Tom Naughton is a Fat Head

Link to the episode [mp3]

There is an amazing amount of misinformation in the world today. Some of it is unintentional and is simply repeated so often people assume it’s true. These are misconceptions or myths such as you only use 10% of your brain or Jesus was born on December 25th.1 However, there is other misinformation in the world that is more sinister. Misinformation of this sort is usually designed to manipulate you into buying a product, or it could be used as propaganda to convert you to a certain belief system.2 Unfortunately we are a trusting species and most of this manipulation works surprisingly well! That’s why the less scrupulous among us have used quack medicine and scams and cons to get rich quick at the expense of the more trusting among us.

I don’t consider Fat Head to be on the level of a scam, but it is filled with quite a bit of misinformation, manipulation, and disingenuous statements. In fact, most of the “experts” involved with this film have a vested interest their version of reality being true. That is to say, if you end up believing the main thrust of the movie then they can directly profit off that belief by selling you their books, supplements, DVDs, etc.

Why do I care so much about what other people believe? Usually I don’t. If Scientologists want to form a club of celebrities that believe in stuff like thetans and Xenu and engrams and other such nonsense I could not care less. Go nuts, I say. Other things, however, don’t sit well with me. I don’t exactly know why, but if it’s demonstrably false it really gets under my skin… especially if it is in my field of education and training.

Let’s get to the actual meat and potatoes of the movie, shall we? If I had to sum up the thesis of this movie it would be this: There is a large conspiracy in this country and it involves the media, scientists, the government, and non-governmental organizations. You should eat more meat because it’s actually really good for you; anyone that says otherwise is either brainwashed or in the pocket of Big Vegetable. Vegetarians are radical nutjobs. I hate the government. I hate Morgan Spurlock. Do you think I am exaggerating this? You must not have seen the movie. It breaks down like this: You know those studies that claim cholesterol and saturated fat are bad for you? Well it turns out they are all bogus. Every. Single. One. There was a dude named Ancel Keys some years ago that published a fake study linking cholesterol to heart disease. Then every other research scientist ever decided to piggyback off of his data and published studies that showed the same link even though it was false.3 Why would they do this?? Because the government said to. Yeah, see we actually live in a fascist state where you can’t get any funding for research unless you promise to publish more fake studies that promote eating more fruits and vegetables. Why would the government do such a thing? I dunno, maybe Del Monte bought all the politicians. Did I mention I hate our government? I really do. I’m not a big fan of Morgan Spurlock or CSPI, either.

It just cannot be believed by any rational, thinking person. There is a conspiracy against the public to make us unhealthy? Why? Just because the government hates us? First of all can you imagine the effort needed to carry this out? Picture 99% of all the scientists and medical doctors being involved, plus all (or at least most) of the US government. That would be some X-Files level operation right there, and we’re just scratching the surface! What about other countries? They also have research scientists. What do their studies show? As it turns out essentially every study around the world supports the FACT that circulating levels of cholesterol and intake of saturated fat play a huge role in atherosclerosis. So there goes that little conspiracy theory, unless you want to go even further and claim it’s not just a US conspiracy but a global conspiracy!!!

Meet the Experts

Michael and Mary Eades

According to their own website, they appear to be kind of a husband and wife team that both received MDs from the University of Arkansas. Now I respect anyone that has the brains and patience to get a medical degree. No doubt they take time and an incredible discipline. I will say, though, that the University of Arkansas is not exactly Harvard Medical School or Johns Hopkins University. In fact it’s as pretty far from them as you can go while still remaining an accredited medical school. All things being equal I’d rather take medical and/or dietary advice from someone that went to a more elite university rather than one located in the Ozarks. Also, I looked for any published studies by the aforementioned doctors Eades and was able to only find one that was co-authored by a Dr. Loren Cordain of my old alma mater Colorado State University. It’s nothing ground-breaking, just a review article detailing why you don’t want a ton of circulating insulin in your blood. Why do I bother to bring this up? The Eadeses style themselves as nutrition experts but have only been involved in authoring one review article back in 2003. This makes me skeptical of their claims about being nutrition experts and their pursuit of “research into metabolic and nutritional medicine,” as they put it on their website. What is a review article? Basically  it’s a summary of one particular area of research. That means there are not any actual scientific experiments conducted on the part of the author(s).

If you visit their website you will notice that they also sell several pop diet books that promote low-carb diets, so I don’t know if they are exactly a source of objective and unbiased information. Remember what I said earlier about a vested interest? Whaddya know! You can also buy a ton of nutritional supplements from them, too. Who would have thought? You can also get something called Metabosol for $209.95. If you are too pressed for cash not to worry, they have a “value pack” of Metabosol for $149.00. I’m sure they would tell you it’s a steal at that price.4

Al Sears

Dr. Sears is also a MD who got his degree at the University of South Florida, according to his website. Remember when I said that the University of Arkansas is about as far from Johns Hopkins as you can get? I lied. It’s actually the University of South Florida. Dr. Sears also sells a myriad of books including one that claims the sun will actually prevent cancer! He will also sell you a metric shit-ton of supplements. Seriously  a BOATLOAD. Everything from anti-aging to detox to plastic bio-shields. What are bio-shields?* They protect you from your own cell phone, of course. I’ll let the good doctor explain:

This new breakthrough, which is nearly invisible, neutralizes the waves that come out of your cell phone.

It doesn’t try to block them, weaken them, or deflect them.

It simply turns them into natural waves… waves that don’t cook your head.

By sending out small pulses of energy, it changes the wave pattern your cell phone sends out, neutralizing the heating effect.

But of course, it doesn’t interfere with your cell phone reception. You don’t even notice this is happening.

What’s the secret?

Natural electro-magnetic fields of energy.

Now that’s just good science. I don’t think this shield even takes batteries to send out the small pulses of energy – that’s how advanced it is. It’s yours for the low, low price of $59.95 plus shipping. I really need to get into this racket of selling “wellness” products. Seriously. I bet he makes a killing.

As an aside I was unable to unearth any peer-reviewed publications by this nutrition expert. If you have any feel free to send them my way.

Eric Oliver

Here’s a guy who got his PhD from UC Berkeley and is now a professor at the University of Chicago. Those are some serious credentials. Only thing is he got his doctorate in political science and now teaches political science. He has absolutely no education or training in the nutritional sciences, or any field of biology for that matter, at least according to his CV. I would not mind grabbing a beer with this guy and talking politics, but if I made a doc about nutrition I would not put him in as an expert. But hey, that’s just me.

Mary Enig

Finally we have an expert who has actually been involved in scientific experiments and has published articles in actual scientific journals! No joke. I can’t believe it.

Sally A. Fallon

I really don’t know what she is doing in this movie either. She has degrees in English and is the president of this organization called the Weston A. Price Foundation. We are never told what it is in the movie or why we might want to hold this foundation in any kind of esteem. Some simple Googling can remedy any ignorance, though. Evidently it is a bit of a fringe group that promotes high animal fat, high animal protein, low-vegetable diets. In addition to meat they also promote raw milk and… something… oh yeah homeopathy!!  They claim to be against fluoridation as well. Oh, but CSPI are the real radicals, right? Because they push for nutrition labeling. Whatever. Quackwatch has some info about the foundation’s namesake, and as far as I know Quackwatch is unimpeachable.

Jacob Sullum

Who is this asshat and why do I care what he says? Oh, he’s a professional libertarian and writes for a magazine that no one has heard of. A perfect addition to the panel of experts.

Tom Naughton

The filmmaker himself. According to the bio on his website he was going to be a doctor but was not a fan of science so he did something else. He puts it like this:

After two years of pre-med, Tom switched to a self-directed major called “Random Courses That Do Not Involve Studying Organic Chemistry.” By creating his own major, Tom enjoyed the rare distinction of graduating at the top and bottom of his class simultaneously. His valedictorian speech was very short, as he was the only one in attendance.

Oh Tom you’re such a card! Did he drop out of school? Major in something else? We do not know. But apparently he went on to try his hand at freelance writing, and then he tried to make it big in Hollywood as an actor on sitcoms. During the filming of Fat Head he seems to be employed as a computer programmer of some sort. C++? Python? HTML? It is unclear. What is clear (if his bio is even partially true) is the he likes the limelight more than he likes science, and he is going to lecture you about the etiology of heart disease5 because a) he read a pop science book once, and b) he wants to be on the silver screen.

He also seems to spend quite a lot of time blogging. The last time I visited his personal blog he had published the 14th iteration of an email debate he was having with one of his “leftist friends.” After giving that post a cursory glance I discovered two things: 1) Naughton thinks these email debates are so riveting that the world must see them, and 2) Naughton thinks he knows more about economics than a Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Princeton.

I almost forgot! Naughton sells homemade T-shirts, too.

You can pick one of these beauties up on his website if you have a PayPal account. Looks like they were freshly plucked off the racks at a Paris fashion boutique, amiright?

It appears that the bulk of Fat Head ideology comes from a book called Good Calories, Bad Calories by a guy named Gary Taubes. Mr. Taubes holds degrees in applied physics from Ivy League universities. That’s pretty impressive! However, Taubes has about as much authority expatiating on nutrition as I would have expatiating on string theory, which is to say none. Alrightythen, picture this if you will:  I have taken absolutely zero classes on any kind of physics. I have no education on such matters beyond reading Richard Feynman’s autobiography. Yet I decide to write a book about how everything we have been taught about Einstein’s mass-energy equivalency was wrong. I’ll go tour the country lecturing for no less than $5,000 per appearance and say “Hey guys, Einstein was wrong! Really. There is no link between the mass of an object and its energy content. It’s all a big hoax perpetuated by stupid scientists and the media. I did some Googling one night and unraveled the hell out of it. E=MC2 is the greatest lie of our generation. My book is on sale in the back. I accept cash, Visa, and MasterCard.”

The Actual Science

Although it is exceedingly easy with this panel of experts, I don’t want to engage exclusively in ad hominem attacks.

Modern humans (defined as Homo Sapiens) have not been around for millions of years like the filmmaker claims. Conservative estimates have placed the origins of humanity at about 100,000 years ago. More liberal estimates say we arose 250,000 years ago. I’ve even seen reports of up to 400,000 years, but I know of no legitimate anthropologist that would claim that humans have been around for millions of years. Why would I nitpick about something so seemingly insignificant? If someone is going to tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat based on what he/she assumes the first humans ate, yet are off on the origins of humanity by orders of magnitude then I would ask “Why should I trust their interpretations of the actual diet and its supposed benefits?”

Which brings me to another thing: Where did they get their information on the diets of early humans? I certainly did not see or hear any evidence that supported their version of a Paleolithic diet. Just assertion from the “experts” that for millions of years humans ate almost exclusively saturated animal fat.

The facts: Every nutrition professor I ever had – in addition to any literature I have read on the topic6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – has stated that early humans subsisted on a diet of mainly foliage and seeds with periodic access to meat and a good amount of this meat was in the form of fish. There are of course debates on exactly how much saturated fat and unsaturated fat and fiber and total calories and cholesterol and what-have-you were in the diet of early humans or human ancestors. It’s difficult to come to a definitive number in terms of grams of any particular macro or micronutrient. To be honest it is probably quite variable, depending on which particular ecological niche of East Africa you want to study. However, the preponderance of evidence points toward a diet that was highly diverse, more total calories than we consume today (probably due to the fact that they were way more physically active than we are today), very high in fiber, included both terrestrial meat and seafood, included a lot of foliage, and included seeds, pulses, legumes, and tubers. In any case I can tell you what the “Paleolithic” diet DID NOT include, and that’s fried chicken, hamburgers, butter, French fries, and basically everything you see Naughton eating in the movie.

A Note on Diets and the Lipid Profile

A couple of things to note: both exercise and weight loss significantly affect cholesterol levels. In the film Naughton mentions that he walks in his spare time for a bit of exercise, but I don’t think he ever mentions how much. However, Naughton is interviewed by Jimmy Moore on his Livin’ La Vida Low Carb podcast shortly after the film’s release and (if memory serves) says he walked 15-20 miles per week while filming his documentary. This exercise alone could have caused the modest improvements in his lipid profile, especially if he was more-or-less sedentary prior to filming.

Moreover, although Naughton claims in the beginning of the film that the whole calories-in-calories-burned paradigm for weight loss is a “load of balogna,” if you look at his dietary records you’ll notice that he keeps his daily calorie intake below 2000 kcals/day on most days. Now I don’t know much about Mr. Naughton, but I know quite a bit about my own caloric needs. I’ve performed just about every physiology/metabolic analysis available to me over the years (from DEXA scans, glucose clamps, REE, respiratory quotient, Harris-Benedict, indirect calorimetry, etc, etc…) and I require about 3000-3500 kcals/day for zero wight loss or weight gain. I am almost certainly taller than Naughton (I’m 6’6″) and probably slightly more active as well, but I imagine that both our caloric needs are not too dissimilar. At the risk of spoon-feeding you the obvious conclusion here (pardon the pun): this effectively ensured weight loss during his pseudo Super Size Me diet.

Speaking of the Super Size Me diet, if you have seen both films you will notice that despite what Mr Naughton would have you believe the diets are in fact quite different from each other, and therefore not comparable. For instance, if you look at Naughton’s food record he doesn’t eat buns, he doesn’t drink sodas (unless they are diet), and eats fries only 3 out of the 28 days (Spurlock goes 30 or 31 days I think, but that’s not too important). If you have seen Super Size Me you will notice this is very contrary to what Spurlock ate and drank. Moreover, towards the end of Super Size Me you may also recall that Spurlock devotes a fair amount of screen time pointing out that it wasn’t the Big Macs and burgers that caused his weight gain and subsequent health problems, but in fact the sugary sodas and the fries that were mostly to blame. This would have helped Naughton make his carbs-are-bad point, but instead Naughton decides to shit all over Super Size Me and call Spurlock a liar.

Naughton also does a bonus fat-binge diet toward the end of his movie. He does not tell us what his daily caloric intake is during the month of his fat binge, but if it’s near his previous month and his energy requirements are in the neighborhood of 2500 kcals/day then he is definitely losing weight during his binge. Like I said earlier this will also beneficially affect his lipid profile.

Now what about his diet? You can also manipulate your cholesterol levels via the diet. Most notably, saturated fatty acids can lead to an increase in LDL, HDL, and of course total cholesterol, but not all saturated fatty acids do this. Even though he makes the argument in the film that vegetable oils are bad for you, the coconut oil that you see him adding to his food is one such example of a saturated fat that has a neutral effect on cholesterol because of how it is packaged and transported through the blood vessels. Eggs also don’t have a huge effect on cholesterol. The steak and the cheese and the cream, sure. But clearly that was not enough to override his exercise and weight loss.

Something To Think About

Let’s pretend for a moment that all these nutrition “experts” are right. That early humans and/or human ancestors had a diet consisting of ridiculous amounts of fat.  Just nothing but animal protein and animal fat with nary a vegetable or a grain passing their lips. Just imagine that humans were the ultimate carnivorous predator on the African savannah, so much so that lions would shit themselves and gallop away at the sight of us. Can you imagine it? Okay good. Now dig this vibe: that would have absolutely no bearing on whether such a diet would be healthy. That’s right. As my philosophy friends might say “you cannot derive an ought from an is” (although in this case it would be a was).

More facts: It is claimed in the film that early humans were taller. This is untrue. Here’s a recent graph of European height over the past few decades.12

As you can see it’s a steady growth. But what about really early humans? Maybe we (or our ancestors) used to be really tall, then we got short, and now we’re getting tall again. Okay let’s look at the skeletal remains of Australopithecus, shall we? Lucy was 3 ft 7 in tall for Christ’s sake! Incredibly short. You’ve seen that Evolution of Man image, right? Did any of those proto-humans look taller than the human? Nein.

In the podcast I mentioned some studies that refuted the claim by Fallon that “corn oil was a disaster” and that beef tallow prevented cancer (in rodents anyway).13, 14, 15 I made a sincere attempt to find any studies that backed up her claim. The best I could find was a study claiming there was not much difference in rodents fed high amounts of beef fat and rodents fed high amounts of corn oil regarding tumor incidence. Although that same study stated that rodent populations that were fed low-fat diets had markedly less carcinogenesis than their high-fat counterparts, which would undermine the claims of “more fat is better for you.” If anyone can find links or PDFs of those studies she’s talking about please send them to me. I don’t have any kind of religious devotion to any particular diet, and I will go where the evidence leads me.**

Even More Facts

Remember in the film when Naughton mentioned Dr. Kilmer McCully as token proof of the global conspiracy about heart disease because Dr. McCully had a theory about what might cause heart disease and it wasn’t cholesterol and he allegedly got fired for it but Naughton never mentions what the theory was? Do you also recall in the podcast episode when I say that it is deliciously ironic what Dr. McCully’s theory actually was because it turned out to be hyperhomocysteinemia which is caused by too much animal protein and not enough B vitamins, something even the good doctor himself called “[animal] protein intoxication”? Great! Here’s the New York Times article that I plucked the information from if you wanted to read it for yourself.

The rest of my critique of this awful, awful movie is in the podcast. I would still like to know about any federal mandate stating that kids cannot walk to school and must take the bus instead. Please inform me so I can write a strongly worded letter to the Obama administration about how I vehemently disagree with such a federal mandate. Then I’ll write a second letter to Mr. Naughton thanking him for bringing this travesty to the attention of the public. Or maybe that little tidbit was just some Grade A bullshit that was utilized to rile up the audience in favor of his libertarian cause against the nanny state.

Fun Facts

The Paleo Diet was recently ranked dead last in the US News & World Report Best Diets. Here are the experts that reviewed all the diets. What do they know anyway, with their fancy Ivy League degrees and RD accreditations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association)? It’s all a big hoax anyway.

I also found a section in a nutrition textbook focusing on low-carb diets. Instead of linking to several photocopied pages I am just posting a table summarizing the current science regarding this trend.16

Bonus Picture

Here is a graph showing global web traffic of “paleo diet.”

As you can see it is growing almost exponentially. However, I imagine that around 2015 or maybe sooner the novelty will wear off just like the Atkins diet and it will be just another blip in the history of fad diets.

*It appears as if the good Dr. Sears has since removed the Bio-Shields from his catalog. You can see it archived on the wayback machine and here. Nevertheless, he is still hawking ridiculous stuff at absurdly high prices. For instance he is selling 2 anti-aging DVDs for $199.00! Please tell me no one has actually spent two hundred dollars on that. Please?

**EDIT: I think I may have found the study she was talking about. It seems like a strange study, but I’ll try to summarize it as best I can. So apparently the researchers were investigating the effects of conjugate linoleic acid (CLA, a polyunsaturated fatty acid) that has been shown in other studies to have anticarcinogenic properties with rodents. They fed all mice high fat diets, but the diets differed in fat composition. The experimental diets were a vegetable fat blend, a vegetable fat blend + CLA, a vegetable fat blend + CLA + beef tallow, a vegetable fat blend + corn oil, and a vegetable fat blend + corn oil + CLA. After four weeks they took the rodents and injected them with tumor cells in the mammary area and the tail.  Then they sacrificed the mice and measured tumors. Evidently they got some data on the tumors showing no significant differences between the diets but declined to include that data in the study (the authors mentioned this). However, they were able to find that if 0.05% CLA was added to the diets the vegetable fat blend + beef tallow diet showed a significant decrease in “lung tumor burden” over the other diets. Furthermore, if you were to add 0.1% CLA to the diets then the vegetable fat blend only and the vegetable fat blend + beef tallow diet showed a significant decrease in “lung tumor burden.” Do you see what I mean about being strange? I was tempted to wonder why one would conduct such an odd study…. Then I saw it. Did you see it, too? At the bottom of the first page:

Funded by beef and veal producers and importers through their $1-per-head checkoff and was produced for the Cattlemen’s beef board and state beef councils by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

It doesn’t mean that the study is exactly bogus, but it suggests that there were probably quite a few of these studies done with the NCBA actively looking for any hint that beef might be sort of almost healthy so they could take the findings and trumpet them to the skies. So…. There you go. Proof that under the exact right circumstances a little bit of beef tallow can be slightly chemopreventive in rodents.

  1. You should take an hour or two to peruse the Wikipedia page on common misconceptions if you haven’t already. It will blow your mind. I guarantee you believe at least one thing in that list that is patently false.
  2. although the ultimate goal there is likely financial anyway
  3. except for the handful of scientists that agree with us – they are brave, brave souls
  4. Looks like a glorified multivitamin to me, though.
  5. among other diseases he never studied
  6. Kay RF. Dental Evidence for the Diet of Australopithecus. Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 14, 315-41 (1985)
  7. Broadhurst CL, et al. Brain-specific lipids from marine, lacustrine, or terrestrial food resources: potential impact on early African Homo sapiens. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B 131, 653–673 (2002)
  8. Hockett B and Haws J. Nutritional Ecology and Diachronic Trends in Paleolithic Diet and Health. Evolutionary Anthropology 12, 211–216 (2003)
  9. Marean CW, et al. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449, 905-909  (2007)
  10. Konner M and Eaton SB. Paleolithic Nutrition. Nutr Clin Pract 25, 594-602 (2010)
  11. Don’t pay any attention to these studies, of course, or any other studies for that matter because we all know the researchers are in cahoots with Big Soy. Unless they show something that might be interpreted as pro-meat or pro-saturated fat, in which case those researchers should be heralded as torchbearers of truth and light.
  12. Taken from this study: McEvoy BP and Visscher PM. Genetics of human height. Economics and Human Biology 7, 294–306 (2009)
  13. Morei T, et al. Beef Tallow, but Not Perilla or Corn Oil, Promotion of Rat Prostate and Intestinal Carcinogenesis by 3,22-Dimethyl-4-aminobiphenyl. Jpn. J. Cancer Res 92, 1026–1033 (2001)
  14. You can read the rest of them yourself here and here because they are not available online, or at least not at my institution of higher learning. I personally scanned them. You’re welcome.
  15. This one is not about cancer, but it’s still pertinent to this discussion: Shimomura Y, et al. Less Body Fat Accumulation in Rats Fed a Safflower Oil Diet Than in Rats Fed a Beef Tallow Diet. J Nutr. 11, 1291-1296 (1990)
  16. Sizer F and Whitney E. (2007) Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies, 11th Edition. Brooks Cole, pp 342. Here is the context if you reeeeeally wanna see it.