Master Life Faster: Newsletter

How Corn is Killing You

Posted in Newsletter by Paul Lem, M.D. on June 17, 2010

Volume 3, Issue 2

“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
-Michael Pollan

How Corn is Killing You

What should you eat to achieve optimal health? Food writer and journalist Michael Pollan sums up the scientific evidence in three short phrases:

  • Eat food.
  • Not too much.
  • Mostly plants.

Whole Foods
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan shows that while the advice is simple, the reasons are often far from obvious. Take the first phrase: “Eat food.” It seems self-evident. You wouldn’t eat non-food items like dirt or diamonds. But what Pollan means is you should eat whole foods that have not been processed. For example, an apple is a whole food whereas apple juice is a processed food. Eat the apple, don’t drink the juice. Similarly, oatmeal is a whole food whereas Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is a processed food.

What about buying a steak from the grocery store and barbecuing it yourself? Isn’t steak a whole food? After all, it has one ingredient and it hasn’t been processed. Technically, that’s true. But the problem is the steak came from a cow that grew up eating processed food. Processed corn, to be precise.

Cornfed to Death
What’s wrong with that? The problem is cows are not designed to eat corn, they’re designed to eat grass. When cows are fed a concentrated diet of corn, it leads to a buildup of acid in their stomachs. Acidotic cows paw and scratch their bellies, eat dirt, and suffer from weakened immune systems. Over time, the acid eats away at the stomach wall, allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream. The bacteria end up in the liver, where they form pus-filled abscesses. At slaughter, 15–30 percent of feedlot cows are found to have abscessed livers. To prevent cows from dying from their corn diet, they are pumped full of antibiotics: Rumensin buffers acid in the stomach, helping to prevent acidosis, and Tylosin, a form of erythromycin, lowers the rate of liver infection.

If corn causes so many complications, why do ranchers feed it to their cows? Like most businesses, it’s all about the money. Cornfed cattle get fatter faster. And thanks to generous government subsidies, corn is dirt cheap. In the 1900s, ranchers raised cows on grass and it took 4–5 years to get cows ready for slaughter. Nowadays, a calf goes from 80 pounds to 1,100 pounds in 14 months by eating tremendous amounts of corn-based carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

While cornfed beef is much cheaper than pasture-fed beef, the two types of meat have dramatically different effects on your health. Cornfed beef is high in saturated fat and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 10:1 (seeds such as corn are high in omega-6, whereas leaves and grass are high in omega-3). In contrast, pasture-fed beef is low in saturated fat and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 2:1. Why does this matter? Too high a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 contributes to heart disease because omega-6 helps blood clot, whereas omega-3 helps it flow.

Corn Chips with Legs
As Pollan points out: “You are what you eat eats.” And what we North Americans have become is “corn chips with legs.” So says Todd Dawson, a Berkeley biologist. Dawson discovered this unsettling fact by using a mass spectrometer to analyze human tissues for the ratio of carbon 13 versus carbon 12 (corn plants have higher ratios of carbon 13 compared to other plants, therefore the higher the ratio in a person’s sample the more corn has been in her diet, or in the diet of animals she ate).

In a follow-up experiment, Dawson used his mass spec to determine the proportion of carbon coming from corn in a McDonald’s meal. The results?

  • Soda: 100 percent corn (from high-fructose corn syrup)
  • Milk shake:  78 percent
  • Salad dressing: 65 percent
  • Chicken nuggets: 56 percent
  • Cheeseburger: 52 percent
  • French fries: 23 percent

Considering that one in three kids in the United States eats fast food every day, it’s no wonder that North Americans score so high on the cornfed scale.

Back to the Land
Now that we’ve exposed the insidious effects of corn in your diet, what can you expect if you follow Pollan’s three food rules?

The answer comes from a 7-week experiment conducted by Australian nutritionist Kerin O’Dea. In the summer of 1982, she recruited a group of 10 Aborigines who were overweight and had type 2 diabetes. They were living in settlements near the town of Derby in Western Australia and their diet consisted mainly of flour, sugar, rice, soft drinks, beer, powdered milk, fatty meat, potatoes, and onions. For the experiment, O’Dea and the Aborigines traveled to an isolated region of northwest Australia. The idea was to leave civilization behind and eat only what could be hunted and gathered from the land.

The Aborigines started on the coast, where their diet consisted mainly of seafood, supplemented by birds, kangaroo, and witchetty grubs. After 2 weeks, they moved inland beside a river and their diet included freshwater fish, shellfish, turtle, crocodile, birds, kangaroo, yams, figs, and bush honey.

After 7 weeks in the bush, blood tests showed striking improvements in the Aborigines’ health. Their triglyceride levels had fallen into the normal range and their levels of omega-3 fatty acids had increased dramatically. Everyone in the group lost weight—an average of 17.9 pounds per person—and had lower blood pressure. Signs of diabetes such as glucose tolerance and insulin response to glucose were greatly improved.

You don’t have to move to the Outback and eat grubs to improve your health. All you have to do is eat whole foods, not too much, and mostly plants. It’s time to switch your diet to what Mother Nature intended you to eat.

Pollan M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. Penguin Press.

Pollan M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Press.

O’Dea K. (1984). Marked improvements in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian Aborigines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyle. Diabetes. 33(6): 596–603. Abstract.

Copyright 2010 by Paul Lem, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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Big Fish, Small Pond

Posted in Newsletter by Paul Lem, M.D. on February 8, 2010

Volume 3, Issue 1
HAPPY: Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond?
SOCIAL: How important is a personal touch?
WEALTHY: How much are friends and family worth?

“I would rather be first in a little Iberian village than second in Rome.
-Julius Caesar

Is it Better to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond?

I’m a biotech entrepreneur based out of Ottawa, Canada. When I’m visiting friends or clients in the United States, I invariably get asked when I’m going to move to Boston or the Bay Area. After all, that’s where the action is in my field (and the winters are warmer!).

Talent Clusters
So should I move? On one hand, there are fewer biotech entrepreneurs in Canada compared to the United States, so there is less competition for funding, talent, and other resources. On the other hand, there are more opportunities south of the border. The reason, as Richard Florida points out, is because “In today’s creative economy, the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people.” This clustering force “makes each of us more productive, which in turns makes the places we inhabit much more productive, generating great increases in output and wealth.”

So is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?

Gifted Schools
To investigate this question, Australian psychologist Herbert Marsh looked at the performance of students in gifted and non-gifted schools. He and his colleagues analyzed over 100,000 15-year-olds from 26 countries. Their results showed that students in schools with higher average achievement levels experienced lower levels of academic self-concept. Self-concept is the psychological need to think and feel positively about yourself. In other words, students in gifted schools had lower confidence in their abilities and felt less positively about themselves.

Some parents and teachers might argue: “Who cares how students feel as long as they perform better?” The problem is self-concept can directly influence performance.

Competition and Comparison
In an Israeli study with over 1,000 gifted students, researchers found that gifted students in mixed-achievement classes had higher academic self-concepts, lower anxiety, and higher school grades than gifted students in specialized classes with other gifted students. Other studies have shown that elite swimmers with high physical self-concepts perform better at international events than swimmers with comparable rankings but lower self-concepts. Similarly, employees who feel confident in performing a task will actually perform better and will try harder when things go wrong.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle: How you think and feel about yourself both affects and is affected by your performance. Perhaps the underlying question is: What’s the optimal balance between the size of the fish and the size of the pond?

Stretch Goals
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychology professor at Claremont University in California. He studies flow, the state of peak performance and peak experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

There is a zone, the line between overexertion and underexertion, where we perform at our best and enjoy what we are doing. It occurs when the activity is appropriate for our skill level; when it is neither too hard nor too easy. If it is too hard, we experience anxiety. If it is too easy, we become bored.

Finding Your Level
Imagine you are learning to play tennis. One day, your coach surprises you. He has scheduled you to play top-ranked Roger Federer at center court in Wimbledon. How do you feel? Will you enjoy getting thrashed with the world looking on? Will you enjoy wasting Roger’s time?

Whether you are a tennis player, gifted student, or entrepreneur, look for a pond that’s challenging to swim, but not so deep that you’ll drown.

Florida, Richard. (2008). Who’s your city?: How the creative economy is making where to live the most important decision of your life. Random House.

Marsh HW, Hau K. (2003). Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect on academic self-concept: A cross-cultural (26-country) test of the negative effects of academically selective schools. American Psychologist. 58(5): 364–376. Full Article.

Marsh HW, Byrne BM, Yeung AS. (1999). Causal ordering of academic self-concept and achievement: Reanalysis of a pioneering study and revised recommendations. Educational Psychologist. 34: 155–167. Full Article.

Zeidner M, Schleyer EJ. (1999). The big-fish–little-pond effect for academic self-concept, test anxiety and school grades in gifted children. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 24: 305–329. Abstract.

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

There’s a difference between beauty and charm. A beautiful woman is one I notice. A charming woman is one who notices me.
-John Erskine

How Important is a Personal Touch?

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. First Lady, wife of a billionaire, she was at the center of power for most of her life. How did she do it?

Personal Notes
We know about Jackie’s style, elegance, and grace. But less well known was her skill at writing personal notes and letters. According to journalists Shelly Branch and Sue Callaway: “Jackie used her trademark stationery (light blue sheets with embossed white lettering) and loopy script to curry favors, charm lovers, maneuver out of tight spots, and evoke her famous wrath—usually in effusive fashion.”

Jackie wrote people’s names in large letters, and began lots of sentences with “you.” When writing on her tiny 3.5” x 4.5” notecards, she made use of every inch, often writing on the back and up the sides. Longtime Kennedy family aide Melody Miller remembers that Jackie’s notes usually opened with something personal up front. For example, she might write “what a spectacular soufflé!” and then follow up with a more generic “thank-you for a memorable evening.”

If it worked for Jackie, will it work for you?

The Power of Personalization
At Sam Houston State University in Texas, behavioral scientist Randy Garner tested the effect of personalized notes on response rates for mail-in surveys. He randomly selected 150 university professors to receive one of three packages:

  • 50 received a survey with a handwritten Post-It note that said, “”Please take a few minutes to complete this for us. Thank you!”
  • 50 received a survey with a handwritten letter with the same message as the Post-It note.
  • 50 received a survey with no handwritten note or letter.

Results showed that the response rates were 76 percent for the handwritten Post-It notes, 48 percent for the handwritten letters, and 36 percent for the no-message group. A Post-It note is such a small personal touch. Why does it cause such a big difference in response rates? And why does it outperform handwritten letters?

Norms and Forms
The answer lies in the difference between social norms and market norms. Social norms are the standards of behavior we expect from friends, family, and community members. It includes the friendly requests we make of neighbors, or the way we help an old lady cross the street. There is a feeling of goodwill and helping others. In contrast, there is nothing sentimental about market norms. You get what you pay for. It’s the world of salaries, prices, rents, interest, and cold calculations.

When you receive an unsolicited survey in the mail, you see it as work. Why should you fill it out if you’re not getting paid? If it includes a handwritten letter, it tells you that at least someone took the time to write. It’s better than a form letter, but not by much. In contrast, a handwritten Post-It note looks and feels friendly. It makes you think of the notes you got from your mom in your lunchbox when you were a kid. Or the love note you got from a Valentine in sixth grade.

Write a Note
A handwritten Post-It note nudges you into the warm and fuzzy world of social norms. You fill out the survey and mail it in because it feels like the right thing to do.

Learn from Jackie’s example. Write someone a personal Post-It note today.

Branch S, Callaway S. (2006). What would Jackie do? An inspired guide to distinctive living. Gotham Books.

Garner R. (2005). Post-It® note persuasion: A sticky influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology. 15(3): 230–237. Abstract.

“It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.”
-Marlene Dietrich

How Much are Friends and Family Worth?

Friends and family are important. But money is important too. Money pays for food, shelter, health insurance, and sending your kids to college. It can also buy you more time to spend with friends and family.

Social Capital
What’s the right balance between making more money and spending more time with friends and family? It seems like an impossible question to answer. After all, how can you put a dollar value on the joy you get from playing in the park with your kids, or spending Christmas with your parents and grandparents?

It turns out there is a way. It involves taking a random sample of people, recording their happiness levels at different points in time, and then using regression equations to work out the implied “shadow price” of different life conditions.

Happiness and Relationships
Using this method, economist Nattavudh Powdthavee at the University of London analyzed responses to the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) from 1997 and 2003. The BHPS asked over 10,000 randomly-selected people the same question: “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall?” There were seven possible responses, ranging from “1. very dissatisfied” to “7. very satisfied”.

In addition, respondents were asked the following two social questions:

  • “How often do you meet friends or relatives who are not living with you, whether here at your home or elsewhere?”
  • “How often do you talk to your neighbours?”

There were five possible responses, ranging from ““1. never” to “5. on most days”.

Among working-age adults, 43 percent of men and 50 percent of women said they met up with their friends every day. The numbers were slightly less when it came to talking with their neighbors: 33 percent of men and 39 percent of women did so every day. In terms of happiness, three-quarters of men and women rated themselves higher than 4 on the life satisfaction scale.

Pricing Happiness
How did Powdthavee use this information to calculate the dollar value of friends and family? Suppose there is a woman who sees her friends “once or twice a month” at the beginning of the survey. By the end of the survey, she is seeing her friends “on most days” and reports a 1-point increase on the life satisfaction scale. Therefore, the shadow price of seeing her friends more often is equivalent to the income required to generate the same 1-point increase in life satisfaction. The actual calculations are more complicated because they control for variables such as marital status, health, education, employment status, children, hospitalization time, and so on, but the rationale is the same.

Crunching through the BHPS numbers revealed that someone who only saw his or her friends or relatives less than once a month required an extra $94,500 a year to be just as satisfied with life as someone who saw his or her friends or relatives on most days.

Here are the shadow prices for other life situations:

  • Talking to neighbors on most days versus less than once a month: $60,000/year
  • Getting married: $96,000/year
  • Moving in together: $81,000/year
  • Going from very poor health to excellent health: $450,000/year
  • Getting separated: minus $86,000/year
  • Getting divorced: minus $33,000/year
  • Being disabled: minus $92,000/year
  • Being unemployed: minus $99,000/year
  • Widowhood: minus $300,000/year

Note that these are huge effects considering the average annual household income per capita was $14,700 in the BHPS sample.

Of course, these shadow prices are only estimates based on averages. Your life situation may be far from average. But if you get a job offer in New York City at double your salary, you should consider the social cost of missing your friends and family.

Powdthavee N. (2008). Putting a price tag on friends, relatives, and neighbours: Using surveys of life satisfaction to value social relationships. Journal of Socio-Economics. 37(4): 1459–1480. Full Article.

Copyright 2010 by Paul Lem, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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Why Coke Tastes Better Than Pepsi

Posted in Newsletter by Paul Lem, M.D. on December 22, 2009

Volume 2, Issue 12
SOCIAL: The simple way to make people remember what you say
WEALTHY: Why Coke tastes better than Pepsi
SMART: The no-sweat way to improve your skills

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
-Muriel Rukeyser

The Simple Way to Make People Remember What You Say

Chip Heath is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. His students are among the best and brightest in the country. But there is a simple way for community college students to out-communicate anyone in his class—even if they speak English as a second language.

Made to Stick
In Made to Stick, Heath explains how he discovered the secret. During one of his classes, Heath asked his students give a 1-minute speech on a topic such as crime patterns in the US. After each speech, students rated each speaker. Not surprisingly, the most polished speakers usually got the highest ratings. The surprise happened 10 minutes after the last speaker. Heath asked the students to pull out a sheet of paper and write down every idea they could remember for each speaker.

The class was shocked to discover how little they recalled. For some speeches, students couldn’t remember any ideas. In the average 1-minute speech, speakers used 2.5 statistics. Only 1 in 10 told a story. But when it came time for recall, 63 percent remembered the stories, compared to 5 percent for statistics.

Sticky Stories
Results showed that speaking talent had almost no effect on making ideas stick. According to Heath, “The stars of stickiness are the students who made their case by telling stories, or by tapping into emotion, or by stressing a single point rather than ten.” He confides, “There is no question that a ringer—a student who came into the exercise having read this book—would squash the other students.”

Why are stories so powerful? Heath believes it’s because stories are like flight simulators for the brain. When you tell a story, your audience imagines they are there with you. It’s the next best thing to first-hand experience.

So the next time you’re giving a speech or presentation, remember that stories are your secret weapon to making ideas stick.

Heath C, Heath D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House.

“People will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
-Warren Beatty

Why Coke Tastes Better Than Pepsi

Warren Buffett is the world’s greatest investor. He has made his fortune by investing in companies such as Kraft Foods, Mars Candy, Wrigley, and Coca-Cola. What do these companies share in common? They make brand-name products that customers buy over and over again.

Predictable Profits
This means there is little need for research and development. Mars sells you the same chocolate bar year after year . It doesn’t have to invest money in improving the recipe.
In contrast, a company such as Intel spends over $5 billion a year to sustain its technology lead. If it stopped, its competitors would catch up and surpass it.

Another advantage of selling brand-name products to loyal customers is that retailers have to stock them to stay in business. For example, imagine if McDonald’s stopped serving Coke and replaced it with a no-name cola. Customers wouldn’t be happy. As Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger says, “If I go to some remote place, I may see Wrigley chewing gum alongside Glotz’s chewing gum. Well, I know that Wrigley is a satisfactory product, whereas I don’t know anything about Glotz’s. So if one is 40 cents and the other is 30 cents, am I going to take something I don’t know and put it in my mouth, which is a pretty personal place after all, for a lousy dime?”

Battle of the Colas
But what if McDonald’s substituted Pepsi for Coke? What would happen then? After all, Pepsi is a brand-name product. And blind taste tests show that many Coke-drinkers prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coke. But if that’s true, why isn’t there a mass defection of Coke drinkers over to the Pepsi side? Why do people keep drinking Coke?

At Baylor College of Medicine, Samuel McClure and his colleagues set out to find the answer. They gave Coke and Pepsi to volunteers under two scenarios:

  1. Blind taste test: Volunteers drank from unmarked cups.
  2. Non-blind taste test: Volunteers drank from cups marked with Coke and Pepsi brands.

While the volunteers were drinking, the researchers scanned their brains using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). This is a technique that reveals how brain activity changes in response to different conditions.

The results showed that branding had a dramatic effect on brain activity. In taste tests with Pepsi, there was little difference in brain activity when volunteers knew they were drinking Pepsi. In contrast, Coke-drinkers strongly preferred drinking Coke out of Coke-branded cups versus unbranded cups. Brain scans showed a sharp increase in activity in the hippocampus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and midbrain. These regions of the brain are known to modify people’s behavior based on emotional memories.

Warm and Fuzzy
The Coca-Cola company spends over $2 billion on advertising every year. Their creative teams have won awards such as the Gold Lion from Cannes and Time magazine’s Top 10 best ads of 2007. Does their advertising pay off? Well, how do you feel when you think of Coca-Cola? For me, I feel happy as I remember drinking Coke on a hot summer day while fishing with my dad.

These warm and fuzzy feelings are why Coke tastes better than Pepsi. And indirectly, it’s the reason why Warren Buffett is Coke’s largest investor.

Buffett M, Clark D.  (1997). Buffetology: The previously unexplained techniques that have made Warren Buffett the world’s most famous investor. Rawson Associates.

McClure SM et al. (2004). Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron. 44(2): 379–387. Full Article.

“For 37 years I’ve practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius.”
-Pablo De Sarasate

The No-sweat Way to Improve Your Skills

Thomas Edison is famous for saying, “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” Psychologist Anders Ericsson confirmed this when he studied violin students at Berlin’s prestigious Academy of Music. By the age of 20, elite performers had put in about 10,000 hours of practice, compared to 8,000 hours for good students and 4,000 hours for mediocre students.

It’s All in Your Head
Deliberate practice is the foundation for success. But what if there were a way to practice without getting sweaty? There is—it’s a training technique called mental practice. How does it work? It’s simple. You sit quietly and visualize yourself performing the task successfully from start to finish. For example, a violinist would practice Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by thinking through the notes, or a golfer would picture the motions for a perfect putt.

How effective is mental practice? In research funded by the US Army, James Driskell and his team reviewed 35 studies on mental practice involving over 3,000 subjects. Overall, they found that mental practice is about two-thirds as good as actual physical practice.

In addition, they discovered two easy ways to maximize the benefits of mental practice:

  • Practice at least once a week. Mental practice just before the actual activity provides the biggest boost in performance. The benefit drops by 50 percent at 14 days, and is negligible at 21 days.
  • Practice for about 20 minutes. Practicing longer doesn’t help much.

Mind Games
Mental practice has been proven to work in a wide range of activities, including dart throwing, welding, trombone playing, figure skating, and estimating the volumes of chemical substances.

The next time you’re sitting in an airport or waiting for the bus, pass the time with some mental practice. It’s the no-sweat way to improve your skills.

Ericsson KA, Krampe RT, Tesch-Romer C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review. 100(3): 363–406. Full Article.

Driskell JE, Copper C, Moran A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of Applied Psychology. 79(4): 481–492. Full Article.

Copyright 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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