Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Nutrition Student

My professor started out our first day of Advanced Human Nutrition this semester with the baffling statement: “Its very hard to find a study that shows that soda is bad for you.” She laid this whammy on us while introducing our first assignment. We had to design a scientific study on a nutritional topic of our choosing. I immediately weighed my options - definitely something related to a low- or no-carb diet. We didn’t actually have to conduct the hypothetical experiments, obviously, but just come up with a design.
Since a single soda can has 12 teaspoons of sugar in it, I knew there were scores of studies linking sugar consumption to a host of problems: type II diabetes, ADHD, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, to mention a few. Amazingly enough, not a single student raised a hand, including me, to question this inane comment. What is it about the science of nutrition that turns us all into mind-numb zombies? We are weary after decades of contradicting information, unable to sort out the conflicting advice and filter out any remaining truths. Here we sit at a Big Ten University, and no one has the confidence to argue with a professor with the gall to state that there is no scientific proof that 12 teaspoons of pure sugar is bad for you.
And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse. To further aid us in generating topic ideas for the assignment, she put up a powerpoint slide with the steps of the scientific method displayed. Underneath the first step, Hypothesis, was the question: “Is the Atkins diet more effective at weight loss than a calorie-restricted diet?” Here we go, I thought.  “Has anyone here tried the Atkins diet?” The question hung in the air a few seconds, and slowly I and an athletic guy a few rows down raised our hands. She turned to us. “How did it work?” She asked with a slight smirk.
“Good,” I said, and Beefcake College Boy agreed, "Awesome."
“Does anyone have an idea as to why there are so many testimonials of people losing weight on the Atkins diet?”
A girl across the room raised her hand. “Because fat has more calories than carbs or protein, so you get full quicker and eat less calories.” Prof nodded approvingly.
“Anyone else?” I felt my hand go up before I could stop it. 
“Well, a low-carb diet utilizes little or no insulin for digestion, and insulin is the primary hormone that promotes fat storage in adipose tissue.” I could have gone on about triglyceride formation, but I left it at that.
Her smirk turned into a puzzled stare. “Hmm,” she turned away and flipped to the next slide without responding to my statement.
Second step, Design a scientific study to attempt to answer the question. This slide says: “Put half the study participants on a reduced calorie diet, and half on the high-fat, low-carb Atkins diet.” And in the bubble below: “Study shows no difference between weight loss at one year amongst the two groups.” I shake my head. Unbelievable. The only thing that causes weight gain is carbohydrates. I scribble down the journal and article number in small print below the proclamation. “Lastly, see if follow-up studies agree with your finding, and develop the hypothesis into a theory.” Underneath was an additional study that found no increased weight loss with the Atkins diet. I scribbled it down, too, vowing to look up the studies when I get home, knowing the real story won’t be quite so simple.
And my prediction was right. I found the first study right away at home, and it turns out that the half on the Atkins’ plan lost significantly more weight at 3 months, 6 months, and still an average of over 9 pounds more at a year. Then, in complete contradiction, the study also claims, “Participants had no significant difference in weight lost at 12 months” in the next paragraph. I suppose the margin of error could be large enough for that claim, but I suspect that my professor isn’t the only professional who twists the results of studies when they don’t show what is predicted by mainstream nutritional advice.
Reading further, I discovered that the researchers used a “self-help” style of nutritional advice, simply handing half of the participants a copy of Atkin’s diet book and leaving them to forge through an introduction to a low-carb diet on their own, while trudging through this maze of nutrition misinformation in our carb- and sugar-obsessed culture. As if large group of study participants could adhere to the Atkins diet without any counseling or support! Obviously this was a ridiculous assumption on the part of the researchers, as they admit that ”attrition was high” and that “during the first three months, the percentage of patients who tested positive for urinary ketones was significantly greater in the group on the low-carbohydrate diet than in the group on the conventional diet, but there were no significant differences between the groups after three months,” which of course means that no one was on a low-carb diet and the results of this study at one year are meaningless if your purpose is to study the effects of a low-carbohydrate diet.
The next sentence of this study is very confusing: “There was no significant relation between weight loss and ketosis at any time during the study.” What? This is completely inaccurate. They are completely contradicting themselves. After telling us that the low-carb group had “significantly” more ketones in the beginning of the study, and that “subjects on the low-carbohydrate diet lost significantly more weight than the subjects on the conventional diet at 3 months (P=0.002) and 6 months (P=0.03),” now we’re being informed that there was no “significant relation” between the presence of ketones and weight loss.  
I printed out the study, wondering what to do with the information. I wanted to raise my hand at the beginning of the next lecture and confront her with the accurate facts, if only to educate my classmates – all future doctors, nurses, and dieticians. A room full of people about to spend entire careers spreading this mininformation and furthering the development of chronic disease, all while attempting to heal people.  The irony fell on me like dead weight.
Later in the lecture, she told us that the studies say that the higher a person’s total carb intake is, the thinner they are – and does anyone know why this would be? A student raised a hand and postulated that it must be because they get more exercise. Prof nodded and shrugged, telling us that it was also discovered in the Nurse’s Health Study in the 80’s that those who eat the most are the leanest. She then completely flaked out of any sensical conversation about these facts by stating, and I quote: “In the field of nutrition, it would be nice if we had real rules.”
As if science doesn’t exist. I would have loved to raise my hand and explain most of this. First of all, as for the study that supposedly tells us that eating carbs makes us skinny, obviously there is more at play here than simply calories in, calories out. Different people's bodies have differing abilities to digest carbohydrates as fuel rather than storing them as fat. People with a highly evolved ability to digest carbs can eat more of them, and still have enough insulin and insulin-responsiveness in the cells to use the glucose as fuel and burn it off. People who eat "less carbs" and weigh more are really probably eating less food overall, not just carbohydrates because THEY HAVE A SLOWER METABOLISM and a reduced ability to digest carbohydrates so their bodies are STORING the food they are eating.
And then we get to the Nurse’s Health Study. I love this study. You just can’t argue with a solid, well-executed study involving thousands of reliable participants, even if the findings aren’t at all what would be predicted by modern nutritional theories. Despite the fact that the nurses demonstrated that it is not simply caloric intake that causes weight loss and gain, researchers and professors alike simply brushed aside this inconvenient finding with the explanation that the thin participants must also get the most exercise. This is so ridiculous. Do you have any idea how much more exercise one would have to get to be able to eat an additional 1000 calories a day and still be thinner? You would need to run 10 miles a day or do 60 minutes of heated power yoga with weights EVERY DAY. Not likely. 
Here once again, the cause and effect have been reversed because of a correlation, which does not infer causation. One cannot assume cause and effect just because two concepts are found to be related. In this case, researchers assume that some people are overweight because they consume too many calories. But there is ample evidence that obesity is a hormonal disease, and that people are overweight because their bodies are storing the food they eat as fat because of a metabolic defect. This defect is likely caused by the excessive insulin that is produced by the insanely high amounts of carbohydrates being eaten in our society, as well as many other countries across the globe.
There are a few more random comments that my professor made in the first couple lectures that I just shouldn’t finish this post without mentioning. On the second day of class, she professed while introducing the carbohydrate lecture: “Carbohydrates are my life!” I had to stifle a snort and duck behind the girl in front of me. Later she told us that she is so well known for her tolerant attitude toward sugar and sweets, that recently someone asked her, “Aren’t you the pro-sugar nutritionist?” Now this really blows my mind. As if someone could actually call themselves a nutritionist and be pro-sugar! This is a tenured professor at a major university. Obviously the brainwashing of of academia by the grain and sugar industries is a resounding success! And to then announce it to her college class with a guilty laugh and a breezy attitude was almost more than I could bear. Glancing around the room filled with future nurses and dieticians, I imagined them sprouting this dogma of nutritional bullshit to overweight, disease-ridden Americans for decades. I wanted to get up and storm out of the room, muttering profanities as I slammed the door behind me.
There was one last off-hand comment toward the end of the carbohydrate lecture that pretty much sums it all up: “When you’re working with carbs, you run into problems!”


  1. She's probably a runner. Runners carbo-load.

  2. I can't believe you stuck it out girl! Way to go. I don't think I could have stomached it. Pun intended. :) Write more Day in the life of's. This is good stuff. xoxo