Book Review: A Short Guide to a Long Life, Agus

Nothing new under the sun. Then why don’t we do it?

Copyright Dennis Mitton

br_short_guideI admit that I’ve been wrong. I’ve long argued that people know what healthy habits are and that we just don’t do them. So I was shocked, recently, when a friend told me that he traded his cake and candy snacks for a jar of peanuts each day. “I’m trying to eat healthy”, he says. “Huh? You’re eating a jar a day?” “Yeah”, he said. “Better than donuts, right.” Now he was shocked. “Probably not,” I said. “Good gawd. Do you know how many calories are in a jar of peanuts? Probably more calories than you need in an entire day. Dude, you’re going to end up weighing 300 pounds.” He didn’t believe me and grabbed the jar. Sure enough, the suggested serving size was one ounce or ‘about 29 peanuts’. That amount conferred 170 healthy calories. Multiply that by sixteen servings in the jar and you are inviting serious health issues. So don’t imagine that everyone knows the things that Agus writes about. They don’t. And few who do know what healthy means actually live by it.

We need good health advice but where to find it? The fact that my local Barnes and Noble bookstore reserves about fifty feet of shelf space for books offering conflicting advice isn’t a help. So when I find a book offering sane advice consistent with other sane advice, I’m happy to endorse and recommend it. A Short Guide to a Long Life is such a book.

The book isn’t sexy and makes few promises. You will not be a skinny rich movie star pooping golden eggs after reading this book. But, even better, if you choose to do so, you can embark on a path to increased health and longevity. The book is small and short and this bothers some reviewers. I like that the book can be read in a couple hours. It makes it easy to grab from the shelf for a quick reminder o the path you’re on. In it Agus lists sixty-five tidbits under three headings: What to Do, What to Avoid, and Doctor’s Orders. I’m sorry but there is nothing new, novel, or earth-shattering here. No magic pills or secret Chinese bulbs that will keep you in perfect health until age 150. What you will find is very excellent advice in all areas of health and well-being. Advice that is time-tested and accurate. Advice that actually will help you live longer and happier.

You know what they say – seventeen carrots a day will keep the sickness away!

There is a good bit of Grandma’s advice here – grow a garden, don’t skip breakfast, have children (!) – but lots of new stuff, too, like scheduling your life on computer or getting a DNA screen. I especially liked the What to Avoid section where he slays a host of health myths: forget juicing (“Does your body really need ten carrots all at once?”), ignore `detoxes’, and no, GMOs are not going to kill you and your children.

I think this is a wonderfully handy little guide that makes a useful reference. Two thumbs way up. Read it all the way through or read a chapter and then work on it for a week. Either way will lead you to better health.

Purchase here on Amazon.

David Agus at the Aspen Ideas Festival: Look At The Data
David Agus, MD homepage here
More good advice here from Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva

From the blog:
Nutritional science or sales pitch? How-to guidelines.
Twenty Nutrition Facts That Should Be Common Sense
And for the ultimate in stupidity…Dave Asprey’s Charcoal Elixir

If you enjoy It’s the Good Life please pass it on or recommend it to friends. Go to the About/Support page for ways to follow or contact me.



The Next Big Thing! Activated Charcoal. Save your money.

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Have lemon with your briquette?
Have lemon with your briquette?

I was wrong. In my last post about science-based nutrition I guessed that fermented mango rind would be the next pseudo-science superfood.  It was just a matter of putting three words together and making something up. That’s basically the same formula supplement sales companies use. But an email from Dave Asprey – Bulletproof salesman extraordinaire – caught me off guard. The Next Big Thing is charcoal. And not just charcoal – you can by that at Ace Hardware for a few bucks a bag. Nutrition grade activated charcoal. Since getting the email from Bulletproof urging me to act now before the stock runs dry I’ve seen several other purveyors of questionable goods hop on the band wagon.

Activated charcoal is charcoal that has been crushed and heated to expand and create a very large surface area. Sorry but it’s no more exciting than that. Charcoal does have a couple unique qualities. Qualities that have made it the go-to of last resort for poison control centers and radiation health physicists for a century. It is full of holes like a microscopic piece of Swiss cheese and it is ionic which means that it is electrically charged. Being charged means that it acts something like a sweater with static electricity – other things, toxic chemical putatively, that are charged will bind to it.

charcoalThe Bulletproof site has a short paper with references outlining the benefits of charcoal. But the references are old – up to forty years – and are marginally applicable. There is nothing wrong with forty year-old research as long as it applies and has been vetted with newer or more robust research. But there is very little research regarding ingestion of charcoal as most people never imagined that pill hucksters would sell the stuff as a health supplement. Charcoal is used to lessen the effects of poisoning and ingesting radioactive materials. In those cases it is taken as a liquid at a rate of five times charcoal to the volume of poison ingested. Common dosages on the pseudo-science nutrition pages are right around 25-100 grams for adults. Keep in mind that a 100 grams equals about a quarter pound of charcoal. That is an amazing – amazingly bad judgment – three to four charcoal briquettes. I see, too, that several sites list dosages for children. Dave Aspery, on his sales page for charcoal provides this nugget:

When my young kids (4 and 6 years old) suddenly drop into uncharacteristic fits of whining or tantrums, especially after snacks at a friend’s house, activated charcoal brings them back to normal within about 10 minutes. It is amazing to watch.

This frankly bothers me on several levels. Asprey claims that he’s neither a scientist nor a nutritionist but just a guy trying things out and reporting on what works for him. He certainly makes a strong argument for the former here. As for his kids behavior? If true then my guess is that doping them with chemicals when they act like children scares the crap out of them so they shape up.

How does charcoal work when given for poison ingestion? As stated above you would be administered a drink that contains charcoal at an approximate ratio of 5 parts charcoal to 1 part poison. It will absorb anything as it flows through your stomach and into the intestines. Not just toxins but nutrients as well. It can cause intestinal blockage and is often administered with a laxative so that it doesn’t linger in your intestine. It can cause vomiting which, if used for poison relief, is fine. Doctors just want the poisons out and they’re not too concerned about which end it happens. For personal use I’m not sure which sounds worse: black stools or black vomit. Please note that ingesting charcoal will do nothing for anything outside of your digestive tract. It will not clear ‘brain fog’, will not chelate metals, and will not bind serum cholesterol. Really. Just get healthy, eat healthy and let your body do its work. It’s a wonderful machine.

Or you can save your money and just be healthy?
Or you can save your money and just be healthy?

In reading the scant research my opinion is that, like most shilled non-nutritive stuff people shove down their throat, activated charcoal is harmless and ineffective at anything other than making your stools black.  One study indicates a statistical decrease in key nutrients in apple juice when mixed with activated charcoal but I don’t see that this has any frightening application. The amounts used aren’t enough to cause any nutritive imbalance. Poison centers urge that you contact them first prior to self medicating with briquettes. And if you really want to improve your life with carbon then invest in diamonds.  You get a much better return on investment. This is what the people selling this stuff are doing.

Nutritional science or sales pitch? How-to guidelines.

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Wanna buy some ketones?
Psst. Wanna buy some ketones?

An actual conversation I overheard in our company break room:

You have got to try this stuff. It’s completely awesome. And scientific too! I spent like a week on the internet doing research. I’d never even heard of ketones before and now I’m drinkin’ this stuff. I’m losing weight like crazy and I feel like I’m eighteen! It’s not cheap but – c’mon – who cares about money when we’re talking about health?

A week later I notice an advertisement stuck at the entry to the perp’s cube. So now – after a week of researching the internet and two weeks of downing ‘ketones’  – he is a nutritional expert selling the stuff. I sit close enough to him that I can hear his phone conversations and about three times a day I hear him explain that these are therapeutically pure ketones and they are only available from his company. I notice a plastic jug on his desk with ‘Proprietary’ tape wrapped around it. These guys are good.

And I am completely irritated.

I’m irritated because, like any evangelist, he has all the answers. Except that he doesn’t. And he doesn’t even know it. The nuances of nutrition are simply too complex  to funnel down to any superfood or micronutrient. It is silly, bad science, wastes people’s money, and is potentially harmful. He is selling something that doesn’t work over the long run.

I don’t know if it’s for him or for others but he also posts his daily diet for all to see:

  • Breakfast – coffee with butter, ketone supplements
  • Lunch – single portion of lean meat, leafy green vegetables, ketone supplements
  • Dinner – healthy dinner of smaller portions, ketone supplement
  • Lots of water all day
  • Lots of exercise
Don’t you want to be skinny and happy too?

Who wouldn’t lose weight on this diet?  You could substitute ‘Betty Crocker Fudge Brownie’ for ‘ketone supplement’ and still lose weight. He’s eating fewer calories than he needs and extending the deficit with ‘lots of exercise’. He will likely begin eating even less as food becomes a boring chore. Ask yourself: how many days over the next month do you want a chicken breast or a quarter pound of bacon for breakfast? There comes a point, though, that all this concentration and money and boring food gives way to real life and the weight comes back. But by then there will be a new book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble about how fermented mango rind can not only help you lose weight and increase your IQ but actually emits pheromones making you absolutely irresistible to the opposite sex! And the cycle starts over.

There is another way to do this that is healthful, happy, less consuming, and proffers true benefits. It’s called eating food and doing a bit of exercise.

But first two things:

  • Everyone has a right to an opinion. Just like my co-worker I’m always interested in ways to live a more healthy lifestyle. I just require evidence.
  • All of the major health organizations have looked at controlled and peer-reviewed research and argue that there is little to no long-term gain to any of these fad diets. The big picture has been reaffirmed over and over again: a diet of whole foods that focuses on plants is our best bet for long-term health and a livable lifestyle. Michel Pollan‘s advice to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants” still holds.

But ketones aren’t my interest here. How to sort out nutritional advice is. How do we learn to step back from the salesman and Internet ads and look to real science for health advice?

Here are some guidelines:

• Remember that science and especially pseudo-science is performed by human beings. Any time a human being is involved you will have a bias. If said human is selling you something they likely have a strong bias. Or are outright fakes. This doesn’t mean that my co-worker and his ketone pals are wrong. Or that he is right. It means that you should be wary of anyone selling you exceptional results.

•Find a science based nutritionist that you can trust. This can be much harder than it seems. For more academic references I like David Katz. I never miss the Nutrition Diva’s weekly podcast for down to earth advice about questions straight from the news.  And I have just started listening to SciBabe, aka Yvette d’Entremont, who doesn’t provide nutritional advice as such but skewers bad and unsupported advice.

•Run from any reference to superfood.

•Run as fast as you can from any reference to putting butter and coconut oil in your coffee.

•If you want Bulletproof opt for La Roux and avoid Dave Asprey.

•Learn the buzzwords: natural, organic, toxic, superfood, ketones, accusations of

For the uninitiated: real food.
For the uninitiated: real food.

working for ‘big pharma’ – all  are fairly meaningless (botulism is organic and natural) and should trigger your bullshit detector.

•Speaking of detecting bullshit here is Brainpicking’s take on Carl Sagan’s famous and useful Baloney Detection Kit – read here. Memorize it. It is more useful than the Ten Commandments.

•Learn to recognize and run from salesmen even if they wear white lab coats.

•If you like guys and gals in lab coats – I used to wear one – then look for consensus.  When a survey of 10,000 registered dietitians says X you can feel pretty good about it. When Dr. No, a Dr. of Chiropractic in Duluth, discovers a MIRACLE CURE for low IQ while on vacation in  Tahiti, well, be a little more suspicious.

•Read up on food, diet science, and diet hucksterism. I review Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults here. Pollan’s Food Rules is a good reference. Anything from the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society or the American Diabetes Association is going to be decent. Boring maybe. But a good start.

•Not every ailment requires a superfood. There is such a thing as celiac disease. It’s a medical condition that afflicts a small percentage of the population. But to castigate wheat as a toxin? The grain that provides about 20% of the world’s caloric intake? It’s silly. Use that book as a door stop and read the next bullet.

•Let’s put rubber to the road here. Do you need more energy? Life just doesn’t charge you up like it used to? You hop out of the shower and notice that growing ring around you belly? Forget ketones. Forget GMO’s or gluten-free cupcakes. Start exercising. Starting eating what you know is healthy. Turn off the TV and go visit your grandma and eat one of her lemon bars. The Centers for Disease Control lists ten health concerns directly related to being overweight. Some researchers estimate that fully 80% of health problems would dissipate with weight loss. So forget your acai juice at five bucks a quart. Exercise. Eat less. Enjoy yourself.

Have you found good advice for healthy living and good eating? Please write below.

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Other posts related to this article:
Book Review, The Diet Fix, Yoni Freedhoff
Book Review, What Makes Olga Run, Bruce Grieirson
Ugh. Religion and diet advice.
Why is nutritional advice so confusing?

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