I said I would try to inject a little bit of humor into this blog, although I will never be as laugh out loud funny as neurologist Dr. Ibee Grumpy. Last night I had this conversation, or something like it, after two glasses of wine each:
Boyfriend of SkepticRD: Have you ever noticed that all zombies are thin? How is that possible? The brain is mostly fat.
SkepticRD: It's because they only consume fat and protein, they don't consume any carbohydrate.
BoSRD: So, you're saying they're all on the Atkin's Diet?
Me: Well, the cats (obligate carnivores) are on the Catkin's Diet, so that means they are on the....Zombiekins Diet?
Yes, we do talk about these things over dinner. Of course it also led me to remember this piece from the The Onion: Zombie Nutritionist Recommends All Brain Diet.* "The Rossum Plan challenges the traditional zombie food pyramid, which consists of five to seven daily servings of human hearts, three to four servings of livers or eyeballs, and two servings of brains."
Ok, so I found this hysterical. If you are still with me, then let's talk about research, done by the Living Dead or otherwise, how it's portrayed in the media, and how you can discern whether or not the research applies to you. I will also touch on some of the other critiques made about diets, brain-dominant or otherwise.
First of all, remember that most media headlines and first paragraphs are designed to get your attention, period. They are not the be all and end all of the study. You should always read to the end. For example, in the The Onion article, we find this quote: "Rossum's detractors are quick to point out that a high percentage of zombies in his studies are young accidental-death victims, many still in their teens, recruited from the punk-rock-fan community. Such individuals, critics charge, are too healthy and recently deceased to be reliable subjects in long-term dietary studies." In other words, the information contained in said article might only apply to one population. If the study is done in rats, it might only apply to rats. Rat studies are good for promoting other research, but we don't know if this applies to humans until human studies are done. And if it does involve humans, what type of humans were studied? Were they smokers? Poor college students? Male? Female? Living in Italy where they have different idea of portion size than people who live in the US? Were they put in a hospital unit a fed a certain diet for 2-3 weeks or just asked to fill out a questionaire about what they've eaten for the past 2 weeks or 2 months or 2 years or 20 years? (Seriously do you remember how many times you've eaten beef in the past 2 years? Now what if you were a busy punk rocker zombie, or even a living person who just got out of rehab after having a stroke?) In other words, you will always find limitations on a study, or you will find that there are enough discrepancies between the population involved and your demographic group to make it a limitation. The more limitations, the less likely you can use it to make a health decision, as oppossed to saying "Huh, that's interesting. Let's see what else they come up with. In the mean time, let examine whether any other research has been done on the necessity for brains in my life."
"So SkepticRD, you obviously spend way too much time thinking about zombies, so how about a real life example?" is what you are thinking. Well, how about this article? In the headline, the first paragraph, and even the remainder of the article contain a lot of doom and gloom about the consumption of red meat. And then we come to this: "They acknowledged some limitations of the meta-analysis, possible residual confounding from unmeasured factors in the individual studies, the use of self-report information on red meat consumption, between-study variations in the definition of a serving size and in meat consumption patterns, and possible publication bias."
So, red flag number one is that this was done by drawing on a larger body of research that was already out there as oppossed to a double blind study--this means that you might not have access to research that refutes the hypotheses and that's where the publication bias comes in. Also, self reporting, as I stated above, is notoriously unreliable as anyone who has taken Pysch 101 can attest to. (Link) Also, variations between serving size is a big one; unless you have measured your portion on a scale several times you mostly likely overestimate how many ounces you have consumed. Now, this study did try to adjust for age, alcohol consumption, etc (in other words, other factors that could put you at risk for a stroke), but there are still several questions unanswered. Did they take carbohydrate intake into consideration? Did they distinguish between pasture-raised beef and feedlot beef (which have a different fatty acid profile)? How much of the red meat was processed with nitrates which might be linked to health problems? In other words, SkepticRD and any other skeptics should be left with enough questions that indicate we don't have to stop eating red meat just yet. Try to moderate portions, watch how it's processed, find other tasty sources of protein besides focusing on one thing--this is probably a good idea. But we should look for additional research and wait before we start espousing whatever was in the headline.
Now, back to zombies. One of the other things that interested me was this quote: "Critics also charge that a diet consisting entirely of brains would not be likely to attract many followers due to its monotonous nature. Rossum again disagreed. " One of the statements that I have seen relatively frequently, usually when I'm reading a critique about a particular diet plan, is that diet plans that cut out an entire groups of food should be avoided or at least looked at with suspicion. On the very surface, I agree with this statement, mostly b/c as a skeptic I want other people to view all new information with a critical eye and not just accept something based on emotion or purely anecdotal evidence. I also agree with that to a certain extent because an eating plan is only good as long as you can sustain it after you have met your goal weight or brought your blood glucose/lipids/blood pressure down to goal levels. Many of us eat for reasons other than survival--we eat for comfort, we eat to celebrate, we eat to socialize, we eat because a food brings us good memories, we eat because certain foods are important to us at holidays, we eat because we don't want to hurt the feelings of our host....I could go on for a while here. Some people stil have to eat FOR survival, maybe the elderly person with heart failure didn't have a way to get to the grocery store that week and they had to eat Ramen, despite it's high sodium content, because that's what they had in the house. So cutting out particular groups of food is often difficult from a "maintenance" perspective, particularly when you don't have a game plan going in to the holiday season, etc. Another reason I am also suspicious of certain plans that eliminate food groups is that in some cases there is a tendency to use "substitutes" that may have no nutritional value, provide unwanted calories, or are very expensive. Some of these plans will provide alternate sources of the nutrients that you would normally find in the "eliminated" group, some plans do not or give faulty information. For example, one little statistic that I've read multiple times is that brocolli has more protein per 100 calories than steak. Broccoli has ~12 grams and steak ~6-7 grams for 100 calories. Now, keep in mind that the average adult is going to need, on average, 20-30 grams of protein per meal. In order to get that amount of protein, you will need a little 3 ounce piece of cooked meat (deck of cards). To get your protein requirement from brocolli, you will have to eat at least 8 cups of raw brocolli at one meal. I'm not sure I know too many people that will want to chew that much or deal with the resulting flatulence.
Now, on another level, I actually think that eliminating certain groups of food can be beneficial. Those of us that do have celiac disease or some other kind of digestive disorder do have to eliminate just about everything from the "grain" group unless we want to live in misery. Sure, I could find plenty of gluten free bagels, pasta, cereal, crackers, etc, but I would wind up eating a lot of processed flour devoid of nutrition and pay a lot of money for that same lack of nutrition, and that just doesn't make sense to me from a physiological or financial perspective. Keep in mind what I said in a previous post about how there is growing evidence that some foods do seem to have addictive qualities for some people, so some people do benefit from avoiding certain foods. And it does also help to be a person who is willing to plan ahead, learn to cook new things, be able to set healthy boundaries with other people, and to know your limits. Typically when people say to me "Oh, that must be so hard living without gluten," I look at them and say "Last night I had a turkey burger with baked sweet potato fries, fresh avocado, sauteed mushrooms and onions, fresh tomatoes, spicy mustard, a square of dark chocolate, and a Malbec. Please, tell me how that's deprivation?" Now, is my positive, yet somewhat snarky attitude, unique to me or is it something that can be cultivated? Well apparently, it's a little bit of both. Keep in mind also, that sometimes limiting our choices can be a good thing.
Take home message--always, always, always read to the end of the article. If no limitations are mentioned, do a little more digging. Find the actual article yourself if possible, and be very wary of self reported data. Also, remember that limiting choices can sometimes work out in your favor, but it doesn't have to mean deprivation.
*Yes, The Onion is satire. If you haven't figured that out, I can't help you.