diet

All posts tagged diet

Book review: The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat, by Stephan Guyenet.

Researchers who studied obesity in rats used to have trouble coaxing their rats to overeat. The obvious approaches (a high fat diet, or a high sugar diet) were annoyingly slow. Then they stumbled on the approach of feeding human junk food to the rats, and made much faster progress.

What makes something “junk food”? The best parts of this book help to answer this, although some ambiguity remains. It mostly boils down to palatability (is it yummier than what our ancestors evolved to expect? If so, it’s somewhat addictive) and caloric density.

Presumably designers of popular snack foods have more sophisticated explanations of what makes people obese, since that’s apparently identical to what they’re paid to optimize (with maybe a few exceptions, such as snacks that are marketed as healthy or ethical). Yet researchers who officially study obesity seem reluctant to learn from snack food experts. (Because they’re the enemy? Because they’re low status? Because they work for evil corporations? Your guess is likely as good as mine.)

Guyenet provides fairly convincing evidence that it’s simple to achieve a healthy weight while feeling full. (E.g. the 20 potatoes a day diet). To the extent that we need willpower, it’s to avoid buying convenient/addictive food, and to avoid restaurants.

My experience is that I need a moderate amount of willpower to follow Guyenet’s diet ideas, and that it would require large amount of willpower if I attended many social events involving food. But for full control over my weight, it seemed like I needed to supplement a decent diet with some form of intermittent fasting (e.g. alternate day calorie restriction); Guyenet says little about that.

Guyenet’s practical advice boils down to a few simple rules: eat whole foods that resemble what our ancestors ate; don’t have other “food” anywhere that you can quickly grab it; sleep well; exercise; avoid stress. That’s sufficiently similar to advice I’ve heard before that I’m confident The Hungry Brain won’t revolutionize many people’s understanding of obesity. But it’s got a pretty good ratio of wisdom to questionable advice, and I’m unaware of reasons to expect much more than that.

Guyenet talks a lot about neuroscience. That would make sense if readers wanted to learn how to fix obesity via brain surgery. The book suggests that, in the absence of ethical constraints, it might be relatively easy to cure obesity by brain surgery. Yet I doubt such a solution would become popular, even given optimistic assumptions about safety.

An alternate explanation is that Guyenet is showing off his knowledge of brains, in order to show that he’s smart enough to have trustworthy beliefs about diets. But that effect is likely small, due to competition among diet-mongers for comparable displays of smartness.

Or maybe he’s trying to combat dualism, in order to ridicule the “just use willpower” approach to diet? Whatever the reason is, the focus on neuroscience implies something unimpressive about the target audience.

You should read this book if you eat a fairly healthy diet but are still overweight. Otherwise, read Guyenet’s blog instead, for a wider variety of health advice.

Book review: Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation: Theory, Evidence, and Medical Implications, by Joshua Mitteldorf.

This provocative book argues that our genes program us to age because aging provided important benefits.

I’ll refer here to antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) and programmed aging (PA) as the two serious contending hypotheses of aging. (Mutation accumulation used to be a leading hypothesis, but it seems discredited now, due to the number of age-related deaths seen in a typical species, and due to evidence that aging is promoted by some ancient genes).

Here’s a dumbed down version of the debate:
<theorist>: Hamilton proved that all conceivable organisms age due to AP and/or mutation accumulation.
<critic>: But the PA theories better predict how many die from aging, the effects of telomeres, calorie restriction, etc. Also, here’s some organisms with zero or negative aging …
<theorist>: A few anomalies aren’t enough to overturn a well-established theory. The well-known PA theories are obviously wrong because selfish genes would outbreed the PA genes.
<critic>: Here are some new versions which might explain how aging could enhance a species’ fitness …
<theorist>: I’ve read enough bad group-selection theories that I’m not going to waste my time with more of them.

That kind of reaction from theorists might make sense if AP was well established. But AP seems to have been well established only in the Darwinian sense of being firmly entrenched in scientists’ minds. It got entrenched mainly by being the least wrong of a flawed set of theories, combined with some poor communication between theorists and naturalists. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good[1] page on the evolution of aging that says:

Antagonistic pleiotropy is a prevailing theory today, but this is largely by default, and not because the theory has been well verified.

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My first year of eating no factory farmed vertebrates went fairly well.

When eating at home, it took no extra cost or effort to stick to the diet.

I’ve become less comfortable eating at restaurants, because I find few acceptable choices at most restaurants, and because poor labeling has caused me to mistakenly get food that wasn’t on my diet.

The constraints were strict enough that I lost about 4 pounds during 8 days away from home over the holidays. That may have been healthier than the weight gain I succumbed to during similar travels in prior years, but that weight loss is close to the limit of what I find comfortable.

In theory, I should have gotten enough flexibility from my rule to allow 120 calories per month of unethical animal products for me to be mostly comfortable with restaurant food. In practice, I found it psychologically easier to adopt an identity of someone who doesn’t eat any factory farmed vertebrates than it would have been to feel comfortable using up the 120 calorie quota. That made me reluctant to use any flexibility.

The quota may have been valuable for avoiding a feeling of failure when I made mistakes.

Berkeley is a relatively easy place to adopt this diet, thanks to Marin Sun Farms and Mission Heirloom. Pasture-raised eggs are fairly easy to find in the bay area (Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, etc).

I still have some unresolved doubts about how much to trust labels. Pasture-raised eggs are available in Colorado in winter, but chicken meat is reportedly unavailable due to weather-related limits on keeping chickens outdoors. Why doesn’t that reasoning also apply to eggs?

I’m still looking for a good substitute for Questbars. These come closest:

For most people, it would be hard enough to follow my diet strictly that I recommend starting with an easier version. One option would be to avoid factory farmed chicken/eggs (i.e. focus on the avoiding the cruelest choices). And please discriminate against restaurants that don’t label their food informatively.

I plan to continue my diet essentially unchanged, with maybe slightly less worry about what I eat when traveling or at parties.

My alternate day calorie restriction diet is going well. My body and/or habits are adapting. But the visible benefits are still small.

  • I normally do three restricted days per week (very rarely only two). I eat 800-1000 calories on those days (or 1200-1400 when I burn more than 1000 calories by hiking). On unrestricted days, I try to eat a little more than feels natural.
  • I have an improved ability to bring my weight to a particular target, but the range of weights that feel good is much narrower than I expected. My weight has stabilized to a range of 142-145 pounds, compared to 145-148 last year and an erratic 138-148 in the first few weeks of my new diet. If I reduce my weight below 142, I feel irritable in the afternoon or evening of a restricted day. At 145, I’m on the verge of that too-full feeling that was common in prior years.
  • My resting heart rate has declined from about 70 to about 65.
  • For many years I’ve been waking in the middle of the night feeling too warm, with little apparent pattern. A byproduct of my new diet is that I’ve noticed it’s connected to having eaten protein.
  • I’m using less willpower now than in prior years to eat the right amount. My understanding of the willpower effect is influenced by CFAR’s attitude, which is that occasionally using willpower to fight the goals of one of my mind’s sub-agents is reasonable, but the longer I continue it, the more power and thought that sub-agent will devote to accomplishing its goals. My sub-agent in charge of getting me to eat lots to prepare for a famine can now rely on me, if I’m resisting it today, to encourage it tomorrow; whereas in prior years I was continually pressuring it to do less than it wanted. That makes it more cooperative.

The only drawbacks are the increased attention I need to pay to what I eat on restricted days, and the difficulties of eating out on restricted days (due to my need to control portion sizes and to time my main meals near the middle of the day). I find it fairly easy to schedule my restricted days so that I’m almost always eating at home, but I expect many people to find that hard.

Mission: Heirloom is a cafe in Berkeley which is serious about paleo food. Their meat and eggs meet my ethical standards (no factory farmed animal products).

Their burgers are unusually tasty, and have a better texture than any other grass-fed beef I’ve tried.

They have a nice outdoor area in back – I recommend going there when it is warm outside.

The main drawback is limited variety in their entrees.

I wish there were more cafes like this.

I’ve recently noticed that dietary zinc/copper ratios may be important (e.g. may influence Alzheimer’s), and that my diet has had ratio which is too low (mine got down below 3 last year, when it should be more like 8 or 10).

The main contributors to lowering the ratio are chocolate, macadamias, and almonds. Each of those seems like a healthy food in moderation (i.e. as many nuts as I’d be willing to shell manually). But I often overeat them.

Animal products are about the only practical way to improve the ratio. Despite the stereotype of a paleo diet consisting of mostly animals, I’ve been getting most of my calories from foods that are fairly similar to what hunter-gatherers eat, while eating a below-average amount of animal products. Since that diet gave me more than the RDA for all nutrients except vitamin D, it seemed unimportant to eat more animals.

Oysters have by far the best zinc/calorie ratio. I find that adding oyster sauce to a stir fry is nicer than having whole oysters, but many brands have little oyster in them. Lee Kum Kee is a common brand that lists oysters as the first ingredient, so I’m using that regularly.

Should I take zinc supplements? I’m reluctant to trust nutrition from something that doesn’t resemble a whole food, but that would be the most convenient solution.

Alternate day calorie restriction seems to be one of the most effective ways of increasing my life expectancy, but it isn’t easy. I tried it about three years ago, but gave up because it interfered with my sleep. I started it again three weeks ago, and this time I seem to be adjusting to it.

One important difference is that this time I’m better informed about what it takes to adjust to the diet. I planned a strict induction phase of 7 down days (about 550 calories) and 7 up days (unlimited food), followed by a less strict pattern of 2-3 days per week on which I’m limited to around 1000 calories a day. (I ended up adding an extra up day after each of the first two down days, then switched to strict alternation for the remainder of the induction phase). The severity of the induction phase may be important at triggering adaptation to this kind of diet.

The second difference is that this time I’ve been obsessive about measuring my food intake to the nearest gram. I suspect that when I intended to eat 1200 calories a day in my prior attempt, I was actually getting at least 1400 calories and fooling myself into thinking I was following the diet. This time I’m using a good scale to weigh each serving.

After the first down day, I slept poorly (as expected), getting impatient for sunrise to bring me an excuse to get up for food. After about the fourth down day, waking with an empty stomach seemed normal enough that it doesn’t provide a motive to get out of bed, or to get food quickly when I do get out of bed. I hardly notice the feelings of hunger then, even though I ought to be hungrier than late in the previous day when I did notice some of the standard hunger feelings. My sleep isn’t quite back to normal, but it seems close to normal and improving.

I’ve been feeling full about 50% of the time. I felt noticeably hungry about 30% of the time at first, and now it’s more like 20% of the time. Hunger feels a bit less important now than it used to feel (i.e. it affects my attention less).

Weight loss wasn’t an important motive for changing my diet, but I hoped I would lose about 7 pounds. I lost at least 5 pounds by the end of the 5th down day (my weight fluctuated enough that it’s hard to evaluate it precisely). I couldn’t comfortably eat enough on the up days to make up for what I lost on the 550 calorie days, even when I became mildly alarmed at my rate of weight loss.

Then my weight rebounded within a few days, without any apparent change in my diet, to roughly what it was at the start. The obvious guess is that my metabolism slowed down to compensate for the reduced calories. I did feel noticeably colder in bed after down days. I also felt less mental energy, and when doing an easy hike on the day after the 6th down day I felt a need to take rest breaks that was unusual in that it wasn’t caused by anything like muscle fatigue.

During the induction phase, I practiced strict protein fasting (< 15 grams of protein per day) on down days due to guesses that protein restriction is more effective at causing beneficial metabolic changes, which might cause faster psychological adaptation. My results seem to provide weak evidence in support of this guess. My diet on down days was mostly sweet potato and lettuce, with modest amounts of other vegetables and sugar-free chocolate. This provided more bulk to fill my gut than is typical for this kind of diet, but that was likely offset by the lack of protein related satiety. I’m not restricting protein now that I’m out of the induction phase (although I expect to do so maybe once a month).

My heart rate variability mysteriously increased after the first down day, then declined to a much lower than average level after the fourth down day, and has fluctuated a lot since then (averaging somewhat below normal).

Why did I have enough willpower to get this far, when I probably didn’t have the willpower needed to do it right three years ago?

One factor is that I now consider the CFAR community to be an important tribe to belong to, so my sense of self-identity has changed to attach more importance to being able to make big changes to my life.

Another factor is having information that led me to be somewhat confident that by a specific, not too distant, date it would become a good deal easier.

A third factor is being more obsessive about measuring how well I was complying with the rules I set down.

The induction phase cost me a fair amount of productivity. For 17 days I wasn’t close to having enough willpower/ambition to start writing a blog post (and had similar problems with most other non-routine tasks). But now I feel that writing this post is easier than normal. It’s too early to tell whether that means I have more mental energy than before.

I don’t know how to get strong evidence about whether it is worth the effort. I seem to feel more self-efficacy. I now think I can set my weight to any reasonable target simply by changing my calorie target on 2 or 3 down days per week. But in order to be clearly worthwhile it needs to improve my long-term health. I won’t know that for quite a while.

Ethical diets

I’ve seen some discussion of whether effective altruists have an obligation to be vegan or vegetarian.

The carnivores appear to underestimate the long-term effects of their actions. I see a nontrivial chance that we’re headed toward a society in which humans are less powerful than some other group of agents. This could result from slow AGI takeoff producing a heterogeneous society of superhuman agents. Or there could be a long period in which the world is dominated by ems before de novo AGI becomes possible. Establishing ethical (and maybe legal) rules that protect less powerful agents may influence how AGIs treat humans or how high-speed ems treat low-speed ems and biological humans [0]. A one in a billion chance that I can alter this would be worth some of my attention. There are probably other similar ways that an expanding circle of ethical concern can benefit future people.

I see very real costs to adopting an ethical diet, but it seems implausible that EAs are merely choosing alternate ways of being altruistic. How much does it cost MealSquares customers to occasionally bemoan MealSquares use of products from apparently factory-farmed animals? Instead, it seems like EAs have some tendency to actively raise the status of MealSquares [1].

I don’t find it useful to compare a more ethical diet to GiveWell donations for my personal choices, because I expect my costs to be mostly inconveniences, and the marginal value of my time seems small [2], with little fungibility between them.

I’m reluctant to adopt a vegan diet due to the difficulty of evaluating the health effects and due to the difficulty of evaluating whether it would mean fewer animals living lives that they’d prefer to nonexistence.

But there’s little dispute that most factory-farmed animals are much less happy than pasture-raised animals. And everything I know about the nutritional differences suggests that avoiding factory-farmed animals improves my health [3].

I plan not to worry about factory-farmed invertebrates for now (shrimp, oysters, insects), partly because some of the harmful factory-farm practices such as confining animals to cages not much bigger than the animals in question aren’t likely with animals that small.

So my diet will consist of vegan food plus shellfish, insects, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised birds/mammals (and their eggs/whey/butter). I will assume vertebrate animals are raised in cruel conditions unless they’re clearly marked as wild-caught, grass-fed, or pasture-raised [4].

I’ve made enough changes to my diet for health reasons that this won’t require large changes. I already eat at home mostly, and the biggest change to that part of my diet will involve replacing QuestBars with a home-made version using whey protein from grass-fed cows (my experiments so far indicate it’s inconvenient and hard to get a decent texture). I also have some uncertainty about pork belly [5] – the pasture-raised version I’ve tried didn’t seem as good, but that might be because I didn’t know it needed to be sliced very thin.

My main concern is large social gatherings. It has taken me a good deal of willpower to stick to a healthy diet under those conditions, and I expect it to take more willpower to observe ethical constraints.

A 100% pure diet would be much harder for me to achieve than an almost pure diet, and it takes some time for me to shift my habits. So for this year I plan to estimate how many calories I eat that don’t fit this diet, and aim to keep that less than 120 calories per month (about 0.2%) [6]. I’ll re-examine the specifics of this plan next Jan 1.

Does anyone know a convenient name for my planned diet?

footnotes

0. With no one agent able to conquer the world, it’s costly for a single agent to repudiate an existing rule. A homogeneous group of superhuman agents might coordinate to overcome this, but with heterogeneous agents the coordination costs may matter.

1. I bought 3 orders of MealSquares, but have stopped buying for now. If they sell a version whose animal products are ethically produced (which I’m guessing would cost $50/order more), I’ll resume buying them occasionally.

2. The average financial value of my time is unusually high, but I often have trouble estimating whether spending more time earning money has positive or negative financial results. I expect financial concerns will be more important to many people.

3 With the probable exception of factory-farmed insects, oysters, and maybe other shellfish.

4. In most restaurants, this will limit me to vegan food and shellfish.

5. Pork belly is unsliced bacon without the harm caused by smoking.

6. Yes, I’ll have some incentive to fudge those estimates. My experience from tracking food for health reasons suggests possible errors of 25%. That’s not too bad compared to other risks such as lack of willpower.

Folate

I recently tried larger-than-normal methylfolate supplements. I had known that my genes caused problems with processing folate (MTHFR T/T), but hadn’t noticed any effects from supplementing at 800mcg/day.

Due to a report that several milligrams/day helped with depression, I changed from 400mcg/day to 2mg/day. I felt like my mind started working better within hours (although I haven’t seen much change in behavior). I saw a clear and large improvement in my heart rate variability starting after one day.

I’ve experimented for 5 weeks randomly altering my dose from 1 to 3 mg/day. On the week when I switched from 3 to 1 mg, my mood slowly got worse. I felt much better withing hours of switching back to 3 mg. I haven’t noticed any clear difference between 2 and 3mg.

Crickets

I finally found a way to buy insects in enough quantity to satisfy my desire for nutrition from insects: World Ento, which sells dried crickets and cricket flour at a price per gram of protein comparable to seafood. (H/T Holden Karnofsky.)

According to Organic Value Recovery Solutions, crickets have impressive amounts of the nutrients I’ve found the hardest to get good amounts of. Here are examples of how much I’d get if I got my 2000 calories a day from crickets:

  • B12: 20 times the RDA (more than 3 times that of eggs)
  • Folate: 5 times the RDA (3 times that of eggs)
  • Zinc: 9 times the RDA (5 times that of eggs)

(using data for eggs from pastured chickens).

They have plenty of fiber and good amounts of most minerals and B vitamins.

The cricket flour tastes ok in brownies, but I’ll want some other recipe for regular use.

Update 2015-01-05: ThailandUnique has a better selection of insects. My favorite so far is the Big Cricket.