Quotulatiousness

April 29, 2017

“Don’t count fat; don’t fret over what kind of fat you’re getting, per se. Just go for walks and eat real food”

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Earlier this week, Colby Cosh rounded up some recent re-evaluations of “settled food science”:

Their first target was the Sydney Diet Heart Study (1966-73), in which 458 middle-aged coronary patients were split into a control group and an experimental group. The latter group was fed loads of “healthy” safflower oil and safflower margarine in place of saturated fats. Even at the time it was noticed that the margarine-eaters died sooner, although their total cholesterol levels went down: the investigators sort of shrugged and wrote that heart patients “are not a good choice for testing the lipid hypothesis.” Their data, looked at now, shows that the increased mortality in the margarine group was attributable specifically to heart problems.

The team’s reanalysis of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968-73) is more hair-raising. This study involved nearly 10,000 Minnesotans at old-age homes and mental hospitals. The investigators had near-complete control of the subjects’ diets, and were able to autopsy the ones who died. But much of their data, including the autopsy results, ended up misplaced or ignored. Some of it disappeared into a master’s thesis by a young statistician, now a retired older chap, who helped with the 2016 paper and is named at its head as one of the authors.

In the Minnesota study, replacement of saturated fats with corn oil led, again, to reductions in total cholesterol. This finding was touted at major conferences, and it became one of the key moments in the creation of the classic diet-heart myth. This time nobody but the guy who wrote the thesis even noticed that the patients in the corn oil group were, overall, dying a little faster. The 2016 re-analysis uncovered a dose-response relationship: the more the patients’ total cholesterol decreased, the faster they died.

The Sydney and Minnesota studies themselves may have caused a few premature deaths, which is a possibility we accept as the price of science. But the limitations and omissions of the researchers, and the premature commitment of doctors to a total-cholesterol model, helped create a suspicion of saturated fats. This flooded into frontline medical advice and the wider culture, and it put margarine on millions of tables, pushed consumers toward deadly trans fats, and put millions of people with innately high cholesterol levels through useless diet austerity. The scale of the error is numbing, unfathomable.

If Walls Could Talk The History of the Home Episode 4: The Kitchen

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 2 Feb 2017

April 25, 2017

Shopping for capers

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

An old post at a seemingly abandoned Tumblr site called F*k You, Broccoli is called “Capers, Satan’s little BBs” (NSFW tag is for language, so it’s below the fold):

(more…)

QotD: Coca-Cola seen as harmful

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I hate sweet drinks — Coca-Cola et al. — so passionately that I grow angry whenever I see someone buy or drink one. I hate their taste, I hate the horrible plastic bottles in which they come; to see people carry them around with them as if they were dolls or comfort blankets infuriates me. It appalls me worse that anyone actually likes them. The drinks don’t relieve thirst, they merely create it and make their drinkers wish for more: a perfect recipe, from a certain unscrupulous commercial point of view.

I was therefore secretly pleased to read in a paper published recently in the British Medical Journal that those who drink these disgusting concoctions are more likely than others to develop type 2 diabetes — the type that is increasing throughout the world at an alarming pace, and in some countries even threatening to reverse the increase in life expectancy to which of late decades we have grown accustomed as part of the natural order of things and now think of almost as a human right. Such diabetes is not only the wages of sin — gluttony — but of something that affects our everyday lives even worse, namely mass bad taste.

Of course, the paper in the BMJ can be criticized. A statistical association is not by itself proof of causation, though I should be surprised in this instance if the relationship were not causative. Again, in my heart of hearts I hope that it is. It would restore my faith that the universe is just.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Gluttons for Punishment”, Taki’s Magazine, 2015-07-25.

April 22, 2017

QotD: Vanilla isn’t

Filed under: Health, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One last, minor thing: Vanilla is a deeply rich flavor that has unfairly become shorthand for boring, basic, and sexually unadventurous. Merriam-Webster’s second definition includes the sad phrase “lacking distinction” to explain the term “vanilla.” I’m not arguing that we drop this secondary use of the word — we’re too far gone for that — but I do want to remind people that vanilla is actually an extraordinarily complex flavor. Chocolate is far more vanilla than vanilla.

Caitlin PenzeyMoog, “Salt grinders are bullshit, and other lessons from growing up in the spice trade”, The A.V. Club, 2017-04-06.

April 20, 2017

Without our sacred supply management, it’d be “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Economics, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Colby Cosh saddles up old Rocinante and has a tilt at the ludicrous supply management regime in milk:

You remember how Chobani, a hipster yogurt business based in New York state, got a temporary permit to sell the product in Ontario and won over customers. You know how it tried to meet our supply-managed dairy system halfway by making plans for a factory in Kingston. You know how milk processors waged berserker war in court to prevent the permit from being renewed, and closed ranks to deny the company a supply of Canadian milk.

And, most of all, you know how the product disappeared from our shelves, how Canadians still seek it out on cross-border trips, and how slow and confused the dairy cartel was about meeting the new demand for extra-heavy yogurt. None of this is going to be too easy to explain to a four-year-old.

I hasten to add that I am not seriously playing the “Won’t someone think of the children” card so beloved of politicians, newspaper columnists, and other shameless scum. The four-year-old will get over it. She’ll grow up in a free-trade Canada in which she does not have to accept a world of consumer second-bests, simulacra, and make-dos, except possibly in the dairy section. She can have no personal memory of Seventies Canada — never know what it is like to switch from Eaton’s to The Bay just to buy slightly different versions of the same low-quality, unfashionable crap. The question I grew up with was “Why does Canada have seemingly permanent poorer living standards than the U.S.?”; now it is just “Why are the cheese sections in our grocery stores so pathetic?”

So, Mad Max to the rescue? Not if champion protectionist Steven Blaney can stop him:

… supply management froze the world of Canadian dairying at a perfect moment for Quebec, and so the system has become a sacred cow made of other, literal cows. Because economists and intellectuals know that supply management is a transfer of wealth from consumers of all classes to a few thousand affluent farmers, the beneficiaries reinvest a great deal of the profit in hapless, defensive public-relations efforts that only tend to make us loathe them more.

They have even found a political champion in Steven Blaney, the cadaverous oddball from the Eastern Townships who is in the Conservative leadership race to play milk spoiler to fellow Quebecer Maxime Bernier. Bernier wants to retire supply management by buying farmers out of their quotas with a national tax on dairy, lasting for a fixed period.

This is a generous approach to free trade in dairy: it is a buyout of unearned entitlements. Producers who want to leave the industry would do so with an enormous grubstake — the kind of which workers laid off from regular jobs can only dream. Those who hang in there would get to keep something like the present value of their annulled production quotas as they face new careers in an honest-to-God marketplace (which is what some of them very much wish to do).

April 16, 2017

The tale of unsalted butter in French cuisine

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, France, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At his new blog, Splendid Isolation, Kim du Toit explains the historical roots of a French culinary oddity:

One of the quirks of French cuisine is that most often the butter is unsalted, and at a French dinner table you will usually find a tiny cruet of salt with a microscopic spoon inside, so that you can salt your butter (or not) according to taste. To someone like myself, accustomed only to salted butter, this seemed like an affectation, but it wasn’t that at all: it was the result of taxation, and this is one of the things changed forever by Napoleon’s administrative reforms.

One of the best parts of our U.S. Constitution is the “interstate commerce” clause, which forbids states from levying taxes on goods and services passing from one state to another, and through another in transit. This was not the case in pre-Napoleonic France. Goods manufactured in, say, Gascony or Provence would pass through a series of customs posts en route to Paris, and at each point the various localities would levy excise taxes on the goods, driving up the final price at its eventual destination.

Which brings us to salt. French salt, you see, was produced mainly on the Atlantic coastline, and was a major “export” of Brittany to the rest of France. Butter, of course, was produced universally — in and outside Paris and ditto for every major city — but the salt for the butter came almost exclusively from Brittany, and having been taxed multiple times by the time it reached points east like Paris or Lyons, it was expensive. So the cuisine and eating habits in those parts developed without the use of salt — or, if salt was requested, at an added cost. It’s why, to this day, many French recipes use unsalted butter as an ingredient. (In contrast, butter for local consumption in western France was [and still is] almost always salted, because salt was dirt cheap there.)

Napoleon’s reforms did away with all that; he saw to it that the douane locale checkpoints and toll booths along the main roads were abolished (causing salt prices in eastern France to plummet and become a mainstay of French cuisine at last). And when the towns and villages protested about the loss of tax revenue, Napoleon made up the shortfall with “federal” funds out of the national treasury.

Of course, the French treasury had in the meantime been emptied out by, amongst other things, the statist welfare policies of the Revolutionary government (stop me if this is starting to sound familiar). Which is why, to raise money, Napoleon invaded wealthy northern Italy and western Germany (as it is now), pillaged their rich cities’ treasuries and garnered revenue from the wealthy aristocracy, who paid bribes to avoid having their palaces sacked and their wealth confiscated.

April 15, 2017

QotD: “Healthy” food choices

Filed under: Britain, Business, Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Whenever I find myself choosing my next meal I always like to look out for the sign that says “healthy option.” In this age of variety and abundance it can often be hugely difficult making up your mind as to what to eat next. “Healthy option” makes things so much easier. It tells me: “Avoid like the plague.”

Good news, then, for takeaway customers in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. No fewer than six local fish and chip shops have taken on board the advice of their local council’s Healthier Choices Manager and introduced special, non-greasy, low-fat menu options. So now when customers find themselves torn between the battered sausage, the chicken nuggets and the “rock salmon” at least they can be sure of what they don’t want: that insipid-looking fillet of steamed cod on a bed of salad, with so few chips they barely even qualify as a garnish.

“It’s too early to say if steamed fish will be a hit,” says an article on the council’s website. And I’ll bet when they know the answer they won’t tell us. That’s because this well-meaning scheme is doomed to flop like a wet kipper. Of course it is. No one in their right mind goes to a takeaway as part of a calorie controlled diet. You do it when you fancy a treat.

And the reason it’s a treat is precisely because that food is so deliciously greasy. As the late Clarissa Dickson-Wright, the generously girthed cook from TV’s Two Fat Ladies, once explained to me, fry-ups, sizzling bacon, battered fish, and so on will always taste nicer than the “healthy option” because fat is a great carrier of flavour.

Clarissa (who was as big an expert on the science of food as she was on cooking and eating it) remained, to the end, a great defender of butter, cream and full-fat milk. She claimed they were much better for you than most of the supposedly healthy, low-fat alternatives. And it turns out she was right. Recent studies have shown that it’s the “trans-fats” in artificial health products like margarine that are the killer, not natural animal fats you find in butter.

What’s more, the evidence increasingly suggests, that it’s sugar not fat which is most responsible for our supposed obesity epidemic. So by trying to stop customers eating fried fish in Rochdale, the council is barking up the wrong tree. It’s the cafes pushing sweet cakes and doughnuts they should be investigating.

James Delingpole, “I prefer my cod in batter, thanks very much”, James Delingpole, 2015-08-15.

April 9, 2017

The Internet-of-Things wants to invade your kitchen

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle on the good and bad (mostly bad, IMO) of adding extra layers of technological sophistication to your kitchen appliances. If someone hasn’t already offered a hand-blender, can-opener, or soup tureen with Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth built-in, just wait a bit … it’s bound to happen.

I don’t think of myself as having Luddite tendencies, but I confess that when I see refrigerators with screens set into their doors, my first thought is: “Why?”

No, don’t tell me that you can stream music or look inside the refrigerator. I already have technology for that — respectively, my Amazon Echo and this app called “opening the door.” Neither costs the thousands of extra dollars I would have to pay to get my hands on a Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator. And if my music streamer breaks, I can replace it without calling an appliance repair company and spending a fortune on parts.

I have similar sensations about many of the technologies on offer in today’s appliances. Every major appliance manufacturer seems to be looking for a way to stick wi-fi into their products, for example. And I confess, I have occasionally fantasized about starting a pie cooking in my oven, sauntering to the other side of my 5,400-square-foot home for a dip in the pool, and being able to use my phone to turn down the heat on the pie after 10 minutes. Alas, in the trim 1,700-square-foot rowhouse I actually live in, I am never far enough from my kitchen to actually justify resorting to my smartphone rather than my feet.

We are at a curious moment in cooking technology. The last decade or so has probably introduced more technology potential into the kitchen than any previous decade except the 1930s. Sous vide, electric pressure cookers, fuzzy logic rice machines, induction cooktops, food processors that also cook, wi-fi controls, web connections … these things are now common enough for ordinary cooking enthusiasts to have at least heard of them, if not tried them. It is an era of enormous potential. And yet, that potential is frequently not realized, because we can’t actually figure out what to do with all our new toys.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that all of this new technology is useless. Far from it! I am an enthusiast for many of them. And yet, almost all these whiz-bang technologies fall prey, to some extent, to one of two problems. Either they are not actually very useful, or they are so spectacularly revolutionary that the average home cook can’t figure out what to do with them.

And this doesn’t even dip in to the awesomely terrible security issues of so many Internet-of-Things devices, creating new, wide vistas for Ransomware scumbags…

April 2, 2017

QotD: Gluttony and nutrition

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… in what kind of culinary culture could a product advertise itself, apparently with success, as a Whopper? The answer, of course, is crude and childish. We are almost back to the stage of some of the Stone Age tribes of New Guinea, who, at a feast, eat so much pig meat that they die of acute protein poisoning afterward. Except that we do not have their excuse of living in conditions of food insecurity in which the possibility of feast is very uncommon. Increasingly in our supermarkets it is difficult to find small portions of anything, which is a paradox because more and more of us are living alone and therefore need small portions. But once you have bought more than you need it is tempting to eat it because not to do so seems a waste, though in fact it is just as wasteful, and bad for your health to boot, to eat more than you need or even want as it is to throw it away. We need more self-control in matters of food consumption than ever before, unfortunately just as self-control has been derided as an inherently oppressive or even ridiculous notion.

Not long ago I read a book by Dr. Robert Lustig about the evils of sugar. It was abominably written but came, persuasively enough, to the conclusion that John Yudkin, a professor of nutritional science, came to 40 years ago or more: namely that sugar was the root of all evil (Yudkin’s famous, but also neglected, book had the splendid title Pure, White and Deadly).

Lustig blamed the food companies and government farming subsidies for the epidemic of type 2 diabetes (they are, of course, guilty as charged), but never the people themselves. This is because it is nowadays regarded as proper to blame only the rich and powerful for anything and never “ordinary” people, including the fat: Though where the sins of the rich and powerful come from then becomes a little mysterious unless it is assumed that they are a caste biologically apart from the rest of humanity. However, Lustig does relate the story of a young mother who gave her child a gallon of orange juice a day, with the natural result that the child soon came to resemble a prize pig at Blandings Castle. To explain her strange child-rearing practices the mother told Lustig that the government said that orange juice was good for children, from which she concluded that the more the better. Against stupidity the gods themselves, let alone mere government public health departments, struggle in vain, though in extenuation it must be entered that Linus Pauling, one of the few men ever to win two Nobel Prizes, believed more or less the same thing, and that heroic doses of vitamin C were the path if not quite to immortality, at least to much increased longevity. (I don’t want to sound like an American liberal, but honesty compels me to admit that it will now be very difficult for the fat boy raised on orange juice ever to lose weight, and I doubt that he will ever be slender.)

Theodore Dalrymple, “Gluttons for Punishment”, Taki’s Magazine, 2015-07-25.

March 10, 2017

QotD: Most “Authentic” cuisine is anything but authentic

Filed under: Business, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Americans of a certain social class love nothing more than an “authentic” food experience. It is the highest praise that they can heap on a restaurant. The ideal food is one that was perfected by honest local peasants in some picturesque locale, then served the same way for centuries, the traditions passed down from mother to daughter (less occasionally, from father to son), with stern admonitions not to dishonor their ancestry by making it wrong.

These American diners are constantly in a quest for their own lost heritage, along with the traditions of other peoples they don’t know very well. We live, the lore says, in a fallen state, victims of Big Agriculture and a food industry that has rendered everything bland, fatty and sweet. By tapping the traditions of centuries past — or other, poorer places — we can regain the paradise that our grandparents unaccountably abandoned.

And who could be against wanting a more authentic, genuine food experience? I’m so glad you asked.

In fact, authenticity is an illusion, and a highly overrated one. Most of the foods we think of as “authentic” are of relatively recent vintage — since capsaicin-containing hot peppers are native to the Americas, any spicy cuisine like Szechuan or Thai is by definition a Johnny-come-lately invention. Or take artisanal breads, like that crusty, moist peasant bread that most of us eat too much of at restaurants: Nathan Myhrvold, the mad genius of the cookbook world, says that this is a new invention. Our peasant ancestors, who got a large portion of their calories from bread, did not make these richly hydrated doughs, because they’re a pain in the butt to work with. Ciabatta, another bread that America likes because it sounds very authentic, was invented in the 1980s to compete with the baguette. (Itself a product of Industrial Revolution bakeries, not the proud local peasant.)

Megan McArdle, “‘Authentic’ Food Is Not What You Think It Is”, Bloomberg View, 2017-02-24.

March 6, 2017

QotD: Organic food “standards”

Filed under: Environment, Government, Health, Quotations, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In December 1997 when USDA proposed standards for organic agricultural production, the original version was rejected by the organic enthusiasts, largely because it would have permitted the use of organisms modified with modern genetic engineering techniques (“GMOs”) – which would have been quite sensible in the view of the scientific community. In the end, modern genetic engineering, which employs highly precise and predictable techniques, was prohibited, while genetic modification with older, far less precise, less predictable and less effective techniques were waived through.

The resulting organic “standards,” which are based on a kind of “nature good, technology evil” ethic, arbitrarily define which pesticides are acceptable, but allow “deviations” if based on “need.” Synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, although there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act – while most “natural” ones are permitted. Thus, advocates of organic agriculture might be described as “pragmatic fanatics.” (Along those lines, the application as fertilizer of pathogen-laden animal manures, as compost, to the foods we eat is not only allowed, but in organic dogma, is virtually sacred.)

What, then, is the purpose of organic standards? “Let me be clear about one thing,” Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said when organic certification was being considered, “the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

Organic standards are wholly arbitrary, owing more to the dogma of an atavistic religious cult than to science or common sense. And whatever their merit, as a December 2014 report in the Wall Street Journal described, the standards are not being enforced very effectively: An investigation by the newspaper of USDA inspection records since 2005 found that 38 of the 81 certifying agents – entities accredited by USDA to inspect and certify organic farms and suppliers — “failed on at least one occasion to uphold basic Agriculture Department standards.” More specifically, “40% of these 81 certifiers have been flagged by the USDA for conducting incomplete inspections; 16% of certifiers failed to cite organic farms’ potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics; and 5% failed to prevent potential commingling of organic and nonorganic products.”

[…]

The bottom line is that buying “certified organic” products doesn’t guarantee that they will be free of genetically engineered ingredients. Even so, buying organic should please those consumers who think that paying a big premium for something means that it’s sure to be better. We hope that at least they get the benefit of the “placebo effect.”

Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen, “Fanaticism, Pragmatism and Organic Agriculture”, Forbes, 2015-07-08.

February 26, 2017

QotD: Tibetan cuisine

Filed under: Asia, Cancon, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… even in Parkdale we have good restaurants. There are now seven Tibetan chop shops (yak stops?) along Queen Street. I think this qualifies us to be called “Little Tibet,” and get special street signs from the the municipal multicultural patronizing bureaucracy. Though when I accompanied an excessively white friend into one such establishment, he was filled with anxiety. “I sure hope the food isn’t authentic,” he commented.

It was, earlier today, starting with the salted butter tea. Or rather, it wasn’t. Everything tastes different, this close to sea level.

The same remark can be made for chillies, as can be made for wine. Except, chillies often grow well in the mountains. But this depends on the mountain face, in relation to the sun’s course; on the soils, and temperatures; on the rains in their seasons; on luck, and the art of the chilli farmer. Gentle reader will guess I am about to pump Tibetan Tiger Chillies.

Now, Tibet is no country to grow chillies, overall. Some katabasis is usually required. Go south, down the mountains, perhaps to Bengal; then east, to the hills behind Chittagong; or into the lower hills of Assam; and there, I solemnly believe, you will find the finest chillies in the world. The Naga Morich, grown there, have been attempted elsewhere, always with dispiriting results. The conditions can be reproduced artificially, and hybridizations can be tried to square the circle, as it were. Some gentleman in England topped the Scoville table, a few years ago, by triangulating from the Naga Morich, the Bhut Jolokia (or, “ghost pepper,” closely related), and the Trinidad Moruga (or, “butch scorpion,” with linguistic variants). But the hybrid was unstable and he lost the competition the next year.

I love very hot chillies, and those above 1,000,000 Scoville units are much appreciated. (The hottest Habaneros get only half way there.) But I also love chillies, in themselves, and this includes quite mild ones. You see, as chilli-haters refuse to be taught, there is more to them than capsaicin. Even the heat is produced by compounds: the scientists, always counting, don’t know where to start. The customer who wants only pain can hit 16,000,000 with the synthetic chemical in its wax form. … Go ahead. … I’ll watch.

A Canadian (white) may say, “How can you taste your food with all those chillies?” There is no polite answer to this. It’s a typically Canadian passive-aggressive stance: to ask the unanswerable question. You just have to shoot them.

David Warren, “Elevated Discourse”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-11.

February 17, 2017

Food texture

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Along with the actual flavour and aroma of food, the texture matters a great deal:

As eaters, we tend to downplay texture’s importance. A 2002 study in the Journal of Sensory Studies found that texture lagged behind taste and smell — and only occasionally beat out temperature — in terms of the perceived impact on flavor. But you only have to look at pasta to see how strongly texture impacts our perception of taste. We’ll eat macaroni and cheese in the form of spirals, shells, and noodles shaped like Spongebob Squarepants, but spaghetti mixed with florescent “cheese” powder seems anathema — it’s the texture that makes the difference.

For the longest time, food scientists downplayed texture’s importance as well. “When I was a student pursuing a degree in food science, I was taught that flavor was a combination of mainly taste and smell,” recalls Jeannine Delwiche, one of the authors of the 2002 study.

But how a food feels affects our enjoyment of the thing. There is, of course, the actual texture of the food, which scientists call rheology. Rheology focuses on consistency and flow. For example, it’s fairly evident that cotton candy has a different texture than plain sugar, even though sugar is its only ingredient. But the perception of a food’s rheology — what scientists call psychorheology — is another thing entirely. If you’ve ever wondered why sour candy always seems to come coated in rough sugar, the reason is simple: We perceive rougher foods as being more sour. Psychorheology is why we like gummy bears in solid but not liquid form, why we enjoy carbonated soda but balk at its flavor when it goes flat. It’s why we perceive gelato as creamier than ice cream — even though the latter has more fat.

Texture is an important indicator of a food’s fat content. If we can figure out how to trick our tongues into sensing more fat than is actually present in a food, we can increase satiation while decreasing a food’s calorie count. That’s why some researchers are finally turning their attention to these taste-making sensations.

February 2, 2017

Obesity and the adoption of a “western” diet

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Gary Taubes says the “case against sugar isn’t so easily dismissed”:

My concern in my essay and my books is a simple and regrettable fact: the epidemics worldwide of obesity and diabetes that occur whenever populations pass through a nutrition transition from a traditional diet and lifestyle, whatever that may be, to a western one. Something is causing that, and because obesity and diabetes, particularly type 2, are intimately linked to insulin resistance, we should be looking ultimately and desperately for the cause of insulin resistance. Geneticists would say we’re looking for the environmental trigger that reliably and often dramatically increases the prevalence of the obese and diabetic phenotype, regardless of the underlying human genotype. And because insulin resistance, obesity, and diabetes are all intimately linked to heart disease, that trigger is almost assuredly going to be a cause of coronary heart disease as well.

But in this country, nutrition and chronic disease research from the 1950s onward was obsessively focused on a very different question: the dietary cause of heart disease in the United States and Europe. When the researchers decided on the basis of exceedingly premature evidence that dietary fat was the culprit, that drove all public health debates and thinking ever after. Even hypotheses about the cause of obesity and diabetes had to be reconcilable with the belief that saturated fat caused heart disease. As such, the evidence implicating insulin resistance in the disorder (and so the carbohydrate content of the diet) was delayed by 30 years in its acceptance, as I discussed in Good Calories, Bad Calories. Its implications are still not accepted because they clash with what remains of the dogmatic belief that saturated fat causes heart disease. And this all happened because researchers were asking the wrong question (and they got the wrong answer even to that): “why CHD in America now,” rather than “why obesity, diabetes, and insulin resistance in populations worldwide whenever they westernize?”

[…]

Now that we’re almost literally neck deep in obesity and diabetes, the right question is vitally important to answer. If the sugar hypothesis is wrong, it is critically important that it be refuted definitively. That can only happen on the strength of far, far stronger evidence than Dr. Guyenet provides in his somewhat flip and casual response. And if the sugar hypothesis is unambiguously refuted, whatever hypothesis steps up as the next prime suspect has to be very carefully considered. (i.e., not the simplistic notion that people eat too much and move too little). We need a hypothesis that holds the promise of explaining the epidemics everywhere.

In stopping an epidemic, nothing is more important than correctly identifying its cause. Where we are today with obesity and diabetes reminds me of where infectious disease specialists were through most of the 19th century, when they blamed malaria and other insect-born diseases on miasma, or the bad air that came out of swamps. That was mildly effective, in that it was an explanation for why the rich in any particular town preferred to build their homes on hills, high above the miasma and, incidentally, away from the swamps and lowlands and slums where the vectors of these diseases were breeding. But only by identifying the vectors and the actual disease agents do we help everyone avoid them and eradicate the diseases. Only by unambiguously identifying the cause can we effectively design treatments to cure it. The kinds of explanations that Dr. Guyenet and Freedhoff put forth – highly palatable foods or ultra-processed foods – are the nutritional equivalents of the miasma explanation. They sound good; they might help some people incidentally eat the correct diets or offer a description of why other people already do, but they’re not the proximate cause of these epidemics. And there is a proximate cause. We have to find it. I can guarantee it’s not saturated fat, regardless of the effect of that nutrient on heart disease risk. What is it?

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