Surprise: people don’t eat what they’re told!

I’ll be brief. There is a now-familiar narrative which blames the current obesity crisis on the introduction of dietary guidelines in the 1980s, and specifically with the “liphobia” (fear of fat) introduced by Ancel Keys in the 1970s. The story goes thus: government is led to believe that fat is the root of all fire and brimstone disease, so they issue guidelines telling everyone to eat low- or no-fat foods. Everyone complies, and unknowingly stuffs themselves with sugar, with which all foods are secretly laced, because the government also subsidises the sugar industry.

Three or so decades later, an epidemic of obesity and diabetic children, all because of the sugar! (Or, as the Daily Mail calls it ‘The new tobacco. A ticking time-bomb. The hidden menace‘).

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Cigarettes and chocolate

Yesterday, I tweeted the following:food addict cnn

Perhaps it was a little unkind, given that this writer was sharing rather intimate details about her struggles with self-control around sugar and carbs, like the fact that at the height of her “using” (let’s use the right language now), she was scoffing not just any old ice cream, but some of the ‘Bon-Appetit top-10-rated best-in-the-nation ice cream‘, and that in the second round of “lapsing”, it was those ‘‘50s-style red and white mini-popcorn bags’ being fed from the ‘Satanic butter machine’, aka a popcorn maker at her place of work that got her. After days of resisting, she finally ‘broke down’ and

I grabbed one of those red and white paper bags and the commercial-grade scooper and joined the crowd. I ate one bag and stopped.

Of course the “story” here is that stopping (for her) is so unusual, because her “addicted” brain wanted to keep eating bag after bag after bag.

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When an n=1 can actually teach us something

downloadThere’s been a good round of attention lately to various manifestations of bad science and hyperbolic (mis)representations of health claims (also don’t miss this excellent rant by a dietitian). Often the problem isn’t with the specific detail (however it may look to some people, the Philosophe actually isn’t out to “get” Professor Tim Noakes, nor does he have any reason to wish for the LCHF hypothesis to fail), but with the method of inquiry, and how people in positions of authority set poor examples of logical reasoning, and of how science works.

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Fancy some cocaine with your tea?

So we’ve just attended an event called “EthicsXchange“, billed as ‘a platform for some of South Africa’s leading opinion makers to challenge our thinking and behaviour when it comes to ethical decision making.’ It was an interesting morning, and some very good speakers (and of course some not so good). Some I’ve also heard before, notably Leonie Joubert, and Tim Noakes.

But I was disappointed by Joubert’s talk for two reasons: first, it was basically the same as her TedX talk, which while a nicely packaged talk (as TED’y type talks are meant to be), seriously oversimplifies the issues around the interactions between our bodies and the environments we live in. It’s simply not true, as she argues, that cities make us fat and sick. It is true that urban environments conduce to making us make poor choices when it comes to what to eat and how much to move (or not). But that’s of course a key problem with TED-y type talks, because delivering big ideas in under 20 minutes leaves no space for nuance or complexity.

She also told the audience that sugar is toxic and addictive, just like cocaine. Well, we’ve been down this road before. And that is also simply not true. The same bits in the brain light up when you eat as when you take cocaine? Yes, that’s because the same bits in the brain light up when we do something pleasurable, and guess what – eating is nice. Most people enjoy it. Nobody seeks out horrible food.

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Daniel Dennett on Science and the Humanities

In August, Steven Pinker wrote an excellent piece on the place of science in the humanities. Leon Weseltier responded. Here is Dennet’s response (brilliant as usual):

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism “and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades” but tries to pin this debacle on the “progressivism” the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. “The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences,” he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid.

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Not the 9 o’clock news: Food companies want you to buy food

There’s a lot of noise, these days, about how food is killing us. Evil sugar is the overlord, but it has many minions in the form of pizza, and pasta, and bread (whither French culture!), and if we are to believe the noise, indulging in any of these is going to lead us to much nastier place than the world of Despicable Me.

The latest, a Guardian piece called “Fat Profits: how the food industry cashed in on obesity”, is a good reminder that articles that are very earnest, and very long (is it me or are things actually getting longer, as if we somehow have more time to read?) can also be nonsense.

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6 Reasons Why Blogs Are Bad For Your Brain

Thanks to this post over at a blog called (rather authoritatively) Authority Nutrition, which details “6 Reasons Why I do Not Trust The Mainstream Health Authorities“, for providing me with 6 Reasons Why Blogs (perhaps especially those who have the word “authority” in the title) are bad for your brain. Let’s go through them one by one:

1. Many of Them are Sponsored by The Big Junk Food Companies

Summary: The Big Junk Food Companies only care about money, so they cannot be trusted. Plus, they “inform” people that sugar is not toxic to children.

Reason Why This Is Bad For Your Brain: Not trusting anyone who has profit motives is not a reasonable, useful, or realistic heuristic (seriously, good luck with that!). Yes, there may be some who have motives that are as evil as that toxic sugar. But guess what, not everyone is corruptible, and it doesn’t serve anyone to walk around with conspiracy glasses on all the time. Plus, sugar isn’t (that) toxic.

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The obesity era

Obese-modelFrom Aeon magazine, an excellent (and slightly frightening) essay on how the causes of weight gain are likely to be a little more complicated than the “calories in vs. calories out” model:

Yet a number of researchers have come to believe, as Wells himself wrote earlier this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that ‘all calories are not equal’. The problem with diets that are heavy in meat, fat or sugar is not solely that they pack a lot of calories into food; it is that they alter the biochemistry of fat storage and fat expenditure, tilting the body’s system in favour of fat storage. Wells notes, for example, that sugar, trans-fats and alcohol have all been linked to changes in ‘insulin signalling’, which affects how the body processes carbohydrates. This might sound like a merely technical distinction. In fact, it’s a paradigm shift: if the problem isn’t the number of calories but rather biochemical influences on the body’s fat-making and fat-storage processes, then sheer quantity of food or drink are not the all-controlling determinants of weight gain. If candy’s chemistry tilts you toward fat, then the fact that you eat it at all may be as important as the amount of it you consume.

More importantly, ‘things that alter the body’s fat metabolism’ is a much wider category than food. Sleeplessness and stress, for instance, have been linked to disturbances in the effects of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain that the body has had enough to eat. What other factors might be at work? Viruses, bacteria and industrial chemicals have all entered the sights of obesity research. So have such aspects of modern life as electric light, heat and air conditioning. All of these have been proposed, with some evidence, as direct causes of weight gain: the line of reasoning is not that stress causes you to eat more, but rather that it causes you to gain weight by directly altering the activities of your cells. If some or all of these factors are indeed contributing to the worldwide fattening trend, then the thermodynamic model is wrong.

Michael Pollan Has No Clothes

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I’ve borrowed the title of this post from an excellent essay by David H. Freedman in The Atlantic about how “junk food” could help curb obesity. The essay begins with three smoothies. The first two are both expensive, heavy on calories, and take several minutes (one of them up to ten) to make. The third is cheaper, lower in calories, and ready in seconds. The first two are considered “healthy” because they come from “healthy” (vegan, organic, wholefood etc) establishments. The third is “unhealthy” because it comes from McDonald’s.

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