Seth Roberts’ Final Column: Butter Makes Me Smarter

As a tribute to the world-changing man Seth Roberts I am re-blogging his final column, submitted to the website just before he unexpectedly died while hiking last weekend. I met him over a year ago and he was shy yet child-like in his curiosity and wonder. Seth is already missed but has helped so many people take charge of their own health by tenacious self-experimentation and the philosophy that in our own “experiments of one” we can find something close to a happy and healthy life. Seth is NOT in a better place. He should be here, still doing his beloved work. -Andrea


(Wikimedia Commons) (Wikimedia Commons)

Note: Seth Roberts submitted this column to Betabeat before his untimely death. We publish it now with a heavy heart and per his request will be making a donation to Amnesty International.

A few weeks ago my sister sent me a link to an article (“Butter is Back”) by Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer. I told her I’d clicked on a link to the article but had forgotten to read it. She was incredulous. How could you not want to say “I told you so”?

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Cage Fight: KFC’s Double Down vs. Sanity

Knock, knock! Who’s there? Nutritionists and foodies having apoplectic meltdowns!

Oh, yes, it happened. The “limited run” legendary whipping-boy sandwich from KFC called the Double Down is back after a multi-year hiatus, to the chagrin and delight of the Internets.

When first unleashed in 2010 the Double Down was the scorn of nutritionists and the bane of foodies alike – a strange alliance given that the two camps are often at odds over concepts they believe cannot exist together like “health” and “deliciousness”. The vitriol from both was rather frothy.

But perhaps in the context of our “eat less evil foods” culture, popularized by sites like Eat This, Not That and YumSugar, I can look at the Double Down within my own paradigm – that of valuing foods that are less processed as the better choice. (Note, my book proposal – no joke – to Rodale for “Eat This, Not That: Paleo” is yet unanswered….)

What does the Double Down have going for it? Let’s take a look:

  1. Low-carb option for those on the Atkins or other ketogenic diet (though not rock-bottom due to likely seasonings in the meat, for a grand total of 11 carbs vs. 35 carbs in a regular KFC fried chicken sandwich)
  2. Made from three sort-of straightfoward ingredients (if you get the grilled chicken option instead of fried and skip the sauce): chicken, cheese, bacon. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell you what kinds of awful go into making sandwich buns at fast food joints (like dough conditioners also used in yoga mats).
  3. It’s a chicken cordon bleu for $5.49. Yay.

Um, that’s about it.

How about the Double Down-sides? I can come up with a few:

  1. The cheese. Likely a frankenish creation that has mere molecules of dairy as an ingredient in order for it to use the word “cheese” in its description. Also source of part of the low-carber’s unwanted carbohydrate grams.
  2. The chicken. I won’t even go into the horrors of life as a battery chicken; here I will only talk about nutrition. There ain’t much that resembles what a real chicken should taste like after you’ve raised the birds on soy and antibiotics, injected the meat with saline, and then slathered it in a crusty spice layer (which includes wheat, according to KFC’s website). I’ll stop there.
  3. It’s a chicken cordon bleu for $5.49. Ick.

Interestingly, even with a bit of nutrition education, I (just like the rare blogger back in 2010 who said Double Downs were not the most evil thing they could imagine) would put the Double Down far ahead of many, many things recommended by the likes of Eat This, Not That and their ilk. I do give some kudos to that series’ desire to allow folks to make incremental changes from where they are now in their habit. However, I think their “evil” list is misguided, namely in their rote avoidance of saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

So where does this leave us? My dude and I (mostly him, OK) tested out a real Double Down, for science. It was breaded and weird. It was not at all like the “extra tasty crispy” stuff you expect from KFC. The cheese didn’t have time to melt, the sauce was unnecessary if they’d only use bacon with flavor…. but…. it didn’t make us throw up in our mouths. So, good job, KFC?

$12K For 25 Stitches: American Healthcare is Broken (Part 1)

Part One of several posts about how health care can be a heck of a lot better in this country.

It’s about the least surprising thing to say when talking about health and medicine in the western world: it’s totally fucked up. The system doesn’t serve people in the best way for their health, opting instead in many cases for pure survival. And that’s just the actual medical establishment, the place folks end up when something is going really wrong, whether it’s emergency trauma or the culmination of a chronic illness.

The pieces of health are not just what it takes to not “spend your last 10 years in a diaper and a wheelchair” (a genius post by Chris Kresser, who lured me into a lot of this research about 5 years ago by those very words). No, the pieces of health are far larger than just showing up at the doc’s office or the hospital when things are really wrong (or even just somewhat painful).

Emergency medicine in our society is extremely effective (and expensive), so if you are in a car crash, even if you don’t have money, you can and will get “fixed”. That means you’ll have bones pinned together, skin sewn up, fluids replaced, and (hopefully) infections prevented or addressed.

Original source: Broken Heart Source Image

Original source: Broken Heart Source Image

But even if you are faced with a relative trauma, the current state of the system can take down to slivers the savings of most average adults. Take, for example, something that happened just a few days ago at a massive health conference in Austin, TX called Paleo f(x). Darryl Edwards, one of the activity gurus, ended up with a mis-timed head butt and split open his eyelid. He didn’t think it would need intervention at first, but then he was convinced it wasn’t just a scratch by folks who kept noticing the bleeding gash.

Once he finally figured out that he really did need stitches, someone wanted him to get an ambulance. BUT. Because Darryl is from the UK, an ambulance would be about $4K right out of his pocket. Ok, so he should find someone to drive him to the ER. BUT. Emergency rooms have pretty long wait times. It was suggested, “go to urgent care”. Finally, word got around to the wife of a local dermatologist. He was taken right to their office and was taken care of, sewn right up to the tune of 25 stitches as a favor to a fellow health guru for no charge. The dermatologist told him that it would normally cost about $12K. TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Even before the ambulance when it was looking like $4K out of his pocket, Darryl considered getting on a first class plane back to UK so that he could walk into a local doc and get things taken care of for free. The fact that someone without insurance considers a transatlantic flight in order to NOT spend about $16K on stitches is, a little, crazy.

In the next few blog posts I’ll go from panic-inducing examples like this to somewhat of a means to a solution. It involves the word OWNERSHIP. And we’ll get there.

Three Reasons to Ditch the “Five Ingredients or Less” Rule

fast food milkshake

A Fast Food Shake, with far more than 4 ingredients. Photo Credit: yosoynuts

There are a lot of recommendations out there for what kinds of foods are good to purchase, or at least which kinds of foods are those that should be avoided, based on the ingredients list. **see NOTE at bottom before hand-wringing.

You’ll find admonishments to avoid:

Unfortunately, these rules run into some problems. Here are 3 reasons the “five ingredient” rule can be sending you down the wrong path to health.

1) Natural Flavor

You could eat a lot of questionable additives if following the “x” number of ingredients rule, even if it’s only five. One of the biggest culprits in this realm is “natural flavor” as an actual ingredient listed. Really? What, legally, can be in something called “natural flavor”? This is from the FDA’s website and is current as of 2013:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

So that means if you start with a “constituent” of a plant and then use enzymes OR heat OR roasting OR distillation OR extraction OR fermentation on it to produce something that will flavor a food, it’s “natural”. Yep. This is a massive industry, featured once in a while on investigative/hyped TV programs.

2) Food now ≠ food 50 years ago

If you follow the grandmother rule, you might eat food that LOOKS like real food but isn’t anything like it was 50 or 80 years ago. Wheat’s protein structure has changed quite a bit over the last 40 years (and that’s one of the theories about why wheat sensitivity is much higher now than ever before). Many factory farmed crops are genetically modified to grow in concert with amazingly complex biological killers (a.k.a. pesticides). And even simple ingredients, like “salt”, have been refined, processed, remolded, and stripped of their original minerals and physical form.

3) Ingredients with ingredients

In other words, five ingredients might not be five ingredients. There was a (rather reactionary oh-my-gawd-the-sky-is-falling) article several years back about the 59 ingredients in a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake that went moderately viral. The article delved into the 59 chemicals used to comprise the “strawberry flavor” part of the strawberry syrup. Each ‘ingredient’ was listed as the specific chemical compound name which, to many folks, sounds SCARY. Chemicals are not inherently scary. Everything is chemicals. If you listed all of the molecules in a banana by their chemical name you’d be freaked out. One of the chemicals that gives a banana its aroma is Amyl Acetate. If you take that chemical all by itself, it is a fruity-smelling solvent akin to nail polish remover. Eeeek! But it is in a banana, naturally. That’s why over-hyped articles like the “59 ingredients” one can be unhelpful. (**again, see NOTE at the bottom)

However, the non-molecular chemical ingredients are just as dubious. Note that when you initially see the list of ingredients for that milkshake, it is FOUR. That would be allowed under the “5 or less” rule, so what went wrong??? Here are the ingredients:


Hey, that’s not so bad . . . right? However, when you take each of those four ingredients and expand it – from the very same McDonald’s official pdf file – you end up with this:

VANILLA REDUCED FAT ICE CREAM (Milk, Sugar, Cream, Nonfat Milk Solids, Corn Syrup Solids, Mono- and Diglycerides, Guar Gum, Dextrose, Sodium Citrate, Artificial Vanilla Flavor, Sodium Phosphate, Carrageenan, Disodium Phosphate, Cellulose Gum, Vitamin A Palmitate.), STRAWBERRY SHAKE SYRUP (Sugar, Water, Corn Syrup, Strawberries, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Natural (Botanical Source) and Artificial Flavor, Pectin, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Caramel Color, Calcium Chloride, Red 40), WHIPPED CREAM (Cream, Nonfat Milk, Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Contains Less Than 1%: Mono-And Diglycerides, Carrageenan, Polysorbate 80, Beta Carotene (Color), Natural (Dairy and Plant Sources) and Artificial Flavor, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E) to Protect Flavor, and Whipping Propellant (Nitrous Oxide)), MARASCHINO CHERRY (Cherries, Water, Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Malic Acid, Citric Acid, Natural (Plant Source) and Artificial Flavors, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives), Red 40, Sulfur Dioxide as Preservative (Contains Sulfites))


Homemade strawberry milkshake

Now that’s a strawberry MILK shake! Photo Credit: A30_Tsitika

Here’s the flip side of this. Many of the “scary” sounding ingredients are simply the chemical names for compounds that could be individually present in real foods. In this case, they are also used in the artificial flavoring. Each of those chemicals is, by itself, neither good nor evil, and many of them are present in REAL fruit. HOWEVER. It does not change the fact that those ingredients were deliberately combined to make artificial flavor, as opposed to a strawberry growing on a plant and then being blended into the shake.

Stressing out about every thing you put in your mouth is also counterproductive to your health. What is important is having knowledge about real foods, and making choices in your life that are better than before, little by little. Moving from hot dogs to processed reformed deli meat to roasted sliced packaged meat to real/whole animals to organic animals to YOUR OWN animals is a process that has benefits at every step of the way, and you should feel good about each step, not just when you reach the end.

Armi Legge writes very well about this topic, especially his post called “The Myth of Clean Eating“. He straddles a nice divide between using real ingredients and not freaking out too much about straying off the path. Good job, dude!