Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Oh Well*

Think all it takes to be healthy is to stay slim, avoid tobacco, eat a balanced diet, and maybe exercise from time to time? Not so! By sitting and salting, we are all killing ourselves slowly. Well, not all - Jane Brody is primed to live forever, once she abandons her pernicious diet-ice-cream habit - a problem not, as one might imagine, because the real thing's probably better for you, but because it's dessert. Which, even if it's not making you fat, nevertheless causes pleasure, and so should be avoided at all costs.

Unlike a certain columnist, I have mixed feelings about the whole personal-health genre. On the one hand, taking care of yourself is the decent thing to do for yourself, for those in your life, and all that. Yes, we're all going to die anyway, but that doesn't make that four-pack-and-ten-cheeseburger-a-day routine some kind of stick-it-to-the-Man heroism. (Although reading that Jane Brody column encouraged me to have a milkshake, and has perhaps encouraged others to do worse. If 'worse' exists in her book...)

On the other, once health becomes an ongoing research project about which tiny subset of foods and behaviors don't cause heart disease, the whole 'by doing/not doing X, you're basically doing yourself in' line gets to be a bit much. There's a spectrum from suicide to highly reckless behavior to known bad habits down to 'what was it they were saying about Aspartame this week?', down at long last to 'I can't remember the last time I ate a vegetable not grown on my organic farm,' cheerfully related to one's jogging partner. Is regular consumption of a dinner that does not include every desirable nutritional field 'bad' enough to qualify as self-destructive behavior, and if we decide it is, does this perhaps take something away from the weight of the expression 'self-destructive'?

So my question is: at what point does paying attention to health switch from the only moral thing to do, over into self-indulgent narcissism, gratuitous sanctimony, or just a waste of time? Short of definitive revelations such as those regarding tobacco and obesity, is there any benefit for public health to these constant updates about what's bad this week but set to be considered innocuous or even beneficial next? Doesn't the nonstop nature of these reports make one type of person (ahem, a-J.B.-who's-not-my-boyfriend) get just a bit too obsessed with hitting every mark, all the while making another sort (ahem, P.M.) start thinking it's all nonsense anyway, why should this night be any less pasta-filled than all other nights?

*Note, libertarians and those used to blog-arguing with libertarians, that I'm not asking anything about what role the state should have in any of this.


Britta said...

I may be one note, and I do mostly like Pollan, but a lot of this "go back to 'natural' eating" stuff just really irritates me. First, the "dichotomy" between "added fats, starch and sugar" and "real, traditional diets." Yes, maybe if you are Japanese or Greek, that is the case. However, if you come from much of the world, you are eating added fats, sugars, and starch as part of your traditional diet. In fact, probably those are all traditionally *good* things, as they give you energy to not die of starvation (of course, now caloric density is in itself considered evil...rather than something that provides a lot of calories at once).
Maybe I am biased being Scandinavian, but fresh vegetables are not available for many months of the year in my traditional diet, and while moldy rutabaga, potato, lard, sausage, and copious amounts of sugar may make Michael Pollan's mouth water, I am sincerely grateful that rotten fish and potatoes + butter is not the basis of my diet for 5 months out of the year, and I hardly see how it would make me healthier to live off of rancid animal fats and moldy starch products. Moreover, I have a big problem with all this "traditional diet" crap when life expectancies have skyrocketed in the past century. I mean, sure, if you're dying from an infected toenail at age 50, it's hard to say what the long-term effects of your diet are. Also, most people have to die of something, and most of those diseases listed are diseases that kill you when your body breaks down as an old person. If you reach a certain age, you will probably die of cancer, because your cell's ability to reproduce just breaks down. If eating meat, or drinking out of a plastic bottle kills you at at 90, is that a tragedy? Should you have been vegetarian and drunk only out of glass jars? I'd say no.
Secondly, health is so personal, statistically we can talk about effects of food on populations, but it's meaningless for the individual. I feel that a person should eat what they want (within reason, of course), and if it's not healthy for them, their body will let them know. Yes, our health is a combination of genes and lifestyle, and it's unfair--some people can smoke, drink, eat fatty foods and live to 100, others exercise and eat as healthily as possible and drop dead at 60, but it's hard to say, "x has statistical negative effects for populations, therefore it is the devil for everyone." I mean, many people are gluten intolerant, but those who aren't don't have to avoid gluten.
Personally, I feel like you should monitor your own health signs--weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, etc, and if any are unhealthy, then adjust your diet.
wow, rant over/

Britta said...

Ok, more rant, since last time I didn't finish her article (I was too busy writing the above rant), this is a rant on the second half:
First, whenever the "traditional food" movement lauds traditional cuisine, it is *always* French or Japanese cuisine. Yes, they are countries with good cuisines. But they are *not* representative of traditional cuisines. They are outliers. Please, food people, stop telling us to eat like our French and/or Japanese grandparents. My grandparents eat cheese with butter, and wash it down with a glass of whole milk. They also eat spam. They do not make their own foie gras or sushi.
Second, on the "no snacks, no seconds, no sweets," people around the world eat sweets. Possibly considerably more than we do. Maybe they don't pump all their products full of corn syrup, but they eat chocolate croissants for breakfast, and drink tea and coffee with about 15 tsps of sugar. When it comes to sugar tolerance, Americans actually aren't that high up there. Finally, if you are still hungry, you should eat seconds. I agree, if you eat until you feel like vomiting at every meal, you will probably gain weight, but if you arbitrarily limit your food not based on actual hunger, then you are reaching borderline eating disorder territory. Plus, the not eating until full + no snacks mean you will spend a lot of the day hungry, which in that case, then yes, permanently feeling hungry will probably lead to weight loss. I know if I want to go 6 hours between meals without snacks, I have to stuff myself at the meal. If I don't, I'll need a snack halfway through. I mean, again, does it matter when you eat your food in terms of the food manifesto? Is an apple in the afternoon a grave violation of "traditional" eating? This article just seems like a way to allow west coast yuppie women to re-affirm their eating disorders as "healthy" and "food-oriented."

Phoebe said...


I'll respond to your rants with one of my own, in which I agree with yours but just add on!

You're certainly right that most 'traditional' diets violate even the rules allegedly based on traditional ways. But my own issue with the 'don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize' line is a bit different. Even if Pollan's ostensible point is to avoid high fructose corn syrup or whatever, expressing it in this way implies a) nostalgia for a time when mom cooked from scratch, and b) that there's something amiss not only with Twinkies and the like, but with cuisines and ingredients not native to our communities. There's a way of expressing what's wrong with how we eat today without pointing to a Golden Age. And Pollan does this as well, but I guess the Golden-Age stuff taps into something that sells books. He must be doing something hypnotic, because his readers express such guilt at failure to obey absolutely every last thing he suggests.

Anyway, even if it's possible to apply some statistically-derived info to individual cases, the gray area's just huge. I'm fully convinced that even if it works for the occasional person, a cheese-fries-and-cigarettes lifestyle's not the best idea. But I'm not at all convinced that it will matter for my health if I choose whole-wheat bread over white.

"This article just seems like a way to allow west coast yuppie women to re-affirm their eating disorders as 'healthy' and 'food-oriented.'"

See the "Michael Pollan" entry to this list that Amber just linked to. In other words, agreed, the only caveats being that it's not just the West Coast (if anything, Jane Brody's very much about a few Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods), and that it's not just yuppies. It would be convenient if this type of dysfunction were specific to the idle and privileged, with honest-hard-working types immune, but standards of living in the West are now high enough (or media images diffused enough) that, I've found, even women outside the Stuff-White-People-Like culture fuss about calories.

Sigivald said...

New York is full of it about salt - especially their "causes this many heart attacks etc. per year".

The only correlation between heart disease and salt intake that I'm aware of rigorous support for is that salt increases hypertension (and thus heart attacks etc.) in people who are already hypertensive.

As to your question, I'll quote Keynes and point out that in the long run we're all dead.

As long as you don't do things that are vastly dangerous (smoking habitually, drinking enough to cause cirrhosis, never exercising and getting morbidly obese), it doesn't seem worthwhile.

(As to the "benefit to public health", well, the real problem there is that "X will kill you!" and "Y will save you!" fads make for great news.

And I'm more inclined to side with PM that most of it is complete nonsense, seeing as how often it becomes contradictory.)

"Being healthy" (and the associated worry about it and changing your life over each "new revelation") isn't more important than living, after all.

Matt said...

Another thing about salt is that it's not one's sodium level per se that is problematic, but the ratio of sodium to potassium. I'm not sure you can eat as much salt as one likes and then just have an extra banana, but it's wrong and misleading for people to suggest that it's sodium per se (let alone salt- lots of sodium comes, for many people, in preserved foods that are not especially salty) that perhaps bad.

As for eating until you're full, in general I agree, though when one feels full depends a lot on what one is used to. It can even change fairly quickly by increasing or decreasing how much one eats (I see this the most with my lunches) and isn't independent of what one is used to. There's no special virtue in leaving a mean hungry, but what it takes for one to not feel hungry isn't independent of past practice.

Phoebe said...


Yes, we're all going to die anyway. But that alone doesn't fully answer my question - it tells-it-like-it-is to Jane Brody and such, who appear under the impression that their behavior will make them immortal, but doesn't quite say where to draw the line. At how many pounds overweight? What constitutes 'no' exercise?

Anyway, the Well blog is something I should probably block from my computer, for fear of devoting this whole blog to aghast reactions. See the latest post, advising us to get over our fears of extreme or otherwise dangerous sports. Question: why is it admirable to tempt altogether avoidable injury/death/medical bills if we're calling it a sport, but the height of Wrong if it's Fritos/beer/tobacco? So it goes.

Anonymous said...

For a detailed and scholarly account of Jane Brody's flip-flopping, see here.

Sigivald said...

Phoebe: Indeed, thus the rest of my qualifications on it.

There's no scientific way to "draw the line" there, I think, since the benefit level vs. the effort exerted (all varieties, including "giving a damn about it") is inherently specific to the individual.