Above the Crowd

Thinking About Diets and Other Complex Matters

January 5, 2012:

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Each January, being the season of New Year’s resolutions, it is common to find people you know discussing the pros and cons of various dietary pursuits. Individuals across the globe are eager to turn over a new leaf, get on a new bandwagon, make a new start. Yet, even with a strong will, its not at all obvious what the right recipe should be. Pick almost any diet, and you will find several experts and PHDs praising it, and an equal number panning it. You would think that with all our technology and understanding of the human body, there would be more consistency in our approach. I saw a tweet yesterday that said, “Diet guides are the political blogs of personal improvement.” This feels right. But why do discussions about something that is supposed to be scientific, feel like religious or political arguments?

I happend to “consume” three interesting pieces of content this past year on the subject of nutrition (two of these come via my partner @peterfenton). For reasons which I will disclose later, I recommend you “consume” each of them, regardless of whether you have a strong pro or con bias after hearing the descriptions.

  1. Most recently I just finished Gary Taubes new book, Why We Get Fat. For those in the know, this book is a toned down, more reader friendly, less technical version of Taubes 2008 New York Times best seller, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes, a successful science journalist and researcher, obliterates the past 30-40 years of  medical rhetoric when it comes to diet and nutrition. He not only explains the physiology behind why the perspectives of the past are misguided, but also highlights the rather obvious point that “it ain’t working.”  Obesity rates are exploding. If we knew what to do, wouldn’t that be contained?
  2. The second  piece of content is a video lecture titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, by Robert H. Lustig, a MD and professor at UCSF. Most 89 minute professorial lectures in medicine fall way short of two million views on YouTube, but Robert’s lecture is nearly at that milestone. Lustig pulls no punches in pointing directly at sugar (specifically high fructose corn syrup – HFCS) as the clear cause of the obesity epidemic we now face — not red meat, not fat, not the lack of a balanced diet, and not too little exercise. Moreover, he notes that food processors increasingly inject HFCS into a large majority of the packaged foods we feed ourselves and our children. This lecture is very compelling. As an added bonus, here is a lengthy article of Taubes reviewing Lustig: Is Sugar Toxic?
  3. Lastly, a briefer entry. This past July, Jane Brody of the New York Times, penned Counting Calories? Your Weight Loss Plan May Be Outdated. This article is a summary of a detailed 20-year research effort from five experts at Harvard that looked into the specific diets of 120,000 individuals. The main point of Brody’s title is that, based on these results, not all calories are created equal. In fact, this study found that potato chips, french fries, and sweetened beverages have a high correlation with weight gain, whereas other foods actually had correlation with weight loss. If you want to see the full study it can be found here: Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men.
These three pieces of content had a few common themes that will likely sound “heretic” to many readers.
  1. The real enemy are sugars and carbohydrates. Taubes and Lustig make this explicitly clear. Our body is quite efficient with processing excess fat andprotein that we eat, but excess carbohydrates covert into fat on our bodies. Remember the argument that excess fats cause obesity and heart disease? Complete bullshit according to Taubea. Our physicians, our government, and our schools all rallied behind a 30-year movement to lower fat intake. As Lustig notes, it worked…we did lower fat intake…yet we kept getting fatter.
  2. Carbohydrates and sugars are addictive. Addictive the way cigarettes are. If you become a slave to massive carbohydrate intake, your body will actually crave more carbohydrates. And the bigger you are, the more you will crave. It’s hard to lose weight if you are consuming an addictive food.
  3. The calorie-in, calorie out ideal is a complete farce. How many times have you heard someone say, “all you have to do is burn more calories than you consume.” This notion that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie suggest that our bodies process each of these food types the same. Taubes and Lustig say absolutely not. Moreover, the Harvard project highlights the dangerous impact of potatoes, a seemingly harmless food that is present in every child’s school cafeteria. All food is certainly not created equal.
  4. You can’t exercise your way to thin. Simply put, you cannot burn enough calories to make yourself thin (with the exception of extreme amounts of exercise). However, with the right diet, you can lose weight without even exercising. How often do you hear that from a doctor?

Now despite what you may think, my point is not to convince you that these guys have it right. I don’t actually have a horse in this race. What I find amazing is that very educated and well reasoned experts can come to a conclusion that runs so counter to the conventional wisdom of our entire healthcare profession and our government health agencies. Moreover, despite whether you agree with their conclusion, they make a remarkably cogent arguments. Should it be this easy to prove everyone (i.e. the majority) wrong? And once again, why didn’t we have it right in the first place? And why are people so emotionally driven when it comes to their perspectives on topics such as this? (I am certain people will post comments to this blog post along the lines of “Taubes’ an idiot!”)

The human body is a complex system. Complex systems, such as stock markets, weather patterns, ant colonies, and large governments, all behave in ways that make specific prediction extremely difficult. This is because these systems involve millions of variables that are interconnected in non-linear ways that may be dynamic and dependent on potential initial states that could number in the billions. Such systems, which are well studied, are known for being unpredictable, difficult to understand, and are easy to underestimate. [One of the most influential books I have ever read is Complexity, a 1993 work by Mitchell Waldrop.]

One of the primary issues with complex systems is that people draw misleading conclusions regarding cause and effect of certain variables and how they relate to the overall system. As an example, one might note that 9 times out of 10 when variable X is set to 1, the sun is out, and so they proclaim that variable X causes the sun to come out. But the truth is they have no idea whether the sun drives the variable or the variable drives the sun. Or perhaps an entirely different variable that we are not looking at drives the sun, and all we are witnessing is ten random data points that happen to have 9-1 organization. One doesn’t really know.

But we still assume. And we try. Humans like answers and patterns. The truth is we always have. The Greek and Norse gods were early human attempts at understanding the sky, stars, and oceans. If we don’t have a specific answer we think up the best one we have, and we all glom onto it; it is better than the alternative of admitting to everyone that we don’t have a clue. Then we teach it to everyone else, and they all believe it too. Ironically, the more you come to know something through this passing of memes or ideas, the more argumentative, fanatical, or “religious” you might be. The lack of a fundamental understanding opens the door for a spiritual one. No one has an uber-passionate view on how gravity works. But politics, stock prices, and diets are a different matter. In these complex worlds, people “believe” what they cannot know.

Can we all get it wrong? When it comes to understanding complex systems, we can and we do. If you are looking for one more piece of content to consume, I recommend you watch this lecture from the late Michael Crichton: States of Fear: Science or Politics? Chrichton shows numerous examples from history where the majority misread and misunderstood complex systems. Additionally, he highlights how the mass opinion can lead to action that has well-intended but negative implications on the system. Perhaps it should go without saying, but it is particularly hard to influence a system you don’t fully understand.

By now, you may be wondering “what is my point?” Here it is. When it comes to not fully understood complex systems, it is easy to get things wrong. In fact, its easy for everyone to get them wrong. Don’t fear the new idea or the fresh perspective, and don’t believe something just because everyone else does. But watch out for the preacher with certainty — the ones that are spewing hellfire and brimstone. They are the ones most certainly to be wrong.

[Spencer Rascoff of Zillow pointed out this great New York Times article highlighting how all the smart powers that be completely missed the housing crisis, despite all the signs being there. Another example of everyone (including the experts) getting it wrong.]

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Spencer Rascoff

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