a few cute things I wanted to write down

This is just a brief note to memorialize some verbal mistakes our kid makes that have either already faded or will fade soon. For some reason it feels important to record them.

He used to say “mahkler” for “marker.” Not anymore.

He is phasing out the charming “heliclopter.” It used to be very consistent; now he gets “helicopter” out correctly about half the time.

Finally, the most charming and baroque of the three — for several months now, whenever he asks for water, he has asked for some variant of “water when you cough.” More recently, as his pronouns have come online, he asks for “water when I cough.” This odd little tic is so consistent that if you say “Would you like some water?” he will politely but firmly add, “…when you cough.” Occasionally he drops it for a day or two (and once, in a burst of creativity, he amended it to “water when I’m thirsty”). But mostly it’s just “Dad, I need some water when you cough.”


well… how did I get here? (adventures in co-sleeping)

Back in ’09, when our kid was just a kid-to-be, Elana and I watched this scene from Away We Go, the Dave Eggers/Vendela Vida-scripted meditation on impending parenthood, and we laaaaaaughed. Here is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s L.N. describing her “continuum” philosophy of child-rearing:

The Continuum movement recognizes that the world will give your baby plenty of alienation and despair in good time, so while we can, we should hold them close. So, it’s “the 3 S’s”: no separation, no sugar, no strollers.

Ha-ha. So silly.

But it turns out that, uh, through a weird combination of laziness, medical conditions, and the peculiar way we began life as a family, we have become EXACTLY THOSE PEOPLE. Minus, I hope, the douchey smugness.

But you have to understand that this just sort of flows out of our origin story — we were caught completely off-guard by our son’s early birth. We had left Los Angeles and gone to stay with my parents for a time, trying to save money and find me a new career on the East Coast. The plan was to move to New York, job search for two months, and hopefully know where we were going next by the time he was born. That did not work out, because of the eclampsia and so on, and instead we ended up bouncing back and forth from the futon in my parents’ office to various hotel rooms around the country for over half a year as I strung together a bunch of short gigs with the Army Reserve. Our family became a light, rapid-response force, deployable anywhere around the world in less than 48 hours.

So we had to do what worked for us and enabled us to get through the day. In the beginning, that meant getting enough sleep that we didn’t kill the kid. I know that’s the challenge for everybody, but I think that challenge is somewhat easier to deal with when one parent hasn’t just been nearly killed by a mystery disease and when you’re living in, you know, your own home, where you planned to be having a baby. What I am saying is, we were stressed, we were under the gun, and we were not going to fight with a newborn about where and how and when he slept and ate. So, after a brief and failed attempt to get him to sleep in a crib, he slept with us, and he ate whenever he wanted.

And this was both cozy and convenient. Really, if you’re a new family under the gun, co-sleeping and breastfeeding are THE BEST. And I’m not just saying that because I don’t have to do the breastfeeding; I’m pretty sure Elana would agree.

Of course, what’s weird is how long that can go on. Like if you had asked me at the beginning of this, well, will he be sleeping alone when he’s two? I would have told you oh, yes, for sure — how could he not be? But it turns out it’s perfectly easy for him not to be. Because it’s always, at any given point in our stressful, high-speed lives, easier to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them.

This is not to say we have not made attempts. He has a little bed of his own next to the big bed, and frequently I put him in it when we go to bed for the night. But at some point in the night or the early morning, he rises up at our bedside, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, and clambers over me to find his spot between us.

It’s pretty creepy. Especially his little hand on your arm when you’re dead asleep. So goddamn creepy.

Anyway, this, I think, is the weird lesson of life with a kid: you do what works, and then if you feel an obsessive need for such things, you construct a philosophy around it afterward. Hence the “continuum concept,” which I’m pretty sure was just some hippie’s way of coping with the fact that THIS KID HAD COLONIZED THE BED AND REFUSED TO LEAVE, OH GOD THE COLD LITTLE HANDS MAKE IT STOP!!!

Here is a chart that perfectly captures what it’s like to have a toddler take over your bed in the middle of the night:

We got into “no strollers” in exactly the same way. When he was little, we were broke and didn’t know where we’d be from one month to the next and it was just easier to wear him all the time than to deal with another piece of equipment. (Plus, strollers seemed hard — you had to maneuver them over obstacles, they took up space wherever you went, and they always seemed to accumulate crap. Have I mentioned how lazy we are?) Plus it made cute family photos a lot more convenient:

“No sugar” we got into for other reasons, discussed here. Again, we did not come to this with some philosophical predisposition to dislike sugar. Not by a long shot. We just had to do what worked for us.

So now, after making a series of very practical, non-ideology-driven decisions, we are L.N. and Roderick The Seahorse Guy. I don’t know how I feel about this. We really had no intention of being anything other than fairly boring, middle-of-the-road parents, but somehow we’ve become people who only buy wooden toys. Also, our kid has, I think, never seen a commercial. Again, none of this was planned.

I started this post off thinking that I would come to a point. I haven’t. Maybe more will reveal itself when we start talking a little about The Search For Preschools, which I hope will be soon. ‘Till then, sleep well, alone in your beds. You bastards.

boobs and the boobs who misunderstand them

Salon, I assume out of a desperate need to fill space, recently posted an article on “parenting lessons” one can learn from watching Game of Thrones. This one popped out at me:

2. Wean your kid.

Young Robin Arryn’s breast-feeding was voted “Most WTF Moment in GOT” at Fanpop, and it’s easy to see why. There’s something unnerving about breast-feeding to begin with. Oh sure, it’s beautiful and natural and it saves money on formula, but it’s a fundamental repurposing of a woman’s body: What was once A is now B (and maybe a little bit of A if the kid’s asleep). The hijacking that starts in pregnancy continues until — well, for Robin, it appears to have gone on way past my wife’s rule: “If he’s old enough to ask for it, he’s too old for it.”

Look — everybody’s made uncomfortable by the unweaned 7-year-old, but the highlighted sentence above really exposes the writer for what he is. If you’re a man who’s about to be a father and you haven’t yet grasped that the “repurposing” is just… the purpose… then I feel like you’re unqualified to take on the job you’ve just volunteered for. The days when “A” seemed like the fundamental purpose of anything are long gone, dude.

As usual, Louis CK gets pretty close to the heart of things:

(As for things children should give up when they’re old enough to ask for it, how about diapers? I’d rather have conversations with my kid about nursing than about who’s pooping during dinner.)

it’s coooold!!! (and other videos you may enjoy)

Not much time to blog right now, but here are some pretty great videos of our kid from the last month or so.

Here he is experiencing the glory of a chocolate milkshake for the very first time. It appears to blow his little mind….

Here he is playing with his new train set (an Ayyam-i-Ha gift from Gram and Grandpa):

Here he pretends to jump rope and sing the rhymes about jam from Bread And Jam For Frances:

Here he’s um… knitting:

Here he is playing with dolls at an indoor playground. I really love him in the crown/cape combo….

Here he tells you about a number of foods — some fictional (black ice cream?) and some real. This video manages to be both exceptionally cute and a bit alarming (why does he sound like Mercedes McCambridge?):

Finally, in this video, if you look closely in the first shot, you will see that his arm is stuck in the smokestack of his Thomas The Tank Engine scooter. Then we cut to some time later, and we talk about how we got the arm out. Then we cut to some time later again, where it appears that he is safe and back to normal… but not for long….

the perils of being Toby

Recently Elana and I — inching through traffic on Westwood Blvd. — discussed the following problem:

What is best in life? Is it better to live life as the Dalai Lama (compassionate toward others, content with himself, detached from the world), or is it better to live as Toby Ziegler from The West Wing (bitter and disappointed, but willing to go into combat any time for what is right)?

Yes, that’s a serious question.

Elana has observed that people who embrace their inner Lama are happier. I think one must admit that this is true. Think of all the sweet, kind, contented people you have known. This will not take long. Don’t they seem happy to you?

On the other hand, is it clear that the Dalai Lama actually does anything? I mean, Tibet is not particularly more free now than it used to be, the combined meditative efforts of His Holiness, Richard Gere and Steven Seagal notwithstanding. Isn’t it perhaps more useful to fight against evil than to try to be good? Trickle-down theory was a failure in economics — by what magical process do we expect it to work in morality?

I don’t know a lot about Buddhism. But the Dalai Lama of my imagining, here, bases much of his philosophy and much of his interaction with others on the Parable of the Mustard Seeds:

Kisa Gotami had an only son, and he died. In her grief she carried the dead child to all her neighbors, asking them for medicine, and the people said: “She has lost her senses. The boy is dead….”

[She] repaired to the Buddha and cried: “Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy.” The Buddha answered: “I want a handful of mustard-seed.” And when the girl in her joy promised to procure it, the Buddha added: “The mustard-seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend.” Poor Kisa Gotami now went from house to house, and the people pitied her and said: “Here is mustard-seed; take it!” But when she asked, “Did a son or daughter, a father or mother, die in your family?” They answered her: “Alas the living are few, but the dead are many. Do not remind us of our deepest grief.” And there was no house but some beloved one had died in it.

Kisa Gotami became weary and hopeless, and sat down at the wayside, watching the lights of the city, as they flickered up and were extinguished again. At last the darkness of the night reigned everywhere. And she considered the fate of men, that their lives flicker up and are extinguished. And she thought to herself: “How selfish am I in my grief! Death is common to all….”

There are several points to this parable, I think. First, Kisa Gotami learns to see the suffering of others and rise above her own grief and outrage — to gain perspective, in other words, and through perspective, compassion (and through compassion, a measure of peace and happiness). Second, the people, too, have a hard time being compassionate with Kisa until the Buddha sends her around begging for mustard seed — in other words, until her situation is so extreme that they are reminded to be kind. And third, no one welcomes Kisa’s inquiries about their private griefs; going around reminding people of how much they’ve lost and how unfair the world is doesn’t seem to do much good for anyone.

This is not, of course, a purely Buddhist philosophy. If I had to distill the Lama of my imagination to a single sentence, it would actually be this astonishingly good piece of advice from nineteenth-century theologian Ian MacLaren:

Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle

Or, slightly more elaborately:

This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.

Does this strike you as the stuff of New-Age bumperstickers? Me too. Yet it remains the most useful advice I know of — advice that helps me get through the difficult parts of parenting and marriage. When I look at my son, who frequently does things that make me want to belt him one — seriously, he’s a HUGE a-hole†† — I can’t look at him from my own perspective. Or I’d kill him. I can’t be a good father to him based on how his behavior makes me feel. (I can’t go through the world demanding that it take my grief, and only my grief, seriously.)

But if I look at him from the perspective of his own struggle, his own personal battle to understand the overwhelming new phenomena of (a) the physical world and (b) his own emotions and (c) his relationship with other people (including his parents), then, as Rev. MacLaren points out, I’m moved to deal kindly with him, and to abstain from pressing hardly upon him. As, for the most part, I am able to do.

But that can’t be all there is. After all, if there’s a simple way to be happy, why doesn’t everybody do it? I think it has something to do with the fact that humans are fundamentally programmed to be obsessed with fairness, with justice and equity. This is what I would call the Toby-nature.

Toby, you see, can’t stand injustice — can’t stand the strong picking on the weak or the rich gaining leverage over the poor; can’t stand bigotry; can’t stand mendacity or hypocrisy. Toby is, on the show, the White House communications director — but often all he can communicate is outrage. And this is his knee-jerk reaction to any infraction of the moral code he carries around, whether that infraction is significant or not.

When the President is shot by white supremacists, Toby wants to use the full power of the executive branch to stamp out even the thought of white supremacy:

C.J.: You wanna lock up everybody with a white sheet?

Toby: Yes I do. Yes I do! Who has a problem with that? Bring them to me right now! Yes I do!

Here you can understand his moral outrage, even if you’d argue with his methods. But the funny thing about Toby is that he can bring very nearly the same level of outrage to a discussion about PBS funding and the correct names of the Muppets:

Or even salad.

I should make clear that Toby is not just a crank. His sense of righteous justice comes from a very deep, meditated-over, well-pondered place. And at its best, that sense — that itch to make sure that all is right with the world and no one is getting away with anything — makes him an invaluable bloodhound for sniffing out things the rest of us would rather just let lie. It’s Toby whose inability to stop thinking things over ultimately uncovers the President’s dark secret — and it’s Toby and only Toby who can call out the President (who can speak truth to power) and force him to come clean.

But when there is not some genuine wrong to be righted, or when the issues are ambiguous, Toby’s instinctively combative pose is tremendously destructive. Over the course of the last few seasons, he annihilates his friendship with Josh when he feels Josh has betrayed the cause, and that friendship is never fully healed.

And then there’s this:

If you don’t have time to watch, it starts as an argument with his ex-wife (now a Congresswoman) about Toby’s rhetorical jabs at “Islamic radicalism,” and ends with Toby expressing some thoroughly Coulteresque sentiments:

TOBY: Well… How about when we, instead of blowing Iraq back to the seventh century for harbouring terrorists and trying to develop nuclear weapons, we just imposed economic sanctions and were reviled by the Arab world for not giving them a global charge card and a free trade treaty? How about when we pushed Israel to give up land for peace? How about when we sent American soldiers to protect Saudi Arabia, and the Arab world told us we were desecrating their holy land? We’ll ignore the fact that we were invited. How about two weeks ago, in the State of the Union when the President praised the Islamic people as faithful and hardworking only to be denounced in the Arab press as knowing nothing about Islam? But none of that is the point.

ANDREA: What is the point?

TOBY: I don’t remember having to explain to Italians that our problem wasn’t with them, but with Mussolini! Why does the U.S. have to take every Arab country out for an ice cream cone? They’ll like us when we win!

“They’ll like us when we win.” If I had to distill the Toby-nature down into a single sentence, that would be it. Fight evil, defeat Mussolini, and peace and harmony will follow.

Peace and harmony never do come for Toby, of course — in part because, as the speech shows, Toby has a hard time seeing things from someone else’s perspective. To Toby, Arab Muslims who see the sanctions in Iraq very differently are either irrational or evil — and in either case, they must be forced to submit, made to see the error of their ways. But the Toby-nature is optimistic that if you can just fight enough evil, right enough wrongs, correct enough wayward souls… then peace and understanding will follow. “They’ll like us when we win.”

I don’t have a good way to put together these two halves of my moral self. If you wholly embrace the Lama-nature, you are probably happier and kinder. You’re probably a better dad. But on the other hand, you may fail to stand up to evil or to combat ignorance when you can. Even if I see that he is fighting a great battle, am I not morally obliged to challenge and (in the arena of social discourse, at least) defeat people like Dennis Terry, the pastor who gave this speech introducing apparently-serious presidential candidate Rick Santorum at a rally:

I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.

At some point, doesn’t compassion have to take a back seat to pointing out how wrong and awful this is? Fred Clark makes a similar point here, discussing the dangers of trying to always inhabit the “sensible center”:

Those who promote the Golden Meh — condemning partisanship and assuring us that the truth can always reliably be found somewhere in the moderate middle — are always urging us to seek common ground and to compromise. OK, what would that mean here?

Stacey Dames posits that a global conspiracy of Jewish occultists, liberals and secular humanists a plotting to bring about the reign of the Antichrist and that [Madonna] is somehow playing a vital role in this satanic plot. It doesn’t seem that this view would allow Dames to meet the rest of us half way. But what would it entail for the rest of us to “compromise” or find “common ground” with this idea? Dames’ thesis is full-gonzo loony — should we all become half-gonzo loony in an effort to find common ground?

Do we not have a duty to strive and fight and repel this nonsense, to ridicule it and expose it and even after driving in the lance to watch the wriggling and make sure it dies once and for all? My Toby-nature demands it. (As Harlan Ellison once said, “‘God bless us every one’? Not even at Christmas-time would I god-bless Nixon.”)

At the same time, I think pure Toby-nature, untempered by compassion or perspective, is simply rage. It can wind up being directed at any target and justifying any enormity.

Comically, and typically, it makes you a fool — it makes you say stupid things in internet comment forums, to insist that Saudi Arabian women are the most powerful in the world and that hard wooden chairs are a plot against men.

Or it makes you think that lying to the public is okay if you’re trying to expose the abuses inflicted by the powerful on the weak — even if it turns out you’re completely wrong about everything.

Or, most tragically, it leads you to stalk and kill a 17-year-old boy whom you can’t stop seeing as a predator, because your Toby-nature will not let you forget that “These assholes, they always get away.”

Without compassion, without perspective, it’s that sentence that sums up the Toby-nature.

I’m out of time and have to go be a father some more. So let me leave you with a half-remembered quote from John Cassavetes, which I think sums up the whole dilemma:

“Hit them! Hit them as hard as you can. Then love them…. Then hit them again!”


Yes, I’m aware that there are those who feel the Dalai Lama is worthy of something less than full credulity as a spiritual guide. I am engaging here in a fairly fictional construction of the Lama in order to get at an ideal of compassion and gentleness, but if the invocation of this particular Tibetan monk makes you uncomfortable, feel free to imagine Mr. Rogers instead.

††Throws hard plastic objects at the TV. Hits you with hard plastic objects. Dumps his food on the floor to indicate he’s done eating. Demands to be allowed to take his toys in the car, then drops them on the floor and demands that you pick them up. Tries to throw stuff out the window. Steals toys from other children. Climbs up on tables/chests/cabinets/bookshelves, then STARES at you, daring you to tell him to get down. Which he will not do. Delights in pulling ALL. THE. BOOKS. down off the shelves just before bedtime. Smacks computers whenever he can reach them. Demands phone. Demands to be shown maps on the phone. Scrolls maps until they are out over the ocean, then complains that the map is gone. Talks over you. Talks over your spouse. Doesn’t like anything you are having for dinner. Tears up the landscaping in the complex. Will not sit still for diaper changes. Objects to nearly all adult television as “scary.” Cries when you won’t let him vacuum, but IS NOT GOOD AT VACUUMING. Will pour out any glass of water, at any time, EVEN WHEN HE’S DRINKING FROM IT.

science gone wrong, pt 3: is eating fat actually good for you?

So this was initially going to be a follow-up to the post where I talked about chest pains and the fear that comes with them. Then I started law school, and our little blog has essentially lain dormant ever since.

But way back when (back when I was amibitious about my blogging), I was going to tell you that as a result of that scare (and being told by a crank of a cardiologist that I needed to lose weight), I read Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. It’s an exhaustively researched and persuasively argued brick of a book; Taubes traces the history of modern ideas about diet and concludes that the dietary recommendations we all grew up with — avoid fat and animal products, eat mostly grains — were born more out of argument from authority than out of sound biochemical research.

The belief that there’s something suspicious about fat (especially animal fat) is so pervasive that even food writer Michael Pollan, who wrote of Taubes’ book that it is “vitally important” and “destined to change the way we think about food,” nonetheless still recommends that people eat “mostly plants.”

And this makes sense, right? Isn’t fat the big killer? It’s so obvious: eating cholesterol-rich foods leads to high blood cholesterol, which leads to atheromas building up in our blood vessels and killing us. And being fat is obviously the result of eating too many calories, and fat has more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates like starch. So if there are two absolutely iron-clad, bona fide rules about the relationship between diet and health, it’s that we should eat less animal fat and fewer overall calories.

But what if neither of those strategies is backed up by good science? What if reducing dietary fat (and replacing it with carbohydrates) is actually incredibly harmful and leads to poorer health outcomes, while consciously attempting to restrict calories is persistently ineffective as a weight loss tool?

Taubes, a science journalist and fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, is consciously and deliberately swimming against the tide of dominant nutritional opinion — apparently because he thinks it’s based on bad science. His main claims are twofold: first, fats (even saturated fats) are not as bad for you as we’ve been told; and second, carbohydrates (especially simple sugars), are much, much worse for you than we’ve been led to believe.

Taubes made the first point in a 2002 New York Times Magazine article, “What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie?”, where he noted that the “animal fats = high cholesterol = arteriosclerosis = heart disease” message is complicated, and possibly undermined, by the actual science on how diet translates into lipoproteins:

Few experts now deny that the low-fat message is radically oversimplified. If nothing else, it effectively ignores the fact that unsaturated fats, like olive oil, are relatively good for you: they tend to elevate your good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (H.D.L.), and lower your bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (L.D.L.), at least in comparison to the effect of carbohydrates. While higher L.D.L. raises your heart-disease risk, higher H.D.L. reduces it.

What this means is that even saturated fats — a k a, the bad fats — are not nearly as deleterious as you would think. True, they will elevate your bad cholesterol, but they will also elevate your good cholesterol. In other words, it’s a virtual wash. As Willett explained to me, you will gain little to no health benefit by giving up milk, butter and cheese and eating bagels instead.

But it gets even weirder than that. Foods considered more or less deadly under the low-fat dogma turn out to be comparatively benign if you actually look at their fat content. More than two-thirds of the fat in a porterhouse steak, for instance, will definitively improve your cholesterol profile (at least in comparison with the baked potato next to it); it’s true that the remainder will raise your L.D.L., the bad stuff, but it will also boost your H.D.L. The same is true for lard. If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.

Taubes explored the second proposition — that sugars and starches are actually hazardous — in a 2011 article, also for the Times, “Is Sugar Toxic?”:

You secrete insulin in response to the foods you eat — particularly the carbohydrates — to keep blood sugar in control after a meal. When your cells are resistant to insulin, your body (your pancreas, to be precise) responds to rising blood sugar by pumping out more and more insulin….

[H]aving chronically elevated insulin levels has harmful effects of its own — heart disease, for one. A result is higher triglyceride levels and blood pressure, lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”), further worsening the insulin resistance — this is metabolic syndrome….

[W]hat sets off metabolic syndrome to begin with[…?] What causes the initial insulin resistance? There are several hypotheses, but researchers who study the mechanisms of insulin resistance now think that a likely cause is the accumulation of fat in the liver….

As it happens, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance are the reasons that many of the researchers today studying fructose became interested in the subject to begin with. If you want to cause insulin resistance in laboratory rats, says Gerald Reaven, the Stanford University diabetologist who did much of the pioneering work on the subject, feeding them diets that are mostly fructose is an easy way to do it. It’s a “very obvious, very dramatic” effect, Reaven says.

By the early 2000s, researchers studying fructose metabolism had established certain findings unambiguously and had well-established biochemical explanations for what was happening. Feed animals enough pure fructose or enough sugar, and their livers convert the fructose into fat — the saturated fatty acid, palmitate, to be precise, that supposedly gives us heart disease when we eat it, by raising LDL cholesterol. The fat accumulates in the liver, and insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome follow.

Is Taubes right, here? Are these actual facts? Because if they are — and if the rest of Taubes’s exhaustive discussion of the research in the book is correct about the endocrinology of metabolic syndrome — then the information we’re given all day, every day about what’s good to eat and what we should avoid is precisely backwards, and we should all be eating a lot more butter.

It turns out, much to my surprise, that I am not a medical researcher. I can read individual studies well enough, but to really bear down on this issue would take… well, it would take a decade of being paid as a science journalist to do it, wouldn’t it?

So I’m in a weird position: Here’s a major challenge to the received wisdom about something as basic and well-known as nutrition. It’s by a highly respected science journalist — not a scientist himself, but a meticulous researcher who supports his arguments with copious and thorough citations. Is that a good enough source? Good enough to convince me to change my behavior?

In April of last year, Taubes put his money where his mouth was, publishing the results of a blood lipids test in order to respond to Dr. Mehmet Oz, who had criticized Taubes’ high-fat, low-carb diet. (Taubes: “I do indeed eat three eggs with cheese, bacon and sausage for breakfast every morning, typically a couple of cheeseburgers (no bun) or a roast chicken for lunch, and more often than not, a ribeye or New York steak (grass fed) for dinner, usually in the neighborhood of a pound of meat.”)

That diet has also been my diet, and Elana’s diet, for about eight months. About three months after we started this project, I had bloodwork done for a physical myself, and I am pleased to report that both Gary Taubes and I have excellent levels of the various markers used to determine cardiovascular risk — high HDLs, low LDLs and triglycerides, low “C-reactive protein,” which measures vascular inflammation. Gary Taubes, Elana, and I have been eating a ton of animal fat and green veggies and almost no sugar, flour, or potatoes. (Taubes, I think, doesn’t eat any starchy vegetables or legumes; we are not so committed and occasionally eat beans.) We’ve lost weight (in my case, about 22 lbs, , felt less logey after meals, and still have really good blood cholesterol profiles and outlooks for cardiovascular disease.

Some caveats:

I haven’t been doing this very long. Perhaps all that bacon will catch up with me in a few years and ruin my blood lipid profile. But Taubes has been eating this diet for years. Of course….

This is a very small number of data points. That’s always the problem with experimenting on yourself, along with….

Confounding factors: Exercise is probably the big one. Immediately prior to starting this diet, I had been running only once or twice a week; around the same time I started eating low-carb, I started running two or three times a week. And then I switched, a few months after starting this diet, from running and hiking for exercise to cycling to and from school three to four days a week. This makes it look like maybe it was the exercise, not the diet, that brought off the pounds.

But take another step back on the timeline. I actually put on most of the pounds that I recently shed during my time in Iraq, when I was working out four to five times a week, and in the immediate aftermath of my Army career, when I was running two or three times a week and cycling everywhere I went. (I lived six blocks from Venice Beach.)

It’s true I put on the last seven or eight pounds during a period of low activity. But I’m guessing Taubes would say that we’re looking at the arrow of causality wrong — he would say that when you’re not eating sugar and starches, your body actually regulates energy in a way that makes you more able and willing to engage in strenuous exercise. Less insulin resistance means less insulin in your bloodstream, and it’s insulin that essentially channels calories into your fat cells and away from where they’re needed in other tissues, causing you to be hungry and have less energy. In other words, according to Taubes, lean athletes aren’t lean because they’re athletes; they’re athletes and they’re lean for the same reason — because their bodies are regulating energy usage properly.

Not everyone is convinced. Perhaps most notably, well-known science-fad skeptic Michael Fumento published a lengthy and somewhat cranky takedown of “What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie?” in Reason magazine, complaining that Taubes (a) ignored a number of studies that contradicted his conclusions and (b) selectively quoted a number of researchers who were displeased with the way their research was portrayed in the article. Taubes responds here, quoting his sources at length; I’ll leave it to you to read, but the exchange is a great display of science-journo pugilism.

Fumento, though, didn’t have the benefit we now have of an additional decade of research (and an additional decade of Americans eating more and more sugar and getting fatter and sicker than ever before). Here are two reasonably competent, well-reasoned sources to consider: first, not long after the Fumento-Taubes exchange, Stanford researchers led by Christopher Gardner conducted a two-year study called the “A TO Z Diet Study” — “A TO Z” because they compared outcomes from four popular diets: Atkins (an ultra-low-carb, high-fat diet), Traditional (restricted calories), Ornish (super-low-fat), and the “Zone” (moderately low-carb). From the abstract:

Weight loss at 12 months was the primary outcome. Secondary outcomes included lipid profile (low-density lipoprotein, high-density lipoprotein, and non–high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglyceride levels), percentage of body fat, waist-hip ratio, fasting insulin and glucose levels, and blood pressure….

Weight loss was greater for women in the Atkins diet group compared with the other diet groups at 12 months…. At 12 months, secondary outcomes for the Atkins group were comparable with or more favorable than the other diet groups.

Here’s the weight loss in graph form, for those who like numbers:

Weight loss from baseline.

But to me, by far the more interesting data is about the “secondary” outcomes — i.e., the predictors for metabolic disorder and cardiovascular disease. After all, as I noted in the previous “science gone wrong” post, being fat is not, in and of itself, unhealthy. It’s the weight gain associated with metabolic syndrome that’s a marker for many of the most serious diseases. So here is a table comparing these outcomes across the four diets (for best results, ctrl-click the image to open in a new tab or window, then click on the new image to enlarge):

The key indicators are pretty stunning — HDLs go up much more on Atkins than on any other diets, while triglyceride levels positively fall through the floor. Blood pressure is also lowered more by Atkins than by any of the other diets. (The Ornish diet, which is a draconian low-fat regime, is perhaps the most instructive comparison.) The conclusion is hard to avoid — eating mostly animal fat is no worse for you, and possibly much better for you, than eating a low-fat, plant-carbohydrate-based diet.

(You can see Gardner, himself a vegetarian, lamenting this conclusion in a presentation of the study’s results here.)

As for the second piece of the Taubes thesis — the idea that it’s carbs that are killing us — here’s a compelling, if occasionally dorky, talk by endocrinologist Robert Lustig on the way sugar has pervaded everything we eat and the damage it’s doing to our bodies. The endocrinological arguments — starting at around the 42:00 mark, if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing — are almost identical to those put forward in Good Calories, Bad Calories.

I’ve come away convinced. I eat as much as I want, whenever I want, and I’m 22 lbs lighter than I used to be. One of the scientists interviewed by Michael Fumento dismisses this kind of weight loss as mere calorie restriction through boredom, asking, “If you’re only allowed to shop in two aisles of the grocery store, does it matter which two they are?” Taubes would say, and I would agree, that it matters a lot. The whole point of an endocrinological approach, as Lustig makes clear in the lecture above, is that sugar tends to trick your body into thinking it’s still hungry even after it’s had enough calories. (According to Lustig, fructose is the real villain in this regard, because it’s metabolized solely in the liver and doesn’t suppress the hunger hormone ghrelin or stimulate the satiety hormone leptin.)

If you eat from the “aisles of the grocery store” containing sugary snacks, in other words, your body will not get adequate signals that it’s had enough calories, and you’ll continue to eat. The whole idea of being “bored” with the limited food choices presented by an Atkins-type diet presumes that you’re eating for entertainment, rather than because you’re hungry. The whole thrust of the endocrinological approach, on the other hand, is that people who eat a lot of sugar still feel hungry, and that’s why they eat.

There’s also the added benefit — and this is what has me and Elana really convinced — that when you aren’t eating carbs, you don’t get “food coma” (aka an insulin spike after eating). You also don’t get really, really hungry, because, since the level of insulin in the bloodstream is consistently lower, your fat cells are more readily able to mobilize energy when you haven’t eaten in a while. (Insulin inhibits the ability of the fat cells to release calories.) So rather than hunger pangs and yo-yoing energy levels, you have a fairly consistent level of energy throughout the day.

And then there’s the whole not-dying-of-metabolic-syndrome angle. That seems good, too.

Are there downsides? Sure.

I like cake. Also Mike&Ikes, Junior Mints, doughnuts….

It works differently on different people. Just be aware. If, like me, you’re prone to putting on fat around the middle (i.e., the kind of fat that presages metabolic syndrome and heart disease), you’re probably going to lose a lot of that fat, and that’s a good thing. But if you’re generally plump, the weight loss may be slower, and you may never be ultra-lean. (On the other hand, you probably aren’t as likely to suffer the same bad health outcomes — so don’t worry about it.)

You have to cook a lot. A lot. This is really key to the whole program, in fact. It’s basically a diet of whole foods. Whole cuts of fatty meat and a lot of vegetables, augmented with a decent amount of dairy. None of this is food you can just throw together lazily at the last minute. (Our go-to “quick” meal is Italian sausages and two or three green veggies.)

It’s really, really hard to eat at someone else’s house. If you’re going home for Christmas, you really have to come to grips with the fact that you’re either going to (a) take a holiday from your diet for a few days or (b) be a really awful houseguest. (There’s no polite way to commandeer someone’s kitchen to make bacon and eggs every morning when what they’re offering is toast and jam.)

The entire commercial food supply chain is out to fuck with you. Seriously, you must eat whole foods. Anything even remotely pre-packaged or processed for your convenience is going to add the sugar back in. (Beware restaurant food.) And most of the supply chain is now dedicated to the low-fat ideology, and so perfectly good fat is frequently stripped out of things that would be both healthier and better-tasting if the fat were left in. (Did you know, for example, that plain yogurt is not revolting? I didn’t either, until I tried Trader Joe’s French Cream Line whole-fat yogurt….)

The whole thing is expensive as fuck. Whole cuts of meat are expensive. Fresh vegetables are highly perishable. We are constantly grocery shopping and you don’t want to know what we spend on food in a month. Seriously — this diet is a diet of privilege.

That last point is a disturbing one. Almost all of our gains in food productivity in the past two centuries have derived either from increased efficiency at growing and exploiting grains (i.e., carbs), or from more and more ruthless exploitation of animals. Way up above I quoted Taubes as saying he usually eats a grass-fed steak for dinner. Well, of course he does. He writes for the New York Times. He’s written two best-selling books. I’ll bet any cow Gary Taubes eats was massaged and played classical music every night before lying down on its bed of silk brocade.

But there are just not enough locally-sourced, grass-fed, cruelty-free cows in the world to feed everyone alive at the moment — let alone everyone who’ll be born in the coming decades. One of Michael Pollan’s other well-known mantras is “Eat food.” By which he means, eat whole foods — things your great-grandmother would have recognized as food. Not Hot Pockets and Top Ramen and Twinkies. But people aren’t shunning delicious roasts and green vegetables because they’re self-destructive assholes; most people eat extruded soy/corn product because it’s cheap and because it’s convenient enough to eat that they can keep working. In the end, the diet that might be best for us is one most people will never be able to afford. That’s a pretty grim thing.

why Vermont is right for us

Elana posted this story on Facebook, but for anyone who doesn’t follow us there, I’d like to repost the following funny story told by Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated:

My favorite Vermont story is about the city kid and the toad. A youngster comes up to Vermont for a couple of weeks one summer and, as he is walking down a dirt road, spies a large green toad. He soon starts to poke it with a stick. A local boy happens by and says, “Quit poking that toad!” The city kid shoots back, “Well, he’s my toad, ain’t he?” The country boy responds, “Nope. Here in Vermont, he’s his own toad.”

And I guess if anything in the world sums up our parenting philosophy, it’s that — “He’s his own toad.” We happened upon him, and we’re grateful to have done so. But he’s his own toad, and we have no right to poke him with a stick. The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, because he depends on us for certain things, including cues about how to act in the world. But in the main, we’d like to treat him like he’s on his way to being a guy with autonomy, someone who makes his own choices about things, knows how to reason his way through a problem, and can make cogent and persuasive arguments in favor of a course of action.

This is not some hippie bullshit, either. Well, maybe it is — but it’s hippie bullshit backed up by science. To wit:

Adolescents who held their own in family discussions were better at standing up to peer influences to use drugs or consume alcohol. The best protected of the group were the teens who persuaded their mothers with reasoned arguments, rather than with pressure, whining, or insults, when talking about topics like grades, money, household rules, and friends.

Let him be his own toad at home, and he’ll have the tools to be his own toad among his peers.

(I should state candidly that I do not live up to this parenting standard, and sometimes I yell at him or rudely make him do things, because I’m easily frustrated, and because the number of hours I have to spend investigating spots on the sidewalk is limited. But this is what we’re shooting for.)