Why is our diet so unhealthy?

JDN 2457447

One of the most baffling facts about the world, particularly to a development economist, is that the leading causes of death around the world broadly cluster into two categories: Obesity, in First World countries, and starvation, in Third World countries. At first glance, it seems like the rich are eating too much and there isn’t enough left for the poor.

Yet in fact it’s not quite so simple as that, because in fact obesity is most common among the poor in First World countries, and in Third World countries obesity rates are rising rapidly and co-existing with starvation. It is becoming recognized that there are many different kinds of obesity, and that a past history of starvation is actually a major risk factor in future obesity.

Indeed, the really fundamental problem is malnutrition—people are not necessarily eating too much or too little, they are eating the wrong things. So, my question is: Why?

It is widely thought that foods which are nutritious are also unappetizing, and conversely that foods which are delicious are unhealthy. There is a clear kernel of truth here, as a comparison of Brussels sprouts versus ice cream will surely indicate. But this is actually somewhat baffling. We are an evolved organism; one would think that natural selection would shape us so that we enjoy foods which are good for us and avoid foods which are bad for us.

I think it did, actually; the problem is, we have changed our situation so drastically by means of culture and technology that evolution hasn’t had time to catch up. We have evolved significantly since the dawn of civilization, but we haven’t had any time to evolve since one event in particular: The Green Revolution. Indeed, many people are still alive today who were born while the Green Revolution was still underway.

The Green Revolution is the culmination of a long process of development in agriculture and industrialization, but it would be difficult to overstate its importance as an epoch in the history of our species. We now have essentially unlimited food.

Not literally unlimited, of course; we do still need land, and water, and perhaps most notably energy (oil-driven machines are a vital part of modern agriculture). But we can produce vastly more food than was previously possible, and food supply is no longer a binding constraint on human population. Indeed, we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. People who say that some new agricultural technology will end world hunger don’t understand what world hunger actually is. Food production is not the problem—distribution of wealth is the problem.

I often speak about the possibility of reaching post-scarcity in the future; but we have essentially already done so in the domain of food production. If everyone ate what would be optimally healthy, and we distributed food evenly across the world, there would be plenty of food to go around and no such thing as obesity or starvation.

So why hasn’t this happened? Well, the main reason, like I said, is distribution of wealth.

But that doesn’t explain why so many people who do have access to good foods nonetheless don’t eat them.

The first thing to note is that healthy food is more expensive. It isn’t a huge difference by First World standards—about $550 per year extra per person. But when we compare the cost of a typical nutritious diet to that of a typical diet, the nutritious diet is significantly more expensive. Worse yet, this gap appears to be growing over time.

But why is this the case? It’s actually quite baffling on its face. Nutritious foods are typically fruits and vegetables that one can simply pluck off plants. Unhealthy foods are typically complex processed foods that require machines and advanced technology. There should be “value added”, at least in the economic sense; additional labor must go in, additional profits must come out. Why is it cheaper?

In a word? Subsidies.

Somehow, huge agribusinesses have convinced governments around the world that they deserve to be paid extra money, either simply for existing or based on how much they produce. Of course, when I say “somehow”, I of course mean lobbying.

In the US, these subsidies overwhelmingly go toward corn, followed by cotton, followed by soybeans.

In fact, they don’t actually even go to corn as you would normally think of it, like sweet corn or corn on the cob. No, they go to feed corn—really awful stuff that includes the entire plant, is barely even recognizable as corn, and has its “quality” literally rated by scales and sieves. No living organism was ever meant to eat this stuff.

Humans don’t, of course. Cows do. But they didn’t evolve for this stuff either; they can’t digest it properly, and it’s because of this terrible food we force-feed them that they need so many antibiotics.

Thus, these corn subsides are really primarily beef subsidies—they are a means of externalizing the cost of beef production and keeping the price of hamburgers artificially low. In all, 2/3 of US agricultural subsidies ultimately go to meat production. I haven’t been able to find any really good estimates, but as a ballpark figure it seems that meat would cost about twice as much if we didn’t subsidize it.

Fortunately a lot of these subsidies have been decreased under the Obama administration, particularly “direct payments” which are sort of like a basic income, but for agribusinesses. (That is not what basic incomes are for.) You can see the decline in US corn subsidies here.

Despite all this, however, subsidies cannot explain obesity. Removing them would have only a small effect.

An often overlooked consideration is that nutritious food can be more expensive for a family even if the actual pricetag is the same.

Why? Because kids won’t eat it.

To raise kids on a nutritious diet, you have to feed them small amounts of good food over a long period of time, until they acquire the taste. In order to do this, you need to be prepared to waste a lot of food, and that costs money. It’s cheaper to simply feed them something unhealthy, like ice cream or hot dogs, that you know they’ll eat.

And this brings me to what I think is the real ultimate cause of our awful diet: We evolved for a world of starvation, and our bodies cannot cope with abundance.

It’s important to be clear about what we mean by “unhealthy food”; people don’t enjoy consuming lead and arsenic. Rather, we enjoy consuming fat and sugar. Contrary to what fad diets will tell you, fat and sugar are not inherently bad for human health; indeed, we need a certain amount of fat and sugar in order to survive. What we call “unhealthy food” is actually food that we desperately need—in small quantities.

Under the conditions in which we evolved, fat and sugar were extremely scarce. Eating fat meant hunting a large animal, which required the cooperation of the whole tribe (a quite literal Stag Hunt) and carried risk of life and limb, not to mention simply failing and getting nothing. Eating sugar meant finding fruit trees and gathering fruit from them—and fruit trees are not all that common in nature. These foods also spoil quite quickly, so you eat them right away or not at all.

As such, we evolved to really crave these things, to ensure that we would eat them whenever they are available. Since they weren’t available all that often, this was just about right to ensure that we managed to eat enough, and rarely meant that we ate too much.

 

But now fast-forward to the Green Revolution. They aren’t scarce anymore. They’re everywhere. There are whole buildings we can go to with shelves upon shelves of them, which we ourselves can claim simply by swiping a little plastic card through a reader. We don’t even need to understand how that system of encrypted data networks operates, or what exactly is involved in maintaining our money supply (and most people clearly don’t); all we need to do is perform the right ritual and we will receive an essentially unlimited abundance of fat and sugar.

Even worse, this food is in processed form, so we can extract the parts that make it taste good, while separating them from the parts that actually make it nutritious. If fruits were our main source of sugar, that would be fine. But instead we get it from corn syrup and sugarcane, and even when we do get it from fruit, we extract the sugar instead of eating the whole fruit.

Natural selection had no particular reason to give us that level of discrimination; since eating apples and oranges was good for us, we evolved to like the taste of apples and oranges. There wasn’t a sufficient selection pressure to make us actually eat the whole fruit as opposed to extracting the sugar, because extracting the sugar was not an option available to our ancestors. But it is available to us now.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are also more abundant now, but were already fairly abundant. Indeed, it may be significant that we’ve had enough time to evolve since agriculture, but not enough time since fertilizer. Agriculture allowed us to make plenty of wheat and carrots; but it wasn’t until fertilizer that we could make enough hamburgers for people to eat them regularly. It could be that our hunter-gatherer ancestors actually did crave carrots in much the same way they and we crave sugar; but since agriculture we have no further reason to do so because carrots have always been widely available.

One thing I do still find a bit baffling: Why are so many green vegetables so bitter? It would be one thing if they simply weren’t as appealing as fat and sugar; but it honestly seems like a lot of green vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, are really quite actively aversive, at least until you acquire the taste for them. Given how nutritious they are, it seems like there should have been a selective pressure in favor of liking the taste of green vegetables; but there wasn’t. I wonder if it’s actually coevolution—if perhaps broccoli has been evolving to not be eaten as quickly as we were evolving to eat it. This wouldn’t happen with apples and oranges, because in an evolutionary sense apples and oranges “want” to be eaten; they spread their seeds in the droppings of animals. But for any given stalk of broccoli, becoming lunch is definitely bad news.

Yet even this is pretty weird, because broccoli has definitely evolved substantially since agriculture—indeed, broccoli as we know it would not exist otherwise. Ancestral Brassica oleracea was bred to become cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, savoy, kohlrabi and kai-lan—and looks like none of them.

It looks like I still haven’t solved the mystery. In short, we get fat because kids hate broccoli; but why in the world do kids hate broccoli?

9/11, 14 years on—and where are our civil liberties?

JDN 2457278 (09/11/2015) EDT 20:53

Today is the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A lot has changed since then—yet it’s quite remarkable what hasn’t. In particular, we still don’t have our civil liberties back.

In our immediate panicked response to the attacks, the United States passed almost unanimously the USA PATRIOT ACT, giving unprecedented power to our government in surveillance, searches, and even arrests and detentions. Most of those powers have been renewed repeatedly and remain in effect; the only major change has been a slight weakening of the NSA’s authority to use mass dragnet surveillance on Internet traffic and phone metadata. And this change in turn was almost certainly only made because of Edward Snowden, who is still forced to live in Russia for fear of being executed if he returns to the US. That is, the man most responsible for the only significant improvement in civil liberties in the United States in the last decade is living in Russia because he has been branded a traitor. No, the traitors here are the over one hundred standing US Congress members who voted for an act that is in explicit and direct violation of the Constitution. At the very least every one of them should be removed from office, and we as voters have the power to do that—so why haven’t we? In particular, why are Dan Lipinski and Steny Hoyer, both Democrats from non-southern states who voted every single time to extend provisions of the PATRIOT ACT, still in office? At least Carl Levin had the courtesy to resign after sponsoring the act allowing indefinite detention—I hope we would have voted him out anyway, since I’d much rather have a Republican (and all the absurd economic policy that entails) than someone who apparently doesn’t believe the Fourth and Sixth Amendments have any meaning at all.

We have become inured to this loss of liberty; it feels natural or inevitable to us. But these are not minor inconveniences; they are not small compromises. Giving our government the power to surveil, search, arrest, imprison, torture, and execute anyone they want at any time without the system of due process—and make no mistake, that is what the PATRIOT ACT and the indefinite detention law do—means giving away everything that separates us from tyranny. Bypassing the justice system and the rule of law means bypassing everything that America stands for.

So far, these laws have actually mostly been used against people reasonably suspected of terrorism, that much is true; but it’s also irrelevant. Democracy doesn’t mean you give the government extreme power and they uphold your trust and use it benevolently. Democracy means you don’t give them that power in the first place.

If there’s really sufficient evidence to support an arrest for terrorism, get a warrant. If you don’t have enough evidence for a warrant, you don’t have enough evidence for an arrest. If there’s really sufficient evidence to justify imprisoning someone for terrorism, get a jury to convict. If you don’t have enough evidence to convince a jury, guess what? You don’t have enough evidence to imprison them. These are not negotiable. They are not “political opinions” in any ordinary sense. The protection of due process is so fundamental to democracy that without it political opinions lose all meaning.

People talk about “Big Government” when we suggest increasing taxes on capital gains or expanding Medicare. No, that isn’t Big Government. Searching without warrants is Big Government. Imprisoning people without trial is Big Government. From all the decades of crying wolf in which any policy someone doesn’t like is accused of being “tyranny”, we seem to have lost the ability to recognize actual tyranny. I hope you understand the full force of my meaning when I say that the PATRIOT ACT is literally fascist. Fascism has come to America, and as predicted it was wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

In this sort of situation, a lot of people like to quote (or misquote) Benjamin Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

With the qualifiers “essential” and “temporary”, this quote seems right; but a lot of people forget them and quote him as saying:
“Those would give up liberty to purchase safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

That’s clearly wrong. We do in fact give up liberty to purchase safety, and as well we should. We give up our liberty to purchase weapons-grade plutonium; we give up our liberty to drive at 220 mph. The question we need to be asking is: How much liberty are we giving up to gain how much safety?

Spoken like an economist, the question is not whether you will give up liberty to purchase safety—the question is at what price you’re willing to make the purchase. The price we’ve been paying in response to terrorism is far too high. Indeed, the price we are paying is tantamount to America itself.

As horrific as 9/11 was, it’s important to remember: It only killed 3,000 people.

This statement probably makes you uncomfortable; it may even offend you. How dare I say “only”?

I don’t mean to minimize the harm of those deaths. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of people who lost friends, colleagues, parents, siblings, children. The death of any human being is the permanent destruction of something irreplaceable, a spark of life that can never be restored; it is always a tragedy and there is never any way to repay it.

But I think people are actually doing the opposite—they are ignoring or minimizing millions of other deaths because those deaths didn’t happen to be dramatic enough. A parent killed by a heart attack is just as lost as a parent who died in 9/11. A friend who died of brain cancer is just as gone as a friend who was killed in a terrorist attack. A child killed in a car accident is just as much a loss as a child killed by suicide bombers. If you really care about human suffering, I contend that you should care about all human suffering, not just the kind that makes the TV news.

Here is a list, from the CDC, of things that kill more Americans per month than terrorists have killed in the last three decades:

Heart disease: 50,900 per month

Cancer: 48,700 per month

Lung disease: 12,400 per month

Accidents: 10,800 per month

Stroke: 10,700 per month

Alzheimer’s: 7,000 per month

Diabetes: 6,300 per month

Influenza: 4,700 per month

Kidney failure: 3,900 per month

Terrorism deaths since 1985: 3,455
Yes, that’s right; influenza kills more Americans per month (on average; flu is seasonal, after all) than terrorism has killed in the last thirty years.
And for comparison, other violent deaths, not quite but almost as many per month as terrorism has killed in my entire life so far:
Suicide: 3,400 per month

Homicide: 1,300 per month

Now, with those figures in mind, I want you to ask yourself the following question: Would you be willing to give up basic, fundamental civil liberties in order to avoid any of these things?

Would you want the government to be able to arrest you and imprison you without trial for eating too many cheeseburgers, so as to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke?

Would you want the government to monitor your phone calls and Internet traffic to make sure you don’t smoke, so as to avoid lung disease? Or to watch for signs of depression, to reduce the rate of suicide?

Would you want the government to be able to use targeted drone strikes, ordered directly by the President, pre-emptively against probable murderers (with a certain rate of collateral damage, of course), to reduce the rate of homicide?

I presume that the answer to all the above questions is “no”. Then now I have to ask you: Why are you willing to give up those same civil liberties to prevent a risk that is three hundred times smaller?

And then of course there’s the Iraq War, which killed 4,400 Americans and at least 100,000 civilians, and the Afghanistan War, which killed 3,400 allied soldiers and over 90,000 civilians.

In response to the horrific murder of 3,000 people, we sacrificed another 7,800 soldiers and killed another 190,000 innocent civilians. What exactly did that accomplish? What benefit did we get for such an enormous cost?

The people who sold us these deadly wars and draconian policies did so based on the threat that terrorism could somehow become vastly worse, involving the release of some unstoppable bioweapon or the detonation of a full-scale nuclear weapon, killing millions of people—but that has never happened, has never gotten close to happening, and would be thousands of times worse than the worst terrorist attacks that have ever actually happened.

If we’re worried about millions of people dying, it is far more likely that there would be a repeat of the 1918 influenza pandemic, or an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon, or a flashpoint event with Russia or China triggering World War III; it’s probably more likely that there would be an asteroid impact large enough to kill a million people than there would be a terrorist attack large enough to do the same.

As it is, heart disease is already killing millions of people—about a million every two years—and we aren’t so panicked about that as to give up civil liberties. Elsewhere in the world, malnutrition kills over 3 million children per year, essentially all of it due to extreme poverty, which we could eliminate by spending between a quarter ($150 billion) and a half ($300 billion) of our current military budget ($600 billion); but we haven’t even done that even though it would require no loss of civil liberties at all.

Why is terrorism different? In short, the tribal paradigm.

There are in fact downsides to not being infinite identical psychopaths, and this is one of them. An infinite identical psychopath would simply maximize their own probability of survival; but finite diverse tribalists such as we underreact to some threats (such as heart disease) and overreact to others (such as terrorism). We’ll do almost anything to stop the latter—and almost nothing to stop the former.

Terrorists are perceived as a threat not just to our individual survival like heart disease or stroke, but a threat to our tribe from another tribe. This triggers a deep, instinctual sense of panic and hatred that makes us willing to ignore principles we would otherwise uphold and commit acts of violence we would otherwise find unimaginable.

Indeed, it’s precisely that instinct which motivates the terrorists in the first place. From their perspective, we are the other tribe that threatens their tribe, and they are therefore willing to stop at nothing until we are destroyed.

In a fundamental way, when we respond to terrorism in this way we do not defeat them—we become them.
If you ask people who support the PATRIOT ACT, it’s very clear that they don’t see themselves as imposing upon the civil liberties of Americans. Instead, they see themselves as protecting Americans (our tribe), and they think the impositions upon civil liberties will only harm those who don’t count as Americans (other tribes). This is a pretty bizarre notion if you think about it carefully—if you don’t need a warrant or probable cause to imprison people, then what stops you from imprisoning people who aren’t terrorists?—but people don’t think about it carefully. They act on emotion, on instinct.

The odds of terrorists actually destroying America by killing people are basically negligible. Even the most deadly terrorist attack in recorded history—9/11—killed fewer Americans than die every month from diabetes, or every week from heart disease. Even the most extreme attacks feared (which are extremely unlikely) wouldn’t be any worse than World War II, which of course we won.

But the odds of terrorists destroying America by making us give up the rights and freedoms that define us as a nation? That’s well underway.