A New York lawyer named Greg reports remarkably clear evidence about the effect of butter on blood lipid levels: It improved them. For a few years he measured his HDL and LDL regularly with a home cholesterol device. For unrelated reasons, he started eating more butter. He ate a half stick (about 60 g)/day, like me. Here’s what happened.
The first five measurements are from lab tests. The rest are from his home machine.
I asked Greg for details.
I’m 36. I bought the cholesterol meter last July after my doctor said he couldn’t figure out why my numbers were a bit high. We both agreed it was not something to worry too much about and that there was no point charging my insurance company for a VAP test every 6 months. We both also agreed that going on a statin was a bad idea. I picked up the meter out of curiosity. I had previously been monitoring my blood sugar (since 2009) and found it to be very interesting, so I thought I could have some fun with the numbers. The result is all the more surprising because I did not expect it. I was tracking my numbers around the time of the experiment [with butter] to make sure they did not go the wrong way like everyone says they should.
The machine is a CardioChek PA [about $600], which is designed for use in doctors offices, not for the consumer market. The device is “CLIA-waived”, which means that the FDA considers it so simple that the user does not need any special training in clinical chemistry (home glucometers fall into the same category). The machine gives significantly different numbers for different people, suggesting it is measuring something real and not spitting out random numbers.
I asked what the reaction to this data has been.
Most people I’ve spoken to have been receptive to the idea [that butter improves blood lipids], but I got no sense that they would be willing to try it for themselves. Most people I know seem to be quite willing to accept the fact that the old stories about cholesterol are not true. In contrast, one conservative cardiologist said I must have “unique genetics”.
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.
The amount of butter also affected my error rate. Less butter, less errors:
Comparing the 30 g/day results with the combination of earlier and later 60 g/day results, t = 3, p = 0.006.
The change in error rates raised the possibility that the speed changes were due to movement along a speed-accuracy tradeoff function (rather than to genuine improvement, which would correspond to a shift in the function). To assess this idea, I plotted speed versus accuracy (each point a different day).
If differences between conditions were due to differences in speed-accuracy tradeoff, then the points for different days should lie along a single downward-sloping line. They don’t. They don’t lie along a single line. Within conditions, there was no sign of a speed-accuracy tradeoff (the fitted lines do not slope downward). If this is confusing, look at the points with accuracy values in the middle. Even when equated for accuracy, there are differences between the 30 g/day phase and the 60 g/day phases.
What did I learn?
1. How much butter is best. Before these results, I had no reason to think 60 g/day was better than 30 g/day. Now I do.
2. Speed of change. Environmental changes may take months or years to have their full effect. Something that makes your bones stronger may take months or years to be fully effective. Here, however, changes in butter intake seemed to have their full effect within a day. I noticed the same speed of change with pork fat and sleep: How much pork fat I ate during a single day affected my sleep that night (and only that night). With omega-3, the changes were somewhat slower. A day without it made little difference. You can go weeks without Vitamin C before you get scurvy. Because of the speed of the butter change, in the future I can do better balanced experiments that change conditions more often.
3. Better experimental design. An experiment that compares 60 g/day and 0 g/day probably varies many things besides butter consumption (e.g., preparing the butter to eat it). An experiment that compares 60 g/day and 30 g/day is less confounded. When I ate less butter, I ate more of other food. Compared to a 60 g/0 g experiment, this experiment (60 g/30 g) has less variation in other food. Another sort of experiment, neither better nor worse, would vary type of fat rather than amount. For example, replace 30 g of butter with 30 g of olive oil. Because the effect of eliminating 30 g/day of butter was clear, replacement experiments become more interesting — 30 g/day olive oil is more plausible as a sustainable and healthy amount than 60 g/day.
4. Generality. This experiment used cheaper butter and took place in a different context than the original discovery. I discovered the effect of butter using Straus Family Creamery butter. “One of the top premium butters in America, ” says its website, quoting Food & Wine magazine This experiment used a cheaper less-lauded butter (Land O’Lakes). Likewise, I discovered the effect in Berkeley. I did this experiment in Beijing. My Beijing life differs in a thousand ways from my Berkeley life.
The results suggest the value of self-experimentation, of course. Self-experimentation made this study much easier. But other things also mattered.
Second, personal science (science done to help yourself). I benefited from the results. Normal science is part of a job. The self-experimentation described in books was mostly (or entirely) done as part of a job. Before I collected this data, I put considerable work into these measurements. I discovered the effect of butter in an unusual way (measuring myself day after day), I tried a variety of tasks (I started by measuring balance), I refined the data analysis, and so on. Because I benefited personally, this was easy.
Third, technological advances. Twenty years ago this experiment would have been more difficult. I collected this data outside of a lab using cheap equipment (a Thinkpad laptop running Windows XP). I collected and analyzed the data with R (free). A smart high school student could do what I did.
There is more to learn. The outlier in the speed data (one day was unusually fast) means there can be considerable improvement for a reason I don’t understand.
Eri Gentry describes her presentation ‘Social Studies’ as “like Quantified Self, but Quantified Us!”
She has always been wiling to be a participant in normal experiments; however, she now realizes that she wants her data to improve herself. Now she uses Genomera.com to run her own experiments that allow the participants to be actively involved in the process and openly share the data, observations and insights.
In this video she shares the results of the first Butter Mind group experiment and mentions how experiments usually lead to more questions, and now she is creating ‘Butter Mind 2’ and following her curiosity about sleep by creating another study ‘Orange you Sleepy’ – check it out! (Filmed at the Quantified Self Silicon Valley meetup at Stanford’s Calming Technologies lab.)
Eri Gentry, also of genomera.com, organized an experiment to measure the effect of butter and coconut oil on arithmetic speed. Forty-five people signed up. The experiment lasted three weeks (October 23-November 12). On each day of the experiment, the participants took an online arithmetic test that resembled mine.
I am a strong supporter of self experimentation and citizen science, particularly when it comes to health (full disclosure: I’m CoFounder of CureTogether.com). Since our bodies all differ to varying degrees, we need to experiment with foods, lifestyles and medications to find out what will work best for each of us. And pooling our individual data can guide us in choosing intelligently, rather than randomly, which experiments will have the highest chance of yielding answers that will help us.
It will come as no surprise that I’m a great fan of fellow QS member Seth Roberts – a modern pioneer and champion of self-experimentation. At a recent QS Meetup, Seth drew lots of attention from the crowd when he discussed the results of his Butter-Arithmetic experiment. In fact, there was so much interest, that some people decided they wanted to run the same experiment on themselves and pool the data to see if they could replicate his results. This led to Eri Gentry’s Butter-Mind… and Coconut-Mind Study, in which she outlines a good, scientific protocol and writes: “I am currently looking for Butter Mind participants.”
And this is when I became concerned.
In a subtle shift, we went from one person reporting on an experiment he ran on his own body, to a group of people deciding they want to try the same thing, to a public call for participants.
Some would argue that such a call qualifies as an advertisement for a human interventional study, which creates ethical, if not legal, responsibility to establish proper oversight. Specifically, it would require assessment and disclosure of any potential risks of participating and verification that all participants have given voluntary and fully informed consent.
Personally, I think the Butter-Mind experiment is quite safe, and most members of the QS community are likely sufficiently sophisticated to be fully aware of whatever risks it may present. But some might reasonably challenge this, particularly for certain potential participants, and especially when the details of the study are communicated to a wider audience. We already had a cardiologist express concern to Seth about the risks to cardiovascular health of increasing saturated fat consumption.
Most importantly, it is not up to the designers of a study to make the determination of whether research is ethical, whether potential risks and benefits have been properly communicated, and whether informed consent is sufficient. This is the job of an ethical review board.
As the QS movement ventures from simple self-tracking to more sophisticated social experimentation, which offers compelling scientific rewards, there are a couple of options for proceeding.
If there are going to be public calls for participation, then I would strongly urge the QS community to assemble its own ethical review board, according to federal regulations, and to review all studies that in any way seek to actively recruit others to participate.
If we alternatively decide this would pose too great a burden on us self-experimenters, then we need to figure out how to help people with similar interests come together and share data, without anyone “advertising” their study such that it binds us to play by the same rules that were established long ago for pharmaceutical companies.
I am not at all an expert in this, but I think it’s an important distinction that we need to understand and develop rules against.
It would be truly tragic if the nascent QS movement, and its promise for social benefit, became overburdened with regulatory oversight for failure of its pioneers to take appropriate safety precautions. The best way to avoid this is to demonstrate that we have considered the ethical issues and can responsibly regulate ourselves.
For those who might think this is excessive, consider what might happen if, in some future experiment, someone who was not fully informed of potential risks ends up seriously harming themselves.
Will eating one of these fats improve your math performance?Based on Seth Roberts’ butter and math
study, recently presented at a Bay Area Quantified
Self Show & Tell, during which Seth ate half a stick of butter each day and performed better in math, we expect the answer to be yes.
Seth was able to reduce his time by 30 milliseconds. Will others who try a similar experiment experience the same change?
In the Butter Mind study, to be run from October 23 – November 12, I will test the hypothesis that butter improves math performance. (note: there has been a slight shift in the dates.)
This study is meant to
mimic Seth Robert’s study, with the addition of a coconut oil group.
Many thanks to Seth for his advice and help getting this started!
Why the addition coconut oil? I have a pet theory that the cognitive enhancement Seth received may be from the high concentration of Medium Chain Triglycerides in butter, also present in coconut oil, which has been linked to positive effects on those with Alzheimer’s Syndrome. Seth has not tried coconut oil, so cannot report on its effects on his math scores.
Obviously, no study is perfect – and this one is no exception! It’s a test I was interested in trying myself after seeing Seth’s presentation — but I realized it would be far more fun and interesting to include others! This will be fun for me, and I hope for you, too. At the very least, will get data from a group over a 21-day period, but we may even get a few curious surprises.
I am currently looking for Butter Mind participants, who will perform a math test daily for 21 days and be in one of the following groups: butter eaters, coconut oil eaters, and controls, who will eat no additional fat but will perform the same math test as the fat-eaters.
To qualify for the study, you must be willing to eat 4TBS of butter or coconut oil (sticking to the same one) – or nothing extra – for 7 days and do a 32 problem simple math test for 21 days. You must have access to the internet to submit your scores.
will be randomly selected to be in the Butter, Coconut Oil, or Control group
- Participants will be responsible for purchasing butter or coconut oil, if in either of those groups
will take place for 21 days: from Oct 23 – Nov 12
study will be divided into 3 sets of 7 days
oPart I. Oct 23 – 29: Perform simple
math quiz daily+ No additional
oPart II. Oct 30 – Nov 5: “Fat.” Perform simple
math quiz daily+ Butter OR
Coconut Oil. For Controls, just the quiz.
oPart III. Nov 6 – 12: Perform simple
math quiz daily+ No additional
will ingest 4 Tablespoons of either
Butter or Coconut Oil during the “Fat” portion of the study
will be asked to share lifestyle information before the study and asked to join an online group to track their data. Extra sharing (thoughts, epiphanies) is encouraged but optional.
will statistically analyzed, hacked and visualized (and new studies brainstormed) during Science
Hack Day, November 13-14, Institute
for the Future. www.sciencehackday.com. You can join for the Science Hack Day portion only by registering here.
results will be posted to the QS blog throughout the study
- Interested participants will receive a form requesting data on lifestyle factors several days before the study begins. I will update this post with a link to the form when it is ready.
For more information
or to join, send an email with “Butter Mind” in the subject line to:
Eri is co-founder of BioCurious, Citizen Science guest author at the Make mag blog, and is happiest when she gets to be a guinea pig. Eri hasn’t eaten butter in 8 years but will try it (or anything) for a better mind.
At the last Bay Area Quantified Self Show&Tell, Seth Roberts presented new findings on his “Arithmetic and Butter” experiment. Seth does arithmetic problems every morning as a measure of his brain function. He found that eating half a stick of butter every day shaved 30 milliseconds off his time to solve the problems. Does butter improve brain function, or is Seth endangering his life, as a cardiologist in the audience worried? Catch the excitement in the video below.
Last Tuesday I gave a talk called “Arithmetic and Butter” at the Quantified Self meeting in Mountain View. I had about 10 slides but this one mattered most:
It shows how fast I did simple arithmetic problems (e.g., 2*0, 9-6, 7*9) before and after I started eating 1/2 stick (60 g) of butter every day. The x axis covers about a year. The butter produced a long-lasting improvement of about 30 msec.