Archive for the 'Health' Category

Another strike for the processed-food industry

Posted in Food, Health on December 1st, 2008

Another day, another study showing that vitamin therapy doesn’t work. From the Guardian:

The notion that antioxidant supplements such as vitamins C and E could slow ageing has been dealt a blow by a scientific study showing that the theory behind the advice is wrong.

Beloved of health food shops and glossy magazines alike, antioxidants have long been peddled as preventative pills that have the ability to slow ageing and protect against diseases such as cancer. But the research has shown that the molecular mechanism proposed to explain how they work is mistaken.

Is this really a surprise? I know that there are desperate people out there who want a super-pill that will make them healthy and live forever, despite all the crap they routinely consume. And there sure is a huge industry that exists to try and sell it to them. But guess what? We are so far from understanding the nuances of how the human body works and how it processes nutrients (both macro and micro) that anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to make a buck. Food and vitamin companies do not you want to be healthy, they want you to spend more money.

Again, there is a simple solution. Eat in moderation. Eat whole foods. Limit your consumption of products from the agri-industrial complex: buy organic, but even more so, buy local. Eat foods that are raised the way nature intended them–grass-fed cattle for example. And remember that no one who has a quarterly EPS to meet has your best interests in mind.

Eating Globally

Posted in Health, Life on November 29th, 2008

Having just finished Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of food and the benefits that accrue from eating locally. There is the obvious benefit of reducing carbon emissions, since there are massive amounts of fossil fuels burned to transport all the different foods to the odd ends of the world. There are also benefits that accrue from destroying the industrialization of food production, such as the reduction of groundwater pollution and decreased used of antibiotics in our food.

However I do not think it is necessary or even desirable to destroy the global food chain. There are great advantages in the quality of life in having different sorts of food available year round. While it might not be natural to be eating green vegetables in the middle of a North East winter, it is certainly much more healthy and enjoyable to consume a balanced diet throughout the seasons. Obviously steps need to be taken to reduce the carbon footprint of transferring goods around the world, but that is true in general and really applies to all expenditures of energy. The amount of energy consumed by humans is not going to drop; we just have to find cleaner and renewable ways of generating it

To get back to the food chain issue, it is a commonly held belief that eating locally is going back to the “good old days” of pre-industrial farming. So it was somewhat amusing to discover, as I started plowing through John Ferling’s massive history of the American Revolution “Almost a Miracle”, the following quote:

He thought Boston was attractive and its climate good, at least until his first New England winter set in. The food was superb. There was an abundance of seafood, including turtle soup, which he relished. Madeira and tropical fruit, also among his favorites, were consistently available.

Even in the late 1700’s, food was being shipped from the Caribbean up to the Northeast, setting the patterns now followed by fruits and vegetables migrating up from Latin America. There will always be a human desire for the exotic and the nonseasonal food; it has always been satisfied to the best of technology’s abilities. Tropical fruit might barely survive the sailing ship voyage up the American coast, but these days a freighter can have it here in plenty of time while a plane takes only a few hours.

Eating locally is a good, and probably a necessary, thing, if we are going to improve the health of both people and the land they live on. But advocating an absolutist position like a ‘hundred-mile diet’ is both unpopular and contrary to human desire. It is also contrary to all prevailing notions of world trade and exchange. Assuming our society (not American, but human society) does fall into absolute rack and ruin, international commerce will continue to broaden and grow. This is undeniably a good thing, assuming the associated environmental risk is both properly assessed and offset (the externalities of shipping goods around the world needs to be factored into their cost, as does the environmental impact of countries with overly permissive standards). A balance needs to be found that allows ecology to be preserved and even promoted, whilst still allowing us in the frigid north a taste of mango.

Health and Cholesterol

Posted in Health on August 20th, 2007

As previously mentioned, I just got the results of some blood work I had done. For the most part I was completely healthy; no blood born diseases or abnormal vitamin/mineral levels. The one area of slight concern was that of my cholesterol. I eat a relatively healthy diet, most particularly one that contains no meat or poultry and a very low level of refined grains and sugars. However I did eat, as of last October, a fairly high level of dairy and seafood products, both known for being high in cholesterol.

My bloodwork seemed to reflect this diet. My HDL cholesterol level (that’s the good stuff) was up over 60 mg/L. My triglycerides were down under 60 mg/L. Both of those are considered heart-positive conditions (triglycerides block arteries and HDL cholesterol cleans them, so having the first low and the second high means no plaque building up). My overall cholesterol was under 200, which is considered the danger level. “The China Study” mentions that people should really be under 150 to be truly healthy and given the history of heart issues in my family, I agree with that. So that worried me a little. The only red flag that came up was the fact that my LDL cholesterol was over 120, which was marked as being HIGH.

However the ratio of HDL to LDL and the ratio of HDL to overall cholesterol were both in the healthy range. I did some more research online and came to the conclusion that I am somewhat unique. Most people who have high cholesterol have high levels of LDL cholesterol, usually over 150, but also have lower levels of HDL. The large amounts of soy and fish in my diet, combined with the lack of meat keep my LDL fairly low and boost my HDL.

After I read “The China Study”, I set out to change my diet, cutting back to eating seafood twice a week and dairy once, at most. These are not set in stone–I appreciate the flexibility to occasionally exceed those limits, especially when eating out in groups or when traveling and dining options are restricted–but act as strong guidelines. The biggest change has been that I no longer eat seafood or dairy at home and that I avoid it whenever possible when eating out.

I will be getting another round of bloodwork done this fall (assuming I’m actually in one place long enough to go to the doctor). It will be interested to see how the results change based upon my dietary changes. I predict that the biggest change will be a decrease in my LDL levels. As I substantially decrease my intake of dairy products, that should remove the largest source of LDL from my diet. I should also see a slight decrease in my levels of HDL, considering I am now eating less fish. I am still getting essential omega fatty acids from the large amounts of soy I eat, which I think contributes to HDL levels. My triglycerides should fall even farther. If I get the results I predict, it will be fairly convincing to me that the correlation between heart problems and the consumption of animal products described in “The China Study” is real and that my dietary changes are working towards avoiding the problems that my father and grandfathers experienced.

Acquiring my test results

Posted in Health on August 13th, 2007

I recently acquired the results of some blood work that I had done in October of last year. The fact that it took me this long is more a reflection on the family practice that drew my blood rather than on me. While I did like my doctor there, the experience of dealing with them turned me off enough that I will not be returning. To wit, I had to make two separate appointments for my physical and for bloodwork: apparently having me in an office filled with needles and vials was not enough for them to take my blood.

Instead I had to return to the exact same office on a different day. Inconvenient for me, but also financially wasteful, since they were then able to charge me two co-pays and double bill the insurance company. It’s a nice scam, but I wasn’t impressed. Then there was the fact that they would not mail me my test results, instead requiring that I come in to get them. Two reasons for this, I’d assume. One is that they wanted me to make another’s doctor’s appointment (mmm, co-pays) to go over the results (before they even knew if there was anything in the results worth talking about). The other was that they charge one dollar per-page for PRINTING my test results. Standard laser printing, one dollar per page. They almost charged me for three pages, even though the third page has nothing on it, but I guess common sense overrode greed for a moment.

I have issues with healthcare compensation in this country in general, but a family care practice that seems structured to extract the most possible money from patients and insurance companies really rubs me the wrong way. They managed to get an extra twenty-two dollars out of me, but they won’t be getting any more.

The government is trying to kill us

Posted in Health on March 5th, 2007

As if we needed more evidence of the triumph of business over everything else in our government, the FDA is on track to approve a new antibiotic for cattle. The new drug, cefquinome, is part of family of last-resort drugs that doctors can use to treat patients with diseases that are resistant to other antibiotics. Considering that antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise (in military hospitals no less), you’d think that the government might have some small interest in preserving its last line of defense.

The problem with giving this drug to cows is that the more exposure there is to the drug, the easier it is for diseases to develop resistance. According to the WaPo article this is exactly what happened with the fluoroquinolones family of antibiotics when they were fed to chickens. So lets see, dangerous health situation, prior precedent of trouble, what’s the government going to do? Approve the drug.

But what really makes the wonder here are the scientists involved. I know our society has increasingly become monetized, but what ever happened to scientific ethics? How do you go to work every day, knowing that you’re developing a drug that is going to place thousands of lives at risk to cure a problem that doesn’t even exist (the new drug is to treat bovine respiratory infections, for which adequate cures already exist)? I have a hard enough time working in an industry that caters in large part to the advertising industry, but to actively go to work every day to create something that you know, as a scientist, is going to inherently increase disease?

And then there is Richard Carnevale, shill for the veterinary drug makers, sounding off:

“It’s not a question of whether there is a need or not. The answer is, there’s always a need.”

Actually, there is not always a need. A lust for profits doesn’t always have to be the be all and end all of life. How bout this, Mr. Richard Carnevale. If there is such a need and you’re so convinced that this is safe, would you be willing to bet your life on it? Maybe once this drug helps create a cefquinome-resistant strain of bacteria (and it will) you can get infected with it and we’ll see how you like it. See if maybe the need to have a human cure might outweigh the need to treat cattle that are only sick because of the crappy conditions we raise them in. I think your bottom line might change then.

Vitamins don’t work

Posted in Food, Health, Life on March 1st, 2007

Researchers today released results from a study that analyzed 68 other studies and came to the conclusion that taking individual vitamins does nothing to improve health. It’s not a surprising result, but it is another interesting case of the intersection of two things in my life.

I also just finished reading The China Study, which is a summary of the health survey that T Colin Campbell did in China, analyzing the effect of diet on health. The results of Campbell’s findings can simply be summarized as eating a whole foods diet rich in vegetables with no or almost no animal protein guarantees a healthier and longer life.

One of the thing that Campbell argues against in his book is the tendency for Western medicine and the Western health industry to fixate on single-nutrient solutions to health problems. The impetus for much of this seems to come from studies that focus on food. For example, a study that shows that people who eat a diet that is rich in Vitamin A have lower levels of free radicals leads the health industry to stock shelves with Vitamin A supplements that promise to reduce your free radical levels. But, Campbell argues, this sort of science by reduction doesn’t work. We have no idea of how different nutrients interact inside the body and while is might seem that diets high in Vitamin A have more protection from free radicals, it maybe that the Vitamin A is only effective when it is consumed in concert with a host of other nutrients that are included in foods high in Vitamin A.

This sort of reductionist nutrition is highly popular here in America, because it allows people to continue maintaining an unhealthy lifestyle while feeling like they are doing things to be more healthy. Everyone wants the latest miracle supplement that will allow them to continue consuming foods high in saturated-fat, animal protein, refined grains, and cholesterol but suffer no ill effects. And the health industry has built a billion dollar industry on the back of people looking to spend their way out of making healthy-positive choices.

And now this study comes out and confirms everything that Campbell was arguing in his book. Vitamin supplements do not work. You’re not going to get the benefits of Vitamin A unless you eat a diet that is naturally high in Vitamin A. The secret to good health that Campbell confides in his book and which this study bolsters is simple: eat unprocessed plant foods.