Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Well said, Dr. Ludwig!

JAMA truly annoys me by keeping the stuff behind the subscription wall that the general public really ought to read. (NEJM has heard my exhortations and fixed its policy.) I wish I could give you my password but I would be severely castigated, so here's a link to the first paragraph of David Ludwig's commentary, and I'll summarize the key points for you.

Back in the good old paleolithic, life might have been nasty, brutal and short, I don't know, but our ancestors actually ate pretty well, it seems. With the benefit of stone tools and fire, they were no longer limited to fruits and insects, but they could kill large animals, cook tubers and coarser parts of plants, and pretty much eat anything and everything. The agricultural revolution may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it got people eating mostly grain which meant less protein and less of those great micronutrients from the other parts of plants, so people actually ate worse and got shorter. (There were other reasons for this as well -- check out Jared Diamond for a big discussion.

Comes now the Industrial Revolution and the advent of "ultraprocessed" foods. Ludwig gives the example of "Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers," which "has only a trivial amount of strawberries (from concentrate)," but 7 kinds of sugar plus partially hydrogenated fat. Ultraprocessed foods ultimately derive almost entirely from corn, wheat and soy -- much of it processed through animals. It is high in energy density, low in fiber and micronutrients, has the wrong kind of fat, high glyemic index, and a lot of salt, sweetness and other flavorings to trick us into eating too much of it. E.g., 10 ounces of strawberries have 90 calories, 5 grams of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and all kinds of phytochemicals; 1 ounce of Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers also has 90 calories, and basically none of that other stuff.

Eat that crap and you're likely to get fat, get diabetes, get heart disease, and die. But it's cheap, abundant, easy, heavily marketed, and addictive. So all of the above is happening to us.

I think I may have written about these issues one or two times previously, sorry if it gets old. But there are public policy responses to this disaster. One excellent start would even cut federal spending and reduce the deficit! That would be ending subsidies for corn and soybeans. Have I heard the Tea Party mention that one?

I didn't think so.


Daniel said...

This is probably a bit dated but I found in very interesting years ago and on this topic.

Cannibals and Kings (1977, ISBN 0-394-40765-2)

Cervantes said...

Oh yes I enjoyed that book. Harris is an entertaining populizer of historical anthropology.