Monday, June 25, 2012

The China Study

Per recommendation from my mother, I've started to read "The China study".  She and I both have an interest in nutrition and disease so I am excited to read the book and gather new insights - and maybe find a new lifestyle ideal to work towards.  I have only started to read the book, but from what I gather, the author is going to build a case that animal products and specifically animal protein in the Western diet is responsible for many of the common diseases that afflict us, including heart disease, cancer, and obesity. 

As I was reading the first chapter, my mind wandered a bit and I remembered the time I spent in east Africa.  The Maasai people are nomads who live in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania and we had many encounters with them on our trip.  Their economy revolves around cattle - they are nomads because they must find new grazing lands for their herds.  Maasai diet is extremely high protein:  they drink milk from their cows and even harvest cow blood from a small cut in the jugular vein to drink raw.  They will consume meat from goats, sheep, and their cattle if they need to.

From the New England Journal of Medicine, on the Masai Diet, from 1971:

"The Masai of East Africa exhibit some unique biologic characteristics. Despite their customary diet composed of 66 per cent calories as fat, they have persistent low serum cholesterol and beta-lipoprotein levels. Post-mortem examinations provided direct proof of a paucity of atherosclerosis. Metabolic studies revealed that the Masai absorbed large amounts of dietary cholesterol, but also possessed a highly efficient negative feedback control of endogenous cholesterol biosynthesis to compensate for the influx of dietary cholesterol.  The high ratios of phospholipid to cholesterol and bile acid to cholesterol in their gallbladder bile explain the extreme rarity of cholesterol gallstones. All these characteristics may reflect a long-term biologic adaptation of the tribe."

I don't think this refutes anything, it is just food for thought.  For example, it seems plausible to me that relative dietary protein excess could be related to "Western" diseases but if such protein is immediately utilized that might be a different story.  The Maasai eat a lot of animal protein but they are also nomads and spend their days in different ways than your average American and probably make more use of the protein in their diets.  Also, I'm not aware of any good studies of cancer among the Maasai but I will keep looking.

Switching gears.  On page 80 off the book I made a self-serving observation:  there was not a statistically significant link between eggs and blood cholesterol found in the China study.  After some arguments with friends about the relative health risks/benefits of eating eggs, I had previously scoured pubmed for links between egg consumption and blood cholesterol.  After viewing multiple studies, I was able to find no such link - only transient increases in blood cholesterol were reported (immediately after consumption). 

From a scientific perspective I wouldn't be totally shocked if eggs were ultimately shown to be fairly benign dietary additions.  I am about to embark on a path of pure unadulterated, unsupported speculation (as I often do).  If there is something unique about animal protein and animal cholesterol as it relates to cancer, causing tumor progression, I wouldn't be surprised if it ultimately proved to be related to the consumption of signalling molecules & growth factors that feed malignancy.  Consuming "animal protein" essentially is an exercise in consuming the cells of various animal tissues.  Those cells all have membranes that are full of cholesterol molecules and transmembrane signalling proteins.  Those cells will also contain a cytoplasm full of hormones,intracellular signalling molecules, enzymes, signal amplifiers, and the like.

Eggs wouldn't necessarily have those things because eggs aren't tissue.  Its a protoplasm of undifferentiated nutrients that will ultimately be built into differentiating (specializing) cells and tissues.  Raw eggs just represent building blocks for later animal protein.  The animal protein in eggs would lack signalling molecules and hormones.

Anyway, I will be curious to see if there is stronger anti-egg evidence later in the book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Have they learned nothing?

On domestic policy issues, I don't think that Obama and Romney will differ all that much.  Both men will work towards and almost certainly get a grand deficit-controlling bargain that will largely be limited in scope by constraints imposed by the legislative branch.  The Republicans in the house will limit the tax increases, although there will be some.  The Democrats will limit the cuts to entitlements, although they will be hefty in either case because they have to be.
The biggest difference between Romney and Obama, in my mind, is when it comes to foreign policy.  I don't believe that Romney is a war-monger but I do believe that he will be surrounded and supported by "intellectuals" who are.  The Republicans are ITCHING for another war.  They want a strike on Iran, they want intervention in Syria.  Its madness, but it is the truth. 
I don't believe that Romney will initiate these events, but I do believe that those who surround him or those in control of the party will push buttons and initiate events such that the gears of war start turning.  Once the machine starts moving, Romney will go along with it.  Read this for a sobering reminder of why this remains my single biggest concern for the prospects of a Romney presidency:
John Bolton isn't just any foreign policy thinker in the Republican Party.  He is THE foreign policy thinker of the Republican Party. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

First, they came for your soft drinks

The hysteria surrounding Mayor Bloomberg's large soft drink ban is fairly ridiculous.  Really, my biggest problem is his approach; a ban on large drinks will be less effective than a hefty tax on soda by the ounce.  Not a ton of people agree with me on this:  Americans seem to think that what starts with a super-sized soft drink ban will logically and inevitably end with a nanny-police state.  This assumes that we have no capacity for restraint or rational governance, which is ridiculous.*

Most people already accept that the government has the right to intervene in some situations.  If a parent gave a child ice cream for dessert every night, we might think the child spoiled.  If a parent fed their obese child ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we would be thinking about calling social services.  If a parent was giving their child alcohol or cigarettes, we would definitely call social services.  Many of the loudest voices criticizing mayor Bloomberg also firmly in the anti-drug legalization camp.  If a police state is scary, why are we incarcerating people who smoke marijuana?

Next, consider that while trying to regulate soda slightly infringes on the rights of people who drink soda, being obese and relying on government-provided health care greatly infringes on the economic rights of people who pay taxes.  If we lived in a nation where everyone had to sleep in the bed that they made for themselves, I would be more sympathetic to libertarian extremes.  As it stands, all Americans are guaranteed access to health care in emergent situations and all Americans are guaranteed health care at age 65.  Your right to drink soda and be unhealthy needs to be balanced with my right to be free from overwhelming tax burdens.

It is very important to remember that government is part of the reason we got here in the first place.  There are government subsidies for industrial agriculture, corn, meat, and processed food.  This artificially cheapens the price of the most unhealthy types of food; it is literally the case that the federal government pays Americans to eat at McDonald's (indirectly).  No wonder why we have an obesity crisis!  It is not libertarian or conservative to be a defender of a market so distorted by government influence.

The obesity crisis is getting worse, and health care costs are literally bankrupting the United States.  Are there more ideologically pure ways to fight the obesity crisis than to tax soda?  Possibly; but none are so simple to implement, likely to be effective, and politically realistic.  Smokers consume a lot of health resources, and we all agree that smoking is a bad habit.  Not a ton of people are upset about the fact that we tax cigarettes.  Soda should be similarly considered.

On an aside, from a purely speculative health standpoint, let me also say this:  if you forced me to either drink 3 cokes every day or smoke 10 cigarettes, I am inclined to think that I would be better off smoking the cigarettes.  It would be interesting to read a study that tried to compare the two to see which is worse for health.

* Unless Republicans are in charge

Friday, June 01, 2012

Will democracy survive in Europe?

Given the imminent collapse of the Euro, one blogger posed the question:  "Will democracy survive in Europe?"

I'm not so sure I buy the "locked-in" theory of modern democratic consolidation, which posits that once a nation state becomes democratic, and its culture molds around that political structure, it remains a democracy despite political or economic turmoil.  My personal belief is that historical trends are more a product of trans-national influences that exert changes in the same direction.  It is true that *generally* in the 20th century we've seen a trend towards democracy, but it is also true that the United States and Western Europe have been the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world throughout that century.  The attraction and the influence of the Western democratic model has been strong for the last 150 years.

Look what happened to nations that were within the gravitational pull of powerful non-democratic states, though.  The eastern European states in the Soviet Union's orbit failed to become democratic until the Soviet Union collapsed.  Some of the Asian states around China (Vietnam, North Korea) have stubbornly failed to transition.  In the case of Hong Kong, we have an example of an economically free zone that has become less politically free with the decline of democratic political influence (Britain) and the rise of non-democratic ones (China).  The transnational influence doesn't rely on the presence of a regional power, either:  look at the brotherhood of thugs that have dominated Arab dictatorships for years.  If Jordan was surrounded by Arab democracies, I suspect King Hussein would not be the autocrat that he is.  Lebanon would not be so unstable.  Iraq's transition would certainly be easier if its neighbors were democracies.

In South America, the trend has been towards democracy over two decades when the only superpower in the world was a democracy, but those gains are tenuous.  What happens when the powerful Western democracies continue to wane in influence?  We're going to find out soon enough.  The author of the blog entry above puts the chance of a non-democracy emerging from a European political collapse into something else at 1 in 50.  Here is my prediction:  the chances are 1 in 3.  Greece is the most likely to go; it has a particularly toxic brew of factors that will make it ripe for dictatorship, something it has a fairly recent experience with anyways (as does Spain, coincidentally or maybe not).  Greece is facing a nearly unprecedented economic collapse.  It has an increasingly powerful historic foe (Turkey) on its doorstep, which will only increase feelings of nationalism and militarism.  I've also read reports of a new sense of animosity towards the Western democracies that it would otherwise be emulating.

The people of every age always think they're at the end of history.  Especially given the nearly unprecedented political instability that the United States has experienced over the last 12 years (as far as dysfunctional government is concerned), I think a little caution is warranted.