Saturday, May 14, 2016

I Don't Want To Comment On Brexit

So instead, I will be discussing diet. This issue is decidedly uncontroversial— I'm right, and a bunch of numpties are wrong.

A few days ago, I found myself googling for lactose-free ice cream. Because I am lactose intolerant and yet I enjoy ice cream. Obvs. Naturally, if I search for lactose-free ice cream, it is unmistakably clear that I am seeking sources of productage which meet two criteria, namely (1) is lactose-free, and (2) is ice cream.

You can google the phrase yourself and verify that no such results are produced. Instead, I get many pages and sites promoting various dairy-free ice cream alternatives. Is that what I am looking for? No. Of course it fucking isn't. It meets criterion #1, in that dairy-free products are devoid of lactose, but it fails on criterion #2 in that an alternative to ice cream, surprising as this may seem, isn't bloody ice cream.

It's not like lactose-free ice cream is impossible to create. It just needs to be treated with lactase enzyme to break down the lactose into glucose and galactose. We are talking about a product that physically exists on the Earth at this time, not some science fiction wondermaterial. Yet not only have I yet to acquire this tasty yet non-toxic delight, but it seems the entire internet has failed to understand why this might be in any way relevant.

OK, so I'm not the only person on the interwebs who understands concepts like diet and what the words "healthy" and "restrictions" mean when used in relation to it. However, for some reason, dietary health is one field in which the internet has been absolutely inundated with thickies who don't let their complete and utter ignorance of all things food-related prevent them from offering detailed earnest advice on how to improve your health. In fact, just while googling for the name of that lactose-free ice cream I've never actually seen in the shops, I ended up finding this load of dross about ice cream.

Just the title is enough to set sensible people on edge:

9 Delicious Alternative Ice Cream Brands: From Organic to Lactose- and Gluten-Free

I'm not sure what an "alternative brand" is (my opinion on the subject of brands already being well-covered on this blog), and all ice cream is organic by definition, since "organic" means "carbon-based" which lipids and sugars are. Then we get "lactose-free" and "gluten-free" side by side, as if they were equally noteworthy when, in fact, ice cream does not naturally contain gluten under any circumstances while it does contain lactose unless treated with lactase enzyme.

The very first line of text offers this little insight:

Nothing says summer like a rich, creamy ice cream cone -- and who says this has to be a guilty indulgence?

I have a heuristic I find quite useful when evaluating food and advice relating thereto— if the person purveying it believes there is a non-zero chance I might feel guilty for eating something, they are not worth listening to.

And then we get this:

Options from these nine companies include a lactose-free flavor with naturally more protein, one made with coconut milk and gluten-free cookie dough, and an organic ice cream sandwich.

In which a health-mandated dietary restriction (lactose-free) is treated as indistinguishable from bullshit fad diets (more protein). It gets even worse on the next page, in which it describes goat milk ice cream thusly:

If you're lactose intolerant, then you'll appreciate that it won't affect you like cow's milk. If you're a health nut, then you'll like rest easy knowing it has more protein and calcium than other ice creams.


All ungulate milk regularly consumed by humans has the same amount of lactose— about 6% give or take. If you're lactose intolerant, you will get just as sick from eating that as you would regular ice cream. If you are allergic to milk, you can probably consume it safely, as milk allergies are usually triggered by a protein specific to cow's milk but milk allergies are incredibly rare compared to lactose intolerance.

If you're a health nut, then the protein and calcium might well appeal to you, but it will have exactly bugger all effect on your overall health.

So now that I'm done ranting about the very most recent bit of diet-related rubbish I found, how about some meaningful advice? What actually does make a healthy diet?

It's actually fairly simple. Your body needs a certain amount of energy to power its vital functions. Energy comes from proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Meeting your body's energy requirements is simply a matter of consuming the right number of kcals per day. It doesn't matter where they come from, although fat is more energy-dense than either protein or carbohydrates.

In addition to energy needs, your body also needs protein and very small amounts of a large number of other chemicals like riboflavin and ascorbic acid and iron, but if you live in a developed country and you've got enough money to buy groceries at shops regularly and you're not following any weird fad diets then you really don't need to think about any of them; you'll meet your body's need for those things without even trying.

If you have any specific health conditions, you will need to accommodate them. However, just because someone has them doesn't mean you do; many fad diets (see: gluten-free) are based around taking a food or ingredient that is genuinely unhealthy for the often-small minority of people who have an often-obscure health condition and declaring, sans evidence, that it is unhealthy for everyone.

So if you have no diet-restricting health issues and you have regular access to shops that sell food you really only have to worry about total kcals consumed— well, and also quirks of your metabolism about when to eat them, and there's rather a lot of meta about what will make you feel full and so forth, so in fact it wasn't entirely true to say that diet is easy. Perhaps I should have said that there are certain complications you can just ignore because they are all rubbish.

So let's focus on those.

QUESTION: How do I tell whether a particular food is healthy or not?

ANSWER: There is no such thing as a "healthy" food or an "unhealthy" food. A diet can be healthy or unhealthy overall depending on whether you are consuming the right amount of the many various chemicals you need but there's no such thing as a food which is inherently healthy or unhealthy in isolation without regard to how much of it you eat how often and what else you eat. (Unless it's gone off; mouldy food is unhealthy.)

QUESTION: What about all the studies that say [$INGREDIENT] is good/bad for you and may cause/cure cancer?

ANSWER: Did you read the study itself, or just the headline of the Daily Mail article that misunderstood the study? Firstly, any scientific study can produce spurious results; the effects of various foods on health has been so over-studied that chance alone dictates that most foods can be "shown" to cause/cure a particular malady. Secondly, science can be done badly; a lot of money rides on our food choices and companies are happy to invest massive sums into "proving" that their food improves your health and the competition harms it. Thirdly, even when science is done right, the accurate and robust study will be filtered through pop science publications that want "groundbreaking discoveries" that the slow and methodical process of science rarely provides and misinterpreted by woo-woos pushing fad diets before it reaches you; thanks to this massive game of Chinese whispers, a robust scientific study showing that, say, pregnant women who consume milk chocolate are just as unlikely to damage the brain development of their feotus as pregnant women who consume dark chocolate will be released to the public as articles proclaiming chocolate to be "brain food" that improves your intelligence.

QUESTION: OK mister clever clogs, if you know so much about diet then how do I lose weight?

ANSWER: You can't. It's impossible. Sorry. If you want to lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off, then you're right fucked and should probably try for a more realistic goal like winning an Olympic medal.

I know that's not the answer you want, but that = the facts. The diet industry is feeding you lies (and usually very nasty food as well).

In theory, losing weight is a simple proposition of burning more energy than you consume; the resulting deficit must be extracted from your fat reserves, so you lose weight. Basic physiology doesn't lie; maths neither. Psychology (and more complex physiology), on the other hand, are about to heap a bunch of complications on this "just don't eat so much" plan. Basically, your body regulates your appetite and metabolism in order to maintain itself in good condition. Unfortunately for our fat friends, it interprets whatever you weigh now as your "baseline" to maintain and if you start going below that your body will assume that you're starving and will crank up your appetite and slow your metabolism in order to conserve the energy it thinks is precious. The slower metabolism limits your calories burned, all while the increased appetite drives you to eat more, creating a surplus that cancels the earlier deficit. This brings us to the part where a bunch of people start prattling about "willpower." If only you had the willpower to keep to your diet and not binge on food just because your appetite cranked up, you could be skinny now! I would like to suggest that those people conduct an experiment: Light a candle, then hold your hand right in the flame. Continue to do so for as long as you can. How long did you last? Two seconds? Ten seconds? I bet most of you didn't even have the willpower to put your hand in the flame at all. Maybe some of you are super tough and lasted a minute or two. Congratulations! You can try the second task: Hold your hand in the candle flame forever. All it takes is the "willpower" to override your survival instinct nonstop for the rest of your life, which you think every fat person can do.

The good news is that obesity isn't nearly as bad for you as most people think it is. I know that won't help with the social stigma but I can at least throw you that bone.

Now that we've handled that I shall finish off this post with a quick primer on the difference between lactose intolerance and milk allergy, which by virtue of being posted on a blog with literally no readers, will serve to educate the entire population of the Earth so that I never see the two confused and conflated again.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to metabolise the sugar lactose, a disaccharide comprised of glucose and galactose. Like most polysaccharides, lactose cannot be absorbed by the intestine directly and must be broken down into its constituent monosaccharides by an enzyme called lactase. Lactase is produced by the intestinal tract of infant mammals who have not yet been weaned and by adult humans who have a mutation called lactase persistence. As such, lactose intolerance isn't a health issue as such; lactose is only found in milk, so being unable to digest it is the default condition for all animals other than infant mammals who are nursing. Lactose is found in all milk, and it is found in the same quantity in all milk adult humans regularly consume, however it is not found in a wide variety of products derived from milk. For example, because lactose is a sugar, it is effectively absent from butter (which is all fat), from heavy cream (which is mostly fat), and from most cheese (which is mostly protein and fat). Consuming lactose when you are lactose intolerant will cause various digestive complaints because while you can't digest it, your gut flora can and they will do so via fermentation, much to your chagrin.

Milk allergy, on the other hand, is an allergy, meaning like all allergies, it is effectively an autoimmune disease. Rather than being caused by your gut flora calling bagsies on a food source you clearly can't use, it is caused by your immune system launching all-out war on a harmless substance. Accordingly, while a milk allergy can cause digestive complaints similar to lactose intolerance, it can also cause hives, anaphylaxis, and death. While lactose intolerance, as the name implies, is a reaction to the sugar lactose, a milk allergy is usually a reaction to a specific protein found in cow's milk. As such, while lactose intolerant people must avoid all milk but not sugar-free dairy products like butter, cream, and hard cheeses, people who are allergic to milk must avoid cow's milk and any products derived from it.

Some people (including those linked earlier in this post) believe that goat's milk is better for lactose intolerant people than cow's milk. I've seen this spewed anecdotally in many places but it's almost certainly bullshit (or goatshit as the case may be). Taking lactase enzyme supplements is effective, but only to a limited extent.

So hopefully you will now make good choices related to food rather than wasting money on fad diets and wasting effort on trying to keep track of which foods are "good for you" and "bad for you" according to pop science articles misinterpreting studies. Remember, when you know how nutrition really works, ALL food is guilt-free!

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