More Fun With Nutritional Insanity

We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts.

–Harold MacMillan

This morning I opened my news feed, then ran to get my shotgun.

My barrel of fish had arrived.

This headline was purportedly about cancer, not about nutrition, but you’ll see if you read it that nutrition, exercise, and obesity all play an important part in the article. Thus it got my attention. The title of this wondrous piece is “Americans Confused About Cancer Risk” on (And elsewhere.)

The author proceeds to explain how all you people are stupid. You American people, anyway, because you worry about things like additives in your food, but you don’t seem to realize that not exercising is what gives you cancer. Or being fat. Being fat gives you cancer.

Yes, your problem, my friend, is that there’s “no proof” that additives give you cancer, but lots of “proof” that being fat does. By “no proof” what the writer means is that no recognized scientific body has gotten around to isolating all the Things That Aren’t Food that the FDA allows to be added to actual food, then feeding them in enormous quantities to toddlers, and thereby proved or disproved a cancer-causing agency.

Because they have not, you are stupid and ignorant for suspecting that eating Things That Aren’t Food in all your food could ever be anything but good for you. Until the high priests come down and make an official pronouncement, stop meddling in the affairs of those better than you and trying to make decisions based on things like common sense.

Between 54 percent and 62 percent of survey respondents believed that psychological stress, hormones in beef, genetically modified foods, and “food additives” raise people’s cancer risk.

Meanwhile, just over half believed artificial sweeteners cause cancer .

Those beliefs likely reflect popular wisdom, according to Colleen Doyle, managing director of the Healthy Eating, Active Living Environments program for the American Cancer Society.

“There is no good evidence that artificial sweeteners raise cancer risk, but people have heard that they do,” Doyle said. “So they’ll avoid sweeteners, but not worry about the cheeseburger they’re eating — even though there’s convincing evidence linking red and processed meats to colon cancer.”

I wonder where you idiots could have gotten the idea that artificial sweeteners might cause cancer? Maybe because the Center for Science in the Public Interest (of Forcing Everyone to Become a Vegetarian)–one of Washington D.C.’s most influential consumer watchdog groups–just told Taylor Swift they do? Or maybe because of articles in magazines just like the one this article is from that reported on studies like this? Or maybe because the Huffington Post (definitely a huge step up the ladder of respectability from says that you shouldn’t be drinking diet soda because of links to cancer with aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-potassium that should be further investigated?

You silly, stupid people. Where do you get these crazy ideas? Next thing you know, you’ll be burning nutritionists at the stake.

It’s almost as silly as Colleen thinking that red meat causes colon cancer. The “studies” she’s referring to are all observationaland let’s review friends: why don’t we listen to observational studies? That’s right, because observational studies can only point us towards a possible theory that must then be properly tested. Observational studies can never, ever prove anything. They can never prove causation, and they always contain so many confounding variables that the most skilled scientists can’t possibly rule out all of them. They are never safe to base behavior upon. You base a change in your behavior on a proved causation, not an unproven association.

Not only that, but even the supposed association (by observation only) between red meat and colon cancer doesn’t exist. When scientists did a meta-analysis of all the studies they could find that seemed to show an association between the two, they found there was no association. Oh, and then they did it again, and they found the same non-association. (There’s a good analysis of all this done by Dr. Michael Eades here.)

Now the link between artificial sweeteners and cancer is just as much a worthless observational as the one between red meat and colon cancer. The reason I’m all worked up about it then? There are two big problems:

1. Colleen thinks you’re stupid for being a bit concerned about the first one, but she’s smart for not just being concerned about the second one, but promoting it in the news as Official Science.

2. We–meaning human beings–have been eating red meats for as long as we’ve existed, and during most of that existence cancer was a relative unknown. We haven’t being eating chemical compound artificial sweeteners created in a lab until just a few decades ago. During those decades, cancer rates have exploded. This is just an observation; it proves nothing. But if I’m going to go about avoiding something called a “food,” wouldn’t it be more sensible for me to avoid something that isn’t a food at all (like aspartame) than something my ancestors have been eating for thousands of years? And if I do choose to eat a steak, should I really be subjected to ridicule by the likes of Colleen for choosing to eat a food and not eat a non-food? What kind of world are we living in? Or, more appropriately, what kind of world is Colleen living in?

But what disturbs me most of all in this article is the assumption that being obese makes you get cancer. This is idiotic. Obesity is a symptom warning you that something is wrong metabolically. It causes nothing (other than maybe bad knees). It is one of many possible results of metabolic disorder, including diabetes, cancer, and a host of other issues.

Obesity signals that something is wrong. You are metabolically unable to deal with the giant loads of glucose you keep pouring into your body with all that healthy whole grain cereal, Poptarts, soda, bran muffins…whatever. And the answer of people like Colleen for how to prevent the cancer is to treat one of the symptoms. This is a little like noticing that lots of people with broken ankles also have swollen ankles, and then not only blaming the swelling for the break, but trying to treat or prevent broken ankles by prescribing ibuprofen for the swelling.

You know why I think people in this survey didn’t list obesity and lack of exercise as “causing” cancer? Colleen thinks it’s because they’re dumb and not paying attention. I think it’s precisely the opposite. I sat down today and listed all the people I know or know of who have had cancer. They include an old friend from childhood, a more recent friend, my mother, a grandfather, a grandmother, a great-aunt, a friend, a friend’s sister, a friend’s father, a friend’s sister-in-law, and another friend’s father. That’s 11 people.

Want to know how many of them were fat? Not a single one of them. 0 out of 11.

I can’t be the only person who knows lots of normal-weight people who have gotten cancer. So when I hear that obesity somehow causes cancer, I get suspicious. How? What happened with these 11 people? The evidence just isn’t there to prove any causation. And if you take those studies apart (the ones that link obesity to cancer) you’ll find another interesting wrinkle. In developed countries, where intake of processed foods is very high, the association is 8% for women (as in 8% of cancers are associated with obesity) and 3% with men. But if you look at undeveloped countries, where intake of processed foods is very low to non-existent, the association drops to just 1.5% for women and .03% for men. An interesting observation, no?

Does it prove that processed foods cause cancer? No, it does not. Does it disprove the theory that obesity causes cancer? Yes, it does. Really. Let’s review: if you postulate that all dogs are white or brown, seeing white and brown dogs can never prove your theory. It can only give you a reason to keep testing. But the instant you see a black or a grey one, you must abandon your theory.

If obesity caused cancer, then associations between obesity and cancer would have to hold across populations and diets, just like the association between smoking and lung cancer does. When it doesn’t, it signals that something is wrong with your theory. And if obesity is just a symptom, treating the symptom–especially with unhealthy low-fat, low-calorie, sugar-in-the-form-of-whole-grains diets–can’t do anything to help you avoid cancer. If you’d like to read something rather fun on this, look at Tom Naughton “prove” that obesity protects you from cancer.

Let’s end with one last bit of insanity, shall we? This article we’ve been mocking was posted on Feb 4 at 7am. Just six hours earlier, at 1:08am, that same site posted an article in the same section entitled “Fortune Telling: Crowds Surpass Pundits.” Why is this funny? Because in the first article, Colleen has been berating us for believing the wisdom of crowds (you know, like the things your mother and grandmother taught you) instead of prostrating low before the pronouncements of the High Priests of Nutrition and Other Sciency Stuff You Are Too Dumb To Get. In the second article, we learn that if you get a group of average people together and ask them to predict something, they’ll do a better job than any expert.



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4 thoughts on “More Fun With Nutritional Insanity

  1. Just recently read that around two thirds of cancer comes from genetic mistakes that happen randomly and partially facilitated by the longer life spans we are living. Made complete sense.

    1. Yeah, that’s also my understanding. The question seems to be why is it so much more common than it used to be? Longer life spans only account for a small increase–one of the mysteries of cancer is why something virtually unknown 150 years ago now strikes people in their 40s, 30s and even 20s with some regularity.

      Smoking shows pretty clearly that an outside influence can strongly affect an internal genetic predisposition. My opinion (for what that’s worth) is that diet has a similar effect. I don’t know about all the additives and the hormones. But I do know that when cancer grows, it steals nutrition from other cells. And I do know that in lab conditions cancer cells slurp up glucose like a kid with his first cherry Slurpee; but try to feed it fat and it dies of malnutrition. That makes me suspicious that our relatively new high-carb, low-fat dieting fads–coinciding roughly as they do in time with the huge uptick in cancer–might have something to do with it. At least be a part of the problem.

  2. I have no doubt that sugar and grains are a factor, but the longevity factor is huge. People used to die in their 30’s and 40’s of the same diseases we have today, but they were also so busy dying of everything else that these modern diseases weren’t noticeable. When measles and polio and the flu are killing a third of the population, you tend to not notice that some people died of cancer and heart disease while relatively young.

    1. But we can’t make an argument from silence. We can’t possibly rationally assume that because so many people died young of measles that no one noticed when someone died young of cancer… They weren’t stupid. Doctors knew what cancer was.

      The stats we DO show, for example, that lifespans in the late nineteenth century America were not all that much shorter than our current lifespans; yet cancer was almost completely unknown. If you lived to be 30 in 1900, you could expect to live to be 65. (A better way to figure it than average lifespans, since infant mortality skews those dramatically). In 2011 if you make it 30 you could expect to live to be 78. Yet in 1900, cancer was almost unknown. Even more dramatic, the lifespan difference between 1900 and 1949 was only 3 years. (if you made it to 30 you would expect to live to only 68). Yet despite an only 3 year increase in lifespan, cancer rates shoot up. 58 women out of 100,000 die of it, as opposed to 3 out of 100,000 in 1900. By 1971, the government declares a “war on cancer” for a population not living all that much longer than they used to.

      Even more damning, we have records from a number of doctors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly missionary doctors, who were present in indigenous populations as they transitions from native diets to “Western” diets. They universally report a lack of cancer at the beginning of their careers–at any age–and a preponderance of it towards the end of their careers; and only among those who changed their diets. The Inuit are particularly good examples of this.

      Take China for another example. China has been hardest hit by the global surge in cancer…since 2012. China’s population did not see a sudden surge in average lifespan from 40 in 2011 to 80 in 2012; nor did China suddenly, in one year, get better medical equipment, better reporting or more people getting tested. But dramatic changes in China’s national diet since the late 1990s, as well as dramatic changes in environmental conditions, did occur.

      The longevity factor just can’t account for it all.

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