Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dan Lieberman On Diet In The New York Times

Oh no.

Let me start out by saying that I've met Professor Lieberman, and he's one of the smartest individuals I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. He's careful, thoughtful, and loth to get ahead of the facts as he can prove them: the model scientist, as far as I'm concerned. He's also funny as hell, and if you have the opportunity to see one of his presentations on his areas of expertise, do so.

So what to make of this editorial? First, note what he's not doing. He's not telling you what to eat, he's not telling us what he eats, and he's not voicing an opinion on what we ought to be eating. He objects to the fact that Bloomberg's ban applies to all New Yorkers:
"Though his big-soda ban would apply to all New Yorkers, I think we should focus paternalistic laws on children."
Mayor Bloomberg does want to tell you what to eat... for better or worse.

Lieberman's making a narrow observation that in the primitive state, we were limited by supply in our consumption; "coerced" not to eat excess sugar. We no longer have that limitation. Unlike a hunter-gatherer, you could get 100% of your calories from sugar, if you so choose. He therefore thinks that this regulation is a reasonable extension of similar regulations:
"For this reason, we need government on our side, not on the side of those who wish to make money by stoking our cravings and profiting from them. We have evolved to need coercion. "
Most folks are reading a lot more into this editorial than what's above. I did.

Lieberman's publishing a book soon on human evolution and health. I expect that we'll learn a lot more about his thoughts on topics like this in that book; it's important to note that we're not learning much about them in this editorial, which is only addressing one narrow point. Unless you're a mind reader I wouldn't read more into this than what's been written.

Prof. Lieberman also is not endorsing the wisdom of this particular regulation. Are there better ways this same goal could be accomplished? He doesn't go into that.

I don't think it's wise: it's too easy to bypass (just buy two sodas!), and I think the whole notion of government micromanaging our diet is a mistake; and that even if it were a good idea, I don't think the government at any level is competent to do it. Government intervention in diets has been a significant factor in creating our current obesity epidemic, in my opinion. Sadly, we're so far down that slipperly slope that a regulation like this is just a minor extension. But that gets into a political discussion more than a scientific one. And that whole discussion is not what this editorial is about. Although that would be an interesting one...
"If these are acceptable forms of coercion, how is restricting unhealthy doses of sugary drinks that slowly contribute to disease any different?"
If they are, then this isn't any different. That's pretty indisputable. That's how slippery slopes work.

Prof. Lieberman and I (and most of us, I suspect) are on the same page in that we think that most Americans eat too much sugar, and consuming a lot less of it would be an extrememly good idea, as is this:
"Along these lines, we should ban all unhealthy food in school — soda, pizza, French fries — and insist that schools provide adequate daily physical education, which many fail to do."
OK, I ban those foods in my house, for the most part. I would like them not to be available at the school, either.
"It should be illegal to advertise highly fattening food as “fat free.”"
"Fat free" is factually correct, but the food doesn't make you fat free, which is what the people purchasing these foods seem to expect. But if we're regulating claims made about the health values of foods, and we are, this is a pretty misleading claim.
"People have the right to be unhealthy, but we should make that choice more onerous and expensive by imposing taxes on soda and junk food."
Well, I'd prefer to see the subsidies that make soda and junk food cheap removed. Layering one bad regulation on top of another doesn't make a better system, I don't think. But the idea is the same: make the unhealty foods more expensive.

So do I disagree with his point in this editorial? Yes. But it's a very narrow disagreement, and it's about the means, not on the science, or the goal.

Oh, and if you're going to argue this topic with Prof. Lieberman, you'd better bring your A game...

N.B. This was brought to my attention when Melissa McEwen tweeted this post by John Hawks: The Stalin Age Diet. The first version of this post of mine got deleted... :) I'll post some of it later.

P.S. Researchers Whose Work Was Cited to Justify Bloomberg’s Large Soda Ban Explain Why it Won’t Work:
"...Yes, we have found that when people are given larger portions, they do drink or eat substantially more. But to claim that these results imply that the ban will be effective is to ignore our larger body of work. In our experiments, subjects were given larger or smaller portions of food in a dining or party setting, where they were unlikely to notice portion size. It is exactly because participants weren’t paying attention that we got the results we did.

"The mayor’s approach, however, overtly denies people portions they are used to be able to get whenever they want them. In similar lab settings, this kind of approach has inspired various forms of rebellion among study participants. For example, openly serving someone lowfat or reduced-calorie meals tends to lead to increased fat or calorie consumption over the whole day. People reason that because they were forced to be good for one meal, they can splurge on snacks and desserts at later meals."