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!


  1. Is razib more skeptical of the whole low carb high fat thing?

    cuz when he first introduced your new blog he didn't really endorse your views, and he also mentioned Futurepundit as an alternative source for diet advice. i enjoy reading Futurepundit, but Parker seems to favor the more mainstream "lotsa veggies/fruits, little meat" view. Parker also gets enthralled with every new "study" reported in the media no matter how weak or biased it is.

  2. I don't know -- you'd have to ask him. More like uncommitted, is my guess.

    "Little meat" is a sure way to malnutrition, unless you load up on eggs and cheese (although if you're afraid of meat, you're probably afraid of that too), and so is "lotsa fruit" (sugar). I was pretty uncommitted too before I read Good Calories, Bad Calories, mostly because he summarizes everything discovered from roughly 1850 to the present.

    Otherwise, you don't understand what is known -- for example, that serum cholesterol and even LDL or HDL doesn't predict anything really, but that it's the size and density of the LDL particles. Also, what makes you have more of the smaller and denser type, and what dietary factors drive that (carbs).

    If you just follow health and nutrition reporting -- even if you read through the studies -- no one will mention that, even though it revolutionized the heart disease field and has been known for roughly 20 - 25 years. As Tabues says, health and nutrition reporting is some of the worst out there.

    I never heard about the havoc that glycation can wreak (Taubes only mentions it in a couple of paragraphs, but it still blew my mind).

  3. Foie gras and caviar aren't good examples - hardly anyone can afford more than a couple of tablespoons of each at time (but, man, foie gras is good - liver pate gone to heaven). Your general point is correct, of course.

    intellectual pariah


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