Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Closing down

Just a note that I'll be closing this blog down sometime by the end of the week. I thought it would make sense to separate this one out from my main one by content, but I've decided to split up my writing by how data-rich it is, and then by who it would appeal to. I thought I'd have more time to start up a second blog just about diet and health, but I don't.

All future posts of mine with original looks at a good chunk of data will go up at my for-purchase blog, Patterns in science and culture. Read the details about the data-based site here.

The more casual and observational posts, including reviews of any kind, will go up either at my personal blog or at Gene Expression.

At any rate, the diet / health / nutrition stuff will not have its own blog, but will be worked into either of the above formats, depending on how data-rich it is. I'll probably migrate all the existing posts here to my personal blog, so you'll still be able to pore over those graphs of the changing American diet -- or link to them when some numbnuts on the internet starts whining about how little fruit and veggies we eat now, and how much red meat and eggs we're stuffing ourselves with.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Class bias in the perception of what's healthy

Every day I hang out at a local Starbucks to get an extra shot in the arm of energy and to have a semi-peopled place to get some light reading or equation-solving done. Having gone there for a few months now, and staying roughly an hour each time, I can confidently state that I'm the only one who goes there to buy something without five pounds of sugar in it. A single shot of espresso, maybe a double if I'm going dancing that night, though every once in awhile I'll have them add a little whole milk.

The rest of the stream of upper-middle class people who cycle through are always ordering some damn thing or another that I rarely understand. That's signal number one that it's probably only a bit of coffee and a whole lot of something else. I decided to listen closer today and check out what it's actually made of (using the excellent online resource Nutrition Data). Let's see, a venti caramel mocha Frappuccino with whipped cream....

Holy shit -- 94 g net carbs, fully 79 g of that being straight up sugar! The whipped cream topping only adds another 2 g of sugar, although it more than doubles the fat. Ironically, the health-conscious people who go here would do better to get whipped cream than not -- compared to the massive amount of carbs they're already drinking in their "coffee," that from the whipped cream is only 2% more, and they get more healthy fats in return.

Let's try something without so many words in the title (each one probably standing for an additional source of sugar). How about a tall soy caramel macchiato? (I seriously do here "caramel" with almost every order.) That's much better, but still a sugar bomb at 32 g of net carbs, 28 g of which are pure sugar. And on it goes. My single espresso -- 1 g net, 0 of which is sugar.

Now, if a lower-class couch potato waddled out of a Wendy's with a large Frosty, everyone would gasp at how little the slob cared about his health -- "Yeah, that's just what you need there, another Frosty." All would lament the burden he'd inevitably put on our health care system -- "It's like he doesn't even care!" Well, how much sugar does it have? The largest size, at 16 oz, has 73 g net carbs, 56 g of which are sugar. That's only a bit more sugar than the equivalent size of a caramel mocha Frappuccino (which has 62 g net, with 53 g being sugar).

And yet, no one stops in their tracks to shoot disgusted looks to people power-walking out of Starbucks with a beverage that has roughly the same amount of soul-destroying sugar as a full-size Frosty. Obviously the reason is that people endow higher-status individuals with higher-status everything, including health choices. "Hey, if yuppies are eating it..."

(BTW, that tall caramel macchiato has as much sugar as a Snickers bar -- and who doesn't need more of those in their diet?)

Aside from drinks that are about 10 parts sugar and 1 part coffee, the other upper-middle class beverage that they don't catch any flak for, despite its insane sugar content, is smoothies. Jamba Juice is more for younger people, but there are still a fair amount of nearly middle-aged people there too. It's an upper-middle class joint in any case. Consider an original size Acai Supercharger smoothie -- I mean, it's got to be healthy if it has the most au courant antioxidant in it. Guess again: it has 85 g net carbs, all of which are sugar. Goddamn!

If those kids these days could only drink an acai smoothie with each meal, they'd only be two candy bars short of their daily recommended carb intake of 300 g.

Once more, imagine that pot-bellied guy wearing a wife-beater walking out of 7-11 sipping from a medium slurpee. "Gee buddy, way to ruin your health -- we're gonna have to pay for it, y'know!" Well that thing only has a bit more sugar (95 g) than the Acai Supercharger smoothie.

Updated: let's add tonic water to the list. Just checked my vegetarian housemate's Whole Foods brand "tonic water" -- 36 g of cane sugar per 12 oz can. Ironically he'd do better to just eat a Snickers bar and at least get some fat, protein, and fiber.

Everyone boomed with laughter when they tried to re-classify ketchup as a vegetable for the purposes of meeting health requirements for public school cafeteria slop. And so would they if our be-mulleted 7-11 patron were to defend himself by noting that the syrup tastes like a fruit. However, the smoothies that the well-to-do are so fond of are nothing better -- they also are just a few pounds of slushy sugar that tastes like fruit. The only difference is that 7-11 doesn't offer flavors like acai or goji berry or whatever the next fruit du jour will be, although I do believe I saw a mango-flavored slurpee when I went in there once -- but mango's fashionableness has been on the decline for some time now.

Now, don't misunderstand me -- I'm not trying to defend the dignity of the common slob who's gulping down a frosty or a slurpee. He should know better, given that everyone has told him since he was a small child that sugar is bad for you. If it's a treat he only has once a couple of months, OK. But not if it's frequent. The point is that higher-status people suck this sugary slop down their gullets too, yet no one hectors them about it, and no one laments the ominous direction our health care system is headed due to their poor impulse control and lack of regard for their own health.

Perhaps we should all engage in a bit of social shaming of sweet-toothed yuppies the way that we do for lower-class hogs. Next time you're in line at Starbucks (or wherever) and someone orders a glass full of sugar, give them a disgusted look while asking, "What are you, a 10 year-old girl? Take your coffee like a man. Our health care system will thank you."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Marketing group forecasts greater consumption of lite food

The marketing research group NPD predicts that certain types of "better for you" foods will increase over the next ten years. Unfortunately, it doesn't include animal products. Indeed, the low-calorie / lite foods are typically devoid of fat and high in carbs.

How anyone can think that a container of yoghurt with as much sugar as a candy bar counts as "health food," I'll never understand. Sure, people are bombarded with lots of conflicting advice about what to eat -- but no one ever told you that you needed more sugar.

NPD predicts that the organic category will grow the most, but that's not very reassuring either. Organic agave syrup will still mess up your liver, and local free-range corn will still rot your teeth.

The salty / savory snacks category is mostly empty carbs too -- this is chips, popcorn, etc., not duck liver mousse or dry sausage.

It's worth bearing in mind how long-term the low-carb effort will have to be if we want to see these trends reverse. Even massive popular awareness, as in 2004, won't ensure that it remains. If people view it as a fad, they'll grow bored or move on to whatever the next fashionable diet is.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New layout

I read too many books to write about (and most of them are pretty good and worth reviewing), so rather than put yet another post on the back-burner for each book, I've opted for what you see at the top of the page. They're all really neat and worth reading; click through as normal to see their Amazon entry. If you do buy an item after entering Amazon via my link, I get a small commission that will help defray the costs of the moon-sized death ray pointed at Earth that I'm working on.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Yorker throws in the fact-checking towel for health reporting

The New Yorker is reputed to have legendary fact-checkers. That state of affairs obviously died some time ago, and now it reads just like the rest of the media -- a doe-eyed journalist who sees their role more as a conveyor of what someone told them than as an investigator trying to figure out what's going on.

In the latest issue, there's a risibly clueless article on what makes us fat. First it confuses two levels of explanation -- ultimate or evolutionary causes that made our bodies the way they are today, and proximate causes like "junk food adds pounds." At the level of mechanisms, the author makes no mention of what causes fat to be stored in fat cells rather than flow into the bloodstream to be burned as fuel. It's not very complicated -- it's hormonally regulated, and almost the entire story is how much insulin has been released. The word "insulin" does not appear once in her 4000-word article.

She wouldn't even have had to endorse the Atkins Diet -- she could have chickened out and said that we're eating foods higher in the Glycemic Index, so that we're spiking our blood sugar and insulin levels more than before, although you should still eat those complex carbs, fiber, and stay away from saturated fat and cholesterol. That is a totally politically correct view, and would not expose her to ridicule, yet she can't even manage to say that in order to bring up the role of insulin. She's either a lazy investigator or spineless -- but it all makes sense when we recognize that the journalism market caters not to the demand for truth but to the demand for expert gossip. (Any actual enlightenment you may experience while reading our magazine is entirely unintentional.)

As for the claims about our toxic new environment -- too much cheap junk food, etc. -- I'll simply re-direct readers to Gary Taubes' lectures on that topic. Here's one, and another one.

Easy access to fast food, potato chips, and the like is not necessary to drive up obesity rates, since plenty of other groups have been plagued by metabolic syndrome without any such food. There is a common factor, however: foods that are high in carbohydrates. She ends the article by ominously noting a new offering from Burger King that has lots of beef, bacon, and cheese. But of course, what everyone eats when they go to Burger King, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, or any other cheap human feed lot, has almost no meat or cheese at all. Most of the "hamburger" is the bun, and the rest is fries and soda. Let's see, carbs, carbs, and more carbs -- but that teensy ration of beef is what'll get ya!

Contrast this with what you get when you eat at a place with Michelin stars -- it's animals, animals, and more animals, with a token portion of vegetables on the side or to enhance flavor. And not sissy animal products either -- foie gras and caviar have some of the highest concentrations of saturated fat and cholesterol of any food. Yet somehow well-to-do French, Spanish, and Italians seem to be much thinner and freer of heart disease than lower-class Americans. Not only that, but their food -- loaded with fat -- actually tastes like something!

Monday, July 13, 2009

They put it in everything

Soy that is. The average person thinks that soy is something that only those fruity Whole Foods people eat -- no soy milk for them! However, while this person wasn't looking, the soy industry has managed to get its junk into just about everything. Ketchup and mayonnaise -- soybean oil. Microwave burritos -- soy lecithin. Frozen hamburger patties -- soy protein isolate. Seriously, take a look at just about anything in the grocery store the next time and see for yourself.

I won't re-hash the many dangers of including lots of soy in your diet -- the Weston A. Price Foundation has a nice summary here -- but I am curious about when this change took place. Looking at availability data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, we see that, as high as it was even during the mid-1980s, it was the mid-1990s when things really took off. This is unaffected by how we measure availability.

Unlike other junk food that replaced something good, like margarine edging out butter, soybean oil and soy protein isolate didn't launch an aggressive PR campaign to convince us to change our diet. No, here the processed food industry -- which makes the food that forms the bulk of most Americans' diet -- just started sneaking in all that soy. Given how widespread it is, I wouldn't be surprised if the average lower-class couch potato now consumed more soy than a hoity-toity fitness nut!

Are vegetarians smarter than omnivores?

By now we all know that vegetarians tend to have more education, and they never tire of reminding everyone else. However, this is a mere association, and so is pretty meaningless in trying to understand cause and effect. In particular, choice of diet is a marker of ethnic groups in the broad sense -- these people identify themselves in part by eating this diet, those others by eating that other stuff. All sorts of silly fads catch on among smart people, but it doesn't make them smarter. Does wearing a tie boost your brainpower?

But what about before veganism, organic food, and yoga became mainstream among the educated? Blogger Audacious Epigone looked at data from the General Social Survey, probably the largest and most representative survey of its kind, and found that while vegans were more educated, they weren't brighter than omnivores. (Vocabulary tests are highly reliable intelligence tests.) The survey question about eating meat vs. not eating meat was only asked in 1993 and 1994, so this could be a reflection of its lack of adoption by smarties at that point -- remember, this is nearly a decade or so before Whole Foods became the next Starbucks. (Both of which are great stores, of course.)

I decided to follow up and look at how IQ and diet were related across different age groups. We might expect diet to make a difference at any given age, but might diet choice cause us to cognitively age faster or slower? One weakness here is that the GSS only surveys people who are 18 or older, and it seems like the biggest effect of diet on the brain's horsepower would be at younger ages when it's still developing. With that said, here is how IQ and diet were related across age groups in 1993 - '94:

I've condensed all people who don't eat meat into one group, even though the survey measures three degrees of how frequently you abstain from meat, in order to keep sample sizes big. For the same reason, I've condensed people into 10-year age groups, with the center age ending in a 3. The two graphs show two different ways of measuring smarts -- by their average and by what percent are above the overall average (median to be exact). Each group has at least about 40 people, although the last age group is just about at this value for the vegetarians, so the 70-somethings may not have looked exactly like the data suggest.

In any case, there doesn't seem to be a strong change across the lifespan, since the gap between omnivores and vegetarians is fairly flat from the 20s through the 50s, an unclear change in the 60s, and again a not too reliable finding for the 70s. The aging pattern seems similar. However, at each age, omnivores are smarter than vegetarians by either measure. This means that either the damage was already done to vegetarians early in life, if they had mostly been vegetarian since childhood -- or that, if people face the "meat or no meat?" choice during their dopey-minded college years, brighter people were less likely to abandon animal products, while the dimmer found it more appealing. Who knows why -- it could be just as arbitrary of a choice of ethnic marker as any other, such as baggy vs. skinny jeans.

This point generalizes: if some group that does well in some respect happens to follow some diet, it may well be more of a group membership badge than a cause. You can find genetic freaks who will be ripped and athletic no matter what garbage they consume, so they can quickly move from one fashion to the next without suffering much. Hence the high turnover of nutrition and exercise advice given to people who are already pretty healthy and active, but who want to squeeze out that extra bit of energy. Only controlled studies, including long-term experiments like Darwinian natural selection, can tell us what happens to normal people, as far as cause and effect goes.