Category Archives: Health

Live long and prosper


I saw a posting on facebook recently about Lonesome George, the giant tortoise who passed away last week. He was the last of his species, and some comments lamented the loss of another species from the planet and talked about how humans are destroying the habitats of many animal species, which I cannot disagree with. But then I saw this comment (emphasis mine):

I’m not much into doomsday prophecies, but I do think that if we don’t reduce our number VERY soon, nature will do it for us. Perhaps a world-wide epidemic, or mass-psychosis causing war. This is not the right time to make people live longer and treat infertility. Too stupid for words.

As someone whose mother (in her 70’s) is currently fighting cancer and whose sister recently had a baby via a surrogate because of infertility (also due to cancer treatment), I think making people live longer and treating infertility is not only a good idea, it’s our duty as human beings.

Firstly, I thought it funny that this person says they’re “not much into doomsday prophesies” and then proceeds to make one. The infertility thing I disagree with, but I suppose I can understand the logic. There are lots of unwanted children born around the world, and infertile people usually have the option of adopting one of them, rather than making a whole new one. But this is a very personal choice and who are you to decide that someone else should not have a child who is biologically theirs just because they have to jump through a few more medical hoops to do it than the average person?

But the other comment is mind-boggling. How do we as a species not try our hardest to make people live longer? What does this person suggest we do? Abandon medical research? Deny the elderly medical care? Don’t bother curing childhood diseases that we can cure like polio and smallpox because that reduces the number of people who survive to adulthood (and therefore the number that will procreate)? A girl we know survived life-saving transplant surgery when she was six months old; she is now fifteen. Should they have just let her die as a baby? Hell, I had my own life-saving surgery two years ago – should they not have bothered?

Too stupid for words indeed.

Legalized magic


There is a piece of legislation in Ontario whose mere existence has me baffled. Essentially, it allows people who perform acts of magic to give themselves a title and makes it illegal to give yourself that particular title without being licensed to do so. This is like my having the ability to call myself a frobshmirtzer because I can talk to invisible aliens from the planet Frob, but if you try to call yourself a frobshmirtzer, you will get fined. I don’t have to prove or even demonstrate that I can talk to such aliens, or even that they exist. I can just say that modern science doesn’t have the right tools to be able to detect these aliens but trust me, I can. The government has decided that someone calling themself a frobshmirtzer without having this ability is somehow against the public good, so they have outlawed it. Only in this case, the word isn’t frobshmirtzer, it’s “acupuncturist”.

I did a fair bit of research for this article. I look around for studies that examined the effectiveness of acupuncture, and found many that showed that it was completely ineffective, or at least no more effective than placebo. There are special tools that can be used to simulate the needles without actually inserting them into the skin (amusingly called “sham acupuncture”), and there are studies that show that sham acupuncture is just as effective as “real” acupuncture. There are studies that show that inserting the needles into random places on the body, rather than the magic acupuncture points, is also just as effective. I did find a number of studies that showed it to be very effective in certain cases, but those studies were either done by or funded by agencies that were associated with holistic medicine and therefore had a vested interest in positive results. I’m afraid that a study showing how effective acupuncture is does not carry much weight with me if it was done by the Department of Holistic Wellness at a Chinese university.

But I have to be honest here. I also found a few studies that showed it to be effective without any obvious bias in the study or flaws in how it was done. Now, I’m not a trained scientist, so I can’t always look at a study and see what was done wrong; it’s possible that these studies had biases (obvious, unintentional, or well-hidden) in them or other problems that discount or completely invalidate the results. I don’t know for sure, so I have to take them at face value. But whenever I hear about such a study on one of the several skeptical podcasts I listen to, the podcasters (who are trained scientists) point out the flaws in the study. Long story short: if there have been peer-reviewed clinical trials showing the effectiveness of acupuncture whose results have been analyzed and repeated by other researchers (none of whom have any conflicts of interest), mainstream science hasn’t seen them.

Can I say with absolute certainty that acupuncture never works better than placebo? No, of course not. What I can say with absolute certainty is that nobody has ever given a scientifically plausible explanation of how it works that is consistent with what we know about the human body and doesn’t resort to special pleadings about undetectable energy fields. At best it is an unproven and controversial practice. To me, it is appalling that there is an Ontario law that gives it credence and treats it like a perfectly valid and accepted form of medical treatment.

The legislation in question is called the Traditional Chinese Medicine Act, 2006. It’s a fairly short act that essentially does the following:

  • defines “traditional Chinese medicine” as “the assessment of body system disorders through traditional Chinese medicine techniques and treatment using traditional Chinese medicine therapies to promote, maintain or restore health.
  • establishes a body called the “College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario
  • authorizes members of the College to perform acupuncture and to give “a traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis identifying a body system disorder as the cause of a person’s symptoms using traditional Chinese medicine techniques
  • states that only members of the College can call themselves “acupuncturist” or “traditional Chinese medicine practitioner” and lists the penalties

This act seems to be a work in progress – five years later, the College has not yet been created. The government has created The Transitional Council of the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario, whose goal is to “develop regulations and establish the College“. One thing I found amusing on their web site was that one of the standards they plan to create is to define “what are considered acts of professional misconduct“. How do you define professional misconduct in an industry that is entirely based on fallacy?

I do not believe that all acupuncturists are charlatans, liars or cheats. I’m sure many of them, likely even the majority, honestly believe that what they are doing is effective. The placebo effect is very powerful, and confirmation bias is very difficult to see through. You likely know people, or perhaps you’re one yourself, who have gone to a psychic and come away saying “wow, she really nailed it!” Then they can tell you ten facts the psychic said about that person that were exactly right. Did they mention, or do they even remember, the other thirty facts that she got wrong? “I’m hearing a name, a woman’s name. Marcie? Marge? Margaret? Mary?”  “Yes, I have an Aunt Mary who died two years ago! Wow, it’s amazing how she knew that!” She only got 25% of her guesses right and you think she did a great job. That’s confirmation bias. It’s highly possible that an acupuncturist will unintentionally take credit for those patients who seem to be positively affected by acupuncture, and dismiss those for whom acupuncture does not work as the anomalies, saying “well, it doesn’t work for everyone”.

I am angered by the fact that our government has wasted time and money discussing the “issue” of non-registered acupuncturists and coming up with a plan to register them. Acupuncturists make their living inserting needles into people’s bodies and telling them it will heal them, when everything we know about medicine tells us that it can’t work, and countless studies show that it doesn’t. This practice, according to the Ontario government, is OK. But calling yourself an acupuncturist when you’re not licenced to do so is illegal and you will be subject to a fine of up to $25,000 for a first offense. This is so ass-backwards that it makes my head spin.

I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s me.


I’m really sorry, my occasional companion of several years, but I think it’s over. It’s just not fun for me anymore. The first couple of years were great, and I looked forward to all the good times we’d have in the future. And then last year I got really sick and had to leave you for a while. Now I’m better but it’s just not the same between us, so I think I’m going to have to move on. I tried, I really did – this past summer I kept persevering despite my lack of enjoyment. I kept hoping I’d get that old feeling back, but I never did. It’s no use fighting it anymore.

I’ve decided to quit running.

We first met in October of 2008, when I “accidentally” ran a 5k. I meant to walk it, but decided at the last second to start off running and just never stopped. I hurt for days, but it kind of felt good at the same time, and we started our relationship. I started running regularly the next spring, and by September I was running 10-15km per week and loving it. I’d be approaching home after having run 3 or 4 km, my legs sore, sweating and breathing hard but feeling good, and think “do I still have enough in the tank to circle the block once more? Or go around this crescent, just to add an extra half-kilometre?” Sometimes I would go the extra bit, sometimes not, but the thought was always there. I looked forward to my runs and was disappointed when I got up and it was raining and I had to run on the treadmill instead. Each week or two I’d go a little bit longer until one day I ran from home along Dundas to Hollybush to Parkside to Hamilton and back along Dundas home (which I know means squat to those of you who don’t live in Waterdown), a distance of about 5.8 km. I remember the feeling I had coming home from that particular run. It was my longest ever and I still felt great. I started to think that by the next summer, running a 10k wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

I bought special running shoes and clothes. I ran outside during the winter as long as it wasn’t too cold and the ground was mostly clear. My sister and parents bought me an iPod Nano with Nike+ for my 40th birthday, and I started “broadcasting” my runs on Facebook and Twitter. I subscribed to a running magazine. I brought my running stuff on vacation with me. I was a runner. Me and you, baby, we were going hot and heavy.

And then I got sick. February 5, 2010. Severe acute necrotizing pancreatitis. I’ve written about it before so I won’t go into the details here, but in a nutshell, it was a nightmare. I spent two months in hospital, ate no solid food the whole time, had major abdominal surgery, and was off work for another 3 months after coming home. In the hospital, my exercise consisted of taking my IV pole for a walk around the floor – two laps if I was exceptionally energetic. Once I got home, it was walking up and down a flight of stairs four or five times, and then lying down on the couch because I was wiped out. I got home from the hospital at the beginning of April, and in mid-May, I started walking around the block (less than 1km). By the end of the summer I could walk several kilometres without being exhausted, but it wasn’t until November that I started actually running again. But, my dear, things were different between us.

I started off with the path I used to take when you and I were first starting out. About 3 km, and I’d run until I got tired and then walk for a while, then run again. It wasn’t as much fun as I remembered, but I’d gone through a lot and in some respects I was still recovering, so I figured I’d give it some time. I didn’t go out much during the winter, and I tried to run on the treadmill now and again but you know how it is, dear, I never liked running on that thing. Then spring came and I could run outside again. It still wasn’t great, and it took a long time before I could even run the 3k path without stopping to walk in the middle. I ran a lot in July, then fell off the wagon in August, got back on in September and have been doing OK since then. But I’ll be honest, it really hasn’t been fun for a long time.

I have yet to get back to 5k – my longest this year was 4.12km. Only a couple of times did I finish a run without stopping to walk for a couple of minutes. My stamina seemed to plateau quickly, and I got frustrated with my lack of progress. Not once did I think about running just a little longer like I used to – it was always “how long until I can stop?” Getting up early to run was a chore and I had to force myself to do it. A few times I convinced myself I heard rain so I went back to bed – only to find the ground completely dry when I did get up. Sometimes while running I decided to cut the run short because it was colder than I had expected or my legs were exceptionally sore or whatever, it was one excuse after another. But the root problem was always there – it just wasn’t fun anymore.

So my dear, I’m afraid this is the end for us.  It was fun while it lasted, and I’ll never forget some of the great times we had together, but I’ve changed and it’s just not working between us anymore. It’s an old cliché but it’s really true – it’s not you, it’s me. I still want to stay in shape, so I’m going to try and hit the weight bench a couple of times a week over the winter. I hope you’re not jealous. Maybe next spring when the weather gets nice again I might give you another try, but I can’t promise anything. Take care, sweetheart.

The Healthiest Fast-Food Burger


Recently I did some analysis of the nutritional content of McDonald’s burgers compared with those from various other “roadhouse”-type restaurants. I found that a Big Mac and large fries at McDonald’s is lower in calories, fat, carbs, and sodium than any of the other restaurants I looked at. Now, let’s look at just the fast food restaurants.

Here is the nutritional information that I used:

Note to Facebook readers: Facebook sometimes screws up the formatting of tables when it imports my articles. You may want to click the “View Original Post” button at the bottom of the article.

Here are the results:

Burgers

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds Big Mac 540 29 10 44 1020
McDonalds Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese 530 28 13 41 1110
Burger King Whopper w/ Cheese 760 47 16 49 1320
Harvey’s Original Cheeseburger 460 35 11 39 1130
Wendy’s 1/4 pound single 470 22 7 70 870
A & W Teen burger 500 26 11 41 1220

I don’t go to A&W often enough to know which burger to choose (Teen, Mama, Papa, Grandpa), so I chose the Teen Burger because the numbers seemed similar to the others. The BK Whopper was dead last in every category. Harvey’s had the least calories but lots of fat and sodium. Wendy’s only had 10 more calories than Harvey’s, had way less fat and sodium, but way more carbs.

Chicken Sandwich

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds McChicken 470 27 4.5 46 790
McDonalds Grilled Chicken Classic 390 11 1.5 46 810
Burger King Tendergrill 370 16 2.5 37 910
Harvey’s Grilled chicken 290 5 1.5 28 810
Wendy’s Ultimate chicken grill 360 7 1.5 42 1090
A & W Chicken Grill Deluxe 320 9 1.5 37 1040

Harvey’s is the best in each category except saturated fat, but all the grilled sandwiches are relatively similar in all categories. The McChicken (which is fried) is last in every category except sodium where it’s the best. McChicken has more than five times the fat of the Harvey’s grilled sandwich – this should not surprise anyone.

Fries

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds Large 560 27 3.5 74 430
Burger King Large 440 22 4.5 57 1000
Harvey’s Large 410 16 1 61 1190
Wendy’s Large 500 24 4.5 54 610
A & W Large 520 22 1.5 76 920

McDonald’s is last in calories and fat, and up near the top in carbs, but is way ahead in sodium. I found this strange considering the reason I like McD’s fries is that they seem especially salty. Harvey’s, on the other hand, is first in calories and fat, but last in sodium.

Overall Results

You can “have it your way” at Burger King if “your way” includes more calories, fat, and sodium than anywhere else. There’s no clear winner here, but Harvey’s and Wendy’s are the lowest in most categories. If I had to pick one winner, it’d have to be Wendy’s – it’s a little higher than Harvey’s in calories and carbs, a little lower in fat, but 36% lower in sodium.

Notable stats for the burger and fries combo:

  • Lowest calories: Harvey’s. Second: Wendy’s. Highest: Burger King.
  • Lowest fat: Wendy’s. Second: A&W. Highest: Burger King.
  • Lowest saturated fat: Wendy’s. Second: Harvey’s. Highest: Burger King.
  • Lowest carbs: Harvey’s. Second: Burger King. Highest: Wendy’s.
  • Lowest sodium: Big Mac. Second: Wendy’s. Highest: Burger King / Harvey’s.

The shocking conclusion: Having a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a burger and skipping the fries results in a healthier meal. But if you simply must have a fast food burger, opting for Wendy’s or Harvey’s is a little healthier than McDonald’s or A & W, and a lot better than Burger King.

Is McDonalds healthier than other restaurants?


Eating at McDonald’s is far less healthy than eating at other restaurants, right? Of course it is. Everyone knows that. Well, everyone is wrong.

I used the nutrition calculator from the McDonald’s Canada website (http://www.mcdonalds.ca/en/index.aspx) and compared the nutritional information of several of their items with those from a few other restaurants. The restaurants were:

The reason I chose these restaurants is that they are popular and ubiquitous (in Canada anyway, no idea about anywhere else), and because I have never heard anyone say that they never eat at one of these places because the food is so bad for you. I have heard that about McDonald’s (and other fast food places) on numerous occasions, which is the reason for this article. In a future article, I will look at just fast food restaurants (McDonald’s, Burger King, Harvey’s, Wendy’s, etc.) to see how they compare, but for this one it’s McDonald’s vs. the roadhouses.

I looked at burgers primarily, since that’s what I suspect the vast majority of McDonald’s customers eat, but I looked at chicken sandwiches and fries as well. For McDonald’s, I chose the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder with Cheese (called the Royale with Cheese in Paris!), and for the rest I chose the closest thing to a “standard” burger that I could find (i.e. no bacon or mushrooms or extra stuff). For the chicken sandwich, I tried the most basic one available, again without cheese or bacon or whatever if possible.

Note to Facebook readers: Facebook sometimes screws up the formatting of tables when it imports my articles. You may want to click the “View Original Post” button at the bottom of the article.

Here are the results:

Burgers

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds Big Mac 540 29 10 44 1020
McDonalds Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese 530 28 13 41 1110
The Keg Classic Burger 1182.2 63.9 20.2 130.5 2982.9
Kelsey’s Classic Burger 690 41 12 47 960
Montana’s Sirloin Burger 770 45 20 46 1230
Jack Astor’s Classic Burger 918 46.5 12 42 865

McDonalds burgers have the fewest calories and by far the least fat. The Big Mac has the least saturated fat and the Quarter Pounder is comparable to Kelsey’s and Jack Astor’s, though a higher percentage of the fat is saturated. Other than the Keg’s monster burger (by far the worst in every category), the carbs and sodium are comparable among all of them.

 

Chicken Sandwich

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds McChicken 470 27 4.5 46 790
McDonalds Grilled Chicken Classic 390 11 1.5 46 810
The Keg Chipotle Chicken Sandwich 1565 90.6 11.64 152.3 2925
Kelsey’s Buffalo Chicken Sandwich 720 36 7 60 1450
Montana’s Chipotle Buffalo Chicken Sandwich 590 19 3 59 1640
Jack Astor’s Chicken Club Sandwich 863 53 5.7 67 1422

I couldn’t find a standard chicken sandwich at most of these places. It’s highly possible that the chipotle / buffalo sauce on some of the sandwiches is to blame for the extra calories and fat, though the McChicken has a tartar-like sauce on it as well. Jack Astor’s didn’t say anything about the sauce, but the “club” implies that it has bacon, which none of the others have.

As a result of the sandwich differences, the comparisons here may be less meaningful, but the McDonalds sandwiches have the least calories, carbs, and sodium. Other than the Montana’s sandwich, they also have the least fat and saturated fat. Once again, The Keg’s sandwich is far and away the worst.

Fries

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds Large 560 27 3.5 74 430
The Keg Keg Fries 312.9 10.9 2.7 47 684.2
Kelsey’s Sweet Potato Fries 710 38 4.5 86 630
Montana’s Fries 400 22 2 47 1060
Jack Astor’s Fries (10 oz) 680 40 6 78 1278

Finally a category where the Keg doesn’t come in last. McDonalds fries sit smack in the middle in terms of calories, fat, and carbs, though they are surprisingly low in sodium. I couldn’t find standard fries on the Kelsey’s list.

Overall Results

Though it’s one of my favourite restaurants, The Keg comes up as the big loser here. A burger at the Keg is roughly equivalent to two Big Macs in terms of calories and fat, and three Big Macs in terms of carbs and sodium. Notable stats for the burger and fries combo:

  • Lowest calories: Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Second: Big Mac.
  • Lowest fat: Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Second: Big Mac.
  • Lowest saturated fat: Big Mac. Second: Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
  • Lowest carbs: Montana’s Sirloin burger. Second: Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
  • Lowest sodium: Big Mac. Second: Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

Now, there will be people who read this who think I’m saying that McDonalds makes the healthiest burger available. To those people I say read it again. I never said anything of the sort. All I said is that the McDonalds burgers are the healthiest of the ones I looked at. This is like saying compared to a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, a $100,000 Corvette is really cheap.

The take-home message from all of this is that portion sizes matter. A Quarter Pounder contains (I’m making an assumption here) a quarter pound of beef, or 4 ounces. A Big Mac has two smaller patties that add up to about the same. Is the Keg Classic Burger more than 4 oz? Almost certainly. But you don’t go to McDonalds and order two Big Macs for dinner to make sure you’re getting the same amount of food as you’d get at The Keg. At either restaurant, you generally order one burger, one order of fries, and a drink. The drinks are likely to be exactly the same so I ignored those. Also remember the bread you eat while waiting for your meal at the Keg, and the fact that you are more likely to order an appetizer and dessert at the Keg than McDonalds. So the issue is less about how healthy the food is vs. how much of it there is. I have certainly walked out of the Keg feeling completely stuffed after a meal more often than I have at McDonald’s.

There is also the possibility that because McDonald’s portion sizes are smaller, you are more likely to snack later on after eating at McDonalds than you are at the Keg. This may be true, but if you’re comparing the burger-and-fries meals we talked about before, you can eat at McDonald’s and then have a 395 calorie snack later on and still be below what your Keg meal would have been. Even if your snack is another Big Mac, you are only 145 calories and 10 grams of fat worse off, and and you’re still 15 grams of carbs and 1200 mg of sodium lower than the Keg meal.

While researching this, I was asked if I had seen the documentary film Super Size Me, in which a healthy guy eats every meal at McDonald’s for 30 days and ends up gaining a lot of weight and being generally less healthy. I have not seen it, but I know that the filmmaker (don’t call him a “scientist”, this was hardly a scientific experiment) forced himself to eat every bite of every meal, super-sized whenever the option was offered, and ate an average of 5,000 calories a day. Eating 5,000 calories a day is unhealthy and will cause weight gain regardless of what it is you’re eating, or where. A nutritionist did a similar experiment with university students (and made a film himself, called “Portion Size Me”) but didn’t force them to overeat and after 30 days on fast food, they all lost weight and their cholesterol levels dropped.

You need to take this information for what it is. I am not saying that McDonalds is an overall healthy choice. If you’re going out for dinner and are interested in a truly healthy meal, McDonalds is not where you want to go. But if you skip McDonalds because “it’s so unhealthy” and get a burger at the Keg instead, you’re misleading yourself.

Another hiatus – this one less fun


I’ve gone on blogging hiatus a couple of times over the last couple of years – once for our trip to France, another for our trip to the UK. You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in a couple of weeks, so I’m on another hiatus, but this one was more forced. And a lot less fun.

On February 5, I was taken to Grand River hospital in Kitchener with acute pancreatitis, which basically means that my pancreas had a complete mental breakdown and started trying to dissolve itself. I have been in the hospital ever since, and likely will be for at least another couple of weeks. I will write more about the details later, but suffice it to say that blogging will be light if not nonexistent for the next little while.

I shall return!