Food for Thought

April 20, 2010 at 10:44 am (By Amba)

Chart from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a group that links animal rights to human health), via David Kekich of Maximum Life Foundation:

When you look at federal subsidies for food production, here’s what you find:

  1. Meat/Dairy                             73.8%
  2. Grains                                     13.2%
  3. Sugar/Oil/Starch/Alcohol        10.7%
  4. Nuts/Legumes                           1.9%
  5. Vegetables/Fruits                      0.4%

97.7% for foods that make you sick vs. 1.9% for nuts and legumes and a pathetic 0.4% for the healthiest foods.

Think this has anything to do with why Americans are obese?

The average 18-year-old today is 15 pounds heavier than an 18-year-old in the late 1970s. Adults have put on even more weight during that period. The average woman in her 60s is 20 pounds heavier than the average 60-something woman in the late 1970s. And the average man in his 60s is 25 pounds heavier.

And unhealthy?  PCRM quotes the 2006-2007 Annual Report of the President’s Cancer Panel:

[C]urrent agricultural and public health policy is not coordinated—we heavily subsidize the growth of foods (e.g., corn, soy) that in their processed forms (e.g., high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated corn and soybean oils, grain-fed cattle) are known contributors to obesity and associated chronic diseases, including cancer.

“Not coordinated” is a delicate way of putting it —  how about “rampant hypocrisy”?  Not even conscious hypocrisy — the federal bureaucracy is itself so obese that its right hand and left hand are no longer remotely in touch.

Scolds on both the right and left blame our lack of self-control and “personal responsibility” for obesity.  Sure, that’s a factor, but it’s also a plain fact that many people couldn’t afford to eat healthily if they knew how and wanted to.  The next chart shows the direct impact of government subsidies on food and beverage prices: These policies have made simple healthful eating a gourmet experience — a luxury for the affluent, educated elite, who then scold and despise the less affluent for their “lack of self-control.”

(I’m very aware of this problem because I’m in the middle:  I insist on eating healthily, but it means I spend way too much on food, even though I almost never splurge on organic unless it’s marked down. I probably spend close to $1500 a year just on romaine lettuce and apples, never mind the whole-grain artisan bread.  We used to eat blueberries by the bucket, like bears, in summer when they were 99 cents a pint.  I buy them now, maybe, the one week in summer when they get down to $1.50.  The rest of the time, they’re an expense I can’t justify — $3.99 a half pint.)

Jeff Nield of Treehugger suggests that the solution would be to subsidize fruits and vegetables too; David Kekich of Maximum Life Foundation counters, “Better yet, let’s just get the government out of subsidies altogether, and let the markets and your health find their natural levels.”

Related:  a new study shows that the same metabolic pathways in yeast, fruit flies, mice, and humans respond to calorie restriction in ways that protect against cancer-causing mutations and prolong life.

Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, and his co-authors . . . write about how cutting calorie intake between 10 percent and 50 percent decreases the activity of pathways involving insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), glucose and TOR (target of rapamycin), and considerably increases lifespan in animals.Genetic mutations involved in those pathways have the same effect. Those animals have far fewer problems with diseases related to aging, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and cognitive problems.

“About 30 percent of the animals on calorie restriction die at an advanced age without any diseases normally related to aging,” Fontana says. “In contrast, among animals on a standard diet, the great majority (94 percent) develop and die of one or more chronic diseases such as cancer or heart disease. In 30 percent to 50 percent of the animals on calorie restriction, or with genetic mutations in these aging-related pathways, healthspan is equal to lifespan. They eventually die, but they don’t get sick.”

Unfortunately, many humans are moving in the opposite direction. As obesity reaches epidemic rates in Western countries, Fontana says rather than closing the 30-year gap between healthspan and lifespan, the gap is likely to grow. It’s even possible lifespan may decrease as people develop preventable diseases such as atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

Those growing rates of obesity are a reason some scientists think calorie restriction will never catch on, regardless of its potential benefits.

Severe calorie restriction is no fun, and it has side effects such as loss of muscle mass, “reduced libido because calorie restriction reduces testosterone levels,” and sensitivity to cold, because metabolism slows and core body temperature drops.  It gives new meaning to the old joke, “Your life may not be longer, but it will feel . . . much longer.”  But the scientists are hoping “it may be possible to develop less drastic interventions or medicines that influence [the same molecular] pathways affected by calorie restriction and help keep people healthy as they get older.”

In the meantime, there is surely a happy medium.  But one thing is crystal clear:  our government’s preventive health policy is doomed by its own agricultural policy.

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33 Comments

  1. realpc said,

    [the scientists are hoping “it may be possible to develop less drastic interventions or medicines that influence [the same molecular] pathways affected by calorie restriction and help keep people healthy as they get older.”]

    NO! That’s more of their reductionist pro-drug thinking that is helping to destroy the health of Americans. And I am skeptical about calorie restriction — for one thing, eating less than you need to stop hunger is psychologically impossible. I think their results might be related to activity vs. calorie ratios. If their animal subjects are physically inactive, then a normal diet would be too much.

    Well, I don’t know. All I do know is that trying to get around nature’s designs always has unpleasant unexpected consequences.

    As for agricultural subsidies — they are ridiculous and unfair and everyone wants to get rid of them. It’s charity for rich giant corporations. Why should we pay for that? But no politician has dared do anything rational about it.

  2. amba12 said,

    Of course scientists, drug companies, and consumers would all love to find a pill that tweaks those “pathways” and requires nothing of the eater and makes huge profits for all. That’s pie in the sky (with side effects).

    But I happen to know the work in progress of these particular scientists, and I know right now they’re focusing on something much simpler: is it just calories? If not, which component of calorie restriction is having the real effect? Less carbs? Less protein? Less fat? If you restricted calories but continued to eat too high a percentage of the offending nutrients, you wouldn’t get the effect, or not as strong an effect. Conversely, you might not have to restrict calories so severely if you restricted the offending component.

  3. realpc said,

    Yes Amba, I very strongly suspect it isn’t the low calorie diet that prevents disease, but minimizing some especially toxic aspect of the typical American diet. So it would be a mistake to go on a low calorie diet based on this research. Of course, nobody could stay on it for long anyway, except extreme masochists.

    My opinion is that refined carbohydrates are the most toxic aspect of our diet. Physical inactivity is also toxic, and maybe that’s another confound with this research. Did they control or consider that?

  4. realpc said,

    [scientists, drug companies, and consumers would all love to find a pill that tweaks those “pathways” and requires nothing of the eater and makes huge profits for all. ]

    They won’t ever find it. Tweaking one pathway wreaks havoc in other pathways.

  5. amba12 said,

    Yes, in animal studies. IGF-1 (insulin growth factor) seems to be one big negative factor. If I remember rightly, exercise alone did not lower it; calorie restriction alone did. There are some hints that protein, in the amount Americans consume it, may be more toxic than we know, and think of all those people exercising like crazy and taking protein powder! One of their papers notes that lower IGF-1 in humans is correlated with lower protein consumption, and then goes on to say:

    It is important to note that the recommended daily allowance for protein intake in healthy adults is 0.83 g/kg of body weight/day, whereas at least 50% of US males are eating 1.34 g of protein/kg of body weight/day, which is 40% or more protein than the recommended daily allowance intake, and therefore associated with a positive nitrogen balance. More studies are necessary to understand the metabolic and clinical implications of a chronic positive nitrogen balance on serum IGF-1 and IGFBP concentrations, and on cancer biology, particularly in sedentary adults with a positive family history for cancer.

    That “sedentary” indicates that the importance of exercise is being factored in.

  6. realpc said,

    [That “sedentary” indicates that the importance of exercise is being factored in.]

    Yeah but exactly how big a factor is exercise? If all this applies mainly to sedentary adults, then they can stop searching for miracle pills and just keep telling everyone to exercise. Exercise regulates the levels of everything, gets everything circulating that should be circulating, and de-toxifies. There will never be a better miracle treatment.

  7. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    I’m not sure that I buy the equation of everything but nuts and greens as “food that makes you sick.” Going by Gary Taub’s book, it would seem more likely that refined grains — white bread, white rice — and the easy availability of fructose and sucrose is more likely an issue. Certainly the “paleo-diet” folks, and my own experience with never eating white stuff, has worked pretty well.

    But the really important thing, I think, is that there are really good reasons to think we instinctively react to an adequate supply of calories by eating them and storing fats. There are people who have the specific body properties that let them eat without gaining fat, which were very probably not advantageous for 99 percent of the history of the Homo genus. We may need now to figure out how that works, and treat people to simulate it.

  8. El Pollo Real said,

    A couple of random thoughts:
    Cost alone cannot be a factor here if the notion is that we eat crappier foods because they’re cheaper. My kids for example, have no conception of the cost differences of food. They will eat whatever their taste preferences dictate given what is available. At times, such as the day after Halloween or at a movie theater in the possession of their own money, will both exhibit behavior like the rats preferring to starve on coke rather than eat good food. Left to their own, I’m cretain they would develop life-long bad habits.
    Really and truly, the one thing preventing this is parental intervention and imposed discipline, until, like everything thing else, they gain their own will power and self-knowledge. This is not the situation for many poorer children, who may themselves be being raised by a second or third generation of poor dietary role models.

    Remedies:

    (1) Allow all food to become more expensive for all people- this will bring about a needed redistribution of body mass from the disadvanted (where it is disproportionately acculumated). This could be acheived by lessening the subsidies on the growing of all foodstuffs and will help the national debt. I’m against subsidies on the so-called good foods because this will mainly benefit the well-off and will add to the debt problem.

    (2) Encourage the transfer of good dietary habits between generations. In those situations where parental involvement is lacking, I favor the donated the services of celebrities of all the affected races so as to lessen the appearance of condescension and racism.

  9. Maxwell said,

    First of all, PCRM is an embarrassment to well-meaning vegetarians, vegans, and and environmentalists everywhere. They are basically PETA’s “nutrition” wing.

    USDA’s farm subsidies program is very complex, and boiling it down to “71% meat and dairy” is a gross oversimplification. Most of it takes the form of price supports, loans, and outright grants to farmers, sometimes for them to grow nothing at all. The Washington Post had a good series on it a few years ago.

    To simplify with a bit more accuracy: the plurality or perhaps majority of subsidies go to grain producers who sell to both feedlots and to refineries. Hence, these subsidies end up supporting the meat industry, the dairy industry, and the refined flours/sweeteners industry (They also increasing form a price support for the biofuels industry that is becoming entrenched in its own right).

    There is more and more evidence that feeding mature grains to livestock animals (especially cows) is good for neither them nor us. As Charlie points out, there is also more and more evidence that refined grains, flours and sugars are one of if not the major factor behind the rise of adult-onset diabetes, and possibly other chronic illnesses as well (I would second his recommendation of Taubes’ book, btw).

    I became pretty fed up with the nutritional activists back in 2008, when they made a tactical decision to try and push for more subsidies for fruits and vegetables in the farm bill, rather than push for a reduction in grain subsidies. That was a big mistake in my view. There was a chance back then to start countering the worst excesses of our ag subsidies, but unfortunately they’re now more entrenched than ever.

  10. PatHMV said,

    I’m all in favor of getting rid of most subsidies. Of course, in the agricultural arena, there’s a reason some of those subsidies are in place. Paying farmers not to grow anything, while sounding ridiculous, was intended to insure that farmers considered the long-term stability of the soil, not just their own short-term profits, to prevent another great Dust Bowl. With the replacement of small family farms by large agribusinesses, these subsidies may not be needed any more, as those companies do have a financial incentive to ensure the continued health of their very large tracts of farmland.

    But I’m categorically opposed to any attempt by the government to control or heavily influence what I eat (either directly or by deciding what to subsidize and what not to subsidize based on the government’s idea of what’s best for me). What I eat is none of the government’s damn business. What my family eats is none of the government’s damn business. Opening the door a bit to that kind of b.s. leads to politicized science. Once the science becomes really actually compelling (rather than the usually manufactured “consensus” of opinion), then I (and everybody else) can make an independent choice about whether I’d like to have a slightly shorter life filled with yummy steaks and bacon, or a slightly longer life filled with tofu and caloric restriction diets. What’s best for me is not what’s best for my neighbor. The government, however, can really not do more than adopt a one-size-fits-most approach.

  11. El Pollo Real said,

    I guess I’m hanging into my shares of Archer Daniels Midland for now.

  12. amba12 said,

    just keep telling everyone to exercise. … There will never be a better miracle treatment.

    I certainly agree, based on direct personal experience. The point is, it still matters what you eat.

  13. amba12 said,

    El Pollo: the trick with kids might be to get them to like really good foods. I know that over a lifetime I have trained myself to really like healthy foods (although, of course, I also like baked goods and chocolate and ice cream). I know that my ideas about foods strongly influence my experience of them. (At the age of 3 or 4 I got interested in peanut butter after reading about it in Winnie-the-Pooh. Before that, I thought it was yucky.) I have a horror of high fructose corn syrup and imagine I can taste/feel it — it has a “hot” sweetness. I don’t like almost any processed foods or fast foods. Processed foods have a “mouth feel” to me like somebody already chewed them. I wonder if it is possible to make healthy foods attractive to kids.

  14. amba12 said,

    PCRM is an embarrassment to well-meaning vegetarians, vegans, and

    veterinarians?

  15. amba12 said,

    There is more and more evidence that feeding mature grains to livestock animals (especially cows) is good for neither them nor us.

    Alas, somebody just told me that grass-fed beef tastes like cardboard, so the public’s tastes have already been “set” to something that’s unhealthy all around. I almost never eat beef anyway, so I wouldn’t know.

    I became pretty fed up with the nutritional activists back in 2008, when they made a tactical decision to try and push for more subsidies for fruits and vegetables in the farm bill, rather than push for a reduction in grain subsidies.

    That is the prevailing mentality: more help from the government to make up for the damage done by help from the government.

  16. realpc said,

    “it still matters what you eat.”

    Yes of course it does. But simple basic common sense is probably good enough. And my common sense tells me that living on a starvation diet would be torture. But even worse, it would probably turn out to be unhealthy in unexpected ways. And they should stop announcing this theory to the world until they have figured out if the apparent benefits are from restricting calories in general, or from restricting calories from refined carbohydrates, or protein, or whatever. I have seen people on TV who are starving themselves so they can live longer. They eat tiny bits of boring food and they look like skeletons.

    It’s true that in nature food supplies are always limited. But wild animals, and hunting/gathering people, probably aren’t always starving or hungry.

  17. realpc said,

    “more help from the government to make up for the damage done by help from the government.”

    Right, and I sometimes wonder why we still pretend to have a constitution. Where does is say anything about farm subsidies?

  18. realpc said,

    “With the replacement of small family farms by large agribusinesses, these subsidies may not be needed any more, as those companies do have a financial incentive to ensure the continued health of their very large tracts of farmland.”

    They never were needed, because small farmers have the same financial incentive. They probably just didn’t know their methods were causing a dust bowl until it was too late. Now everyone knows.

    No one wants a dust bowl. Maybe for a while subsidies were to protect small farmers but if so it didn’t work.

    If there ever was a good reason for the subsidies — and there probably wasn’t — there certainly is none now. And everyone knows it but, as usual, neither party will do something just because it makes sense and would save money.

  19. amba12 said,

    It’s true that in nature food supplies are always limited. But wild animals, and hunting/gathering people, probably aren’t always starving or hungry.

    Real, what they are finding out is that within limits, stress is good. On the molecular level, stress stimulates the upregulation of genes for DNA repair and toxin resistance and all kinds of other protective processes.

  20. reader_iam said,

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  21. realpc said,

    “what they are finding out is that within limits, stress is good. On the molecular level, stress stimulates the upregulation of genes for DNA repair and toxin resistance and all kinds of other protective processes.”

    I can understand that, but I do not see why they think it’s natural to be half-starved. Did they ever look at the squirrels in their backyard for example? The squirrels are running and jumping with fluffy tails — they are healthy! A half-starved animal is weak, not full of joyful energy. In nature, you find a way to get enough food or you die. Natural populations do not outgrow their environments.

    It bothers me when scientists are so fixated on their computers and test tubes they never bother to look out the window at reality.

  22. realpc said,

    And by the way, physical exercise IS stressful, and maybe that’s one reason it is so necessary for health.

  23. amba12 said,

    Good point. Maybe a better word than “stress” is “challenge.” Life rallies to challenge, all the way down to its molecules.

  24. realpc said,

    [Maybe a better word than “stress” is “challenge.” Life rallies to challenge, all the way down to its molecules.]

    Challenge might be a better word, since we use the word “stressful” to mean aggravating. We certainly do love challenges — just another reason (out of hundreds) to not be a utopianist. Even if it were possible to create utopia — which of course it isn’t — the lack of challenge would be deadly.

    We can fulfill our short-term desires — physical rest, plenty of calories, for example — only to create our long-term destruction.

    Physical exercise is a perfect of example of how the body needs to be challenged.

    But I don’t see why being half-starved could be a healthy kind of challenge. I think there is a confound in their research, and it could be dangerously misleading for the public.

  25. wj said,

    “somebody just told me that grass-fed beef tastes like cardboard”

    Happily, “somebody” is less that totally correct. Way less. I grew up on grass-fed beef — the benefits of having nutrition-conscious parents and living on a ranch in my youth. It tasted far, far better than anything I have encountered in a store since. I suppose if the cattle were fed on some really odd grasses, that might impact the taste. But “cardboard”? No way.

    The reason for feeding cattle on grain was never taste. It was a matter of fattening them up quickly. (Lots of fat being a contributor to how the meat tastes.) But the key there is “quickly” — unless they are running wild over land with little but scrub brush to eat (i.e. somewhere like range land in Texas or Arizona), they fatten up just fine on grass. As long as you are patient.

  26. Maxwell James said,

    If it tasted like cardboard, it was almost certainly overcooked. Grass-fed beef is leaner & has a significantly different balance of fatty acids, and omega-3s (which it has in abundance) tend to have a much lower smoke point.

  27. amba12 said,

    Real: look at short term fasting. That seems to be a good kind of challenge. The body goes into self-protective mode when it is deprived of calories. We probably had a kind of feast-or-famine existence when it came to meat, when we were hunter-gatherers. Also, in temperate climates winters could be very lean. Too long a deprivation would begin to lead to breakdown and weakness, because the body would not have what it needed for self-repair. But we are designed to become more efficient and vigilant, right down to our cells, when times are temporarily lean.

  28. amba12 said,

    Maxwell: thanks for that tip, since if I did/ever do eat beef, that would be the kind.

  29. realpc said,

    Amba,

    I agree we probably evolved for short-term fasting. Maybe that’s why so many traditional cultures have practiced it. But that would be different than having a long-term calorie restricted diet. In general, I think it’s a mistake to follow any kind of dietary plan, because we evolved to adapt to varying conditions. And our species has been able to survive in many types of environments. Our general policy should be to vary what we eat and how much, mostly depending on how we feel, not according to any medical advice. The only rule should be try to avoid anything processed or refined.

    Until medical science actually figures out exactly what we need to be healthy — and that wont’ ever happen — we should follow our common sense and pay attention to how we feel. If we feel tired and weak, we might need more protein, or more carbohydrates — whatever an individual’s experience has shown to be effective. It could be different depending on where your ancestors evolved.

    And we should be able to sense if or when we need to eat much less for a while.

  30. amba12 said,

    I find that cravings, even when they have an emotional component, are pretty wise about what I need, including, sometimes, sugar (usually in the late afternoon, when the Brits have tea and scones and the Germans have “Kaffee und Kuchen”).

  31. realpc said,

    Yes, just give in to the cravings. But I would definitely watch out for refined sugar because it’s toxic and can be addictive. Maybe replace it with whatever you like that is naturally sweet.

    I get cravings for salt. You just have to avoid the stuff with iodine and other additives. I think we need salt and the low-salt diet is a big mistake. Only a small minority are salt sensitive.

  32. amba12 said,

    I eat feta cheese, which takes care of my salt cravings.

  33. realpc said,

    There are a lot of things that are very sweet and are natural. They should make white sugar, white rice and white flour illegal. But every time I have this kind of conversation, I get a craving for ice cream and the next day I go out and buy some Hagen Daas.

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