180 Degree Errors

Have you ever stopped to consider that it’s often easier to be completely wrong than just a little wrong? Consider this; when you’re trying to get somewhere in the car, is it more likely that you miss your destination by a few hundred yards, or that you “turned right instead of left,” or found yourself “going in the opposite direction?”

Now, how does that apply to science? The more common way to describe a 180 degree error in science is a “cause & effect reversal.” Let me give you an example of a cause/effect reversal that almost everyone takes for granted:

“Clean your plate, so you can grow up to be big and strong.”

What child hasn’t heard that admonition, and what mother, father, or grandparent hasn’t uttered it? But in the sense it implies that eating more causes children to grow, it’s completely false. In fact, the reverse is true. As children, we don’t eat more so we can cause ourselves to grow bigger than we already are. We grow bigger than we are, and the effect is that we eat more in order to sustain our larger base metabolism. Growth hormone causes growth. Food is just the raw material.

The reason this error is so easy to make is because it’s self evident that if we don’t eat at all, we’ll starve and die, and in fact, malnutrition can cause stunted growth. But that’s because the minimum necessary raw materials aren’t present. Let’s draw an analogy in the form of building a skyscraper. If you don’t have the minimum amount of concrete and steel, then the building is not going to be built to its full height. But what if you pile up two times the amount of concrete and steel required to build to plan? Is that going to cause it to be built, or built bigger than plan, or faster? No, you need the “growth hormone” to build it: construction workers. They use the raw material, build with it, which creates the demand for additional raw material; but it is the act of building that is the cause for the increased demand for “feeding.”

My last post on diet prompted some comments to that post that lead me to think that perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in how I described Gary Taubes’ alternate hypothesis: that it’s not simply the fact of excess calories of any sort that makes people fat, but rather, they are turning on a fat-accumulation hormone that tips a balance, such that fat begins to act much like a tumor (that’s my analogy, so I don’t know he’d agree). He did invoke the analogy to growing children in his lecture I linked, so that’s where I got that. How do they turn on that fat accumulation? Bad calories; i.e., too many carbohydrates. While I haven’t read his new book, yet, I wonder if the carbohydrate issue isn’t more of an absolute quantity rather than a percentage. You often see conventional diet books talking of cab intake as a function of total calories, like 40% of calories from carbs while the low-carb diets typically express an absolute limit, like 60 grams per day.

I think the tumor analogy is an interesting one, at least in the way I understand Taubes at present. What do you often hear expressed about tumors, short of outright removing them? Well, sometimes they’re “small,” such that the risk of surgery isn’t called for. So, you try to keep them small. Why? Well, because when they’re small their effect is minimal. They aren’t cannibalizing good tissue sufficiently to cause a large effect. How about shrinking a tumor? Same thing. And what happens when a tumor gets to be of sufficient size? Does it not then become a self-sustaining cannibalistic parasite, sacrificing healthy bodily tissue for its own sake in a positive-feedback mechanism, such that the bigger it gets, the bigger and more parasitic its influence on the rest of the body until eventually its pathological selfishness kills the very host that feeds it?

How would things change in the diet community if we accepted what Taubes demonstrates was universally known prior to WWII? He shows that it was well known that high carbs stimulates insulin, that insulin stores fat, that lean and fat tissue eventually become insulin resistant — such that it’s easier to store than pull out of storage.  Then, could the fat eventually become so tumor-like that it causes hormonal secretions that stimulate hunger, thus feeding themselves, getting bigger, setting in motion the same sort of positive feedback mechanism?

What if we thought of extreme carbohydrate restriction for fat people not as a diet, per se, but as a way to starve and shrink a tumor? And intermittent fasting?

It can’t just be that a calorie is a calorie. Otherwise, Atkins could not have put heart patients on 5,000 calories per day of high fat and protein, with no carbs, and see them lose fat weight. Nor does the calorie is a calorie hypothesis explain how in around 1900, the Pima Indians (other examples abound, too), existing on federal sugar and flour, could have produced a high percentage of 300+ pound obese women whose children suffered malnourishment. In other words, the women, even though eating less than is required to sustain a healthy child, nonetheless kept putting on the fat.

So I think we have a 180 degree error and Taubes is right: hyper caloric intake, in itself, does not cause us to be fat. Hyper insulin causes us to be fat, and that issues forth a whole cascade of problems (effects), one of which is hyper caloric intake. Repeat. And the effect of that cause is that very nearly everyone in the diet and nutrition establishment has been [conveniently] fooled.


  1. Chris H on January 29, 2008 at 13:04

    Really good post there and a good explanation of Taubes position.

    I don't know if you've looked at the comments on my blog recently? I was attacked by some guys who had a real problem with Tabues. Weird.

  2. Grok on December 29, 2009 at 22:38

    “What if we thought of extreme carbohydrate restriction for fat people not as a diet, per se, but as a way to starve and shrink a tumor?”

    Actually it is a was to starve cancer cells. Some types of cancer cells burn glucose. When you convert over to ketones and reduce calories, you’ll slow or start killing those mutated cells. I’m sure studies on this are easy to dig up, or maybe one of the guys with all the acronyms behind his name can chime in ;)

    Jimmy also had a podcast one time about brain cancer specifically.

  3. Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2009 at 22:45

    Yep, and I’ve got some number of pasts posts on the Warburg hypothesis, coming up from archives over the next few days.

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