Butter and Arithmetic: How Much Butter?

I measure my arithmetic speed  (how fast I do simple arithmetic problems, such as 3+ 4) daily. I assume it reflects overall brain function. I assume something that improves brain function will make me faster at arithmetic.

Two years ago I discovered that butter — more precisely, substitution of butter for pork fat — made me faster. This raised the question: how much is best? For a long time I ate 60 g of butter (= 4 tablespoons = half a stick) per day. Was that optimal? I couldn’t easily eat more but I could easily eat less.

To find out, I did an experiment. At first I continued my usual intake (60 g /day). Then I ate 30 g/day for several days. Finally I returned to 60 g/day. Here are the main results:

The graph shows that when I switched to 30 g/day, I became slower. When I resumed 60 g/day, I became faster. Comparing the 30 g/day results with the combination of earlier and later 60 g/day results, t = 6, p = 0.000001.
Continue reading “Butter and Arithmetic: How Much Butter?”

Assorted Links

  • Doctoring to the test. Megan McArdle describes the medical equivalent of “teaching to the test”. Although she had the usual symptoms of too-little thyroid hormone, her doctor would not give her more synthetic hormone because her Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) level was within “normal range”.
  • The Rotten Heart of Europe: The Dirty War for Europe’s Money by Bernard Connolly is out of print, but you can buy a used copy  ($600) or download it (free).
  • More evidence that butter is good for you.
  • The trouble with lab mice. Nobel Prizes in Medicine, I’ve said, show the continuing failure of researchers to make significant progress on all major diseases. This article is a closer look at the problem. “We’ve had thousands of mouse studies of tuberculosis, yet not one of them has ever been used to pick a new drug regimen that succeeded in clinical trials. ‘This isn’t just true for TB; it’s true for virtually every disease,’ he tells me.”

Thanks to Ivy Hsieh and Allan Jackson.

Seth Roberts Interview With Pictures

This sidebar appeared in an article about self-tracking (only for subscribers) by James Kennedy, who works at The Future Laboratory in London. The top photo is at a market near my apartment. Below that are photos of my sleep records, my morning-faces setup, my butter, and my kombucha brewing jars. Back then I was comparing three amounts of sugar (each jar a different amount). Now I’m comparing green tea/black tea ratios.

Assorted Links

  • Benefits of fermented wheat germ extract
  • Why Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is unlikely. A list of AGW-associated “miracles”. Some of my favorites: “Unique among all sciences, climatology develops yet finds no surprises whatsoever, apart from when it’s worse than we thought” and “AGW is a grave threat to humanity, yet it can take the backseat when AGWers have to score their petty points (such as not sharing their data with the “wrong” people)” and “Having won an Oscar, a Nobel Prize and innumerable awards, having occupied more or less every audio or video broadcast for years, having had the run of more or less every newspaper for the same length of time, suddenly AGW leaders declare they’re not “great communicators” and blame this for the generally high levels of skepticism.”
  • Denmark has started to tax butter. “To discourage poor eating habits and raise revenue.”
  • Life-saving personal science: Mom figures out cause of daughter’s problems. “One spring night in 2002, she stumbled upon an old photocopy of a 1991 Los Angeles Times article that described a young girl whose condition had uncanny parallels with [her daughter’s].”

Thanks to David Cramer.

The Evolution of Lactose Tolerance and My Butter Discoveries

From a BBC documentary called Are We Still Evolving? I learned that after the development of farming there was intense selection in Europe for “lactose tolerance” — meaning the ability to digest lactose as an adult, which requires the enzyme lactase. (The technical name is lactase persistence.) The necessary gene spread rapidly. Now most Europeans have the gene. In Ireland almost everyone has the gene. Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist interviewed on the show, who does research on lactose tolerance, said this:

It’s probably the most advantageous characteristic that Europeans have evolved in the last 30,000 years.. . . The advantage that’s been measured is just incredible, absolutely incredible, how big an advantage it was for these early farmers in Europe.

“Why would drinking milk into adulthood be so strongly selected for?” asked Alice Roberts, the presenter. Thomas replied,

Milk has got lots of energy in it, it’s very nutrient dense, it’s got lots of other goodies, like various vitamins, calcium, and so on. Also, it’s a relatively clean fluid, so it’s much better than drinking stream water or river water or well water or something like that. Another advantage is if you’re growing crops you have a boom and bust in terms of the food supply.

Not a word about butterfat — “lots of energy” is true of all fats. The rapid spread, the “incredible” advantage, suggests that milk supplied something resembling a necessary nutrient. As if everyone had been suffering from scurvy and the new gene allowed them to eat citrus — something like that. Such a gene would spread rapidly.

Does milk supply a necessary nutrient? My results suggest that butter — half a stick (60 g)/day — provides two clear benefits: 1. Better brain function. 2. Less risk of heart disease (probably). As far as I can tell, roughly everyone in America would get these benefits because their diets now lack enough of whatever it is. Both benefits reflect invisible problems. Like everyone else, I had no idea my brain function could be substantially improved and had no idea of my rate of progression (narrowing of arteries) toward atherosclerosis. Only because of unusual tests (the arithmetic test and a “heart scan”) did I notice sudden large improvements when I started eating lots of butter — what you’d expected from addition of a missing necessary nutrient. This explains why Thomas and almost everyone else is unaware of these benefits.

Keep in mind that before I started eating butter, I already ate a high-fat low-carbohydrate diet. Yet I wasn’t getting enough of something in butter. I already ate lots of pork fat. Perhaps the saturated fat in butter is better digested than the saturated fat in pork. Or perhaps the fat profile is better.

If lactose tolerance is so helpful, why are most Asians lactose intolerant? My work suggests two answers: 1. Yogurt. Long ago, Asians ate lots of yogurt. I know the Mongols did. There are present-day indications of this. The Chinese appreciate the value of yogurt more than Americans. Yogurt is more common in Chinese supermarkets than American ones. Yogurt makers are better and more common in China than Europe and America. Lots of Chinese make their own yogurt; as far as I can tell, home yogurt making is more popular in China than America. You can buy a cheap good yogurt maker many places in Beijing, unlike San Francisco. Yogurt provided butterfat. 2. Pork. The Chinese, of course, eat far more pork than Europeans. Unlike cows, pigs supply a cut with a large amount of fat: pork belly. I found it easy to get plenty of pork belly in China and eat it as the main course. Difficulty getting pork belly in the Bay Area is what pushed me to eat butter. This view predicts that European farmers raised more cows than pigs.

Anyway, to summarize, the great advantage conferred by lactose tolerance suggests the great value of something in milk if you eat a European-farmer-like diet. My work supports this; it suggests the crucial ingredient is butterfat. Which many Americans carefully avoid!

Note: The danger posed by the high level of AGEs (advanced glycation endproducts) in butter I don’t know about — but of course this danger has nothing to do with why lactose tolerance was so beneficial. My experience so far (the heart-scan improvement) suggests that that ordinary butter is not “artery-constricting”. Presumably AGEs are formed when milk is pasteurized so I would prefer to eat unpasteurized butter.

Science in Action: Why Energetic?

Last night I slept unusually well, waking up more rested and with more energy than usual.  I slept longer than usual: 7.0 hours versus my usual 5.1 hours (median of the previous 20 days).  My rating of how rested I felt was 99.2% (that is, 99.2% of fully rested); the median of the previous 20 days is 98.8%. Because the maximum is 100%, this is really a comparison of 0.8% (this morning) with 1.2% (previous mornings); and the comparison is not adjusted for the number of times I stood on one leg to exhaustion, which improves this rating. During the previous 20 days I often stood on one leg to exhaustion six times; yesterday I only did it four times. Above all, I felt more energy in the morning. This was obvious. I have just started to measure this.  At 8 am and 9 am, I rate my energy on a 0-100 scale where 50 = neither sluggish nor energetic/energized, 60 = slightly energetic/energized, 70 = somewhat energetic/energized, and 75 = energetic/energized. My ratings this morning were 73 (8 am) and 74 (9 am). The median of my 9 previous ratings is 62. The energy improvement (73/74 vs 62) is why I am curious. I would like to feel this way every morning.

What caused it? I had not exercised the previous day. My room was no darker than usual. My flaxseed oil intake was no different than usual. I had not eaten more pork fat than usual. However, four things had been different than usual:

1. 2 tablespoons of butter at lunch. In addition to my usual 4 tablespoons per day.

2. 0.5-1 tablespoons of butter at bedtime. Again, in addition the usual 4.

3. 1 tablespoon (15 g) coconut butter at bedtime. Part of a longer study of the effect of coconut butter. Gary Taubes suggested this. I had eaten 1 T coconut butter at bedtime 13 previous days. On the first of those 13 days, I had felt a lot more energetic than usual in the morning. On the remaining days, however, the improvement was less clear. I started measuring how energetic I felt in the morning to study this further. Last night was Friday night. On the previous two nights (Wednesday and Thursday) I had not eaten the coconut butter. Maybe absence of coconut butter followed by resumption of coconut butter is the cause.

4. Fresh air and ambient noise. Following a friend’s suggestion, I opened one of my bedroom windows.

My first question is whether the improvement is repeatable. If so, I will start to vary these four factors.







Assorted Links

The Buttermind Experiment

In August, at a Quantified Self meeting in San Jose, I told how butter apparently improved my brain function. When I started eating a half-stick of butter every day, I suddenly got faster at arithmetic. During the question period, Greg Biggers of genomera.com proposed a study to see if what I’d found was true for other people.

Continue reading “The Buttermind Experiment”

Food For Thought

A perfectly good Economist article about food and brain function includes the following:

Many studies suggest that diets which are rich in trans- and saturated fatty acids, such as those containing a lot of deep-fried foods and butter, have bad effects on cognition. Rodents put on such diets show declines in cognitive performance within weeks.

Whereas I found butter improved my cognitive performance within a day. And pork fat improved my sleep within a day. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if foods deep-fried in plant oils, such as corn oil, are bad for the brain.

Why Small Change = Big Deal (revised)

Last week a journalist asked me why the 5% improvement in arithmetic speed produced by butter was important. In an earlier post I said I’d given a poor answer.A few days later I figured out what I should have said. The article was delayed, it turned out, so there was time to use my new strategy. I answered the question like this:

I was excited by this discovery because it was so big and unexpected. Someone once found a correlation between IQ and reaction time. The higher your IQ, the faster your reaction time. I don’t know what the exact function was but a decrease of 30 milliseconds might correspond to 10 more IQ points. I felt a little bit smarter. It was so unexpected because hardly anyone was going around saying butter is good for you — and thousands of people were saying it is bad for you. The only ones saying butter is good for you were the followers of Weston Price, and they had almost no evidence for what they were saying. Compared to their evidence, my evidence was crystal clear. Among mainstream nutritionists, butter is universally scorned. Yet my data suggested exactly the opposite — that it had a large amount of an important nutrient I wasn’t getting enough of. If mainstream nutrition advice could be so wrong, it would have big implications for what we eat. Maybe other things we are constantly told about what to eat are also wrong.

I discovered this big effect of butter by substituting butter for pork fat. So the reason butter was so helpful wasn’t anything as simple as animal fat is food for us. I ate plenty of animal fat before I started eating lots of butter. The reason was something more specific.

Why Small Change = Big Deal

Eating a half-stick of butter (60 g) every day apparently improved how fast I can do simple arithmetic problems (e.g., 7-5, 3+1). I improved about 5% — from 630 to 600 msec per problem. My scores had been at 630 msec for months. They suddenly dropped.

A reporter said to me that a 5% improvement isn’t much. You couldn’t notice it. Why did this matter?

I did not reply “what good is a newborn baby?” I said it mattered for three reasons:

1. You cannot easily produce such an improvement. I was already doing very well. For example, I had already lowered my scores a lot via omega-3. Imagine the world record for the 100 meter dash suddenly dropping 5% due to eating something you can find in a supermarket.

2. A 5% improvement is just the beginning. There is room for optimization — better dosage, better timing of taking the butter, and so on.

3. The brain is a mirror of the rest of the body. Learning the best diet for the brain, at least in terms of fat, will help us learn the best diet for the rest of the body, just as learning what house current is best for one electrical appliance is a guide to what other electrical appliances are designed for. They’re all designed to work with the same house current.

Alas, this is not just a poor answer, it’s what I actually said. I give myself a C+. Reason 1 is almost gibberish. Reason 2 is technocratic. A good answer is more emotional. Reason 3 is okay, if not very clear.

At Berkeley I knew a student who had transferred from a junior college. He is/was black. He had probably gotten into Berkeley because Berkeley administrators wanted to admit more black students. He complained one day that he got C’s on his essays even though “all the words were spelled correctly.” It was frustrating, he said. I am in a similar situation here. My answer is poor but I cannot easily do better.

Will Eating Half a Stick of Butter a Day Make You Smarter?

To my pleasant surprise, Mark Frauenfelder posted this call for volunteers. Will eating half a stick of butter per day or a similar amount of coconut fat improve your performance on arithmetic problems? Eri Gentry is organizing a simple trial to find out. The trial is inspired by my recent Quantified Self talk. Study details.

During the question period of my talk, I responded to a question about a trial with 100 volunteers by saying I would suggest starting with 2 volunteers. A reader has written to ask why.

What’s your reasoning behind suggesting only 2 volunteers to test the eating more butter results? You seem highly convinced earlier in the video, but if you were so convinced why not have a larger trial?

Because the trial will be harder than the people running it expect. If you’re going to make mistakes, make small ones.

This is my first rule of science: Do less. A grad student in English once told me that a little Derrida goes a long way and a lot of Derrida goes a little way. Same with data collection. A little goes a long way and a lot goes a little way. A tiny amount of data collection will teach you more than you expect. A large amount will teach you less.

My entire history of self-experimentation started with a small amount of data collection: An experiment about the effectiveness of an acne medicine. It was far more informative than I expected. My doctor was wrong, I was wrong — and it had been so easy to find out.

This may sound like I am criticizing Eri’s study. I’m not. What’s important is to do something, however flawed, that can tell you something you didn’t know. Maybe that should be the first rule, or the zeroth rule. It has the pleasant and unusual property of being easier than you might think.

Thanks to Carl Willat.

Dairy Consumption and Health

Two studies of the effect of dairy consumption on health have recently appeared. Both suggest it is healthy. One of them— a prospective study where about 1500 people were followed for 16 years — found no association of dairy intake with overall mortality but did find a protective effect of full-fat dairy against heart disease. The study considered lots of possibilities and the authors write ” it is important to take into account the large number of comparisons considered in this study and thus we cannot rule out the possibility that the protective association between full-fat dairy intake and cardiovascular mortality was due to chance.”

I mentioned this study earlier. It gains more credence because of the other study, which is a meta-analysis. The second study found protective effects of dairy products on several outcomes, including overall mortality:

Meta-analyses suggest a reduction in risk in the subjects with the highest dairy consumption relative to those with the lowest intake: 0.87 (0.77, 0.98) for all-cause deaths, 0.92 (0.80, 0.99) for ischaemic heart disease, 0.79 (0.68, 0.91) for stroke and 0.85 (0.75, 0.96) for incident diabetes.

This is good news for me since I eat yogurt and butter every day.

Thanks to Peter Spero.

How to Eat a Lot of Butter

Since I discovered that butter makes my brain work better, I have been eating half a stick (60 g) per day. Usually half in the morning and half in the evening. It is hard to eat by itself but easy to eat with other foods. I’ve tried a dozen ways of doing this. My top three additions:

1. Pu’er tea. The most convenient. As convenient as drinking tea. Put the butter in hot tea, wait till it melts. I can eat at least 20 g of butter in one cup of tea. Butter tea is common in Tibet. Thanks again to Robin Barooah.

2. Cherry tomatoes. The healthiest and fastest. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise, eat each half with a similar-sized piece of butter. It is like that classic Italian combination, mozzarella and tomatoes.

3. Thin-sliced roast beef. The most delicious. Wrap a piece of butter with the roast beef. However, I already eat plenty of meat, it is hard to get thin-sliced roast beef in Beijing, and it is so delicious I end up buying a lot of thin-sliced roast beef.

None of these additions affects brain function (measured by arithmetic score), as far as I can tell, although I suppose the tea wakes me up.

New Heart Scan Results: Good News (explanation)

My recent heart scan score was about 50% less than you’d expect from an earlier score. Why the improvement?

During the year between the two tests, I’d made one big change: eat much more animal fat. That’s the obvious explanation. Three things support it:

1. Mozaffarian et al., as I blogged, found a similar result.

2. The animal fat (pork fat and butter) had both produced large immediate improvements when I began to eat them. The pork fat had improved my sleep; the butter, my arithmetic scores. This sort of large immediate effect we associate with the supply of a missing necessary nutrient — giving Vitamin C to someone with scurvy, for example. My brain, at least, needed much more animal fat than I’d been eating. Different parts of the body need different nutrients, sure, but they all must work well with the same set of nutrients. If Nutrient X helps one part of the body, it is more likely to help another part.

3. My initial score put me at the 50th percentile for my age. I’d had an unusual diet for a long time. I stopped eating bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, and dessert 13 years ago. I’d started consuming lots of omega-3 and fermented foods a few years earlier. It was possible that those other changes produced improvement but if so it was a strange coincidence that, as my score got better and better over the years, I happened to measure it for the first time just when it crossed the 50th percentile.

This explanation makes a prediction: If you greatly increase your animal-fat intake, your heart scan score should improve. A commenter said what he’d read on paleo-diet forums supported this prediction: “If you hang out in the paleo/low carb forums, you see this kind of thing a lot.”

New Heart Scan Results: Good News (context)

I posted yesterday that a recent heart scan found my arteries about 50% less calcified than a previous scan predicted. Apparently the improvement was due to eating much more animal fat (pork fat and butter).

In 2004, an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article found something similar: heart disease progressed less in women who ate more saturated fat. “In postmenopausal women with relatively low total fat intake, a greater saturated fat intake is associated with less progression of coronary atherosclerosis,” the authors wrote. Here’s how they saw this finding:

The inverse association between saturated fat intake and atherosclerotic progression was unexpected. However, this finding should perhaps be less surprising. Ecologic and animal experimental studies showed positive relations between saturated fat intake and CHD risk (8). However, cohort studies and clinical trials in humans have been far less consistent (9 –12). Furthermore, most studies of dietary fat and CHD risk have been performed in men (15, 16). The relations in women—particularly postmenopausal women—are much less well-established, and evidence from dietary intervention trials suggests that diets low in saturated fat may have different effects on CHD risk factors in women (15, 17–22).

In their study, women with the highest intake of saturated fat did not get worse during the study period, whereas women with lower intakes did get worse.

An editorial about this study described some of the evidence that supports the “article of faith” that “saturated fat . . . accelerates coronary artery disease”:

One of the earliest and most convincing studies of the better efficacy of unsaturated than of saturated fat in reducing cholesterol and heart disease is the Finnish Mental Hospital Study conducted in the 12 y between 1959 and 1971. In this study, the usual high-saturated-fat institutional diet was compared with an equally high-fat diet in which the saturated fat in dairy products was replaced with soybean oil and soft margarine and polyunsaturated fats were used in cooking. Each diet was provided for 6 y and then the alternate diet was provided for the next 6 y. After a comparison of the effects of the 2 diets in both men and women, the incidence of coronary artery disease was lower by 50% and 65% after the consumption of polyunsaturated fat in the 2 hospitals.

My results make the results of that earlier study exceedingly puzzling. I found a large change in one direction; the Finnish study found a large effect in the opposite direction. Given the huge effect (50% or 65% reduction) observed in the Finnish study, it is hard to understand why “cohort studies and clinical trials in humans have been far less consistent”.

New Heart Scan Results: Good News

One and a half years ago, in February 2009, I got a heart scan. It’s an X-ray measurement of how calcified your arteries are. Persons with high scores are much more likely to have a heart attack than persons with low scores. Scores in the hundreds are dangerous. Tim Russert, who died at age 58 of a heart attack, had a score of about 200 ten years before his death. Above age 40, the scores typically increase about 25% per year. That puts Russert’s score when he died at around 2000.

A few weeks ago I got another scan, at the same place with the same machine. Here are my scores. February 2009: 38 (about 50th percentile for my age). August 2010: 29 (between 25th & 50th percentile). In other words: 47% lower than expected. The earlier scan detected 3 “lesions”; the recent scan detected 2. The woman who runs the scanning center — HeartScan, in Walnut Creek, California — told me that decreases in this score are very rare. About 1 in 100, she said.

The only big lifestyle change I made between the two scans is to eat much more animal fat. After I found that pork fat improved my sleep, I started to eat a large serving of pork belly (with 80-100 g of fat) almost every day. Later I switched to 60 g of butter every day. The usual view, of course, is that to eat so much animal fat is v v bad and will “clog” my arteries. In fact, the reverse happened. Judging from this, the change was v v good.