are directly correlated. A fool would say “See, I can eat whatever I want and be thin, happy, and healthy!”

But, like everything else labeled “science”, the truth doesn’t exist in a vacuum (fun aside: I originally typed “in the bathroom”, which is an implicit vote for prohibition, as one should not kneel before a porcelain god.)

First, there is the notion that weight loss is the golden ticket to health. While there are many health risks associated with obesity (as well as the general inconvenience of limited mobility), this ignores some common sense. It’s not the norm, but it’s possible to be skinny and diabetic; per the CDC, roughly 15% of diabetes patients are not defined as overweight. Diabetic patients are resistant to insulin, and this resistance (as best as I understand it) can be developed by the overconsumption of fats & sugars. There are tons of other complicating factors, but even though this guy lost a significant amount of weight, he increased the risk of other health problems.

This guy could have linked calories to weight loss through any combination of food. He could have eaten nothing but apples, pears, and potatoes, but “AREA MAN LOSES WEIGHT BY EATING HEALTHY FOODS” lacks the front-page oomph of Twinkies.

And while his “health numbers” all improved, that ignores the notion that he’s ingesting tons of salts and preservatives whose effects on the body are unknown on a long-term basis. I think it’s a very corporate idea to imply that health can be measured in terms of numbers and values, all of which can be improved and “should” be within a certain range.

The notion of weight loss as self-control is a bigger issue than the scope of this article, but it bothers me nonetheless. This article implies “It’s just calories, dummy”, which further implies that you too could be skinny if only you ate less. But if you have a slow metabolism, high appetite, or are on medication, you’re more prone to weight gain. Modern media implies that we won’t be happy until we are impossibly thin and fit, thus you are unhappy as a common fatso. And if mitigating circumstances make it hard for you to lose weight, it’s entirely likely you feel shame for not meeting TV’s ideal for how you should look, which can erode your self-esteem, create a negative body image, or otherwise send you scurrying for the next quick-fix for your diet.

This is a long way of saying that this article feeds the loop that weight is the most important variable for health, and that it’s one entirely dependent on your self control. I think that creates all kinds of complexes, but that’s what happens when you try to simplify a complicated world.

The results of the study are conflicting, even to the doctor in question; he knows that his is a bad diet, but is unwilling to say so definitively. He says “It is unhealthy, but the data doesn’t say that.” He is correct, but only to a point: The immediate data doesn’t say he is unhealthy. But what about the increased risk of his future development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.?

I just think it’s foolish to think of health as something that exists in a vacuum and is anything other than a complicated interaction of genetics, nutrients, preservatives, environment, and luck.

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I’ve tried stand-up comedy before, which ranks among my top-five most stressful experiences. It’s hard to stand in front of people, talk into a microphone, and not melt into a pile of stammering butter. And then you have to be funny!

Few sensations of immediate dread have surpassed that of telling the first half of a joke – a joke I rehearsed in my head dozens of times, each to riotous laughter – and realizing “Oh my god this joke doesn’t have a punchline what do I do shit I wish I had brought a sledgehammer and watermelon maybe I can spin this into something self-deprecating or about George Bush but shitshitshit I need a punchline or a watermelon!” Then there is silence.

I should have figured out that stand-up wasn’t for me after my experience, which happened when I was six years old. My school had a talent show, so I chose to sign up and tell jokes! I don’t think I planned much, but I do remember that I used that opportunity to tell one joke I conjured myself:

What do bees chew?
Bumble gum!

And, just like every time since, my wit was greeted with perplexed silence.

(Thesis: Everyone who isn’t me doesn’t understand comedy.)

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The Man With No New Memory

So much of what we know about the brain comes from patients who have brain damage; we only understand a piece’s function once it is missing. Thus, the outliers make the rules, which is counterintuitive to the basic nature of science, and I think that’s fascinating.

The book Phantoms in the Brain talks about this, using different examples of people who are missing certain parts of their brain to boost our understanding of the brain as a whole. The most famous example is that of phantom limbs, and how the brain’s plasticity allows it to be re-wired by simple visual repetition. Buy the book & read it, you’ll love it.

Perhaps the most famous example is Patient HM, named Henry Molaison, who had experimental surgery to remove his hippocampus when he was 27. The thought was that this surgery would cause a stop to his chronic epileptic seizures, which was indeed the case. However, it also caused him to suffer from severe anterograde amnesia – the ability to form new memories after brain damage occurred.

Thus, for the last 55 years of his life, Henry was poked, prodded, and studied at length and in depth by a myriad of researchers. He was one of a kind: A man who could form no new memories. Repeated experiments showed that was unable to form new long-term memories, but he could remember events that occurred before the surgery. Also, he could learn new motor skills (though he would not necessarily remember the process by which they were learned) and he could draw a map of the house he lived in, even though he hadn’t moved in until 5 years after his amnesia-inducing operation.

These seemingly-counterintuitive observations of Henry’s memory completely reshaped our theory of memory formation. Now that Henry has died, his brain sits in 2401 slices so that it may be studied and imaged on the most microscopic level.

Stray thoughts:

1. Early science is fascinating. HM’s surgeon decided to take out both sides of his hippocampus if only because he was an experimental surgeon in the 1950s. If you were a doctor who cut out part of a patient’s brain willy-nilly, you would probably get a royalty check from CNN for the 24 hours of outrage-generated ad revenue. But you could do stuff like that in the 50s, if only because nobody was aware of the mind’s intricate complexity, and the only way to discover said complexity was through this radical, accidental experimentation. Kind of a catch-22.

2. A great quote from the last article (which is 300 times better than this post):

Brain surgery, whatever the era, always requires at least two frightening qualities in its practitioners: the will to make forcible entry into another man’s skull, and the hubris to believe you can fix the problems inside.

Dr. Scoville (Henry’s surgeon), and any experimental surgeon for that matter, had enough hubris to power a battleship. I love it.

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Big Dummy’s Mongolian Barbecue

BD’s Mongolian Barbecue is kind of fascinating. It’s like a salad bar in that you get to choose a combination of ingredients, but there isn’t necessarily a theme; it’s meat, vegetables, and pseudo-Asian sauces that are then cooked on an intimidatingly-large grill. Inevitably, every dish ends up tasting vaguely brown. I’ve never had a great meal there, but no dish I’ve “created” has disappointed me. I guess an overload of salt makes any combination of meats edible.

Anyways, because every dish ends up tasting the same, I was wondering how many regrettable decisions are made edible by BD’s reliance on the sodium-enriched tip of the food pyramid. This must give people confidence that any combination of food is safe, and that any food presented at BD’s is a good idea.

The logical end to this is that anything presented in a BD’s serving line must be food!

Let’s say you started at the beginning of the line. Grab a bowl, and the first station is meats. Pile on beef, some chicken, and maybe duck if you’re feeling fancy. This acclimates you to putting food in bowls. Up next are vegetables; onions, carrots, bean sprouts, green pepper, something crunchy.

Then things become unfamiliar; next to the imitation krab meat are live geoducks. At the end of the vegetable line is a bin of grass clippings. A mountain of peeps awaits you next to the tray of candy cigarettes, followed by a picked-over tray of teddy bear stuffing. The container labeled “McDonald’s Play-Doh Playset” has been long emptied. By the end, you’re piling Legos onto your creation, wondering if the soy sauce will complement a dollop of Vaseline and the recommended cayenne asbestos seasoning.

Patrons will peer at the curious flames rising from the grill as the heat eliminates most of the papier mache and fake Christmas tree branches from their dish. A father will shrug when his son asks for a bowl of fried tulips with de-glued carpet samples. “I didn’t think you could eat that,” he will muse, “but BD’s made it and he liked it, so it must be good. At least he’s eating vegetables!”

Where would people stop? Could a restaurant brainwash the populace writ large? Did I just stumble onto the next great propaganda machine?

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(Mission statements are dumb.)

Basically, I need a place to extrovert my ideas about the world, post fascinating things I read, keep track of my adventures, soul search if I’m willing to be vulnerable, tell jokes, write scenes that dance through my head, and otherwise vomit my brains all over the internet without the direct confrontation that comes with email. Okay?

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