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Dietary Paranoia - A Privileged Problem

If you live in a well developed country with ample access to food such as the United States, or France, or really any country that is traditionally regarded as being Westernized, then you may begin to notice certain odd trends in the diets of local people. These trends can appear rather suddenly and often dissappear after a few years only to be replaced by some new nonsensical dietary regime, but in the process they can do significant harm to certain industries or even to the bodies of those that engage in them. I am talking, of course, about dietary fads and fashions, and about the vague fears many people have of certain food items. There is no question that certain foods are better than others and that we all need to eat responsibly in order to prolong our lives and to help provide enough food for others. That being said, many of these fads are completely unjustified, and only have the luxury of existing in a climate where most people have access to lots of food. With privilege comes the capacity to reject the food that is offered to you, even when there is no reason to do so. Below is a summary of a number of food fears and fads that are rampant in the USA, and that need to be rectified if we are going to maintain a functional agricultural and food industry.

Fad Diets

Fad diets are nothing new, and are no doubt the most common and widespread issue presented in this article. Fad diets are readily recognized by their “hook”, which is to say they will have some defining characteristic that distinguishes them from other diets. For example, the Atkins diet is known for having its users completely remove carbohydrates from their diets in favor of meat and other proteins. The more recent Paleo diet is aimed at mimicking a more ancient food regimen and as such its users are restricted to eating foods prepared from ingredients that would have been available to our ancient ancestors in the vague interest of health. These diets may sound relatively benign, and in some cases they may even work to help some individuals lose weight, but in the long run they only do harm to our society. We prefer easy answers to problems such as obesity, and as such it will enver be trendy to “eat less and exercise more”, which is truly the best dietary advice a person can receive. Instead society is shaped and surrounded by these fanciful fad diets and their insidious effects.

Take for example, the Atkins diet. Carbohydrates are an essential fuel for the cells of your body, not to mention a common sugar that is found in a wide range of very common foods important to all societies, such as wheat, rice, or other grains. The Atkins diet requires the elimination of these sustaining compounds from the diet, immediately precluding those from impoverished backgrounds from partaking. This likely works in the favor of the impoverished individuals, however, as without constant consultation with a nutritionist or doctor the Atkins diet can have devastating effects on your health. Our bodies are able to detect when they are starving so that they can start to use backup sources of fuel to keep the body going until food can be found again. The way the body senses starvation is by the detection of levels of the carbohydrate glucose in the body. If you go for an extended period without eating any glucose, then even if you eat plenty of protein your body will think that it is starving, and as such it will begin to metabolize fats.

This metabolic switching to a starvation program can theoretically help you lose weight, however starvation is not an ideal state for the body to be in. The byproducts of this starvation regimen known as ketone bodies begin to be released into the blood, causing it to become progressively more acidic. If left unchecked, this acidification - known as ketoacidosis - can be lethal, and is a common problem for diabetic patients with poorly controlled disease, due to their own body's impaired ability to detect glucose which may be present in the body. As such, the Atkins diet served as a rather dangerous fad for its strictest adherents. When they diet was trendy, it also resulted in a number of retailers offering “low carb” or “carb free” options on their menus, even when doing so seemed quite nonsensical. For example, the sandwich shop Subway began to offer low carb sandwiches, which are out of necessity served on bread making this dietary approach pointless and bizarre.

The Paleo diet is a more recent trendy diet that lacks the immediately dangerous side effects that exist in the Atkins diet. This diet is based on the goal of eating food that our Paleolithic ancestors would have had access to. This is based on the misguided notion that wee have many obesity and intestinal problems in modern society, and ergo we should revert to the diet of a time when these problems did not exist in order to eliminate them. For one, we do not have evidence that there were not the same degree of intestinal issues in Paleolithic times. Additionally, our bodies may not be able to process food the same way that our ancient ancestors were able to. Microbes in our guts are responsible for metabolizing and detoxifying a number of food compounds, and as such tens of thousands of years of dietary shifts may have eliminated the microbes necessary to process so called “Paleo” food in a healthy manner. Lastly, the food eaten on the Paleo diet has been shown to increase rates of heart disease and such conditions, likely due to its very high fat and cholesterol content. In essence, vain attempts to cling to the past are destroying the future of this diet's adherents.

There are many other fad diets that have risen and fallen over the years that I do not have time to get into here (although the “Cookie diet” is a particularly entertaining example that you may wish to look up). Suffice to say that America has an obsession with quick fixes to our diet that compromise nothing while still promising everything, and this dietary disruption has the potential to be very dangerous. As a society we need to move beyond these wild mood swings in food consumption in order to settle on more well reasoned and carefully developed means of dealing with the health problems that are common in a society with ample food and a sedentary lifestyle.

Calories are Not the Enemy

A more recent and popular trend in America seems to be the labeling of foods as being low in calories. The though process here seems to be that people see foods labeled “low calorie” and translate this to meaning “healthy” in their heads, even though calories are not a great metric for how healthy a food item may be. This perception is likely the result of the way dietary guidelines are provided in the US, where people are told to aim for a 2,000 calorie per day intake. In reality nutrition is a complex process requiring regulation of a number of parameters, and calories are a fairly good metric for total dietary nutritive content as they are a good measure for the amount of energy contained in food. They are not, however, the be all end all for the health status of a food item, and the fact that people are purchasing food items exclusively because they claim to be low in calories is just as nonsensical as buying items solely because they are labeled as being low in fat content. In the case of low fat items, fat is often removed and replaced with increased sugar content, whereas in low calorie foods high levels of fat and cholesterol can ensure that food is still extremely damaging to your health even if it does not weigh heavily on your daily caloric intake.

The most sensible way to deal with things like calorie content in food is to fully examine the contents of the food you are eating. If a food is low in calories, fats, and cholesterols then it is far less likely to have a dire impact on your long term health than if hydrogenated oils make up a significant percentage of that item. Once again this trend is a luxury that exists only in nations with a gut of food; in poor areas the ability to obtain a calorically dense food item is often the most economical means of avoiding hunger for a day, and as such it would seem that our culture of plenty is providing us with a distorted view of health and nutrition.

What is Natural Anyway?

There has been a recent obsession with so called “natural” and “organic” foods in the US and likely in other heavily developed countries. This leads to people spending significantly more money to purchase “organic” food items that will in many cases spoil more rapidly, and which were grown without pesticides or other compounds that prevent farmers from losing a large fraction of their crops to disease or insect colonies each year. In a similar vein are food items which are labeled as being “all natural” rather than containing any chemicals with difficult to pronounce names. At the surface this seems like a logical response to the increasingly industrialized nature of our food industry. After all, who wouldn't want to eat foods that nature has safely produced for millenia instead of chemicals synthesized in a lab within the last few decades. However, when placed under the magnifying glass of scientific scrutiny this response does not stack up and effectively amounts to little more than a scam on gullible consumers that results in the spending of massive amounts of money annually by people who have vague fears of how our industrialized society has tainted our pure and natural past.

The biggest logical fallacy here is the assumption that natural foods are any more healthy than foods containing synthesized chemicals. A common argument from adherents to this doctrine will run as follows: “a processed food item contains propylene glycol, which is a chemical that is found in poisonous antifreeze - you wouldn't drink antifreeze, so why would you ever want chemicals from antifreeze in the food that you are eating?”. This argument is idiotic for several reasons, which are hopefully obvious to any readers of this article. First of all, any compound present in processed food items has been tested by the FDA for its ability to negatively affect our health. Now, it is true that such studies can miss rare or very long term health effects, however the FDA would never approve for food use a compound that has the acute toxicity of antifreeze. Additionally, just because antifreeze is poisonous does not mean that all parts of antifreeze are poisonous. Indeed, there is water in antifreeze, and like propylene glycol water is not acutely poisonous unless you set out to consume large doses of it. If you call water by a more scientific sounding name - dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) - and explain to people that dihydrogen monoxide kills thousands of people each year then people will happily sign a petition to ban this dangerous chemical. As it turns out, how you spin a story will shape how people respond to it, so if you make misleading claims that a chemical is harmful then it is no surprise that certain gullible people will spend large amounts of money to avoid these perceived dangers.

As an aside, natural foods can in fact be the source of a wide range of incredibly poisonous compounds that would never be placed in processed food. The most salient examples of these compounds come from mushrooms. Even in mushrooms that are eaten such as morels there are low doses of toxic compounds that can be very dangerous in sensitive individuals, yet these mushrooms are readily sold at stores like Whole Foods next to chemical free food items. Similarly, apple seeds contain small amounts of cyanide, and there are certain types of beans that - if not cooked properly - will kill anyone that eats them. Nature is exceptionally good at producing toxic chemicals to defend itself from unwanted predators, and aside from fruits it does not produce foods specifically to attract the attentions of animals like ourselves. If you were to break something as simple as a banana down into its chemical components you would find an extensive list filled with difficult to pronounce chemicals that would make people hesitate to eat that very same food item in a processed form. Nature is not as well regulated as the FDA. Natural foods are not intrinsically superior, and chemicals are not inherently dangerous. Life is chemistry.

Organic foods are a similarly confusing branch of the modern culinary lexicon. On the one hand, pesticides do have the potential to cause significant health problems if consumed in significant doses, so it is no surprise that people who can afford to buy organic foods do so. On the other hand, there is no evidence supporting claims that organic foods are any healthier than foods that are not organically certified. In reality the amounts of pesticide of foods once they make it to the store are minimal, and you should always rinse produce before using it which further reduces the risk of pesticide consumption to the consumer. This lack of evidence to substantiate claims of the value of organic food, coupled with the fact that the way organic foods are designated is no consistent or clear, ensures that in the end buying organic food amounts to little more than an expensive placebo. Once more, this is a problem only found in well developed countries and it is a problem of privilege enabling people to spend lots of money to fix problems that in reality do not need to be fixed. Indeed, the increased ability of chemically treated crops to survive in the field is essential to producing enough food to feed impoverished areas and as such switching to an all organic food producing structure would be incredibly detrimental to human health.

Gluten - the Latest Victim

Some people cannot eat gluten, that is a scientific fact. These people have an autoimmune condition known as celiac disease, and for them the consumption of gluten can be debilitating and even potentially deadly in extreme cases. These people have genetic mutations that, couples with other unknown factors, ensure that consuming wheat products results in extreme intestinal inflammation. For these people, avoiding gluten is an effective means of managing disease, and is essential for a relatively normal life. This section is not about people with celiac disease, or people with unrelated wheat allergies who cannot eat wheat without risking lethal anaphylaxis. Obviously these people need to omit gluten from their lives in order to remain alive. This section is about people with vague claims of being gluten intolerant.

While there have no doubt always been a few people that omit gluten from their diets for vague reasons that allow them to claim to be feeling better, by and large it seems that the latest food fad - being gluten free - has arisen in the last few years. More and more, people are discovering that despite eating gluten for their whole lives without any particular issues, they are in fact “gluten intolerant”. To determine if you are gluten intolerant, all you need to do is stop eating gluten and decide if you feel better. As such, this vague diagnosis is highly susceptible to a placebo effect of sorts. If you have friends that claim that going gluten free has somehow improved their health or well being then you are more likely to believe that it will do the same for you. It is likely true that there is some small segment of the population that have issues breaking down glucose and that this does indeed result in gastrointestinal symptoms that do represent a true intolerance for gluten. The notion that so many people are just now discovering their long standing inability to tolerate gluten is quite difficult to believe, and with such vague criteria for determining such an intolerance it has all the hallmarks of a dietary fad. Certainly, if you have unpleasant GI symptoms that have eluded other diagnoses then feel free to try going gluten free. if you feel better then that is really all that matters. If you don't have a specific complaint but decide that going gluten free anyway, then you have that right, but don't claim to be “unable to eat gluten”.

On the one hand there is nothing wrong with people deciding not to eat gluten any more, and indeed it is their right to do as they please. Once again, of course, large companies are starting to take a part of the new gluten free cash cow. As saying good bye to gluten has become an increasing common choice, companies have started offering new prominent “gluten free” options that, for a significant markup in price, allow people to enjoy foods that are normally wheat based but are now without the gluten. Indeed, even though gluten gives bread products their normal texture and consistency you can now by facsimile bread for a hefty fee. It is no surprise that companies are meeting with these new consumer demands for such products, and they know that they can command a hefty fee for their production. Recent studies have suggested that just labeling a product as “gluten free” will instantly make it more profitable, even if it never contained gluten in the first place (for example, rice cakes). As such, this new gluten free craze is allowing more and more people to be parted from their money. It does have the advantage of increasing the number of available products on the market for people with celiac disease, which is certainly a silver lining for this trend.

Grains, and particularly wheat, have sustained civilizations since shortly after the birth of agriculture millennia ago. It may be true that our bodies have not fully adapted to the intricacies of wheat products, resulting in conditions such as celiac disease that prevent the normal utilization thereof. To believe that so many people are no longer able to eat a product that has advanced civilization this far, however, is a bit difficult to swallow. Without more rigorous criteria for gluten sensitivity, it will be difficult to demonstrate any effect for this gluten free craze beyond anecdotal evidence and placebo effects. Grains are still an important food for our civilization even in this modern age, and so as a species we need to focus our understanding on how the human body interacts with the foods it consumes rather omit them from our diets on a whim. Millions around the world rely on wheat for their lives or their livelihood, and only a more scientific approach to understanding the effects of dietary gluten will allow us to improve their lives.

GMOs - Death Food?

Genetically modified foods are another of the latest controversial areas in the world of nutrition and dietary management. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, as the name would suggest, foods that are altered through genetic techniques to alter their genomes in a specific manner. In general the genetic modifications introduced into foods meant for consumption by the human population are intended to introduce certain beneficial properties to the foods in which they are present that make them better than their natural counterparts for certain parameters. For example, if you can introduce a gene or suite of genes into a tomato that makes it resistant to a fungus that destroys 10% of the tomato crop each year, then in theory you will be able to produce 10% more tomatoes, thus ensuring that there is more food available to feed people that desperately need it. Unfortunately, there is a decent amount of resistance to the consumption of GMO foods due to vague and unfounded fears of the Frankenstein vein of thinking, based on the idea that modifying nature is an awful thing to do, and that we should not tamper with the perfection of the natural world.

As you would expect given the nature of this article, of course, such fears of GMO foods are ridiculous in their current form. It is true that genetic engineering could have the potential to create dangerous food products if someone wanted to do that, but no one would intentionally do so and there is testing of any GMO foods that are brought to market to make sure they do not have any overt health effects. All studies to date suggest that there is no difference in the risks associated with the consumption of GMO foods as compared with that of natural foods - any food item may carry unexpected long term risks regardless of its origin, and whether it was produced in a lab or through an evolutionary shift is irrelevant.

Humans has been effectively genetically modifying crops and animals for millennia, even if they did not know that that is what they were doing. The ancestral crops that gave rise to the wheat, corn, rice, and other grains that we know and rely upon today bear only a passing resemblance to the crops we now grow. These grains were initially large grasses that produced very small amounts of their respective grain product, which was difficult to extract. As agriculture began to be developed and civilizations that no longer relied upon migratory tribes began to arise, however, we began to require more and more of these grains to sustain dietary needs. To this end, people planted their best grains each year, rather than their poorer wild counterparts. Over time, this continuous planting of the best wheat led to the selective generation of wheat that produced more and more grain and was easier and easier to work with. Similarly, tribes bred their strongest cows or sheep resulting in selection for these traits. While these processes may not directly alter the genome of these life forms in the lab, they still alter it in a significant manner by selecting for traits that would likely not have been selected for in the wild. As such it is just as likely that modifying the genome of a life form in this way is going to produce some secondary effects that were not intended.

Much of the fear of GMOs is tangled up with fears of unscrupulous corporate green and questionable motives. At the purest level, some people do believe that directly tampering with nature is a monstrous act, and these people will always go out of their way to avoid these foods regardless of the evidence with which they are presented. For others, however, it is the distrust of corporate motivations that drives them away from GMO foods. Because GMO foods require an extensive budget and special equipment to produce, they can only be generated by specialized companies, the most prominent of which is the Monsanto corporation. This company produces many GMO crops, and has become somewhat infamous for their strict protection of their intellectual property in the efforts to make their research investments profitable for them. We live in a largely capitalistic society, and as such it is no surprise that such a company would focus on producing profits. It is thus equally unsurprising that people do not trust them to put the quality of their GMO foods above the profit motive. In the future hopefully GMO foods will be available more readily from a number of smaller vendors, and this will provide greater variety and will hopefully help to restore public trust to this entity that has become intertwined with conspiratorial claims of the evils of capitalism.

The fear of GMOs is unfortunate, because these crops have the potential to improve the lives of people in regions where food can be in short supply. By generating crops that last longer, or are easier to harvest, it will be more economical to provide food to poor villages or cities that are in desperate need, thus saving countless lives. For these societies GMO foods may be the very best solutions available to these problems of starvation and available nutrition. To restrict the availability of these foods when they are so desperately needed and there is no scientific evidence to support such restrictions would be a travesty. Going forward, we need to strive to make more valuable GMO foods that possess desirable traits. We will need to make sure to maintain rigorous testing to make sure there are no immediate off target effects, but when the alternative may be starvation we nonetheless need to find ways to overcome these nutritive deficits using the power that modern scientific techniques can offer.

Conclusions

In summary, there are a number of trendy ways to eat food in countries like the United States that are generally unfounded, often harmful, and completely untenable in poorer countries that rely on convenient means of producing large amounts of food to feed their populations sufficiently. As a society we need to stop looking into tricks to improve our perceived health, and instead we need to take responsibility for our nutritive intake. No fad diet or specially produced food item will ever make you feel better, and on the whole no evil corporation is trying to poison you with their food in order to reap massive profits. Indeed, the companies that are earning the most from these dietary crazes are those that produce remedies for a problem that does not even exist. We cannot reduce the capacity of our society to produce food in order to amend nonexistent wrongs, and it is essential that we embrace food production techniques that allow humanity to thrive rather than just those that the internet claims will improve our own personal well being. Life is chemistry, nature is genetically modified, and our interactions with the world are a two way street that require constant vigilance but not abundant fear mongering.


Society | Health | Food | Diet


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