Back from #AmAnth2018, some updates!

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What a conference! I’m always full of excitement & overwhelmed by all the knowledge after attending the American Anthropological Association annual meeting (like in 2015, for example).. and this is my 6th time!

However, this trip has been the best so far. I finished my PhD degree from ASU in May 2017 and haven’t seen most of my colleagues ever since.. until this week! I saw my friends from ASU; met with my amazing PhD mentor (Dr. Hruschka) and several other professors i’ve worked with before; caught up with my “island friends” (a group of amazing folks who spent 3 weeks with me in 2013 at an NSF-sponsored research methods camp). I even ended up on camera a couple of times!

The SciComm boom

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Camera,lights,action!

Speaking of cameras. It all began with me looking for science communication talks and posters at the AAA. I did the same thing last year but did not succeed. THIS year I noticed a fantastic poster from the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) on engaging religious groups in science communication. And the people next to the poster actually knew about our Science Communication Journal club!! (@scicomm_jc on Twitter). There seems to have been some sort of a shift – suddenly my #scicomm work is interesting to other anthro scholars and that is amazing. That is how i ended up on the first short video interview for the AAA conference + another interview that followed (stay tuned).

In terms of the rest of the conference – it was so overwhelmingly magnificent that I can’t write down everything I enjoyed. So i made a twitter moment instead HERE. I also shared a summary of an amazing public engagement/science session on our scicommjc IGTV (see @scicommjc on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/scicommjc/ but i think IGTV videos are only visible from phone).

What else is new?

Well, we just finished a pretty impressive election project at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, titled LA Votes. Over 100 students at over 600 polling places around LA County. More than 1,500 exit poll surveys and 600 polling place quality assessments collected. All of this in ONE DAY. This study was no joke.

Our results were then picked up by the Los Angeles Times HERE (woohoo!). Also by LA Taco HERE¬†(weee!). And here is a snapshot from the Election Central watch-party the night of the study. You can’t even tell how exhausted we are with some of my student supervisors ūüôā

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With our amazing student supervisors! Election Central.

In the next couple of weeks I am also revising a paper. Feeling quite ready to now publish the third and final paper from my dissertation work! This one is extra fun because it’s my qualitative work aka fascinating in-depth interviews with Eastern Europeans and North Americans about meanings behind healthy eating styles (this stuff but the qualitative portion). Stay tuned.

Lastly, I can’t wait for Spring… because i get to teach again! I’ve missed lecturing like crazy since starting my researcher position at StudyLA, so this is a very welcome addition to a rather busy work schedule. I will be co-teaching an internship class with our center’s associate director and ALSO guest lecturing in the evolutionary psychology class. Now, the latter is pure fun, since the evolution of human food preferences is my #1 favorite topic (you know, this stuff I wrote).

That’s all for the updates, happy upcoming holidays!

Addicted to “Food Addiction”

I recently wrote a short article on “food addiction” for the Risk Innovation Lab’s CrisBits¬†blog (collaboratively published by Arizona State and Michigan University!).¬†This piece¬†mainly focuses on the scientific side of the issue- I really wanted to broadly cover research on the topic, since so many popular articles on food addiction focus on singular studies (and end up being extremely misleading). Yet I also really wanted to address the topic from an anthropological perspective.

…¬†the notion of addictive foods attracts us on a much deeper level as well

So why are we.. almost addicted to the belief that “food addiction” is a thing? If you read¬†my CrisBits article, you’ll¬†see that there is (as of now)¬†no actual evidence for any food ingredients causing addictive-like responses in humans. The field is highly debated, though: there’s plenty of scholars arguing pro and against. On top of that, the media often does a horrible job sensationalizing food addiction research (well, I suppose it does a great job sensationalizing, but a horrible job communicating the results correctly). All of that can surely create the illusion that science actually supports the food addiction theory. However, the notion of addictive foods attracts us on a much deeper level as well…

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The allure of addictive foods

There is a strong cultural appeal in the idea that certain ‚Äúbad‚ÄĚ foods or their components can cause dependence and are thus dangerous (e.g. MSG, casein, gluten). This view of overeating as addiction includes the need to ‚Äúdetox‚ÄĚ and instead eat a ‚Äúclean‚ÄĚ diet (e.g. this:¬†The Diary of a Sugar Addict in Detox).

These are not just modern health trends, but a manifestation of a need to understand our world by imposing structure and thus meaning on the untidy experience that is reality. Structure is created by categorizing things into clean/unclean, healthy/unhealthy, pure/dirty- and things that don‚Äôt clearly fit into such categories are considered unclean and dangerous. Anthropologist Mary Douglas makes this point in her seminal book, Purity and Danger, as she examines food taboos (cultural rules about what not to eat). Douglas points that prohibited foods are considered ‚Äúpolluting‚ÄĚ because they defy easy classification into culturally important categories. The current unease with genetically engineered foods is a fantastic modern example: as a technology that blurs the lines between natural and unnatural domains, it is indeed often termed by opponents as ‚Äúgenetic pollution‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúcontamination‚ÄĚ.

…prohibited foods are considered ‚Äúpolluting‚ÄĚ because they defy easy classification into culturally important categories.

The categories we create to make sense of the world have strong moral overtones, as they allow us to essentially define right and wrong. Indeed, the word ‚Äúaddiction‚ÄĚ itself is connected to the moral disapproval of socially undesirable behaviors (e.g. drug abuse). Psychologist Paul Rozin points out how the fear of sugars in American diets, for example, reflects the Puritan belief that things that are very pleasurable must also be bad.

Religious Scholar Alan Levinovitz also emphasizes that people frame eating in terms of morality and religion. He discusses how concepts of healthiness reflect the ‚Äúmyth of paradise past‚ÄĚ- the idealistic belief that things were better, healthier, and even morally superior before. From such perspective, novel changes to foods represent our fall from grace- whether via agriculture (e.g. as in paleo diet ideology) or industrialization and technology (as with processed and genetically modified foods).

So, that’s my little anthropological view of food addiction beliefs as a cultural phenomenon. Hope you enjoyed it!


P.S. You might see news reports on studies about food addiction.. but keep in mind that¬†no clinical diagnosis for “food addiction” exists, and most such research uses a self-report questionnaire: the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). This tool uses DSM-IV‚Äôs generic criteria for substance abuse to measure addictive-like eating.

Most importantly, it does not validate the existence of ‚Äúfood addiction‚ÄĚ as a true disorder (DSM diagnostic criteria is intended for trained clinicians, not a checklist for self-diagnosis via a simple questionnaire). This is a critical issue to consider, as most food addiction research with humans is based on diagnosing food addiction this way.

Last week at the Culture Change & Behavior lab

Last week our lab held the last meeting for the semester. And to celebrate a great productive year we had… chocolate-covered insects. It’s a bizarre tradition carried over from ~1 ago when the lab studied disgust towards eating different animals ūüôā

I will miss working with our fantastic undergraduate apprentices! This semester we focused on 2 projects: 1)using process tracing software to examine how much different types of information matter for making food healthiness judgments, and 2) measuring household wealth (& how it affects health) across the world.

The first project was my “baby”: after mostly survey and interview work over the past several semesters, I really wanted to try learning a new method. I both hated and loved it: the learning curve can be brutal, but once we got some preliminary results things felt worth it!
We used a process tracing software that allows you to analyze the decision making process of participants. We used this program to have people rate different foods on healthiness after checking some information about them. We gave them two types of information- positive (e.g. presence of vitamins) and negative (e.g. presence of artificial ingredients). Our pilot confirmed the hypothesis that people do in fact spend more time checking out negative information! (See chart: time/Y axis is in milliseconds)
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For the other project I spent the last 7 MONTHS harmonizing and cataloguing the many assets and services used to assess household wealth in low-income countries. The main question for this project is to examine how economic inequalities shape global health outcomes (e.g. obesity in adults and child growth) and to test whether different pathways to wealth might shape these things differently. I’m happy to announce that we in fact DID finish all the data harmonization and merging (it was no spring picnic) and the lab will now begin analyzing the data and examining different dimensions of wealth.

Uhh I will miss this amazing team for sure.. but hey- in about a week I graduate! What a strange feeling it is!

Cognition paper published!

Ta-da! Finally. Mine and Dr. Hruschka’s paper is finally out in the Journal of Cognition and Culture. This survey work was done over 2 years in both Eastern Europe and Southwestern U.S. So glad to see it in print!

HERE is the PDF: CognitiveDifferences_Paper2017. Also, if you don’t feel like reading it, i just recorded a 5-minute overview of the paper (recorded between meetings.. after 2 cups of coffee.. sorry if I talk quickly!).

The “other countries banned it” argument

Posts like these.. drive me just slightly crazy these days.

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I don’t blame anyone for getting affected by them.. but let me tell you a little story about banning “bad” stuff by other more enlightened countries who are apparently less evil and profit-driven than US (insert eyeroll).

This summer I interviewed participants in Ukraine as part of my project on food and health perceptions. Several¬†of my respondents happened to be lawyers.. One of the topics under discussion was GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The non-GMO stickers have been put on foods in the country since at least 2013 Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 1.34.56 PMwhen I visited last. Anything from foods to chewing gum to water bottles boasted the round green NO GMO sticker. Most people I discussed it with actually acknowledged it was simple¬†marketing and didn’t place much trust in the stickers anyway..

So when this July my interviewees mentioned that “well, you HAVE to have the non-GMO label in Ukraine”, I thought they meant that brands¬†just needs to keep up with the competition in hopes of selling more of their product under the illusion of naturalness and purity (big deal for Ukrainians, who still live with¬†the Chernobyl accident of 86, and still worry about environmental pollution in foods).

Well, No- i was told. Ukraine in fact passed an actual law somewhat recently forbidding the import, export, production, or sale of foods with any GMOs. So if you want to place a product on the shelves of Ukrainian stores, they simply have to be certified non-GMO.Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 12.38.56 PM

Oh! OK… what about reality? In actuality, if you’re placing that product on Ukrainian shelves.. you just pay to get the label put on. Ta-da, it’s non-GMO!

It is all so political, that discussions of population health are mostly for decoration..

Posts like that mentioned above are designed¬†to get you thinking with indignation¬†“I can’t believe my country is so interested in profits!.. they sacrifice our health while other countries actually care about their people’s well being..”. But why do you think Ukraine banned GMOs? It’s to make $ off the new certification and labeling procedures, it’s to look cool in front of Europe (we really want to be accepted to EU, mkay), it’s to keep our image as a serious exporter of quality agricultural products (hey, Ukraine wants to stay the famous breadbasket of Europe! And demand for “clean” or eco agriculture is big. You can’t afford to lose your place in that market)…

It is all so political, that discussions of population health are mostly for decoration (not like absolutely nobody cares, but that’s not the main¬†reason for any of these policies). And of course this is not just Ukraine- I’m just telling you a short specific story. Either way, poor regulatory practices in the country mean that anyone can buy that non-GMO label: nobody’s testing anything and nobody is¬†checking compliance, guys.

Meat, Plants, and Humans..

This week on ASU campus I managed to attend a fascinating talk: Reconsidering the Role of Plant Foods in Hominin Diets by Dr. Chelsea Leonard. Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 11.41.44 AM

It was a job talk for the Evolutionary Anthropology department here at ASU and Dr. Leonard is an evolutionary ecologist interested in “human foraging decisions & diet reconstruction”(so- her work would help to clarify¬†what humans ate in the past!)¬†working with Twe populations in Namibia (southwest Africa).

Why does Dr. Leonard study the role of plants? Since shifting towards more meat in diets of early humans has been¬†suggested to be crucial for the unique adaptations in our genus (e.g. large brains), animal foods¬†appear¬†to be very Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 12.00.04 PMimportant. There is indeed a strong case for meat in a human diet- in comparison to chimpanzees who are mostly herbivorous (eat plants), the human gut has opposite proportions- our small intestine is much longer, while the colon is a lot shorter. The colon is where fiber fermentation occurs- something crucial if you are eating lots of plant foods (and wild plant foods are very high fiber!). What Dr. Leonard suggests, though, is that meat’s importance in human diets may be quite¬†overstated¬†(especially in meat-heavy “paleo” diets popular now).

The people she studies- Twe- are “forager-horticulturalists”; while the Namibian government has been providing maize for them (this started very recently, in the last 7 yrs or so), they mostly forage for wild foods and have very low intake of animal products. Apparently, historically this population hunted large game and had a higher meat intake.. but the area is very poor in large animals now (and has been this way for ~200 yrs).

While I wont’ be able to describe everything Dr. Leonard discussed, I found the following fascinating.. Based on her observations and interviews with the Twe, she constructed and analyzed a hypothetical (yet realistic) diet for this region.¬†Since Twe seem to be doing just fine health-wise with an extremely low animal food intake (there might be some birds, insects, rodents eaten from time to time), she wanted to test if their meatless diet truly meet basic nutritional requirements. FullSizeRender 9

Based on the plants the Twe regularly eat, her analysis showed that such meatless diet can realistically provide enough protein (it can reach minimum levels of essential amino acids our body can not produce without foods that contain them), it can also provide enough fat (while most plant sources were extremely low in fat, the grass seeds often eaten are rather high in it). The main issue with this meatless diet was calories. Getting enough calories to survive would be improbable : while the hypothetical food intake reaches 1774 calories a day.. only 772 of them are metabolized. What this means is that a lot of these calories are not available to the human body- since humans can not ferment fibers very efficiently, a lot of this rough wild plant fiber is indigestible and does not provide our body with energy.

The main issue with this meatless diet was calories.

Since foraging for wild plants ¬†is very labor intensive¬†(and this does not really mean standing around picking berries, but e.g. digging up roots that are about 1 meter (~40 inches) into the ground, or grinding grass seeds and cooking them into porridge), there isn’t enough time in a day to get enough digestible calories from foraging. So animal products are more efficient and provide a concentrated mix of not only essential nutrients, but fat, protein, and calories. While the speaker couldn’t quite estimate the % of calories coming from small game (the birds, insects, etc.), it was very small but still was a part of this population’s diet¬†[note:¬†any time honey was available, it was eaten in large amounts and rather adored, apparently!]. Thus,¬†while a ¬†vegetarian diet can be maintained¬†in our modern world with plentiful food supply (and supplementation), it was not possible for non-industrialized populations.

humans are highly adaptable as we span huge geographical areas, and thus no single “diet” “made us human”

We know humans are highly adaptable as we span huge geographical areas, and thus no single “diet” “made us human” (thus, there is no one Paleo Diet). Yet plants are extremely important in our history- we see that they can sustain populations in good health to a very large degree. One issue with studying the role of plants in human diets is that they do not last well archeologically (e.g. it’s much easier to find evidence of large game being consumed, because their remains last well).

while a  vegetarian diet can be maintained in our modern world with plentiful food supply (and supplementation), it was not possible for non-industrialized populations.

Overall, this was a really great talk! It also reminded me of a paper I read on the significance of plant foods in human evolution, which I talked about HERE.

[note: if you are an evolutionary anthropologist sand have any edits/clarifications to my post, please comment! I am not an evolutionary anthropologist :)]

5000 anthropologists walk into a bar..

The annual American Anthropological Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 12.57.33 PMAssociation (AAA) meeting¬†has ended! This is my 3rd year attending and it is still as crazy, overwhelming, and fun at the first time. ūüôā

The 2015 meeting was in Denver, CO (gorgeous gorgeous city! My first time there) and I wanted to write down a couple of impressions and things learned from this year’s event.

SO, first of all- what I presented on.. This September I began collecting my dissertation data. I also got accepted for a poster session for the Anthropology Society for Food & Nutrition at the AAA, thus I knew I’d better have an interesting poster ready by mid November. :S

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Finishing up interviews while in Finland!

It was rushed & stressful (when is it not?), I had to put together the poster & print it from Finland (I was traveling constantly before the AAAs!) but it got done.

My poster showed some preliminary results of how people (from mostly urban southwestern US) talk about healthy eating. I mostly focused on results from the pile sorting interview (presenting visual “maps” of how the 42 cars people sorted can be represented in 2 dimensions when averaged over 30 participants). I also talked about the several distinct “theories” of healthy eating that emerged from the interviews (using Q sort agreement rankings). I got good feedback and some very crucial suggestions for further work!

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Two hours of poster talking! :S Exhausting but great.

 

Of course, I also attended a bunch of amazing talks! Some of my favorites are summarized here:

  • Dr. Hruschka’s talk in the Environmental Anthropology session was one of the best (he is also my PhD committee chair :P). In his presentation, he mentioned the highly fashionable explanatory model called¬†the reverse gradient. This is an observed pattern in the US (& other high-income countries) where poor women have higher levels of fat (on average) than women who are more wealthy (this is reversed when compared to the REST of the planet, where increasing resources correlate with increases in body weight).

    Many assume it has to do with poverty and not having time and resources to eat well and exercise. But actually, a great deal of data supports a different explanation: the body capital hypothesis. This hypothesis proposed that the anti-fat discrimination in marriage and jobs actually limits the economic mobility of people (particularly females) who have more body fat. So- husbands and employees seem to discriminate against heavier women.
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  • Another cool talk I heard was by Dr. Tamar Kremer-Sadlik (UCLA) who looked at the “ecology of eating perspectives” or the context in which eating takes place. Her study video recorded typical dinners¬†in US and French families. They noticed that the existence of courses (so like a salad, main dish, dessert) reduced competition between foods and resulted in kids eating more vegetables. In other words- if your dinner table’s meal structure has few divisions into course (US families tended to have a single course + dessert, so all foods were served together), the presence of vegetables an be easily overshadowed by everything else available. In order to “share” a meal, you need to collaborate- if you have a single course, that collaboration exists whether you specifically eat the vegetable part of the dish or not (as you take some of the food offered).

    In the French family dinners, they saw a lot more division into courses (starter, main, salad, cheese, yoghurt and fruit). To be collaborative during each course, one has to eat some of whatever is served at each course. If most of the courses include vegetables, the kids would overall eat a lot more vegetables over dinner. To quantify this difference: 47% of American kids didn’t touch vegetables, while only 10% of French kids didn’t.
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  • One last fun lecture I went to was called “Pet Ownership as Cues of Character” by a group from University of Colorado Springs (Evolutionary Anthropology session). They began by saying that many studies have found that women and men attenuate to cues of attractiveness differently: women seem to pay more attention to cues of character os success. For example, one study showed that women rated men paying positive attention to an infant as more attractive, while men did not rate photos of women differently (whether they were paying attention to infant or ignoring it).

    So this group hypothesized that perhaps women conflate cues of parenting ability into attractiveness. They tested it with pet ownership, instead of having a baby! They asked US respondents to rate photos of individuals in 3 scenarios: paying attention to a dog, ignoring the dog, and a neutral/reading book photo. To their surprise,¬†they found that only MEN rated women as MORE attractive and as MORE desirable partners when shown the photo¬†where women pay positive attention to¬†the pet. Women were not rating males with¬†pets as more attractive. While the study could have some important flaws, that’s a pretty cool and intriguing outcome.
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There were a LOT more talks I found fascinating, but it is too overwhelming to mention them all ūüôā #AAA2015

Till next year!

Folk Remedies, Cold Wind, & the Miracle of Cultural Knowledge

I’m not usually inspired to blog about anything non-food related.. yet when you wake up in the morning feeling well¬†after literally crying yourself to sleep with pain the night before.. WELL you feel inspired to share ūüôā

The Pain is Real

2 days ago I began having strange deep shoulder pain that would bother me when I moved a certain way or inhaled deeply. Since I do aerial (e.g. silks, aerial hoop) and know many people who get injured by not warming up enough or doing a move wrong.. I immediately assumed that i pulled a muscle the day before when I was trying tricks on the playground. It seemed like the most logical explanation, though I was bothered by one problem: I did not feel an injury as I did various inversions. When you pull something, you normally notice something immediately and I did not.

My immediate explanatory model for the pain was my aerial practice the day before- it seemed most plausible that I pulled a muscle while inverting (and not warming up). The alternative explanation of AC blowing on my neck for my 6 hour car trip seemed silly in comparison.. yet turned out to be true!
My immediate explanatory model for the pain was my aerial practice the day before- it seemed most plausible that I pulled a muscle while inverting (and not warming up). The alternative explanation of AC blowing on my neck for my 6 hour car trip seemed silly in comparison.. yet turned out to be true.

On the next day the pain spread and was following me all morning no matter what I did- inhaled, sneezed, turned my neck to the left, lifted my arm. My Romanian in-laws, upon hearing my complains,¬†suggested it was due to having AC on in the car while driving from AZ to CA. Having lived in the US for too long, I quickly dismissed this scenario. I suppose I forgot the fear of the draft i’ve¬†been instilled with¬†in childhood. Somehow, Americans do not generally hold the belief that¬†cold air can cause¬†issues, though you hear about this in so many other cultures. Germans, Japanese, Russians- they all can tell you some stories about the dangers of THE draft.¬†I heard so much back in Ukraine about not sleeping with a window open or not having your window down¬†while driving, that I took it for granted.. yet¬†absolutely¬†lost this caution in my new country of citizenship!

The Folk Remedy

After multiple muscle creams, tennis ball massages against the wall, and resting.. the pain just made me want to miserably walk around sobbing¬†and eating chocolate… Then came the miracle of an old Romanian folk remedy. It was a very sophisticated procedure: I got rubbing alcohol… rubbed around the painful area…and covered with a towel to keep warm before bed. Ta….da….

When I woke¬†up, I¬†couldn’t believe that the horrific suffering of the day before was simply gone. It did make me smell like a cheap alcoholic mixed drink for about 15 minutes after I got covered and wrapped (my friends politely sat away covering their noses with their t-shirts), but that was the only side-effect i experienced. The relief the next morning was so unexpected it felt like magic– and even prompted me to share this little story in my blog!

Fear the Draft

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THE MIRACLE REMEDY “THEY” DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT :))))))

I later talked to my parents, who said “ohh. well, that’s myositis!! why the hell didn’t you tell us, we’d tell you what to do!” They say that it can last for weeks if you do not do anything about it. I shuddered at the thought of enduring that horrible feeling for more than two days straight :S

I later Googled “horrible shoulder/neck pain caused by cold air” in need of an official explanation. It looks like¬†cold air blowing on certain parts of the body (seems like neck area is particularly vulnerable) for a period of time¬†without movement (like when you sleep..OR when you drive from AZ to LA with cold AC blowing on your neck ūüôā) can cause your muscle to stiffen and thus lead to this horrific deal. My friend, a PT, also told me over the phone that my muscle must have¬†spasmed and I managed to increase¬†the blood flow to it with the alcohol. Such¬†biomedical explanatory stories satisfied my curiosity- not like I needed them to get rid of the pain, yet the mind simply needed to understand!!

Well.. big YAY for cheap rubbing alcohol from CVS & the fantastic human ability to transmit cultural knowledge through generations in the form of folk remedies!

Healthy Eating- Real or Imaginable??

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The lobby of one of the conference hotels during non-busy time. The hallways were overflowing with anthropologists all over the world just hours later ūüėÄ

This December I presented on my research at the American Anthropological Association in D.C. (woohoo!) What a blast! The conference was bursting with anthropologists all over the globe; the 5-day event was so packed with presentations that the program which included just names of talks & authors ran about 500 pages.

Anyway, one of the interesting moments from the trip was a scholar¬†(I believe she did some work in Latin America but I don’t know what kind of anthropologist she was), who was seemingly¬†bothered¬†by our session on food and nutrition. Our talks focused on¬†“healthy eating” as a social construct [a social phenomenon¬†created and developed by¬†society; a perception or idea¬†that is ‘constructed’¬†through cultural or social practice]. My talk was on how perceptions of what healthy eating means differs among and within cultures (Ukrainians & Americans in my study), while other presenters talked about¬†how food is discussed in the Canadian Arctic and among those following a traditional “paleo” diet plan.¬†

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Presenting on my Ukrainian study!

The question this lady asked was why we spoke of healthy eating as something created and perceived by humans as if there is no objective healthy diet supported by science.

It’s a bit funny¬†to hear someone being surprised that concepts are¬†discussed as a social creation vs. an objective reality at an anthropology meeting.. but that shows how food and healthy eating can be quite emotional when one is health conscious! I would bet this scholar was¬†someone who personally cares about eating well for her own health. Understandable. Food is a very emotional topic- it is not only good/bad for health and looks, it also represents our identity, our culture, our experiences, etc.

Part of my answer to her was that science might not be able to give her what she is looking for- the objective healthy diet. Not because science sucks, but because nutrition studies are lengthy, complicated, and costly (see my post on why nutrition science doesn’t suck HERE). My favorite example of why nutrition science is hard to rely on is SUGAR. Look at this World Health Organization 2003 report (see full report).

The common sense¬†might tell you that¬†added sugar can’t be good- it adds calories, maybe it makes you hungrier or disrupts bodily processes, maybe it’s just unnatural. People I interview often mention that sugar is one of the main causes of weight gain. Common sense, right? Well, look at the WHO report and check out Free Sugars (=¬†all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the¬†manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices).¬†The only convincing evidence from scientific studies is that free sugars increase the risk of dental caries. Not weight gain, not diabetes, not heart disease. Does this mean sugar is only bad for teeth? No, it means there isn’t evidence that it causes other disease with the studies that we have. So if you want to state with complete confidence that added sugars lead to chronic disease and obesity, you might have a hard time backing it up.

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Thinking that there is no such thing as a healthy diet is unsettling. We want clarity. :S Saying that “healthy eating” is an idea constructed socially, however, doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as healthy eating. It does mean that there are multiple ways one can eat well to avoid disease- it can be vegetarian, vegan, paleo, regular calorie restricted¬†diet, Mediterranean diet, etc. etc. etc.

Historical perspective on what good/healthy eating is.

The official stance on a healthy diet is not purely unbiased either- the political and historical context shapes what is officially recognized. ¬†I heard a very interesting talk on the differences in nutrition perceptions between Denmark and Germany during 1940-1945 by Dr. Jensen (University of Copenhagen). She talked how in the early 20th century macronutrients, salts, water and ash were believed to be the sole constituents of food. ¬†Then vitamins were discovered resulting in growing scientific interest in identifying new “micronutrients”, a development that altered (diminished) the perceived importance of the macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs). ¬†So as in Denmark micronutrients became the focus, good nutrition became about vegetables- the source of many micronutrients. In Germany, however, a country experiencing hunger during WWII, macronutrients remained as most important considerations in nutrition textbooks (with protein considered the primary element of food- for the satiety and strength it provides, especially for a country at war!). The point is- the scientific (and thus public) perceptions of what good eating means is shaped by societal circumstances.

It all just depends…

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Baklava- a middle-eastern dessert I am absolutely insane about. My friends sometimes wonder how I can study health yet eat something so “unhealthy” as a high sugared dessert. IS it unhealthy? Turkish people love their sweets, yet traveling around Turkey will show you that the population is not plagued by obesity and chronic disease.

Back to whether an objective healthy diet exists or not. If we ignore for a second that people disagree on the details of what one should eat to stay healthy (is carb or fat evil? is animal protein toxic? should you go vegan? avoid gluten like the plague?), most folks at the minimum agree that eating “real” or whole foods is important (or in other words- avoiding or limiting modern processed foods and focusing on the less modified foods). I suppose we could say that this definition of a healthy diet is generally accepted. If we move on from processed vs. whole, though, here are a couple of examples of when something generally healthy might not be good¬†for you or vice versa:

Cabbage! A wonderful plant full of micronutrients (vitamin K! Vitamin C!) that protect one from various diseases; the plant is often stated to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancerous properties. Awesome. Unless you have hypothyroidism since cabbage is one of the foods that interfere with the thyroid function.

Dairy! Gets a lot of bad rep from the paleo community and others. While recently¬†thought as very important for bone health and what not, there is a lot of talk that we have not evolved to tolerate it quite well and it is thus an unhealthy substance to consume. Our genes are still adapted to the pre-agricultural diet (before ~10,000 yrs ago), as many paleo proponents will argue. Yet there is evidence to challenge the assumption that humans are essentially unchanged since the Paleolithic era. E.g. “recent” evolution of lactase persistence and variation in the number of genes that code for amylase production tied to starch consumption. In other words, mutations have occured that allow many folks to digest and thrive on dairy and grains just fine.

–¬†Phytates.¬†Plants have a lot of great ingredients that generally affect us positively¬†(e.g. vitamins protecting from disease), but it depends.. For example, phytates in grains and nuts are usually viewed as bad for us because they can bind to certain dietary minerals leading to deficiencies (iron, zinc, etc.).. In West Africa, many Hausa plants contain substantial amounts of these phytates (especially in cereals and legumes) but these botanical chelators have a potential malaria-suppressive effect (awesome!!). However, this anti-malarial effect may be antagonized by antioxidants in other foods (e.g. such free radical traps as Vitamins C, E, beta carotene, selenium). Antioxidants is something many of us try to increase in the diet..yet if you are living in malaria-prone regions of the African continent, you might want to concentrate on the opposite dietary strategy- phytate-rich and antioxidant-poor foods.

989898So is there an objectively healthy diet? Generally- all eating is healthy since it is required for survival.. undereating and overeating is not good.. lacking a variety nutrients is not good.. and that’s mostly¬†it. Of course, different things work for people- someone might not tolerate dairy, others might feel miserable on a vegan diet; some thrive on salads others can’t digest raw plants well. If only we could all grasp the wonderful concept of moderation and apply it in our lives without struggle. In fact, it is because self-control is so hard to maintain that we want simplified solutions-¬†a diet plan, a list of “bad” foods to simply avoid, etc.

Happy Holidays– don’t overeat on most days, yet don’t let yourself stress so much about what you’re eating that you are unable to enjoy life! ūüėČ *grabs a big fat piece of dark chocolate and kicks back*.

Online Health Wars: Science vs. Public

Since my research includes asking questions about why people think what they do about health, I spent a lot of time reading various discussion boards and comment sections on different health topics. In the last several days I’ve had such an overload of insane online discussions about vaccines, GMOs, and diets that I almost want to quit… 10559827_1659644964260681_5735123775899498101_nAnd yet the often entertaining arguments keep me coming back! The science folks vs. lay folks debates are also interesting since I am myself an ex anti-science alternative health believer who has now “switched sides” on many issues (or as I prefer/hope to think: turned much more moderate in my views based on understanding scientific evidence better).

Have you ever seen a conversation between a “concerned mom/dad who follow their gut” and a “science proponent with experience in the lab” discussing vaccinations? It is sad and funny as you see things like these:

– science person providing links to peer-reviewed literature (really just abstracts, folks can’t access the full text most of the time), questioning¬†parent’s credentials, attempting to explain herd immunity, claiming they lack understanding of science and suggesting to take an into to epidemiology course, blaming them for increasing rates of preventable disease…and as last resorting to calling them stupid, biased, etc.

concerned parent shares links to blogs and anti-vaccine websites, calls the science person’s degree “useless”, emphasizes their credentials as a parent who “just knows” and does their research (via blogs and specific sites), and very often attacks the science guy/girl as being paid by Monsanto or FDA, being dogmatic and inflexible as their degree was provided by corrupt institutions, being stupid, etc.

10420359_1508161656068484_512410907058098671_nNobody ever appears to switch sides, understand where the other person is coming from, or take their evidence seriously. The process of reading such conversations is often sadly hilarious yet less often informative. But most importantly it shows people’s biases.

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