June 08, 2011

Caveman Diary, 5: Civilization's Food and Its Discontents

Since I'm not actually a metabolic scientist or a biochemist (although I play one on this blog), I derive part of my satisfaction in exploring this whole subject of food from the power of the pathway it affords into what you could call macrosocial analysis.

I hold this truth to be self-evident: it's freakin' weird when a modern Western democracy is composed of 300 million people, 200 million of whom are overweight; 100 million of whom are clinically obese; 75 million of whom suffer from metabolic syndrome or Syndrome X (pre-diabetic, with high blood glucose, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, fatty liver and atherosclerosis); and 27% of all citizens over 60 have Type II diabetes. And while all these things are going on, the "debate" about the viability of Medicare, the necessity of reforms, the manageability of its future costs, hardly mentions any of the astounding list of particulars at the top of this paragraph. This critically ill cohort of oversized humans is considered simply the state of nature, what we must work with, the unalterable status quo ante.

I mean...you know? Here's what else makes it completely whacked: the general trend toward the condition of epidemic obesity (and epidemic high blood pressure and related ailments) has obviously been proceeding at an alarming rate since not later than the mid-1970's. We've watched it happen. The Department of Agriculture posts its yearly "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," and Americans get fatter and fatter and fatter, until we are now the fattest people on the face of the Earth.


I commend unto you this linked UCSF lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, endocrinologist and pediatrician at the university. It's 90 minutes long, but worth watching in its entirety, maybe even if you're not as obsessed as I am in my nocturnal pastime of unlettered biochemist. An astounding 1.4 million people have apparently viewed it so far. In line with what I've written before, I would say that Dr. Lustig has presented a refined refined carbohydrate analysis; specifically, I think what he's arguing (the controversial part) is that the actual culprit behind the obesity epidemic is high fructose corn syrup. Period. Its toxic effects on the liver give rise to insulin resistance through complicated metabolic pathways, and predispose a big consumer of HFCS to fat deposition.

While fructose does not itself elicit an insulin response, the way we consume fructose (other than at low levels when eating actual fruit) is in combination with glucose, either as sucrose (table sugar, 50/50 glucose-fructose) or as HFCS (55% fructose, 45% glucose). Thus, when we consume fructose this way, in the presence of equally high levels of glucose, we eat fructose in the presence of the strong insulin response elicited by the glucose. The importance of this associated fact is that the insulin response, in effect, disables the "satiety feedback loop," and the poor family of four knocking back the Happy Meals may deserve a break today but they don't get one, because they remain hungry even as they ingest humongous piles of crap.

Morgan Spurlock, in his movie "Supersize Me," did not really prove his thesis about McDonald's, as an eminent physiologist from a great Southwestern university explained to me. What Morgan proved was not that there was something inherently and uniquely fattening or sickening about McDonald's food. When his internist told him he was getting sick as well as huge, that his liver was being damaged, that he ran the risk of dying of heart disease if he kept this up, Spurlock was unintentionally (and in an uninformed way) proving Dr. Lustig's points. It is true that Spurlock gained weight because he ate so damn much (the caloric intake was stupendous over his 30-day experiment). But he was able to eat so much, well past the point of reasonable satiety, because of all the sugars he was consuming as part of the diet. The liver damage was a direct result of the high fructose corn syrup that finds its way into practically everything McD's serves. Spurlock became insulin resistant, he laid on fat as a result, and it would have occurred anywhere that he followed such a regime of eating, Arches or no, with or without the Clown. The movie was based on junk science about junk food.

Dr. Lustig refers to the work of the uncannily prescient John Yudkin, the British metabolic researcher, who wrote "Pure, White and Deadly," and was perhaps the first to systematically describe the "saccharine disease." Yudkin was not dealing with the ubiquitous problem of high fructose corn syrup, but he was writing about sucrose, with its 50/50 load. What gives Lustig's analysis strong credibility is the sheer timing of the American obesity epidemic. The average adult American now weighs 25 pounds more than he/she did 25 years ago. Did we just suddenly get hungrier and decide to eat more than we really felt like eating? If it's a sedentary lifestyle, did we stop moving?

No doubt this is one of those multivariate situations. Yet to account for those astounding statistics up there in the lede, something unique and new must be going on. It is true that the Department of Agriculture, beginning in 1977, gave Americans precisely the wrong advice in urging a diet which was 60 to 65% carbohydrate, and in fomenting all the hysteria about the dangers of saturated fat. The researchers knew at the time (as reproduced in hearing transcripts in Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories) that it was far more likely that the obesogenic food sources in the American diet were the "easily digestible" carbohydrates, meaning sugars and starches, because they were aware of Yudkin's work (and that of Peter Cleave). Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers of our misbegotten diet coalesced around this low-fat stuff, condemning generations of Americans to the demeaning horrors of margarine. And despite the overwhelming evidence that they were dead wrong, the federal government essentially sits by while high fructose corn syrup, sweetening and "preserving" half the stuff in the grocery store, poisons and fattens the American people.

To go on a bit longer than usual: the parabolic take-off of American obesity appears to dovetail nicely with the introduction of high fructose corn syrup into the American diet in about 1975. We certainly had fat people before 1975, people with beer guts, people with "glandular abnormalities," as we used to say in grade school. But let's face it: we did not have the race of Elephant People that we have today. It's qualitatively different. Something specific is going on, and all the talk about "will power" and "American-ness" is simply clouding the issue. Dr. Lustig himself goes so far as to suggest a political reason: the federal government is not going to blow the whistle on corn growing or its offshoot industry, the use of corn stalks to brew high fructose corn syrup. It's big business and big money. Maybe lots of 400-pound Americans are going to keel over in the streets at the age of 55, but HFCS is good for the balance of trade.

Leading me finally to Waldenswimmer's Five Stages of Collapse of modern capitalist democracy (to match up with Dmitry Orlov's list of five, but mine are not oil-dependent). This is how it seems to me:

1. The society suffers from pandemic existential problems of an obvious nature. These can be fiscal (national debt), environmental (pollution, fracking, mountain-top removal, global warming), health-related (epidemic obesity and its related ailments), among other problems, such as a persistent state of war and imperial overreach.

2. The solutions to these problems are equally obvious. A rational philosopher king, in the Platonic tradition, who had the best interests of his subjects at heart could solve them all in the course of a few months.

3. The existing leadership, however, refuses to implement such solutions because of corruption in favor of legacy industries and institutions which work to the advantage of the economic and power elites.

4. The commoners of the population, through a deliberate program of impoverishment and mal-education foisted upon them by elites, lack the analytical ability to rescue themselves through the democratic process. Thus, the Tea Party and similar futile gestures which simply play into the hands of the Powers That Be, or the election of stooges, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

5. The elites finally overplay their hand through their concentration of wealth and sponsorship of unlivable conditions for the great mass of commoners (the bottom 90%). At this point, the commoners react through what can be called undemocratic channels, viz., America in 1776, France in 1789, Russia in 1917.

As the Chinese say, it is a curse to live in interesting times.

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