Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Food Anxiety and the Chocolate-Eating Life

Are you anxious about the food you eat? Are you afraid that every alimentary morsel that passes through your lips is teeming with carcinogens? Have you decided that from now on you will only eat kale?

Welcome to food anxiety? If you have not been consumed by extreme anguish over the fate of the planet, you will surely have succumbed to the current food alarmism.

Ross Pomeroy has it just about right. (via Maggie’s Farm)When you come down to it, everything you eat has been associated with cancer.

If you have kept up with food science you know that whereas in the past we were told that eggs, butter, steak and bacon caused high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity, they have now been exculpated. The real poison is carbohydrates… or at least it will be until someone discovers otherwise.

Meantime, Pomeroy explains the general hysteria:

I hate to break it to you, but almost everything in daily life has been linked to cancer: burnt toast, hot dogs, poor tooth brushing, you name it!

You now have two choices: panic or continue on with your day.

I recommend the latter.

Much of the health information you read online or hear on the morning news comes from observational studies -- scientists look at people who eat certain foods, or take certain drugs, or live certain lifestyles and see how their health compares with the health of people who don't do those things. Studies like these have revealed some disconcerting links: Women who eat yogurt at least once a month have twice the risk of ovarian cancer. People who drink coffee twice a day have double the risk of pancreatic cancer. Individuals with a "Type A" personality have more heart attacks.

There is, however, a general trend in regards to observational studies. They have a very high chance of being flat out wrong.

The moral of the story is: moderation in all things great and small. Eating moderate amounts of a variety of foods is probably the best for your health. Gorging yourself on only one kind of food or eliminating several kinds of foods will probably deprive you of needed nutrients and make you feel hungry all the time.

But, aren’t there some foods—besides kale—that are good for you? Hasn’t research shown the benefits of red wine and beer? I certainly hope so.

Before dismissing all foods as carcinogens, we must mention those happy few that are decidedly beneficial. Beginning with chocolate.

The Los Angeles Times has the story:

More good news for chocoholics: New research has found that devoted consumers of chocolate -- including some who consume the equivalent of about two standard candy bars a day -- are 11% less likely than those who eat little to no chocolate to have heart attacks and strokes, and 25% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.

But, don’t forget to exercise:

Those in the highest chocolate-consuming group not only had lower rates of heart attack and stroke, but they also had, on average, lower body-mass indexes, lower systolic blood pressure and inflammation, and lower rates of diabetes. They also tended to exercise more.

Now, naturally, the studies that suggested this correlation are exactly the kinds that Pomeroy advised us against taking seriously. As the scientists say, more research is needed:

But Dr. Farzaneh Aghdassi Sorond of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston says it's time for such observational studies to give way to trials that probe deeper questions: Is it chocolate, or something else that comes with a chocolate-eating life, that makes people healthier? And if it is chocolate, what is it specifically about this long-consumed bean that confers better health?

Excellent phrase there: “the chocolate-eating life.”

Whatever it means, it sounds a lot better than abstinence.


Ares Olympus said...

A while ago I was reading something about "The future of medicine" and the message seemed to be that in the future all diet and health advice would be specialized towards your age, gender, occupation, genetic background and lifestyle.

It sounded pie-in-the-sky, but in the world of "data", it seemed almost possible, if only we could isolate all the variables with our billions of people.

So on diet like perhaps blacks generally should reduce sodium, and east asians should avoid dairy, but maybe eventually the genetic melting pot will become fully mixed and there'll be no "pure"-breed advice left for the data geeks to tell us what we personally need to avoid, and which type of kale or oatmeal is best for our genes to reduce our personal cancer risks.

But on the anxiety front, the problem is when worrying is worse for you than what you think you need to avoid. And probably the reason many people flock to the latest fad advice is that they can have a moment of peace in believing they're finally doing it right.

Emotionally it seems like the problem is we have some sense of "good" and "bad", and want to categorize the world between these broad categories, while things in the real world are neither good nor bad, but have benefits and costs to us in the short run and the long run differently, and need worry to invoke higher mental skills to deal with short term benefits for uncertain long term costs.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good points... I agree... that the worrying is sometimes worse than what you think you need to avoid... and also agree that people flock to fad diets because it provides a moment of respite from the worry. Of course, the food and diet industry, abetted by science, is generating this anxiety, as it generated anxiety about a certain number of physical illnesses.