Friday, August 05, 2011

The Cost of Healthy Eating: Incompetence or Fraud

According to a recent article, "A new analysis shows healthy eating can really run up a grocery bill, making it tough for Americans on tight budgets to meet nutritional guidelines. The study estimates that getting the average American to the recommended target of just one nutrient, potassium, would cost an additional $380 each year." 

Anyone who believes that should Google for "potassium supplement"—priced at $9 for a 120 potassium iodide tabs of 32.5 mg each from one source for $9, 100 caplets of 99 mg of potassium gluconate for $6.87 from another, and about ten cents a pill—with calcium and magnesium thrown in for free—from a third.

The trick is quite simple. The article pretends to be about what healthy eating costs. It is actually about what people who eat healthily spend. Higher income correlates with better education, so people who spend more also, on average, spend better, nutritionally speaking. That is no evidence that good nutrition costs more—and, as a comparison between the price of spareribs and the price of pork and beans or fruit salad would demonstrate, it often does not. Precisely the same analysis could be used to show that people who spend more on rent eat better too.

It is possible, although not likely, that an author could be sufficiently clueless to make the argument and believe it. But not this author. Reading the article it is pretty obvious what axe is being ground.

And I have difficulty believing in an author who thinks that if only the prices of apricots and raisins were sufficiently subsidized, people who currently prefer Happy Meals would switch to fruit salads instead.

39 Comments:

At 9:51 AM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If an Axe is being ground, cluelessness will follow naturally. I used to be an ideologue and as I think back on my unreflective self, I remember that I just chose to devote all my mental energy to what I wanted to believe and none to what I didn't want to believe and the result was I appeared clueless, sometimes intentionally clueless.

 
At 10:30 AM, August 05, 2011, OpenID albert25 said...

Even if it WERE the case that poor people cannot afford healthy eating and were trapped into eating McDonalds every day, it's not the case that thats a problem at all.

People get emotional when it comes to health, as if it were a "special case". Health and safety expenditure seems to be made with the non-logical part of the brain.

The kind of reasoning on this kid: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cD0dmRJ0oWg) is the same that people make when they wanna subsidize health (there's no price to a human life, etc)

But when it comes to their OWN decisions, they always sacrifice safety and health for some other good. People who truly maximize health and safety we call "paranoid schizophrenics".

 
At 10:47 AM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

albert25 "People who truly maximize health and safety we call "paranoid schizophrenics".
What does this mean, I sincerely do not know.

 
At 11:17 AM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Simon said...

I remember a brief period when circumstances forced me to persist on a low-budget diet. Water, no alcohol or soda, to drink. No desert or snack. Lots of vegetables, potatoes, rice, small amounts of chicken or meat.

I believe this was the healthiest I've ever eaten.

 
At 11:31 AM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

Truly poor people in other countries do not eat like "poor" Americans. The cheapest calories come from rice and grains.

If you wanted to hit your bare minimum nutritional targets, you would eat brown rice, do olive oil shots, and drink protein powder with water. Multivitamin cost would probably run ~25cents/day.

A much simpler explanation is simply that short sighted hedonism causes poor diet and poverty.

 
At 1:00 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The flaw in the conclusion seems to be that the researcher jumped from correlation to causation. However, suppose he didn't assert that conclusion quite so simply but simply reported the correlation and then cautioned against inferring causation. Then the study would become no different from any of the countless other correlation studies that we base many decisions on. For instance, the recent widely reported study by Dariush Mozaffarian from which typical news reports conclude that yogurt is good for you and potatoes are bad, seems, from what I've been able to gather (only from news reports, admittedly) entirely correlational. In fact I'm not sure one can do a genuine causal study without researcher intervention, i.e. without the researcher actively modifying the behavior of the study participants, as opposed to merely observing their behavior.

The question remains whether there is causation. Your point that people could get enough potassium through supplements doesn't disprove causation, because that only means that cost is not the sole cause. It may nevertheless be a contributing cause working in conjunctiong with other contributing causes, such as that people would rather eat food than take supplements, especially if they read Robin Hanson's claims that supplements kill.

If we hold constant taste, convenience, calories, and not relying on supplements, then what is the healthiest way to get 2000 calories for $1? $5? $20? It seems highly likely, indeed almost certain, that if you hold everything else constant and try to maximize one aspect (in the current case, good nutrition), then the greater the amount you allow yourself to spend, the the higher your maximum for that aspect you're interested in maximizing, simply because the more you allow yourself to spend, the greater the number of possibilities you can explore.

And in a competitive market, we can often expect the converse to hold. That is to say, not only is it often the case that the more you are willing to spend on something, the better quality you can receive, but conversely, the more you actually spend, more or less automatically, the better the quality you generally receive. For example, not only is it the case that the best (say) digital camera you can buy for $2000 is going to be better than the best digital camera you can buy for $200, but if you pick a $2000 camera at random in the competitive market of digital cameras, then it is in all likelihood going to be better than a $200 camera that you pick at random.

Applying this to food, then we might reasonably expect that, other things being constant, the more you spend on food, the better the food will (on average) be for you.

 
At 1:46 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe people confuse "health food" (expensive food marketed to health conscious people) with healthy food?

 
At 2:07 PM, August 05, 2011, Blogger Don said...

I think you should look into whether subsidizing corn leads to much lowers prices for food prepared with the subsidized products. It seems possible to me that if some fast food dishes were much more expensive, people would eat less of them. Whether they would replace it with something healthier I can't say.

 
At 2:11 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Coupon Clipper said...

Potassium is a terrible example to use, David. Potassium "supplements" provide only a tiny fraction of the US RDI. According to wikipedia: "non-prescription supplement potassium pills are limited by law in the US to only 99 mg of potassium."

The recommended daily intake is 4700 mg, again according to wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reference_Daily_Intake

So you cannot cheaply use supplements to get sufficient potassium. That said, it really isn't difficult to get potassium through normal (even cheap) foods.

 
At 3:18 PM, August 05, 2011, Blogger Don said...

Articles like this also fail to properly define terms. "Healthy eating" according to the government, resides in that awful food pyramid (recently updated to 'the plate,' but only slightly improved). A whole generation was told to stuff themselves on carbs. A new paradigm in nutritional science says otherwise.

When my wife and I went to a healthier diet (low carb, fatty meats, veggies, no sugar) we lost weight, felt better, etc., but our grocery bill initially went up, due to our over-enthusiasm with a diet rich in steak and wild-caught fish. We adjusted. Plus, if you subtract the amount we saved by not eating out as much, the total bill begins to even out.

But this all deals with smart (and not so smart) choices on our part. People who write ax-grinding articles like this one only see helpless victims; never intelligent mammals.

 
At 3:48 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

Potassium from Russet Potatoes at $3/10lbs.

 
At 6:10 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contemporary science is indeed favoring low-carb Paleo-type diets. These are actually quite affordable, because the stuff you avoid - dairy, junk food, soda, chips, pretzels, pizzas, eating out - quickly covers any other new expenditures.

 
At 7:25 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, the cheapest possible healthy food (e.g. supplements) is probably cheaper than typically-purchased non-healthy food, but that's like saying that the shortest Norwegian is shorter than a typical pygmy. But suppose you're at a specific restaurant and you want to minimize what you spend at that specific restaurant. How expensive is the healthiest food at that restaurant relative to the least expensive dish they serve? I'll use McDonald's because these are roughly consistent worldwide so most people can check to see that I'm not making it up.

The cheapest way to fill up at McDonald's aside from dessert is probably a $1 McDouble. You'll get 2000 calories of McDouble for about $5. The healthiest item on the menu is probably one of their salads with grilled chicken - with the caveat that a lot of the calories come from the salad dressing. Let's take the Caesar Salad as our example. 220 calories without dressing, 190 calories in the dressing. If you eat the salad without the dressing that maximizes cost to achieve 2000 calories. I am trying to minimize cost to achieve 2000 calories using their healthiest dish, so I will assume all the caesar dressing is used. That comes to 410 calories, so you need five Caesar Salads to achieve 2000 calories. A Caesar Salad is over $4. Let's say $4. So I've overestimated calories (assuming you don't use all the dressing) and underestimated price. And we come to $20 to achieve 2000 calories.

So the price of eating healthy at McDonald's is 4 times the price of eating unhealthy at McDonald's.

You can lower the price even more by buying one soft drink (currently $1) and refilling it for the whole afternoon. You can get all your 2000 calories from corn syrup that way - for the price of $1.

I can repeat essentially this at other restaurants. The cheapest way to fill up on calories at a typical expensive restaurant is to fill up on the bread or chips or popcorn or whatever they serve you for free, and then buy something nominal. It will come to a small fraction of the cost of their healthiest dish. At one nearby restaurant I have in mind the healthiest dish is probably the grilled salmon with dark green veggies on the side, and the least healthy main dish is probably a dish made mostly of cheese and wheat. The ratio of these two entres is 2 to 1.

I am fairly confident I can repeat the exercise at the grocery store.

 
At 7:31 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@Anon #1

No. Contemporary science does not favor "low carb" diets. Contemporary science favors calorie restricted diets. Low carb diets often involve reducing overall calories because people do not replace the carbs they drop with an equal number of calories from fat and protein. At least at first. People usually recompensate over time and weight loss stops when they're eating at their metabolic rate.

@Anon #2

Your analysis of "what is healthy" at McDonalds is wrong. The effect of weight loss is so strong that it overrides food choices. Additionally, consumption of "mixed meals" further reduces the importance of food sources because they all interfere with one another. All mixed meals entail essentially the same hormonal responses.

And no, you cannot repeat this at a grocery store unless you say that "healthy" food is lobster and don't match the macros in what you pick for "unhealthy" food. Yes of course unhealthy carbs are cheaper than healthy proteins, but that is generally true of all carbs and proteins.

Also, protein powder is not "unhealthy". Brown rice is not unhealthy. Olive oil is not unhealthy. Multivitamins are not unhealthy.

Think about it like this - Processing costs money right? So ceteris parabis, processed will always cost more than unprocessed.

 
At 8:00 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Think about it like this - Processing costs money right? So ceteris parabis, processed will always cost more than unprocessed."

In my experience, processing takes inexpensive low-quality ingredients and makes them palatable, at a lower overall price than unprocessed foods, which are more expensive (and also higher quality) for a given level of palatability.

"Also, protein powder is not "unhealthy". Brown rice is not unhealthy. Olive oil is not unhealthy. Multivitamins are not unhealthy."

Maybe you want to finish your argument. Not clear what you're getting at.

"And no, you cannot repeat this at a grocery store unless you say that "healthy" food is lobster and don't match the macros in what you pick for "unhealthy" food."

Pure assertion, nothing to back it up.

"Your analysis of "what is healthy" at McDonalds is wrong."

So give me the right analysis and pick the foods on the basis of that analysis. As far as I can tell, you're blowing smoke.

 
At 9:31 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@Anonymous

>>In my experience, processing takes inexpensive low-quality ingredients and makes them palatable, at a lower overall price than unprocessed foods, which are more expensive (and also higher quality) for a given level of palatability.

Palatable =/= healthy. Thanks for shifting the goalposts though.

>>Maybe you want to finish your argument. Not clear what you're getting at.

Hitting your RDAs is very very cheap if you stick to those foods.

>>Pure assertion, nothing to back it up.

I'm just telling you you can't do it. If you want to try and waste your time, go for it. So if you don't believe me now you'll believe me later. Ergo I don't have to substantiate myself.

>>So give me the right analysis and pick the foods on the basis of that analysis. As far as I can tell, you're blowing smoke.

As far as I can tell, you're ignorant of nutrition. Here's a study showing nearly identical hormonal responses to 3 different meals (matched for macros and calories). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17536194 Here's a study showing that various different diets have similar effects on blood lipid levels http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/297/9/969.abstract Here's a study showing that

But I'm not going to repeat the analysis on McDonalds or fast food. I don't care about those. The argument is that it costs a lot to eat healthy, not that it costs a lot to eat healthy at a RESTAURANT.

(Actually "health" is not the explicit topic. The goal is to get everyone to hit their RDA. You can hit your RDA with cheeseburger meat or with lean fish. Both count)

 
At 10:43 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Palatable =/= healthy. Thanks for shifting the goalposts though."

You were trying to argue that processed foods were more expensive than unprocessed foods. But in reality, all you proved (by pointing out the expense of processing) was that processed foods were more expensive than their own unprocessed ingredients. That's true but also a silly argument in response to what people usually say about processed foods (which, by the way, I did not mention in the comment you were replying to - processed foods is a topic you introduced). What people usually say is that processed foods are cheap but unhealthy. The relevant comparison of that point that is to unprocessed foods which the processed foods effectively replace in a person's diet - and these are, of course, unprocessed foods at a certain level of basic palatability, not the processed food's own raw ingredients such as uncooked wheat flour straight out of the bag!

"Hitting your RDAs is very very cheap if you stick to those foods."

Okay, let me put this to the test. I'll pick something that brown rice is low in and see whether the olive oil or the protein powder makes up for it. Okay, brown rice has 0% of Vitamin C according to the nutrition page I checked. Olive oil, also 0%. That leaves protein powder. I'm not sure which one you mean. When I google "protein powder" I get a bunch of whey protein results. Okay, I'm not finding a full listing of nutritional content but I'm going to guess that whey protein has no Vitamin C.

Looks like you're wrong.

"I'm just telling you you can't do it. If you want to try and waste your time, go for it. So if you don't believe me now you'll believe me later. Ergo I don't have to substantiate myself."

Doesn't matter what excuses you give, it's still pure assertion, unsubstantiated, as I said.

"As far as I can tell, you're ignorant of nutrition. Here's a study showing nearly identical hormonal responses to 3 different meals (matched for macros and calories). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17536194 Here's a study showing that various different diets have similar effects on blood lipid levels http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/297/9/969.abstract Here's a study showing that "

I'm not sure what you're trying to argue here. Apparently you're trying to argue that as long as food contains a certain proportion of fats, protein, and carbs, then nothing else matters. Essentially you seem to be saying that vitamins and minerals have no nutritional value. And that I am ignorant of nutrition for thinking otherwise.

Essentially your position is so outlandish that the burden is most definitely on you to substantiate at least this point.

"(Actually "health" is not the explicit topic. The goal is to get everyone to hit their RDA. You can hit your RDA with cheeseburger meat or with lean fish. Both count)"

Your RDA of protein, maybe. But if you eat nothing but fish all day you're going to get scurvy, like the sailors of days past.

 
At 10:58 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Retracting a large part of my last post - joeftansey mentioned multivitamins as part of his low cost diet plan and I completely missed that. Apparently his point is that it doesn't matter what you eat as long as you take a multivitamin. A dubious point but one completely orthogonal to what I was saying, since I was talking about what it would cost to get the proper nutrition in the form of actual food, without a multivitamin supplement. My example was McDonald's, which does not sell multivitamin pills.

 
At 1:26 AM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous Kid said...

This may be relevant:

http://www.miketuritzin.com/writing/eating-healthily-for-3-a-day/

 
At 7:55 AM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@Anonymous (which one? dunno)

I think it does matter what you eat. The hierarchy goes something like this:

1) Overall calories
2) Hitting your macros
3) Hitting your micros
4) Fiber
5) Phytochemicals

Only 1-3 are shown to be essential. 1-2 can be accomplished at McDonalds or via the methods I describe. Most people do not hit 3 unless they get a multivitamin, and even then it is no sure thing because many of the micronutrient forms are poorly bioavailable.

But then again, most people are probably "deficient" in certain micros and seem to be getting along just fine. I think it is only chronic sever micro deficits that cause large problems - like zinc deficiencies in the third world. Raw calories probably also have some sort of mitigating effect on poor vitamin intake.

Not aware of any studies though. Just going by epidemiology.

 
At 9:22 AM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

joetansey: Sorry dude I've got tons of actual science on the low-carb side - your arrogant dismissal is completely unwarranted and your statements are just not true empirically. Literally. Give me some peer-reviwed studies to support your point. I notice you failed to do that. For my part, I'll offer you the famous A to Z Stanford diet study, conducted by an ardent vegetarian who actually practices calorie restriction. The low carb diet he tested blew all the others outta the water. you can find him on youtube freaking out about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eREuZEdMAVo When you're done with that, I have 49 more of the same quality. Enjoy!

 
At 9:48 AM, August 06, 2011, Blogger Ari T said...

I think there was a study recently that showed that taxing fat food or sugary products was much more effective than subsidizing healthy food.

 
At 10:45 AM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@Anonymous (Which one? Thanks for tagging yourself it makes you really accountable)

As much as I would love to spend hours of my time hearing about how great low carb diets are, I would really rather just ask you for controlled studies. Show me the papers.

As an additional stipulation, since low carb diets cause significant water loss, your papers also have to use a body composition estimate that accounts for this.

In addition to water loss, low carb diets also tend to be high protein diets. Protein is the most filling macronutrient and therefore results in better adherence. It also has the highest thermal effect of the macros.

So please. Show me a study comparing two diets with equal calories and protein that shows FAT (read: not water) loss is superior under the low carb regimen. Hint - the fructose study I linked gives evidence that carbs help maintain thyroid and metabolic rate mediated via liver glycogen.

I'm really looking forward to your response. Doubtless it will be more youtube videos which I won't watch (you wouldn't watch mine either), or uncontrolled/epidemiological studies. The whole of the paleo/low carb movement just cherry picks their evidence, can't explain the physiological mechanisms behind low carb diets, and relies on sensationalist personalities and scapegoating of certain food groups.Its like the War on Terror with you people.

And nevermind that the bodybuilders and figure models typically stay well out of ketosis to achieve peak levels of leanness, not that the transition from 10% --> 5.5% bodyfat is relevant to most people.

 
At 10:50 AM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

For the record, my weight loss regimen above 10% bodyfat involves eating 30-45% of my calories as carbs. Approximately 100 grams of which are eaten 1hr before sleep.

That's crazy right? How could anyone lose weight with that many carbs? I guess its just like my genetics or something. Or maybe I'm just not a derp and don't need to project my failures on some evil imaginary gremlin.

 
At 6:26 PM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous js290 said...

Let's not forget that the unhealthy processed foods are artificially cheap due to grain subsidies. Just stop subsidizing any foods. Plus, what's the cost of being sick due to the USDA's recommended diet?

@joeftansey: How does a measure of heat (calories) convert to mass? How accurately can you measure a calorie? How effectively will your body use that calorie? When will your body use that calorie?

Contemporary science favors glucose restriction. Look up glycation.

 
At 6:55 PM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@js209

Calories converts to mass via the energy density of macronutrients stored. Weight loss protocols typically equate 3500 calories to 1lb of fat, though obviously the "weight" will be different if a portion of "energy" lost is muscle protein or glycogen. There's also the constant fluctuation of water. Its poorly studied but believed that the explanation for "stair function" fat loss is caused by water filling up emptied adipose tissue. Water retention during calorie restriction is itself well documented though.

How accurately can I measure a calorie? Raw calories on nutrition facts are probably 85% accurate. If you adjust for the TEF and include fiber fermentation, you can probably get 95% accuracy with a scale. But the accuracy doesn't matter because the errors are all biased in one direction - so the worst case scenario is someone thinks their BMR is 2800 instead of 3000, and thinks their diet plan is 2300 instead of 2500. In theory you could just divide everything by "apples" and say that 8oz of steak is worth 5 apples and you are eating 20 apples/day.

How effectively are calories stored? Very effectively. Upwards of 90% on all macronutrients. It isn't really worth investigating. And if you're implying that keeping insulin low will somehow allow fats to pass through your system, I'd like to know the biochemical mechanism as well as see stool sample evidence that fat is indeed exiting the body undigested. This is of course prima facie implausible because historical man would have starved to death if he didn't get more than 50g of carbs a day.

The hangup that low carb people have is that there are studies showing that insulin will halt fatty acid mobilization. They neglect several things. First, insulin isn't perpetually elevated. I can pull up studies showing that blood sugar and insulin levels return to baseline after a certain (reasonable) time has passed. Second, the insulin response to protein roughly doubles serum insulin levels above baseline, which (by coincidence) roughly halves the effectiveness of fatty acid mobilization. Thirdly, fatty acid mobilization ISN'T EVEN A PROBLEM ABOVE 10% BODYFAT. Hint - fat people's blood work comes back FILLED with triglycerides and fatty acids. See you have to mobilize stored triglycerides into glycerol and fatty acids, then the fatty acids float around in the blood stream and then you have to bind a protein albumin to them, and then you have to burn them. But most people can't even burn the fatty acids they have floating around in their blood stream currently, and so we see the crux of the problem.

Calories. You have to create an energy deficit to burn the fatty acids. Your body does not have an automatic liposuction mechanism whereby it throws away fat just because you have no carbs. Again, it is implausible that your body would throw away calories under any circumstance.

When is your body going to use a calorie? Depends where its stored and what you're doing. Doesn't really matter though. If you're above 10% bodyfat your body has plenty of fatty acids floating around in vitae. I assume I don't have to explain when glycogen is used or protein is oxidized.

 
At 7:01 PM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@js209

Oh, I also looked up glycation. I don't see the problem. The wikipedia article cited epidemiological studies which are teh lolz.

I'm also not watching any of your videos. Controlled studies from pubmed or bust. You should be able to provide them if modern science is indeed vindicating low carb diets. I won't retype my additional stipulations here (see above), but low carb studies are often fraught with significant complications which result in overstatement of their efficacy.

I'm so tired of the neurosis of the nutrition community. Its all superstition. They just want to isolate one thing (carbs, fructose, glycation) and say its the devil. As if it could explain all our problems.

Reality - consuming 3800 calories a day will make you fat and cause health problems. That's the simplest explanation and no one is going for it. Probably because it doesn't generate lots of research money and public hysteria.

 
At 7:52 PM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous js290 said...

Fatty acid mobilization and insulin, it's medical biochemistry. It's not controversial. Neither clinical nor epidemiological studies are needed when the basic science is understood.

...the mobilization of fat from adipose tissue is inhibited by numerous stimuli. The most significant inhibition is that exerted upon adenylate cyclase by insulin. When an individual is in the well fed state, insulin released from the pancreas prevents the inappropriate mobilization of stored fat. Instead, any excess fat and carbohydrate are incorporated into the triacylglycerol pool within adipose tissue.

@joeftansey: Last question, under what conditions are the Laws of Science invalid?

 
At 8:16 PM, August 06, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@js209

Well I already addressed the insulin/fatty acid mobilization problem. You haven't dealt with any of my rebuttals. The observation that insulin is not permanently elevated on even high-carb diets. The observation that most individuals' bloodstreams are already saturated with fatty acids. The observation that you still have to burn fatty acids or they'll just be stored again. Etc etc.

All your quotation says is that when people eat a mixed meal, they deposit dietary fat. So what? When they are not eating, they are burning fat. What's the net? Look at caloriezz

Scientific laws are always valid. But I'm still waiting on the controlled studies from you. If you really insist on just sticking to theoretical physiology, then what do you think happens on low carb diets where you just mobilize fatty acids like crazy? Do they pile up in the blood stream (bad)? Or do they just get restored? Or does fatty acid mobilization downregulate as insulin sensitivity increases? Or do you poop fatty acids out?

Waiting. I'll be waiting forever. Calories is the simplest and best explanation. There is no evil gremlin causing people to be fat.

 
At 9:00 PM, August 06, 2011, Blogger js290 said...

Since the Laws of Science are indeed always valid, why do people count calories? It seems obsessive, and a bit religious, to inaccurately track something that's always true. Are calorie counters worried that their bodies do not obey the Laws of Science?

Calorie counters love to quote the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy), but they clearly do not understand it and its application. They seem to think they can somehow outsmart nature herself.

All the Laws of Science are what engineers would call a constraint or boundary condition. When someone gains mass, it is always true they consumed more "calories" than they expended. When someone loses mass, it's always true that they expended more "calories" than they consumed. Boundary conditions cannot be violated, hence "constraints." As such, they are the effects of a system. Not, the cause.

Attributing causality to a boundary condition is simply committing a post hoc fallacy. Just because something had to happen doesn't explain why it happened.

Inaccurate calorie counting is the simplest explanation to someone who doesn't understand science.

@joeftansey: A calorie is a measure of heat with base units of kg*m^2/s^2. According to that really smart guy named Einstein, mass and heat relate at the speed of light squared. But, don't let me stop you from counting calories, though.

 
At 7:36 AM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

People count calories because its a way to control intake.

You can "outsmart" nature by eating less calories than you burn. It isn't rocket science.

The things you cite aren't actually boundary conditions. They're inputs. Boundary conditions would be things like a maximum reachable weight, which for all practical purposes are irrelevant. Glad to see you understand applied mathematics though.

The reason people lose weight on calorie restriction is that their body uses fat for energy. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatty_acid_metabolism

Calorie counting, when done properly, is only biased in one direction (overestimation). But since people estimate their own BMRs by looking at their diets, any error in BMR calculation will the same directional error (and proportionate magnitude) in whatever diet they come up with.

But thanks. I know what the units on energy are though. The same way a gallon of gasoline has a FIXED amount of energy, the same way a gram of carbs or fat have the same amount of energy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_energy

"Fats and ethanol have the greatest amount of food energy per mass, 9 and 7 kcal/g (38 and 30 kJ/g) respectively. Proteins and most carbohydrates have about 4 kcal/g (17 kJ/g)"

I mean this should really be for 8 year olds. I don't even know why I'm bothering. Yes, in theory it would be optimal to count energy in - energy out, but that would be prohibitively difficult. Unless you're prepared to argue that some circumstances result in 2 kcal/gram of fat and other circumstances result in 11 kcal/gram of fat, you lose.

You also didn't address anything I wrote above. Like all pathetic low-carbers, you can't bring any controlled studies to the table. You can't back up any of your physiological claims. You just have to focus on one minor flaw of MINE, and then pretend like that will give you victory.

Sorry. Your body will not poop out fatty acids. Fatty acid mobilization is not a problem above 10% bodyfat. As evidence I offer people's bloodwork, which is saturated with fatty acids, and the fact that many people lose weight on diets consuming substantial amounts of carbs.

See in this study (this is an actual controlled study)http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17823420 it compares low carb to a high carb diet. BOTH groups lost a substantial amount of weight. The extra 1.4kg of weight loss in the low carb group is easily explained by water weight.

Now how did they do that??? How did the high carb group keep up with the low carb group? HOW?!?!

Oh wait they all ate the same caloric deficit.

 
At 8:53 AM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

joeftansey:

"If you really insist on just sticking to theoretical physiology, then what do you think happens on low carb diets where you just mobilize fatty acids like crazy? Do they pile up in the blood stream (bad)? Or do they just get restored? Or does fatty acid mobilization downregulate as insulin sensitivity increases? Or do you poop fatty acids out?

"Waiting. I'll be waiting forever. Calories is the simplest and best explanation. There is no evil gremlin causing people to be fat."

Low carb does not postulate an evil gremlin. There are various mechanisms which are postulated, all of which are physiological mechanisms which do not involve any mythological creatures. Nor is low carb incompatible with low calorie.

What I remember from Taubes - and this could well be inaccurate because it has been some time since I read him - is that the problem that fat people face is that their fat cells are in effect greedy. They eat food, and their fat takes up a larger share of the energy than it should, which leaves the people feeling starved, so they keep on eating until there is so much energy flooding the blood that even the greedy fat cells aren't enough to keep the energy from reaching the various cells that need it to function.

Now this story places the blame on a damaged metabolic system which is pushing too large a proportion of energy to the fat cells. The overeating is a consequence of this damaged metabolic system.

But notice an important aspect of this explanation: calories play a key role in it. The person isn't magically getting fatter while consuming and burning the same number of calories. On the contrary, he is consuming more calories than he is burning. The difference between this story and the "calories explanation" that you offer is that this story goes further by providing an explanation of why it is that the person is consuming more calories. This makes the theory superior to yours in the sense that it explains more of the phenomenon. Your theory fails to explain why the person is consuming as much as, and burning as little as, he is. The "greedy fat" theory explains both the greater hunger felt by the obese person and the greater listlessness of the obese person. And since it provides a mechanism, it also suggests possible ways to correct the problem.

 
At 10:04 AM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

@Anonymous (No idea who I am talking to)

The evil gremlin of low carb is carbohydrates. The physiological mechanisms described simply amount to observing that consumption of a mixed meal is anabolic (duh). The non sequitur is to assume that since people are in a state of net anabolism after they eat, that they must be in net anabolism 24 hours a day. In reality the body alternatives periods of anabolism with catabolism. Hint - they burn stored energy (read: fat) during catabolism.

Low carb is not incompatible with CR. Low carb isn't even necessarily bad. There are many reasons to choose a low carb diet but they are CONTEXT DEPENDENT. Low carb diets are not "the answer". There is nothing magic about them.

>> the problem that fat people face is that their fat cells are in effect greedy. They eat food, and their fat takes up a larger share of the energy than it should, which leaves the people feeling starved, so they keep on eating

I have never heard of any mechanism by which fat cells could be greedy. Fat deposition does not depend on the fat cells themselves. It depends on blood concentration of triglycerides. Carbohydrates will temporarily blunt fat oxidation and mobilization, but not fat storage (net fat storage increases because you aren't mobilizing/oxidizing any). The fate of virtually all dietary fat is storage, even if it is burned later.

>>Now this story places the blame on a damaged metabolic system which is pushing too large a proportion of energy to the fat cells. The overeating is a consequence of this damaged metabolic system.

A better explanation for overeating is leptin resistance. Leptin usually increases after you eat a meal and makes you feel full. But high density palatable foods break sensitivity to leptin, so the remaining satiety signals you get are all very short lived from gut fullness and insulin.

>>The difference between this story and the "calories explanation" that you offer is that this story goes further by providing an explanation of why it is that the person is consuming more calories.

None of what you wrote about 'greedy' fat cells is A) true or B) explains metabolic damage. I agree that there is a biochemical feedback loop causing people to systematically take in more calories, but it does not depend on carbs. It depends on food density and palatability.

>>This makes the theory superior to yours in the sense that it explains more of the phenomenon. Your theory fails to explain why the person is consuming as much as, and burning as little as, he is.

Actually you haven't proven that people aren't burning calories. You never tried to. In fact, when people gain weight they generally burn more calories because they're heavier. Just google BMR calculations.

>>And since it provides a mechanism, it also suggests possible ways to correct the problem.

Kill "greedy fat" gremlins?

Here. You'll hate this. If people really do have greedy fat, then they should consume less fat. This is because any fat they consume will be "eaten" by their fat cells and they won't get the energy from it. If people consume more carbohydrates, they will be able to access most of that as energy and therefore have more energy.

But again - no controlled studies from you. There isn't even a wikipedia article on 'greedy' fat cells. This is all pseudoscience.

Btw, here's a blog post about what a re-re Taubes is. http://weightology.net/?p=265 You will notice it has links to studies and cases Taubes (mis)uses. Taubes is a total joke in serious nutrition circles. He's just another sensationalist personality peddling easy answers.

Its just a lot easier to blame teh gremlinz than it is to recognize that there are at least 10 viable weight loss strategies, and the best one depends on your schedule, brain chemistry, dedication, and goals.

 
At 10:07 AM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

Here's the wiki article with links to studies on leptin resistance. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leptin#Obesity_and_leptin_resistance

I'm sure they're not good enough for you for some reason. Though I'm going to have to insist that you show me a similar wikipedia article on 'greedy fat'.

 
At 10:15 AM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

My reply keeps getting deleted... I'm going to split it up into two posts and see if it makes a difference. Maybe there's some offending URL?

@Anonymous (No idea who I am talking to)

The evil gremlin of low carb is carbohydrates. The physiological mechanisms described simply amount to observing that consumption of a mixed meal is anabolic (duh). The non sequitur is to assume that since people are in a state of net anabolism after they eat, that they must be in net anabolism 24 hours a day. In reality the body alternatives periods of anabolism with catabolism. Hint - they burn stored energy (read: fat) during catabolism.

Low carb is not incompatible with CR. Low carb isn't even necessarily bad. There are many reasons to choose a low carb diet but they are CONTEXT DEPENDENT. Low carb diets are not "the answer". There is nothing magic about them.

>> the problem that fat people face is that their fat cells are in effect greedy. They eat food, and their fat takes up a larger share of the energy than it should, which leaves the people feeling starved, so they keep on eating

I have never heard of any mechanism by which fat cells could be greedy. Fat deposition does not depend on the fat cells themselves. It depends on blood concentration of triglycerides. Carbohydrates will temporarily blunt fat oxidation and mobilization, but not fat storage (net fat storage increases because you aren't mobilizing/oxidizing any). The fate of virtually all dietary fat is storage, even if it is burned later.

 
At 10:15 AM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

>>Now this story places the blame on a damaged metabolic system which is pushing too large a proportion of energy to the fat cells. The overeating is a consequence of this damaged metabolic system.

A better explanation for overeating is leptin resistance. Leptin usually increases after you eat a meal and makes you feel full. But high density palatable foods break sensitivity to leptin, so the remaining satiety signals you get are all very short lived from gut fullness and insulin.

>>The difference between this story and the "calories explanation" that you offer is that this story goes further by providing an explanation of why it is that the person is consuming more calories.

None of what you wrote about 'greedy' fat cells is A) true or B) explains metabolic damage. I agree that there is a biochemical feedback loop causing people to systematically take in more calories, but it does not depend on carbs. It depends on food density and palatability.

>>This makes the theory superior to yours in the sense that it explains more of the phenomenon. Your theory fails to explain why the person is consuming as much as, and burning as little as, he is.

Actually you haven't proven that people aren't burning calories. You never tried to. In fact, when people gain weight they generally burn more calories because they're heavier. Just google BMR calculations.

>>And since it provides a mechanism, it also suggests possible ways to correct the problem.

Kill "greedy fat" gremlins?

Here. You'll hate this. If people really do have greedy fat, then they should consume less fat. This is because any fat they consume will be "eaten" by their fat cells and they won't get the energy from it. If people consume more carbohydrates, they will be able to access most of that as energy and therefore have more energy.

But again - no controlled studies from you. There isn't even a wikipedia article on 'greedy' fat cells. This is all pseudoscience.

Btw, here's a blog post about what a re-re Taubes is. http://weightology.net/?p=265 You will notice it has links to studies and cases Taubes (mis)uses. Taubes is a total joke in serious nutrition circles. He's just another sensationalist personality peddling easy answers.
Its just a lot easier to blame teh gremlinz than it is to recognize that there are at least 10 viable weight loss strategies, and the best one depends on your schedule, brain chemistry, dedication, and goals. You have to spend weeks of trial and error to figure it out. You only have to spend one hour listening to Taubes tell you "its not your fault", and then feel really good about yourself when you drop 5lbs of water in 2 days on atkins.

 
At 4:59 AM, August 08, 2011, Anonymous Andrew said...

Professor Friedman,

Perhaps our time is better spent on good articles rather than stupid ones.

http://xkcd.com/386/

 
At 8:39 AM, August 12, 2011, OpenID nilskp said...

I'd like to know the biochemical mechanism

Ketosis?

as well as see stool sample evidence that fat is indeed exiting the body undigested

I believe a urin sample would suffice.

consuming 3800 calories a day will make you fat and cause health problems

http://www.bulletproofexec.com/photo-abs-after-2-years-of-4500-calories-no-exercise/

 
At 6:22 PM, August 18, 2011, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

After reading something about more potassium being good to balance sodium, I went out and bought a shaker of 89,000 milligrams of potassium chloride for about $2. Potassium and chlorine are about the same size, so I guess that's about 45,000 milligrams of potassium. At 2,000 grams per day (http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/potassium-000320.htm), I can go 22 days without eating any potatoes or bananas.

I'm surprised Professor Friedman didn't mention the Stigler Diet, which I noticed was one of the accomplishment Stigler most liked to talk about (I guess it's easier to explain to most people than search models, etc. ). The entry at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler_diet says it would cost about $600/year to feed someone healthily for a year, on a diet composed entirely of flour, evaporated milk, cabbage, spinach, and dried navy beans. He only looked at 9 essential nutrients, so perhaps we need to add $380/year more for potassium, as WebMD suggests. More likely, though, $50/year for mineral pills would do it, tho I wouldn't be surprised if the Stigler Diet covers micronutrients without even trying. Remember, since the New Stone Age most people having been living basically on rice, corn, barley, rye, or wheat, with just enough wild greens and fruit to prevent scurvy.

The other thing about the Stigler Diet is that it is minimal, so you won't get fat. Nor, limited to those foods, would you want bigger portions!

 

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