Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Food Fads and Fanatics

Here is a bit from a long post by Denise Minger on her blog Raw Food SOS: Troubleshooting on the Raw Food Diet. She looks at The China Study by T. Colin Campbell which makes claims such as:
The authors introduce and explain the conclusions of scientific studies, which have correlated animal-based diets with disease. The authors conclude that diets high in animal protein (including casein in cow's milk) are strongly linked to diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. (from Wikipedia)
Minger digs around with the underlying data to look at statistical correlations. They don't pan out. The claims of The China Study are bogus because the data don't support the claims.

Here's one example.
Campbell Claim #6

Western-type diseases, in the aggregate, are highly significantly correlated with increasing concentrations of plasma cholesterol, which are associated in turn with increasing intakes of animal-based foods.

From his book, we know Campbell defines Western-type diseases as including heart disease, diabetes, colorectal cancers, breast cancer, stomach cancer, leukemia, and liver cancer. And indeed, the variable “total cholesterol” correlates positively with many of these diseases:

Myocardial infarction and coronary heart disease: +4
Diabetes: +8
Colon cancer: +44**
Rectal cancer: +30*
Colorectal cancer: +33**
Breast cancer: +19
Stomach cancer: +17
Leukemia: +26*
Liver cancer: +37*

Perhaps surprisingly, total cholesterol has only weak associations with heart disease and diabetes—weaker, in fact, than the correlation between these conditions and plant protein intake (+25 and +12, respectively). But we’ll put that last point aside for the time being. For now, let’s focus on the diseases with statistical significance, which include all forms of colorectal cancer, leukemia, and liver cancer. (Despite classifying stomach cancer as a “Western disease,” by the way, China actually has far higher rates of this disease than any Western nation. In fact, half the people who die each year from stomach cancer live in China.)
I remember reading the Greeks in my youth. Funny how old men get very concerned about their diet. They become convinced that "if only" they ate this and not that, then their digestion would be better, their health would improve, they would get back the vigor of youth. It is an eternal illusion. Pythagoras was wierd about beans. The Classical calls for moderation made sense. But proscribing certain food struck me as odd.

I've since noticed that most people -- when they hit their 50s and 60s -- develop strange fetishes about food. They worry that something is "bad" for them and something else is presumed to have some magical "good quality" and more should be consumed. Funny. Our ancestors on the savannas of Africa didn't have this tendency to culinary quackery. They ate what was available and were grateful for it. Moderation was enforced by scarcity. Their worry wasn't the degenerative diseases of old age but the ever present threat of famine.

Here's an example of a food fanatic, Ray Kurzweil (the following is from a post by Ursula Goodenough on the NPR blog 13.7 Cosmos and Culture):
Kurzweil, in fact, hopes cryonic preservation won’t be necessary. His preferred route being to avoid dying in the first place. To this end, according to Wikipedia, he consumes 150 supplements (down from 250), 10 glasses of alkaline water (to neutralize acidic metabolic wastes) and 10 cups of green tea every day, drinks several glasses of red wine a week to "reprogram" his biochemistry, and is transfused with reprogramming chemical cocktails at a clinic each weekend.
Another approach is extreme calorie restriction. This is a nutty idea based on some fuzzy research on nematodes that suggests near starvation can make you live longer. Here's a bit from Wikipedia.

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