Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bought and sold

The more I read about 'health' research, the more sceptical I am of any edict about diet or lifestyle. It starts by doubting the headlines (housework prevents cancer), then you read the articles and get sceptical of science journalism. So far you're only blaming the messengers. But then you go on the internet and find the articles the press-releases are based on, and they don't prove anything. It's when you read the articles in their entirety, and see badly designed study after badly designed study, which don't prove anything, despite what their authors claim. Theoretically journal articles are supposed to be refereed to ensure that they actually prove what they say they prove. As articles that clearly don't prove what their authors claim are allowed through this process, why do we believe any of it?

And yet, I was still surprised to read an article arguing that a diet high in saturated fat did not make people more prone to heard disease.

Malcolm Kendrick appears to be making two claims: that there's no evidence that a diet high in saturated fat causes elevated cholesterol, and that there's no proof that elevated cholesterol levels leads to an increase risk of heart disease, or death. Read the article yourself - I'm sure you'll hear more about it - he's got a book coming out (the parts about cholesterol lowering drugs are particularly interesting).

I'm not saying I believe Malcolm Kendrick - necessarily. In fact I make it a matter of principle to disbelieve everything in the Daily Mail. There's some really bad logic in the article (almost all foods on saturated fats were rationed in the UK during and post-war, but the level of heart-disease doubled - this is supposed to be evidence that there is no link between heart disease and saturated fats. Unless there was more than one risk factor for heart disease). I wouldn't be surprised of Dr Kendrick, or others doing this research had some connection with the meat and dairy industry (if you were part of the meat industry wouldn't you pay him?)

But at this point everyone is being paid by someone. Food is manufactured for a profit, as is food advice. Malcolm Kendrick gives the examples of the 9 memeber panel that decided to lower the recommended cholesterol level - 8 had ties to the pharmaceutical compnaies that produce cholesterol lowering drugs.

The ridiculous nature of nutritional advice can be seen when the anti-carb people fight the anti-fat people. Each side is very good at demonstrating why it's a bad idea to demosing an entire food-group, but the argument behind this isn't that demonising a food group is probably a bad idea, but that we need to eliminate the right food group (and I'm sure the anti-carb people are funded by industries that are high fat, and vice versa).

We have a puritanical attitude towards food. The idea that virtue will be rewarded, and that virtue is the elimination of pleasure, and the quest towards perfection, describe most mainstream conversation about food (and as a political activist I must point out far too much non-mainstream discussion as well). This fits in well with the needs of our food producers (which is for us to buy their products, in case you were wondering). Meat producers can make you feel virtuous when people are worrying about carbohyrate, bread produceers when people are worrying about fat. The people who make chocolate, donuts, and deep fried potatoes know that these ideas of sin and virtue serve their intersts as much as anyone else's - because it's only within that context that people can transgress by eating.

At this stage willing to believe that it's dangerous to smoke, and eat arsenic - but it appears that we've got to take everything else of faith. Personally I've got other things I'd rather spend energy believing in.


  1. I've become very sceptical about this stuff too, particularly since I did some reading about the 8 glasses of water a day thing:

  2. Anonymous1:40 am

    Most scientific studies are peer reviewed especially the ones that are appeared in major international journals and this is facts. The majority of health studies are analysed using statistical inferences techniques, meaning that causation is not established. It is not like a branch of physical science such as physics that causation is always established, and when it does, then that discovery becomes and established laws of physics. Health which falls in the biological science, is more complex and that is why inferences is the only first methods applied to the data to give some rough ideas of any direct or indirect linkages in causations, that is 'cause A' leads to 'effect B'. Statistical inference is pure induction and not firm deduction of cause-effect. There is no wonder that some of the studies in bio-medical science seemed to contradict each other because of inferences. In physics, there are some disagreements, but if you measure the speed of light in vacuum, it has the same value whether the experiment is conducted up on Jupiter's surface or underneath a submarine in the atlantic ocean.

    I am too have decided to ignore conflicting studies from bio-medical science. A study here that found taking a regular glass of wine is good and another study says that avoiding alcohol altogether is better for the heart.

  3. Anonymous2:00 am

    Capitalism Bad, correct me if I am wrong here. The computer that you use to write to this blog, was manufactured by you or you bought it (including the parts) from a capitalist producer? If you didn't manufacture your own that I think that the title of your blog is obviously misleading, which it should say "Capitalism Good" , because of the followings:

    #1) I use a car (or vehicle) for transport, which was not manufactured by me.

    #2) I use a computer (to write material for this blog), which was not manufactured by me.

    #3) I use a telephone (fixed or mobile), which was not manufactured by me.

    #4) I use electricity at home, which is not produced by me.

    #5) I use an ipod to listen to music, which was not manufactured by me.

    #6) I sometimes fly in an aeroplane or a jet, which was not built by me.

    #)... blah, blah, blah,...

    God, without Capitalist producers, you would be still living in a cave-man's era, which is so primitive that you wouldn't want to.

  4. And if capitalism was the only system of production that could create such things, you might have a point...