Longevity Lessons from Art De Vany

Tim Ferris introduced me to several interesting thinkers through his podcast, “The Tim Ferriss Show.” I’ve learned a lot from them, and they in turn have introduced me to others who have affected my approach to diet, exercise and wellness.

Dr. Arthur De Vany was among the first, through this episode on “How to Reverse Aging.”

Art De Vany is one of the pioneers of the Paleo movement. He’s an economist, not a physician. And as Tim said, “he’s nearly 80 years old and ripped.”

Now he’s 82, and one of the things I appreciate about him is that he’s approaching the study of aging as a layman. “I only started studying it a few years ago. I figured I’m an expert because I’m experienced… When you’re coming up on 80, you start thinking about – when you approach middle age, you start thinking about these things.”

Beyond his characterization of 80 as approaching middle age, here are a few more snippets from Art in that conversation that caused me to stop and think.

  • I never have three meals a day. I sometimes have one. Sometimes none. Most times two. But you don’t have to cut calories. It’s just the timing. 
  • I eat only twice a day. So I want long intervals between meals. I want low insulin signaling so that I bring on the defensive and repair pathways. I want to be conscious of maintaining my stem cells.
  • The leanest are the ones who engage in the most intense bursts. Little children don’t steady state exercise.
  • I work out almost every day. Maybe 10, 15 minutes. 
  • Yeah, you can jog if you want to. If you want to kill some of your stem cells. 

Having been one of those guys who jog, thinking it was good for my health and longevity, that last point was jarring. But given that Art has something like 8% body fat, and that he says his blood test results are at levels typical of men 30-40 years younger, I thought it was worth exploring further.

Somewhere else I recall him comparing the overall physical appearance of sprinters vs. marathoners and asking: “Which looks better to you?” The sprinters are bright-eyed, muscular and vigorous, while the marathoners look like they’re about to die.

Point taken.

So this interview was part of my journey toward high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as well as more weightlifting.

Having been on a regular three (or more) meals per day cadence, the first bullet point above about eating two meals most days, sometimes one, and sometimes none was unfathomable to me. It seemed crazy.

But on further reflection, it increasingly made sense. Our ancestors didn’t have constant access to food. When they succeeded in a hunt, they ate, and with no refrigeration available it meant they loaded up while they had access to food. And then they were hungry for a while.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, this was my introduction to the concept of intermittent fasting or time-restricted feeding.

This podcast episode is well worth your time. Art discusses some fascinating concepts from his work as an economics professor, and the importance of major events in our personal lives and in economics as opposed to incremental developments. By far the most impact – for good or bad – comes from a handful of events, and he says it’s essential to recognize and remain poised in those situations.

If you want to read more from Art, check out The De Vany Diet, as well as his updated version, The New Evolution Diet.

Next time I’ll review a serendipitous Audible book recommendation that revolutionized my understanding, that when you eat is almost as important as what you eat.

See the whole series about my health journey. Follow along on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

Renewing a Connection, and a Call to Comment

My post yesterday on why A Calorie is NOT a Calorie — and why “eat less, move more” is a simplistic and harmful slogan masquerading as scientific weight-loss advice — led to a delightful reconnection with someone I first met more than a decade ago.

My good friend Dave deBronkart’s comment on my LinkedIn post drew Dr. Ted Eytan into the discussion, and it was a great pleasure to renew our acquaintance.

I first met Dr. Eytan in 2009 when we were on a panel together at a conference in Baltimore (which was also the day I met Ed Bennett for the first time after having interacted for several months on Twitter).

I was delighted to learn that he’s taken on a role as Associate Director with The Nutrition Coalition, and that he’s engaged in the effort to have U.S. Dietary Guidelines reflect sound science.

I had heard Nina Teicholz on a podcast talking about the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Commission and her work with The Nutrition Coalition, so it was cool to find out that Dr. Eytan is working so closely with her. As described earlier in this series, her book — The Big Fat Surprise — started me on this journey of dietary discovery.

The Nutrition Coalition is urging public comment as the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Commission is developing its 2020 Guidelines. This process happens every five years, and it has a huge impact. It affects everything from hospital meals to school lunches to what physicians and dietitians recommend to patients.

I submitted my comments last night. I hope you’ll check out all of the great information from The Nutrition Coalition and do likewise.

Tomorrow I’ll continue the series about my health journey. Follow along on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

A Calorie is NOT a Calorie

Just as not all studies are created equal, neither are all calories.

This isn’t new news in the scientific literature. In fact, a study from the 1950s showed that carbohydrates, protein and fat in the diet have significantly different impacts on metabolism.

And yet today we still hear the refrain: “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Weight is simply a matter of calories in vs. calories out. If you want to lose weight, the solution is simple: Eat less. Move more.”

A paper published in The Lancet in 1956 by Kekwick and Pawan (embedded at the bottom of this post so you can read for yourself) tells a much different story.

The paper reported on three diet studies involving obese patients.

In the first, when the proportion of protein (20%), fat (33%) and carbohydrate (47%) calories were held constant (20%), lower daily calorie intake led to greater weight loss.

No surprise there.

But the results of two other series of diets seriously undermined the theory that “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.”

In the second series, 14 subjects were put on three different semi-starvation diets, each of which fed them 1,000 calories per day with 90% of calories coming from either carbohydrates, protein or fat. On the 90% protein and 90% fat diets, the subjects lost 0.6-0.9 lbs. per day, while on the 90% carbohydrate diet they actually gained weight.

Let that sink in: obese subjects gained weight on 1,000 calories per day.

On a semi-starvation diet.

When the calories came from carbohydrates.

In the third diet series, patients were put on a balanced diet of carbs, protein and fat at 2,000 calories per day, which caused them to maintain or gain weight.

When they were placed on a 2,600 calorie diet that was mostly fat and protein, four out of five lost weight.

With 600 more calories each day, as long as they came from fat and protein, the patients lost weight.

This study involved a small group of subjects, and the authors noted that “many of these patients had inadequate personalities. At worst they would cheat and lie, obtaining food from visitors, from trolleys touring the wards, and from neighbouring patients…. At best they cooperated fully but a few found the diet so trying that they could not eat the whole of their meals.”

That last point is important: if patients were on a 2,600-calorie protein/fat diet and found they couldn’t eat their whole meals, that’s kind of the goal, isn’t it?

It’s reverse cheating. They can eat as much as they want…but they just don’t want.

As the authors noted, high-carb diets tend to promote water retention, while protein/fat diets lead to loss of water weight. And even though those water weight losses aren’t permanent, it still demonstrates the underlying point: your body is not a bomb calorimeter. It doesn’t “burn” calories.

While the laws of thermodynamics are true, they aren’t the major driver of body weight issues.

Different types of calories are metabolized differently.

A calorie is NOT a calorie.

This was shown more than 60 years ago. And yet well into this century the U.S. government was officially recommending 6-11 servings per day of bread, cereal, rice and pasta.

I first learned about the Kekwick-Pawan paper in The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, which led to me adopting the Slow-Carb Diet and eating eggs for breakfast every day.

Tim’s podcast also introduced me to some interesting researchers, thinkers, authors and podcasters, whose programs and publications led to others from whom I’ve learned.

I’ll introduce you to the first of these next time.

See the whole series about my health journey. Follow along on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

How I Got Here

That’s the title of a new podcast series by Touchpoint Media, hosted by Reed Smith, and I’m honored to be the subject of the first episode.

I’ve known Reed for more than a decade, and he’s been a great friend and trusted advisor as we developed the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Likewise with his Touchpoint Media partner, Chris Boyer.

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did, and that it provides some insights you might find helpful in your career and life.

I look forward to the rest of the series, which features some old friends like Ed Bennett as well as others I’m looking forward to getting to know better.

Listen on iTunes or Stitcher and be sure to subscribe.

A Study is Not a Study

All scientific studies are not created equal.

Each type of scientific study has its uses and value, but when you make decisions on diet, exercise and other behaviors you are literally betting your life.

So it’s important to understand what different kinds of studies can tell us, and what they can’t.

The weakest evidence comes from observational studies. In a retrospective observational study, scientists compare outcomes in different populations or subgroups and compare characteristics of those populations.

They may note differences in outcomes, and then try to identify differences between the two populations that might explain the differing outcomes.

That’s an important and highly beneficial use of these kinds of studies: to generate hypotheses.

But those hypotheses need to be tested. Just because two factors are correlated doesn’t mean there is a causal relationship.

Sometimes the correlation is so strong that causation is highly likely. For cigarette smokers, for example, the incidence of lung cancer is 20-30 times higher than among nonsmokers. If the effect is large enough, an observational or epidemiological study can provide a good guide to decisions.

It would be foolish to think smoking is safe just because a controlled experiment in humans is impractical and unethical.

On the other end of the spectrum from observational studies is a randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled trial.

  • A controlled study is one in which a group that is treated is compared with one that is not, the controls. If the outcomes of the treatment group are significantly better than the control group, it shows that the treatment has value.
  • Placebo-controlled means that some kind of intervention is done in each arm of the study. One group gets the pill that is hypothesized to be beneficial, while the other typically gets an identically appearing sugar pill. This is designed to overcome the placebo effect, in which people report feeling better because they think they’ve been treated. To be meaningful, the treatment arm needs to have results that are significantly better than placebo.
  • A randomized trial is one in which people are assigned by chance to either the treatment or the control.
  • A double-blind study is one in which neither the study subjects or the investigators know who is getting the treatment and who is a control. In addition to guarding against the placebo effect among subjects, this is designed to keep the investigators from imagining improvements in the treatment group.

This kind of study is often called a “gold standard” study. In the best of them, the treatment and control groups will be as identical as possible. You wouldn’t want one to have 60% tobacco smokers while the other has 30%, for example. Ideally, the only relevant difference between the groups will be that one got the treatment while the other didn’t.

It’s also important to have a large enough number (or n) to enable statistical analysis of the likelihood that the result was not due to chance. As you read studies you’ll note that a p value is given, such as p<.05. That means the likelihood that a difference between the groups is due to chance is less than 5%: we’re 95% certain that the outcomes difference is a real one.

The strongest studies also have “hard” or objective endpoints, which are the outcomes being measured. Death or a heart attach are hard endpoints, while subjective measures like “feelings of well-being” are soft endpoints.

One of the big problems in scientific reporting is when headlines say, “Study shows….”

If it’s a gold standard study (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled), that’s legitimate.

If it’s an observational or epidemiological study, the more accurate headline would be “Study suggests ….” Those studies can only generate hypotheses to be tested in more rigorous gold standard studies.

So why even do these observational studies? They enable identification of promising lines of inquiry at lower cost. They can provide a good starting point.

One final type of study that is relevant for our consideration is animal studies. Because of common metabolic pathways, these also can suggest potential applications in humans.

Like observational studies, animal studies can point to areas for further investigation, but they aren’t definitive. Their major advantage is that with the shorter lifespans of animals and our ability to enforce compliance with the intervention, we’re able to get those preliminary answers in a shorter timeframe. And we don’t need to worry about the placebo effect in animals.

But lots of findings in mice have not borne out in human studies.

So how does this relate to dietary studies, and what should we do about it?

  1. It’s almost impossible to do a study of free-living humans for any length of time that truly isolates one variable.
  2. The effects identified in observational studies are typically not large enough to justify confident proclamations. An odds ratio of 20 or 30 meant cigarette smokers were 20-30x more likely than nonsmokers to develop lung cancer. If the odds ratio for developing colon cancer because of nitrates in bacon is 1.1, it’s a lot less clear that bacon is really a problem (see #1).
  3. The effects of diet accumulate over a lifetime. Even smoking seems to have its carcinogenic effects over a period of years, not weeks or months.
  4. It’s extremely hard to have a blinded study of diet, at least with normal foods. People know whether they’re eating eggs or pancakes, bacon or okra.
  5. Eating in a way that is radically different from what our ancestors ate, at least over the last several thousand years, is unlikely to be a prescription for health and vitality.

My main point is that it’s hard to determine precisely the health effects of different eating patterns and habits. It’s even harder when one hypothesis, the diet-heart hypothesis, becomes established and leads to confirmation bias driving out dissent, making it difficult to do and publish research that doesn’t align with prevailing thought.

And yet, we each are our own n of 1, and we need to decide what we’re going to eat today. Based on my reading and personal study and experimentation over the last few years, I’m convinced that the diet-heart hypothesis is seriously off track.

As I continue this series, which you can follow on Facebook, Twitter  or LinkedIn (or by just bookmarking and checking in regularly), I’ll introduce you to authors, physicians and scientists who have influenced me toward that position, as well as to some of the stronger studies that have led me to adjust my personal behaviors.

Even if you reach a different conclusion, it’s good to have explored the arguments so you’re making dietary decisions consciously instead of by default.