Quotulatiousness

July 23, 2014

In statistical studies, the size of the data sample matters

Filed under: Health, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:49

In the ongoing investigation into why Westerners — especially North Americans — became obese, some of the early studies are being reconsidered. For example, I’ve mentioned the name of Dr. Ancel Keys a couple of times recently: he was the champion of the low-fat diet and his work was highly influential in persuading government health authorities to demonize fat in pursuit of better health outcomes. He was so successful as an advocate for this idea that his study became one of the most frequently cited in medical science. A brilliant success … that unfortunately flew far ahead of its statistical evidence:

So Keys had food records, although that coding and summarizing part sounds a little fishy. Then he followed the health of 13,000 men so he could find associations between diet and heart disease. So we can assume he had dietary records for all 13,000 of them, right?

Uh … no. That wouldn’t be the case.

The poster-boys for his hypothesis about dietary fat and heart disease were the men from the Greek island of Crete. They supposedly ate the diet Keys recommended: low-fat, olive oil instead of saturated animal fats and all that, you see. Keys tracked more than 300 middle-aged men from Crete as part of his study population, and lo and behold, few of them suffered heart attacks. Hypothesis supported, case closed.

So guess how many of those 300-plus men were actually surveyed about their eating habits? Go on, guess. I’ll wait …

And the answer is: 31.

Yup, 31. And that’s about the size of the dataset from each of the seven countries: somewhere between 25 and 50 men. It’s right there in the paper’s data tables. That’s a ridiculously small number of men to survey if the goal is to accurately compare diets and heart disease in seven countries.

[...]

Getting the picture? Keys followed the health of more than 300 men from Crete. But he only surveyed 31 of them, with one of those surveys taken during the meat-abstinence month of Lent. Oh, and the original seven-day food-recall records weren’t available later, so he swapped in data from an earlier paper. Then to determine fruit and vegetable intake, he used data sheets about food availability in Greece during a four-year period.

And from this mess, he concluded that high-fat diets cause heart attacks and low-fat diets prevent them.

Keep in mind, this is one of the most-cited studies in all of medical science. It’s one of the pillars of the Diet-Heart hypothesis. It helped to convince the USDA, the AHA, doctors, nutritionists, media health writers, your parents, etc., that saturated fat clogs our arteries and kills us, so we all need to be on low-fat diets – even kids.

Yup, Ancel Keys had a tiny one … but he sure managed to screw a lot of people with it.

H/T to Amy Alkon for the link.

June 18, 2014

QotD: Obesity and the federalization of food

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:35

One of the problems with scrupulously “sanitized” food is that it doesn’t taste of anything very much, which may be why people consume it in large quantities: With food, if the taste doesn’t satisfy you, you chow until the sheer quantity does. I’ve no research on the subject and my theory may be as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, but the fact is that the federalization of food has coincided with the massive expansion of obesity in America, and I’m inclined to think these two things are not unrelated.

Mark Steyn, “Cheeseboarder Patrol”, SteynOnline.com, 2014-06-12.

June 1, 2014

Healthy eating … the Woody Allen moment approaches

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:22

The “prophecy”:

And in The Economist this week:

Ms Teicholz describes the early academics who demonised fat and those who have kept up the crusade. Top among them was Ancel Keys, a professor at the University of Minnesota, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. He provided an answer to why middle-aged men were dropping dead from heart attacks, as well as a solution: eat less fat. Work by Keys and others propelled the American government’s first set of dietary guidelines, in 1980. Cut back on red meat, whole milk and other sources of saturated fat. The few sceptics of this theory were, for decades, marginalised.

But the vilification of fat, argues Ms Teicholz, does not stand up to closer examination. She pokes holes in famous pieces of research — the Framingham heart study, the Seven Countries study, the Los Angeles Veterans Trial, to name a few — describing methodological problems or overlooked results, until the foundations of this nutritional advice look increasingly shaky.

The opinions of academics and governments, as presented, led to real change. Food companies were happy to replace animal fats with less expensive vegetable oils. They have now begun abolishing trans fats from their food products and replacing them with polyunsaturated vegetable oils that, when heated, may be as harmful. Advice for keeping to a low-fat diet also played directly into food companies’ sweet spot of biscuits, cereals and confectionery; when people eat less fat, they are hungry for something else. Indeed, as recently as 1995 the AHA itself recommended snacks of “low-fat cookies, low-fat crackers…hard candy, gum drops, sugar, syrup, honey” and other carbohydrate-laden foods. Americans consumed nearly 25% more carbohydrates in 2000 than they had in 1971.

It would be ironic indeed if the modern obesity crisis was actually caused by government dietary recommendations intended to improve public health (and fatten the bottom lines of big agribusiness campaign donors).

October 12, 2013

Not news: people under-report calorie intake, invalidating 40 years of federal research

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

Any study that depends on self-reporting, especially self-reporting on things like how much food they eat, can’t be assumed to be accurate:

Four decades of nutrition research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be invalid because the method used to collect the data was seriously flawed, according to a new study by the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.

The study, led by Arnold School exercise scientist and epidemiologist Edward Archer, has demonstrated significant limitations in the measurement protocols used in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The findings, published in PLOS ONE (The Public Library of Science), reveal that a majority of the nutrition data collected by the NHANES are not “physiologically credible,” Archer said.

[...]

The study examined data from 28,993 men and 34,369 women, 20 to 74 years old, from NHANES I (1971 — 1974) through NHANES (2009 — 2010), and looked at the caloric intake of the participants and their energy expenditure, predicted by height, weight, age and sex. The results show that — based on the self-reported recall of food and beverages — the vast majority of the NHANES data “are physiologically implausible, and therefore invalid,” Archer said.

In other words, the “calories in” reported by participants and the “calories out,” don’t add up and it would be impossible to survive on most of the reported energy intakes. This misreporting of energy intake varied among participants, and was greatest in obese men and women who underreported their intake by an average 25 percent and 41 percent (i.e., 716 and 856 Calories per-day respectively).

August 21, 2013

Obesity – it’s not just for humans any more

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:01

We’re constantly being barraged with public service announcements from public figures that we all eat too much, exercise too little, and as a result society has a (sorry) growing obesity problem. However, as David Berreby points out, it’s not as simple as that:

Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. The marmosets gained an average of nine per cent per decade. Lab mice gained about 11 per cent per decade. Chimps, for some reason, are doing especially badly: their average body weight had risen 35 per cent per decade. Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.

It isn’t hard to imagine that people who are eating more themselves are giving more to their spoiled pets, or leaving sweeter, fattier garbage for street cats and rodents. But such results don’t explain why the weight gain is also occurring in species that human beings don’t pamper, such as animals in labs, whose diets are strictly controlled. In fact, lab animals’ lives are so precisely watched and measured that the researchers can rule out accidental human influence: records show those creatures gained weight over decades without any significant change in their diet or activities. Obviously, if animals are getting heavier along with us, it can’t just be that they’re eating more Snickers bars and driving to work most days. On the contrary, the trend suggests some widely shared cause, beyond the control of individuals, which is contributing to obesity across many species.

Such a global hidden factor (or factors) might help to explain why most people gain weight gradually, over decades, in seeming contradiction of Bloomberg’s thermodynamics. This slow increase in fat stores would suggest that they are eating only a tiny bit more each month than they use in fuel. But if that were so, as Jonathan C K Wells, professor of child nutrition at University College London, has pointed out, it would be easy to lose weight. One recent model estimated that eating a mere 30 calories a day more than you use is enough to lead to serious weight gain. Given what each person consumes in a day (1,500 to 2,000 calories in poorer nations; 2,500 to 4,000 in wealthy ones), 30 calories is a trivial amount: by my calculations, that’s just two or three peanut M&Ms. If eliminating that little from the daily diet were enough to prevent weight gain, then people should have no trouble losing a few pounds. Instead, as we know, they find it extremely hard.

Many other aspects of the worldwide weight gain are also difficult to square with the ‘it’s-just-thermodynamics’ model. In rich nations, obesity is more prevalent in people with less money, education and status. Even in some poor countries, according to a survey published last year in the International Journal of Obesity, increases in weight over time have been concentrated among the least well-off. And the extra weight is unevenly distributed among the sexes, too. In a study published in the Social Science and Medicine journal last year, Wells and his co-authors found that, in a sample that spanned 68 nations, for every two obese men there were three obese women. Moreover, the researchers found that higher levels of female obesity correlated with higher levels of gender inequality in each nation. Why, if body weight is a matter of individual decisions about what to eat, should it be affected by differences in wealth or by relations between the sexes?

July 29, 2013

“Junk food costs as little as $1.76 per 1,000 calories, whereas fresh veggies … cost more than 10 times as much”

Filed under: Economics, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:35

Making a case for the McDonald’s McDouble as the greatest food in human history:

What is “the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history” Hint: It has 390 calories. It contains 23g, or half a daily serving, of protein, plus 7% of daily fiber, 20% of daily calcium and so on.

Also, you can get it in 14,000 locations in the US and it usually costs $1. Presenting one of the unsung wonders of modern life, the McDonald’s McDouble cheeseburger.

The argument above was made by a commenter on the Freakonomics blog run by economics writer Stephen Dubner and professor Steven Leavitt, who co-wrote the million-selling books on the hidden side of everything.

Dubner mischievously built an episode of his highly amusing weekly podcast around the debate. Many huffy back-to-the-earth types wrote in to suggest the alternative meal of boiled lentils. Great idea. Now go open a restaurant called McBoiled Lentils and see how many customers line up.

But we all know fast food makes us fat, right? Not necessarily. People who eat out tend to eat less at home that day in partial compensation; the net gain, according to a 2008 study out of Berkeley and Northwestern, is only about 24 calories a day.

The outraged replies to the notion of McDouble supremacy — if it’s not the cheapest, most nutritious and most bountiful food in human history, it has to be pretty close — comes from the usual coalition of class snobs, locavore foodies and militant anti-corporate types. I say usual because these people are forever proclaiming their support for the poor and for higher minimum wages that would supposedly benefit McDonald’s workers. But they’re completely heartless when it comes to the other side of the equation: cost.

Update, 30 July: Stephen Dubner notes that the Kyle Smith story has triggered “about one zillion” media requests for more comment on the original post, but that he’s too busy writing to take time out to respond.

July 3, 2013

Kathy Shaidle’s “Dispatch from Canada”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:21

Kathy will be writing a weekly column for our American friends, updating them with whatever’s up here in the Great White North. Given how little actually ever happens in Canada, it might be just a weather report or the latest style change for Justin Trudeau’s hair. However, to start it off, yesterday’s column attempted to correct a few common notions about Canada:

Because a lot of what you think you know about Canada is probably decades out of date.

As investment bigwig and journalist Theo Caldwell recently noted:

    But Canada is far from American stereotypes of socialism, centralization and obeisance, at least in relative terms. By almost any measure, Canada is a freer country than the U.S.A.

    Economically, the contrast is stark, for those who care to see. While folks reflexively state that Canadian taxes are higher than those of the United States, corporate and personal rates are lower up north.

How much lower are those corporate taxes? Canada ranks 6th lowest out of 185 nations. America came in at a shocking 69th place.

Believe it or not, Canada’s average household net worth is higher than America’s.

We also have lower unemployment, and our economy is holding steady, thanks in part to our ingenious refusal to give mortgages to welfare bums.

We have fewer divorces, fewer traffic fatalities, and way fewer tornadoes.

We’re skinnier, too. (Seriously: your restaurant portions are freakishly huge.)

But what about “the American Dream”?

According to one (Canadian) economist, “a son born to a poor father in the U.S. is twice as likely to remain poor throughout his life than if he had been born in Canada.”

[. . .]

We’ve got our flaws too, of course.

We literally have no abortion law, which means it’s easier to get one than a gun, even at the nine-month mark.

There’s no death penalty. And try getting an MRI, unless you’re a cat.

Our cops are increasingly corrupt, if not downright fascist. (Don’t be fooled by the propaganda about the noble, virtuous Mountie…)

We have this unelected Senate thing (long story) and a dorky constitution, especially compared to yours.

And don’t get me started on Quebec.

March 14, 2013

Steve Chapman on modern-day Puritans

Filed under: Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:33

They haven’t disappeared, they’ve just changed topics:

The first law of thermodynamics says that energy can’t be created and can’t be destroyed — it can only be changed from one form into another. The same holds true of the puritanical impulse.

Puritanism in the historical sense is as dead as the Salem witches. The religious group that settled in New England outlawed theater, rejected any form of sex except marital intercourse, banned celebration of Christmas and spent hours in church listening to horrifying depictions of Hell.

[. . .]

But the underlying motive is to enforce one model of acceptable behavior on everyone. Obesity is commonly regarded as a grave personal failing, an abdication of healthy restraint and abstinence. Some of the virtuous feel entitled to demand virtue of all.

Sound like anyone who landed at Plymouth Rock? Truth is, sexual puritans can make equally plausible arguments on the practical need to regulate the exercise of bedroom behavior, which has major implications for both health and government budgets.

February 9, 2013

The domestic food desert

Filed under: Britain, Health — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:00

Theodore Dalrymple on one of the more likely culprits for obesity among poor British families:

With the decline of the family — wrought by the policies of successive governments — patterns of eating have changed. Meals in many households, especially those of the relatively poor, are no longer family or social occasions. It has been found that a fifth of children do not eat more than one meal a week with another member of their household; and in such households, which I used sometimes to visit as a doctor, the microwave oven was the entire batterie de cuisine, or at any rate the only cooking implement that was ever actually employed.

Moreover, there was no table at which a meal could have been eaten in common if anyone had thought of doing so. The result was that children became foragers or hunter-gatherers in their own homes, going to the fridge whenever they felt like it and grazing on prepared foods — high, of course, in the evil fructose. Not coincidentally, these households were also the least likely to have what would once have been considered the normal family structure.

Such households also tended to be in areas called “food deserts”, in which fresh produce is either not easily available or unavailable. But those who ascribe the dietary habits of the households I have just described to food desertification put the cart before the horse: for if heroin can reach these areas (and it can), surely the humble lettuce can do so?

It is also sometimes alleged that people buy prepared foods because they are cheap. This is nonsense. In fact, if you go to areas inhabited by poor Indian or Pakistani families you will find stores that sell an astonishing range of vegetables at equally astonishing prices. I used to shop in one such store, at a time when I did not have to concern myself too much over the price of food; I could hardly carry all that I could buy for a few pounds. I remember in particular a 10-kilo bag of onions costing £1.49.

The Indian and Pakistani women bought with discrimination and, taking a maternal interest in me, would sometimes indicate what to look for among what were for me the more exotic vegetables. But I never saw any poor whites shopping there: they went straight to the pie and pizza shops, without so much as a glance at the okra and aubergine.

In other words, food desertification and the supposed cheapness of industrially prepared foods is a consequence, not a cause of, the food habits I have described. Food desertification is a symptom of the culinary ignorance, incompetence and indifference of a substantial minority of our population: ignorance, incompetence and indifference unopposed by any attempt of our educational system to counteract it, for example by teaching girls the elements of cookery. Fat is indeed a feminist issue, but not in the sense that Susie Orbach originally meant it.

January 8, 2013

Obesity meta-study challenged the media narrative

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:00

In sp!ked, Timandra Harkness explains why the publication of “Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) got such a strongly negative reaction from the media and various government spokespeople:

The reason this unassuming paper drew howls of outrage was the same as the reason the benefits of moderate alcohol intake are never noted without criticism: it spoils the headline health message that Fat is Bad.

Even worse, it blows the cover on the great myth — that an epidemic of Bad Fatness is sweeping the developed world. By including the dangerously obese, the innocuously tubby and the healthily plump in one category, ‘overweight including obese’, 60 per cent of the English population are labelled as potentially At Risk.

Being At Risk means these people need guidance and protection from their own vulnerable state, from the temptations of our obesogenic world and the frailties of their own sugar-addicted brains. At such a time of national peril, no measure is too extreme.

But less than a quarter of English adults are obese, according to new figures released just before Christmas, a fraction almost unchanged since 2007. And the ‘morbidly obese’ category — BMI over 40, the ones for whom it really might be worth shedding a few pounds, medically speaking — also remains steady since 2009 at 2.5 per cent of the UK population.

If only one in 40 of us is in significant weight-related danger, why do the other 97.5 per cent of us need to be protected by the state against sugary cereals and fizzy drinks? Could it be because only a few of us have fallen, but all of us are in peril? Weak, foolish and easily led astray, we need to be frightened back on to the right path. Thus Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum — who has called for children to be monitored from birth for signs of obesity — told the Independent: ‘If people read this and decide they are not going to die… they may find themselves lifelong dependents on medical treatment for problems affecting the heart, liver, kidney and pancreas — to name only a few.’

So there we have it. Those extra post-Christmas pounds aren’t going to kill you. If you’re approaching an age at which there’s any real prospect you will die, they probably have a tiny protective effect. But if you’re told the truth, suggest the obesity obsessives, you’ll gorge yourself into a disgusting ball of flab.

January 2, 2013

Don’t let your BMI scare you (too much)

Filed under: Health, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

A quick reminder that the Body Mass Index (BMI) is more a convenient mathematical trick than an actual healthy weight guideline:

In a finding that could undermine many New Year’s resolutions, a new government study shows that people who are overweight are less likely to die in any given period than people of normal weight. Even those who are moderately obese don’t have a higher-than-normal risk of dying.

Being substantially obese, based on measure called body mass index, or BMI, of 35 and higher, does raise the risk of death by 29%, researchers found.

But people with a BMI of 25 to 30 — who are considered overweight and make up more than 30% of the U.S. population — have a 6% lower risk of death than people whose BMI is in the normal range of 18.5 to 25, according to the study, being published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

People who had a BMI of 30 to 35 — considered the first stage of obesity — had a 5% lower risk of dying, but those figures weren’t considered statistically significant.

In other words, a few extra pounds are not going to threaten your life (a lot of extra pounds might). In the western world, few of us have the kind of jobs that require much in the way of physical exertion and we also have both relatively low food prices and much greater access to calorie-dense food. Our parents tended to have jobs that required more physical effort and their access to food was not as great as ours (they were less wealthy overall, and didn’t eat at restaurants or fast food joints as often as we do). Two otherwise positive trends that combine to produce a less-positive result on the scales.

Earlier discussion of the limitations of BMI as a guideline here, here, here, and here.

December 15, 2012

We solve a worldwide problem … and replace it with a new worldwide problem

Filed under: Africa, Economics, Health — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Malnutrition used to be one of the biggest problems facing the planet: except in the west, starvation was rarely more than a bad harvest away. Today, except in sub-Saharan Africa, that’s been replaced by obesity as a worldwide problem:

Here’s a good news story that warmed the cockles of my heart as I wolfed down my breakfast of chocolate croissant with extra-large latte — obesity is now more of a problem than starvation. As we report:

    With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, eating too much is now a more serious risk to the health of populations than eating poorly, found the Global Burden of Disease study, published in a special edition of The Lancet.

    Across the world, there has been significant success in tackling malnutrition, with deaths down two-thirds since 1990 to less than a million by 2010.

    But increasing prosperity has led to expanding waistlines in countries from Colombia to Kazakhstan, as people eat more and get less everyday exercise.

[. . .]

Likewise the fact that humanity can not only feed billions of people, but feed them well enough to give many of them Type-2 diabetes, shouldn’t be considered a worry but, after the Moon landings, perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement yet. Yes, we’re all stuffing ourselves silly, but we evolved in an environment where food was scarce and fats were vital to our survival. The very fact that, despite numerous doomsayers, we continue to overcome our problems, is something we should be celebrating.

December 12, 2012

“Big Food” is killing us!

Filed under: Cancon, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

At sp!ked, Rob Lyons debunks a recent video by Canadian anti-corporate activist Dr. Yoni Freedhoff:

This is a handy menu of food-related government intervention that is trotted out all the time by food crusaders everywhere. But before we get to those interventions, maybe we should ask how we got here in the first place.

First, food got cheaper while, on average, we’ve been generally getting richer. In particular, if America is anything to go by, we spent less as a proportion of income on meat and dairy products — surprisingly, spending on fruit and veg has been pretty constant — and more on processed foods and sweets. In other words, we bought convenience with the money we were saving.

Second, suppliers and retailers realised that as food got cheaper, the way to make money was to ‘add value’ — in other words, take basic ingredients and make them more convenient, more ‘fun’, more ‘premium’ or to appeal to some other psychological need. Yes, food manufacturers are as capable of bullshitting as anybody else with something to sell.

One of the other ways that suppliers add value is to make ‘healthy’ products. But who set up those health claims in the first place? It was the media, the medical profession and, most of all, governments. Who said we should be stuffing our faces with fruit to get our ‘five a day’? Who suggested that we get more omega-3s? Who said we should aim to eat low-fat diets? All of these ideas got the big official stamp of approval. And in the spirit of convenience, the food industry has made it easy, for better or for worse, to meet these official goals.

[. . .]

Moreover, what about the wild claims made for organic food? It has a completely spurious image as natural and wholesome, but study after study finds no consistent difference between organic foods and conventional foods — apart from the price. Yet it is often the most vociferously anti-Big Food campaigners, bloggers and ‘experts’ who push organic as the healthy alternative.

[. . .]

Rather than endless calls for regulations, bans and taxes — whose efficacy is doubtful but whose effect on personal autonomy would be substantial — it would be far better to recognise that any diet with some modicum of balance will be fine for most people, who will live to a greater age than their parents or grandparents, on average, no matter how much disapproved food they consume. Claims that any particular food is some dietary panacea should be treated with a large, metaphorical pinch of salt, whoever makes them, whether they are an evil mega corporation or the bloke behind the counter at the health-food shop.

Above all, a similarly healthy scepticism should be applied to crusading medics who want to scare us with the idea that Big Food is out to kill us and who encourage politicians to regulate what we eat.

September 29, 2012

Regulating the size of soft drinks won’t solve the obesity problem, but will infringe on individual rights

Filed under: Health, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:41

At Reason, Baylen Linnekin explains that even if all the claims about the nutritional evils of sweetened soft drinks are completely true, regulations will not actually make much difference:

As an opponent of increased regulations, I find these latter scientific points noteworthy. But I also believe that even if sugar-sweetened drinks turn out to be virtually everything their opponents claim, people still have a right to buy and drink these beverages — just as much, as I argued in a recent Bloggingheads debate, as they have a right to buy a Big Mac. After all, we don’t have a right to free speech or to travel from one state to another because speech or travel has been proven by the scientific community to promote good health.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, I was to take at face value the assertions of those who claim the NEJM studies justify some combination of sugary drink taxes and bans.

There is still this problem: The solutions these advocates propose won’t likely solve the problem of obesity. For example, studies have suggested taxes will have little or no impact on obesity. And not one person has (to the best of my knowledge) even attempted to argue that soda bans would have any specific impact, either — unless one counts “sending a message” or “creating a debate” as conditions precedent to weight loss.

There is also the issue of a genetic predisposition, which again is one finding of the studies. Many people are genetically predisposed to certain food allergies — including soy, dairy, gluten, nuts, and seafood — and food intolerances. I have never seen a researcher or AP journalist like Marchione argue seriously that the widespread impact of food allergies “adds weight to the push for taxes” on wheat, tofu, and shrimp. Yet if one were to buy the argument of those calling for taxes and bans to combat consumption of sugary drinks in light of the NEJM studies, one would have to accept the idea of taxing society writ large based largely on the outcomes of what these researchers argue is a genetic condition.

September 3, 2012

A bit of common sense in food news

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

Rob Lyons reviews a new book by Mike Gibney that attempts to bring some common sense back to counteract the epidemic of fear-mongering about food:

Given much of the popular discussion about food, it would be easy to despair that we face a future where half the world’s people starve to death while the other half drown in their own fat. The words ‘new food research’ in a news report are often just the lead into another sorry tale about how some aspect of what we eat is going to kill us or how some specific food will provide ‘miracle’ protection against the chronic illnesses of our age.

Professor Mike Gibney’s new book, Something to Chew On, is a welcome step back from all this noise, offering an expert take on many of these claims. Gibney is director of the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin and has served on many national and international advisory committees.

[. . .]

Take pesticides, for example. Many people are prepared to pay through the nose to buy organic food which is free of artificial pesticides. But as Gibney points out, those people are actually consuming a far greater weight in natural, plant-produced pesticides that are potentially every bit as cancer-inducing as modern chemicals. ‘Nature abounds with chemicals which, while beautifully natural, are nevertheless risk-laden’, he says, from the deadly poison ricin, found in castor beans, to substances in fava beans that induce a lethal form of anaemia in some susceptible people. The key is in the dose: for both natural compounds and their highly regulated artificial counterparts, the amounts that we actually eat are too small to represent any threat to health.

Indeed, Gibney goes on to make mincemeat of all of the claims made for organic foods: they don’t taste better than conventional crops, they offer no nutritional advantage, and, by being less productive, they are actually wasteful of land. That’s hardly environmentally friendly.

Part of the reason we get such overblown nutritional and health “advice” from the media is the difficulty of conducting nutrition research:

While trying to figure out the effect of eating, or not eating, a particular kind of food on cancer or heart disease, for example, there are numerous confounding factors that get in the way of drawing robust conclusions. People lie about what they eat or simply don’t record it accurately; factors that look like cause and effect can turn out to be mere associations. Even finding enough subjects to look at the effect of diet on a relatively unusual disease, like ovarian cancer, can be very difficult.

[. . .]

The truth is that every study’s results need to be treated with caution and there needs to be open-mindedness about other possible explanations. While it is relatively easy to see the effects of vitamin deficiency, for example, for the most part nutrition research moves forward on the basis of a lot of evidence that is unsatisfactory in one way or another. The endless stream of claims that red meat, sugar, eggs and myriad other foodstuffs cause harm should be treated with an almighty pinch of salt (as do claims about salt, for that matter).

Along the way, Gibney offers his thoughts on personalised nutrition — the possibility of creating diets specifically suited to our own DNA — and epigenetics — the idea that different elements of our DNA can be switched on or off by environmental factors in the womb or the first years of life. He also offers a Jacques Cousteau-like tour of the human gut. Did you know there are 10 times more bacteria living in our guts — 100 trillion — than there are cells in the human body? Did you know those bacteria can sometimes switch on or off changes in our bodies to suit their own needs? Gibney describes our relationship to this mass of bugs as a permanent state of ‘armed peace’, with mutual benefits to both parties: body and bacteria.

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