Saturday, July 30, 2016

Pandora's Lunchbox

Processed food is bad for you, but it is cheap and convenient. Whole plants are much better for you than than fortified processed foods. That pretty much sums up Pandora's Lunchbox. However, the journey is worth the read. The book covers a lot of the "underbelly" of food production. Food processors attempt to make food that is quick to prepare and has a long shelf life. Unfortunately, this often makes it taste horrible and not very nutritious. Thus, they add additional chemical flavors and vitamins to make up for the loss. (Thus, we get chicken with added "Chicken flavor") The processing reduces a lot of the benefit that we may not fully know about. (The vitamin does not work in isolation, but with many other components.) It can also lead to oddities such as the "melting chicken nugget".

With all the negative implications of processed food, why do we consume it? Companies spend millions of dollars marketing the processed junk to us. However, these same companies will often sell healthier, less processed foods. Alas, people are more driven towards the "cheap fix" rather than something that takes more effort to prepare. And companies are eager to make a buck. Cost ends up becoming a huge part of the equation. The government provides "raw" food for school lunches. However, schools find it cheaper to divert this to processors and then buy back the less nutritious processed food. The processed food is also physically and chemically modified to last longer, thus allowing it to last longer, potentially saving cost and reducing waste in the short term. The cost is only felt in long term when the increased health care expenses and worse quality of life are present. The book even provides an anecdote where swearing off processed food helped a family - a child had his mental condition improve and the father lost weight. The mother (who initiated the plan) felt jealous that it did not help her lose weight, but felt better and continued it on. Eating less processed foods required a sacrifice of time, but paid off dividends in health.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

North Korea really is in its own little world. It is surrounded by two booming economies, yet it lives on as a totalitarian Stalinist police state. Wrongs against the state are punished to the third generation. Thus we get the experiences of people that are born in prison camps. Despite never having committed a wrong, they live their entire lives in a camp. Their parents may also have been innocent, with their only crime being having a relative that did something offensive to the state.

Shin Dong-hyuk grew up in one of these camps. His parents were allowed the privilege of marrying and having a child. He did not know anything outside of the camp. He witnessed the execution of his mother and brother. He barely knew what life was like outside of the camp. Hearing tales of meat and good food from a fellow prisoner whetted his appetite for escape. (Life in North Korea was glamorous compared to what he knew in the camp.) When he befriended another prisoner who had lived in China, they plotted an escape. Alas, his friend was killed on the electric fence, but he made it out alive. He wandered around North Korea for a while until he escaped into China, and then with the help of a journalist he ran into made it to the South Korean embassy and into South Korea and then the United States. Once he made it to South Korea, he became part of a support network of people that have been eager to help him (and use him to further the anti-North Korea cause.) He has had trouble adapting to the new life and reconciling his past behavior.

Escape from Camp 14 was told by the escapee through an American writer. Due to the dearth of information available about North Korea, it is very difficult to verify much of the story. (However, the author states that some google map imagery meshes with the locations in the story.) The story does seem convincing enough. It is eye-opening to realize that the concentration camps and their de-humanizing conditions still exist.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition

The American "Health Care" system tends to be more of a "disease management system". Most of the focus is on treating adverse symptoms. This works great in responding to acute issues (such as a broken arm or a heart attack.) However, it does a horrible job of preventing chronic conditions (including those that lead up to heart attacks.) There is plenty of information "out there", but much of it tends to be misleading or contradictory. (Some chemical in one food reduces heart attack risk, but another in the same food increases risk of diabetes.)

The processed food industry simply retools their recipes in response to the latest research. Coconut oil is bad? Ok, lets add partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Trans fats are bads? Ok, lets retool with another fat and add some new chemicals to maintain the taste and stability. The product appears healthier in the day, but people do not seem to do much better. Luckily, the pharmaceutical industry is here to offer us a pill to help counter our new chronic condition. Unfortunately, the pill comes with some side effects. Luckily there is a pill that can treat that. And now we are committed.

Why do we have to take so much effort to make the chronic symptoms go away? Why can't we just find a cure that makes the condition go away? The authors of Whole argue that we can find the natural solution - and it involves nothing more than eating a balanced diet based on whole, planted-based foods. The volume of of "chemical compounds" consumed in our food far outweighs that in pills. Why can't it help us? The book argues that it does. However, "reductionist science" tends to looks for isolated chemicals, rather than consider the impact of everything together. As an example, a food like an apple has many nutrients that work together. While it has a small amount of vitamin C, consuming an apple make more available than a supplement with much more of the vitamin. The many other components of the apple work together to provide the overall nutritive benefit. Our current science paradigm focuses on isolating individual components and using these as supplements or drugs. While this does have some value. A much better solution would be to look at the whole. (But, alas, an apple a day may just keep the doctor away.)

I agree whole-heatedly with the anti-reductionist argument. Science is stuck is this "evidence-based" reductionist paradigm that makes it difficult to understand the "entire human". Food produces love to give us quick, tasty food without really caring about the long term impact. There are billions of dollars in the industry. Stopping it all would wreck havoc on the economy. But, is the alternative better? Avoiding heavily processed foods would almost certainly improve health. But what about convenience? Our current society does not assign culpability for diseases, thus further encouraging the bad behavior. Why not get the cheap, easy food and drive our car and watch TV. The diseases we get our just "natural accidents". Medicine will help find a cure. What if instead we really focused on health. Don't waste the money researching pills to cure the lazy, when all they really need is broccoli and a bicycle. Instead focus the efforts on better understanding what people need to do to improve their overall health and identifying the true toxins that can be eliminated from the environment.

As for the diet suggested, more holistic research would be useful. Here, a low fat, vegetarian diet seems healthy. In Big Fat Surprise, a high protein, high fat diet was found better. In both cases, however, the foods tended to be "whole", with minimal processed food. It seems clear that processed food is the bad guy. Listings of "micro-nutrients" and and fortified foods only seem to mislead us. The good guys may come in many forms. Alas, they don't have a huge lobby.

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Old Way

What would happen if you spent your youth living with a society of primitive hunter-gatherers? Elizabeth Marshall Thomas found herself infatuated with their society and found it a recent-history utopia. The African Bushman seemed to be peace loving people who just wanted to go about their normal life. They didn't have many of the problems of modern society, nor any of the half-baked (and inconsistently enforced solutions.)

The first part of the book is an interesting analysis of the hunter-gatherers and how many of how man evolved. Men could run down big game, often using their endurance as a benefit. Simple weapons would come later. Lions and men would generally mind their own business. (Hyenas, however, would be willing to jump on the feeble.) The society was regularly on the move, and did not have time for many of the "trappings of society" (or their problems.)

Alas, the infatuation with the way of life seems to go overboard. Luckily, at the conclusion, the author acknowledges that the way of life does not exist anymore. The hunter gatherers have had huge problems adjusting to modern life and have been extremely susceptible to alcohol. The "old way" that she saw in her youth was likely not scalable to a larger society. With a small group of people, isolated in a life-or-death environment, the rule of law is fairly simple. You must share to survive. You can't worry yourself about stupid things. Once in greater contact and a part of society, this breaks down. For agriculturalists, property rights are extremely important. Managing herds is much different than hunting wild animals. Adapting to the new society is a huge challenge, especially when others all around are in a more advanced state. Living the "old way" in the modern world becomes impossible.

Now the Bushman are left as an underclass and a museum piece in their own land. Fences and regulations drove them from their life style. Few of those remaining want to return. (It is hard work after all.) Progress has led us to lose many of the cultures and ways of living in favor of our new "mono-culture". We have "diversity" but only within a limited range. Life is now the "new way".