Vitamin B.S.

Couldn’t help but steal the pitch-perfect title from the Atlantic iinterview with the author of a new book on our false belief on how vitamin supplements can save us.  My mom was a huge believer in all things vitamin and supplement-related.  Among other things, I took megadoses of Vitamin C when I got colds (surely did no good).  That said, given my horrible diet when I was younger, I might have actually gotten scurvy without Vitamin C supplements (and I suspect the same would be true for some of my kids).  Anyway, the occasional case of scurvy avoided for a really picky eater, it is quite clear that our culture has put far too much faith into vitamin supplements:

The third idea wasn’t new, and wasn’t born from the conference so much as strengthened by it: the notion that vitamins were the key not only to health, but to a state of health-plus, with the ability to boost bodies past sick, past normal, and into something even better. In recent years, researchers have debunked, over and over, the idea that vitamin supplements confer any measureable benefit at all—but still, around half of Americans take them regularly. Together with other dietary supplements, they enjoy a reputation for nutritional power that stretches far beyond their true capabilities…

I was especially intrigued by this part:

Catherine Price: There’s actually only 13 human vitamins: A, D, E, K, C, and the eight B vitamins. But when we use the word vitamin in our everyday speech, we tend to lump in all the other dietary supplements that you could take—things like fish oil or all the herbals and botanicals that you can find if you go into the drugstore or GNC.

In terms of the chemical definition of a vitamin, there actually isn’t one. [Most of those 13] were discovered around the same time, and the word was coined before any of them had been isolated, and it just ended up being such a great word that it stuck around, even after scientists found out that the vitamins actually weren’t all chemically in the same family. But in general, it’s a substance you need in an extremely small amount, usually from your diet, that prevents a specific deficiency.

Romm: If they aren’t all chemically united, what is it that groups vitamins together?

Price: A lot of it is the history. They were discovered because of deficiency diseases—things like scurvy, which is a deficiency of vitamin C, or rickets with D. Or beriberi, which none of us know about now, which was horrible—that’s vitamin B1. And pellagra, which is niacin [B3]. So they were discovered through this process of recognizing the idea of a deficiency disease. And that was really revolutionary, because there was this idea that you could get sick from something you didn’t have, as opposed to a germ. So scientists started hypothesizing in the early 1900s that there was a group of chemical compounds in food that prevented these diseases. In 1911, this Polish biochemist, Casimir Funk, suggested that they be called vitamins. So that’s kind of how the concept became established and the word was created, and why they started to get lumped together. It was only after that point that they actually discovered what the substances were…

Romm: Were vitamins marketed more for their health benefits, or in terms of what would happen if people didn’t get enough of them?

Price: Both, actually. On the one hand, you had advertisers warning you of what would happen if you were deficient. Some of the early researchers were writing for the popular press, and they would write these terrifying columns saying how your teeth would fall out if you didn’t have enough vitamin C—which is true, but most Americans don’t have scurvy. That’s extreme deficiency. So a lot of it was this fear-mongering, and I thought that was fascinating because we still see it today all the time. And then there was this flipside, where the idea of optimization started to take hold—if vitamins were necessary to prevent a deficiency in a small amount, then if you had more of them, you’d be like a superhero. So yeah, they were doing both. Vitamins, more than any other dietary chemical, really established that two-sided relationship, where we’re driven both by fear and by the hope that we’ll become superhuman, that we can optimize ourselves if we just eat the right things.

Based on the research and my (now) healthy diet, I finally stopped taking vitamins a few years ago.  As for my kids, I am definitely not expecting any great health benefits, but until their diets improve, I’m playing it safe to prevent any deficiencies.

Also, not in here, my very favorite piece of vitamin lore I have heard… Sugar producers lobbied for vitamins to be added to breakfast cereal because that requires more sugar to mask the taste of the vitamins.

Most Americans don’t understand what a government subsidy is

Not exactly a shocking headline.  Surely less so than, most Americans don’t know that government is subsidizing their health care.  Actually, I suspect both are true, but I think the YouGov question this is based on (via Yglesias) is quite problematic:

“Do you receive [emphasis mine] a government subsidy to help you pay for your health insurance.”  My suspicion is that substantially more than 15% or so of American who receive employer health insurance no there’s a tax break involved, but don’t think a tax break as receiving a government subsidy.  I could be wrong, but I actually suspect you would have much higher responses to “is your health insurance in any way subsidized by the government.”  Of course, there’s really no excuse for all those 65+ on Medicare who just don’t get it.  So despite nit-picking the question wording, I do think Yglesias is right:

Some of what you see in this poll is a simple misunderstanding — older Americans either don’t know what Medicare is or mistakenly believe they have “paid for” their benefits with earlier taxes.

But Americans who get insurance from their jobs are also benefitting from a massive government program. A program whose existence is hidden from sight but is nonetheless quite real and substantial..

One of the few things that policy experts of all kinds can agree on is that it’s arbitrary and unfair to provide this subsidy to employees of large companies while other workers go unsubsidized and uncovered.

The Affordable Care Act seeks to address this unfairness by creating a parallel system of subsidies from people who don’t get job-based care while paring back the tax subsidy for the most expensive job-based plans.

Most conservative plans — from the one John McCain ran on in 2008 to the one Richard Burr, Orrin Hatch, and Fred Upton are pushing in the current congress — level the playing field by eliminating (in McCain’s case) or curtailing (in the current bill’s case) the subsidy for job-based plans. Avik Roy, a leading conservative health wonk, calls this subsidy the “original sin” of American health care policy.

But as far as the public is concerned, liberals and conservatives might as well be arguing about what to do with the Loch Ness Monster. A huge share of the American health policy debate is a debate about what to do about a subsidy that the public doesn’t realize exists.

Of course, one of the problems in making good policy in general is that it is far too easy to use Americans’ massive ignorance of how policy actually works (not that I’m blaming them) to mislead the public for political ends.  Death panels anyone?

Quick hits

1) While everybody has been complaining about the silliness of the dress being black/blue or gold/white, the truth is, this really is a fascinating case of the ambiguities of human color perception.  David Pogue’s take was my favorite.  And a good one in Wired, too.

The really crazy part for me is that on Friday morning this was totally white and I could not even imagine how it could be blue.  Then Friday afternoon when I showed my kids, it was blue.  Friday night, it was white again.  As of this later Friday night writing, it’s back to blue again.  Try as I might, I cannot see it as the dingy white I did just two hours ago.  Argh!  Crazy and awesome.

2) Not generally a big fan of Maureen Dowd, but she’s exactly right to question Jeb’s decision-making in relying on all his brother’s worst advisers.  Paul Wolfowitz– seriously?!

3) Our nation’s way over-reliance on solitary confinement truly is a national shame.

4) Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is literally one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.  I read it in a day (can’t remember the last time I did that) and laughed out loud a bunch while I was reading it.

5) Really liked this take on David Carr’s death and the stigma of lung cancer.

6) I so hate the twitter guardians of decency who seem to take such pleasure in ruining lives.  Absolute worst part of the Lindsey Stone case was how the morons basically had no sense of humor or context.  Horrible and pathetic.

7) How twin studies show that whether you believe in God or not, is significantly genetic.

8) Enjoyed this story on Dianne Rehm’s advocacy in the Right to Die movement.

9) I think Scott Walker’s moronic comments that he’s ready to face down ISIS because he faced down public employee unions mostly just show that he’s not ready for primetime (of which we’ve had ample evidence of late).  Plus, there’s something about the set of his eyes that just seems wrong to me.

10) Will Saletan on how Obama should more forthrightly call out Republicans.  Not going to happen, but it’s nice to think about:

Please. If we’re going to start calling out religious and political groups for extremism, we could start at home with Republicans. Too many of them spew animus. Too many foment sectarianism. Too many sit by, or make excuses, as others appeal to tribalism. If Obama were to treat them the way they say he should treat Islam—holding the entire faith accountable for its ugliest followers—they’d squeal nonstop about slander and demagogy. They’re lucky that’s not his style.

11) Found this NYT story utterly fascinating about two French babies switched at birth and how they stayed with their non-biological families when the error was learned many years later.

12) St Louis is a great example of what goes wrong when a metropolitan area has too many local governments.

13) I’ve only watched three episodes of House of Cards and that’s all it will likely ever be.  As Alyssa Rosenberg writes, it insults our intelligence.  Also, from what I’ve seen it has basically no sense of humor (which is decidedly not the case from other great dramas of recent times).

14) If the Supreme Court actually makes the transparently political and nakedly partisan decision to strike down Obamacare subsidies, this could actually put Republicans in a real jam.

15) Our system of elected judges is truly one of the worst parts of the American system of government.  Easy pickings, of course, for John Oliver.

Eat more salt!

It will make your food taste better and unless you already have hypertension, it’s not going to hurt you.  Mind you, I’m not advocating to eat more processed food (generally high in sodium), but the evidence is clear that the vast majority of people worrying about their sodium intake are worrying needlessly.  Aaron Carroll has an excellent summary of the new dietary recommendations, but since I’ve already hit that topic, I’ll just focus on what he has to say about salt:

I wrote here at The Upshot not long ago about how a growing body of epidemiologic data was pointing out that low-salt diets might actually be unhealthy. But randomized controlled trials exist there, too. A 2008 study randomly assigned patients with congestive heart failure to either normal or low-sodium diets. Those on the low-sodium diet had significantly more hospital admissions. The “number needed to treat” for a normal-sodium diet above a low-sodium diet to prevent a hospital admission in this population was six — meaning that for every six people who are moved from a low-sodium diet to a normal diet, one hospital admission would be prevented. That’s a very strong finding.

Let’s not cherry-pick, though. A systematic review of randomized controlled trials of salt intake was published last year. Eight trials involving more than 7,200 participants looked at whether advising patients to cut down on salt, or reducing sodium intake, affected outcomes. None of the trials, including ones involving people with both normal and high blood pressure, showed a reduction in all-cause mortality.

Well, there you go.  Eat salt– it’s tasty and very unlikely to hasten your death or major illness.

How to think about what to eat

The government has some new nutrition guidelines, and the Atlantic’s James Hamblin explains why they make a lot more sense than previous guidelines:

The 15-person advisory committee’s new recommendations are emblematic of an essential ongoing shift in approaches to eating: focusing on whole foods, as opposed to avoiding or endorsing specific macronutrients (carbs, fat, or protein)…

Similarly open-ended in terms of execution, the report continues, “This can be achieved through a variety of evidence-based dietary patterns … Strategies should be based on the individual’s preferences and health status and consider the sociocultural influences on lifestyle behaviors that relate to long-term behavior maintenance.” Which is to say, not everyone should be held to a single standard, because there are a lot of variables in individual lives, but here are the basic principles that everyone can try to accommodate if they want to be healthy…

Vegetables and fruits were the only dietary elements that proved beneficial in preventing or treating every disease that the committee included in its review of scientific evidence. They were followed by whole grains, which had moderate-to-strong evidence for their consumption in every case. The evidence was largely against any diet that is high in sugar-sweetened foods and refined grains. Other elements common to diets proven to prevent certain diseases were being high in low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol; and lower in processed meat and red meat.

Well, there you go.  Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and a minimum of processed foods.  And no one combination of these foods that is some magic diet.  Not exactly rocket science, but it has taken us a long time to get to this point.  I’m sure there’s still plenty to be learned about human nutrition, but I strongly suspect this basic advice will be appropriate for a long, long time.


I’ve linked to her a number of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever taken a moment to mention that New Yorker science writer, Maria Konnikova is awesome.  In addition to her lengthy and thoughtful blog posts, I also love the segments she does on the Mike Pesca’s the Gist podcast where they examine whether popular/common science beliefs are, in fact, true.

Anyway, I really liked this piece on the nature of human disgust and how the biggest obstacle to new sewage to clean water processing is not technological, but psychological.  I.e., people find the idea of drinking the water disgusting:

In the first series of studies, the group asked adults in five cities about their backgrounds, their political and personal views, and, most important, their view on the concept of “recycled water.” On average, everyone was uncomfortable with the idea—even when they were told that treated, recycled water is actually safer to drink than unfiltered tap water. That discomfort, Rozin found, was all about disgust. Twenty-six per cent of participants were so disgusted by the idea of toilet-to-tap that they even agreed with the statement, “It is impossible for recycled water to be treated to a high enough quality that I would want to use it.” They didn’t care what the safety data said. Their guts told them that the water would never be drinkable. It’s a phenomenon known as contagion, or, as Rozin describes it, “once in contact, always in contact.” By touching something we find disgusting, a previously neutral or even well-liked item can acquire—permanently—its properties of grossness.

Feelings of disgust are often immune to rationality. And with good reason: evolutionarily, disgust is an incredibly adaptive, life-saving reaction. We find certain things instinctively gross because they really can harm us…

It’s easy, though, to be disgusted by things that aren’t actually dangerous. In a prior study, Rozin found that people were unwilling to drink a favorite beverage into which a “fully sterilized” cockroach had been dipped. Intellectually, they knew that the drink was safe, but they couldn’t get over the hump of disgust. In another experiment, students wouldn’t eat chocolate that had been molded to look like poop: they knew that it was safe—tasty, even—but its appearance was too much to handle. Their response makes no logical sense. When it comes to recycled water, for instance, Rozin points out that, on some level, all water comes from sewage: “Rain is water that used to be in someone’s toilet, and nobody seems to mind.” The problem, he says, has to do with making the hidden visible. “If it’s obvious—take shit water, put it through a filter—then people are upset.”

There’s plenty of irrational disgust in the Greene household.  I’m quite sure this goes hand-in-hand with picky eating, among other things.  I was also interested to read the following:

Disgust has deep psychological roots, emerging early in a child’s development. Infants and young toddlers don’t feel grossed out by anything—diapers, Rozin observes, are there in part to stop a baby “from eating her shit.” In the young mind, curiosity and exploration often overpower any competing instincts. But, at around four years old, there seems to be a profound shift. Suddenly, children won’t touch things that they find appalling.

Yes!  Sarah (who turned 4 in November) has been picky for a long time, but only recently has she started finding objects disgusting.  Science!

Interestingly (very much to me, of course), Konnikova makes the connection to GMO food:

G.M.O.s, or genetically modified foods, are a third area where visceral disgust trumps all evidence and reason. In 2005, Rozin published a survey showing that, when it comes to “naturalness,” content is far less important than process; a natural substance can easily be rendered “unnatural” by passing through an unnatural-seeming transformation, even one as innocuous as boiling or pasteurization. In a forthcoming paper with Sydney Scott and Yoel Inbar, Rozin argues that the tendency to conflate naturalness with goodness is one basic reason G.M.O.s are facing such an uphill battle. Some people don’t like the corporations responsible for the spread of G.M.O.s. But for many others, according to his data, it’s simply a question of disgust: G.M.O.s go through an “unnatural” process—a transformation that changes them from one thing to another—and that very process makes them unpalatable, regardless of actual danger or evidence. More than seventy per cent of those who expressed opposition to genetically modified food—close to half of all of those surveyed—said that their view would not change regardless of the evidence put before them. G.M.O.s are unnatural and, therefore, disgusting. [emphasis mine, of course]

As always, I’ll grant that there’s a thoughtful discussion to be had about the environmental impact of GMO’s and the uncertainties in their use.  Nonetheless, it is quite clear that this rational/thoughtful discussion is almost impossible because to far too many people, GMO’s are just disgusting.

Quick hits (part II)

Hmmm, this version is not so mega.  I apologize for the lack of numerical balance in this weekend’s quick hits.

1) There’s a new strongest material in the world (besting spider silk)– the microscopic teeth of bottom-dwelling sea snails.  Cool!

2) Oklahoma legislators– we don’t need no stinkin’ AP History!  And Steve Benen places it into a broader context of GOP assaults on public education.

3) Yes, unions go too far at times, but their decline has surely been a big part of our growth in inequality.  Nice column from Kristof.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

4) Government by consent of the governed?  Maybe not so much in Greensboro, NC.

5) A really interesting take on how decriminalization of drugs can be a bad thing.  Really eye-opening.  Of course, if we could end this totally evil modern debtor’s prison thing we’ve got going, decriminalization wouldn’t’ be a bad thing.

6) Ideology and the closing of centers in the UNC system.  Yes, of course it’s political no matter how much the Board of Governors protests otherwise.  A response from Gene Nichol, one of the key figures in all this.

7) Love this collection of humorous flyers.

8) Given that Marilyn Vos Savant supposedly has the world’s highest IQ, it’s really kind of sad that she’s best known for solving logic problems in the Sunday Parade supplement (I know her as the person who married my dad’s first cousin’s ex-husband).  That said, the sexist vitriol she received on the Monty Hall problem is really kind of amazing.  Oh, and no matter what, I just cannot entirely wrap my head around this problem.

9) I remember reading something about this wrongful police shooting in Fairfax, VA (where I was born and raised) a while back, but the lack of news coverage is really pretty amazing.  On the bright side, it’s not just non-white guys who are victims of overzealous police who are then not held accountable.

10) Love Adam Gopnik on Republican candidate evasions on whether they believe in evolution.  It’s pretty short, you should read it all.  But since you won’t:

What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?

11) This Jamelle Bouie piece about the Republican attempts to appeal Obamacare and what it means has sat in my queue for its own post for too long. So here’s my favorite part:

The consequences of the proposal are straightforward: By ending Obamacare in its entirety and placing limits on Medicaid, it would eliminate insurance for millions of Americans and make it harder for middle- and working-class people to purchase coverage. And while it’s described as a plan to save money, the truth is that it accomplishes this by reducing care for the poor and raising costs on everyone else.

In other words, this isn’t a plan to achieve universal coverage. That’s simply not a Republican goal, and it’s part of the reason it has proven politically difficult to craft an alternative. We don’t think everyone should have health insurance just isn’t an appealing message.


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