Food: the challenge of balancing health, ethics, and cost

For awhile now, I’ve been meaning to learn more about nutrition and health in general. In the past few days, I’ve made a start on it… but it turns out to be really hard to sort these issues out, especially if you’re (1) concerned about eating ethically (2) a starving artist like me.

On the ethics vs. health front: a lot of vegans claim vegan diets are the healthiest, but this looks like a case of motivated reasoning. I don’t doubt that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a good thing, but it seems unlikely that you’re better off without eating any meat. The health and nutrition related sections of Wikipedia’s article on veganism make it appear that at the very least, it’s very tricky to make a vegan diet as healthy as a non-vegan diet.

Using the “look who’s going against their biases” rule of thumb: Sam Harris has said that he can’t ethically justify eating meat, but does so for health reasons. He says that he found he felt much better after quitting a vegan diet he had been on for six years. By contrast, I’ve never heard anyone say that they have no ethical problems eating at least some animal products, but have decided to totally eliminate them for health reasons.

So for awhile, I was vegetarian in the sense that I was eating eggs and dairy but no meat. Then I read this article by Julia Galef arguing that eggs production kills more animals that red meat. So that went out the window. Currently, I’m not ruling out anything absolutely but making milk my main protein source.

Speaking of milk, let’s talk about cost vs. health. I just had an e-mail conversation with an old physiology prof where she recommended, among other things, drinking organic milk. But organic milk is expensive. In this case, I don’t mind, because there’s a whole foods a couple blocks from my place, the cheaper grocery store is much farther away, and gallon jugs of milk are heavy. But for the moment the cost is keeping me from buying all my groceries at Whole Foods.

It might be easier to go with the more expensive option if it were clear it that it’s healthier, but it’s actually fairly difficult to figure out. As I once said, “figuring out the truth of any moderately difficult question, even when there are people out there somewhere who know the answer, is a labor-intensive exercise.” The common-sense belief that spinach is healthier than hot dogs can lead you astray.

In the case of organic food, the organic fad is at least one-half irrational nonsense. It seems pretty clear that GMOs are harmless. Pesticides less so, especially in animal products because toxins tend to get concentrated the higher up the food chain you go. If Whole Foods weren’t so close by, it would be unclear to me what I should do re: organic milk.

There’s very little I’m sure of here (except that Whole Foods is close to my place, Gary Taubes apparently makes some pretty big screw-ups, and apparently counting calories is the best way to actually loose weight). But there’s a lot of advice I’ve gotten that I won’t even mention here because I’m even less sure of it.

This was kind of implicit in the veganism discussion, but I’m not worried about weight so much as I am about a diet that will keep me healthy long-term. While being relatively ethical and not costing too much money. That’s what I’m having trouble figuring out. Any health buffs, who’ve actually looked at this stuff scientifically, want to help me out?

  • Christine

    GMO’s not being unhealthy completely ignores the very real reasons to not buy them. I know this is getting into tinfoil hat territory, but I personally am starting to wonder if there are not some pro-GMO interests trying to frame the debate about GMO’s in terms of “no, they’re not going to kill you, so why is everyone so upset”, so as to hide the very real reasons that people have for not wanting to eat GMO’s.

    • Delphi Psmith

      There’s also the indirect costs of GMOs, in terms of health (e.g. allergic reactions to foods due to unnaturally inserted proteins, genes, etc.), ethics (e.g., Monsanto suing small farmers over patented seed that’s accidentally blown onto their property and sprouted), and the environment (e.g., mounting evidence that colony collapse disorder among bees is due to the pesticide load they accumulate from things like Roundup-Ready soybeans). So for me, it’s important to think about indirect/unintended consequences as well as the immediate ones. Knowing that I’m not contributing to those sorts of things makes it worth the extra $$ for me.

  • Joe G.

    Then there’s the whole issue of *where* we buy our foods. For example, Whole Foods has been criticized for its labor practices. So the local chain supermarket Kroger’s is unionized, hires people with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities, and has lower prices, but sells GMO and corn-starch laden foods. But, Whole Foods has a poor reputation regarding labor practices, is generally more expensive, but sells foods that are free of GMOs and/or are organic. I tend to prefer the former than the latter, but others have a didn’t POV regarding such issues. See: regarding previous criticisms of Whole Foods.

    • Delphi Psmith

      Does Kroger’s sell organic food? Then there’s your solution — buy good stuff from good people :)

  • Kevin

    I’m not a doctor or dietician, but I’ve done some research so that I could lose weight. This could probably be organized better, but oh well:

    On the ethics front, I see no inherent reason why veganism is preferable to vegetarianism, although you do get into issues of business practices when it comes to delivering those products (as with the eggs example). I think your blowing the spinach-hotdog thing out of proportion. Of course, if you only can eat one, hotdogs are better because they are a better source of calories (you would have to consume over 350 cups of spinach per day, the nutritional benefit being questionable since you’re not consuming any fat). However, if you were to add one to your diet, spinach would be the better choice, especially when considering the typical diet. If you’re concerned about milk, you also have soy milk and coconut milk (rice milk is garbage and hemp milk is expensive). They all are fortified with pretty much the same nutrients so you’re not going to be missing calcium, although coconut milk doesn’t have any protein. In terms of weight, calories are the primary focus, although there are secondary concerns. Some diets are harder to stick to than others. If you have a high carb diet, it’s going to be harder to stick to your calorie allowance by self-regulation, which is why certain foods are suggested to lose weight (protein is satiating and vegetables are high volume with little calories, e.g. chicken & broccoli). Fiber is good for digestive health and is satiating. Fat is essential for absorbing certain nutrients and is satiating. Protein is also satiating. For this reason, soda tends to be low hanging fruit to cut out for most people (0 fat, 0 protein, 0 fiber, high in calories). Exercise does basically nothing to help lose weight (it can help create a deficit, but that deficit will be what makes you lose weight, and exercise will just make you want to consume more calories; as they say, it’s easier to not eat 500 calories of cake than to run 5 miles), but it helps with body composition (so you don’t become skinny fat) and overall health (the number two factor for health besides not smoking). Avoid trans-fats as well, they are a known cause of heart disease. They have been severely limited in the food supply but even small amounts can be harmful in the long term. For example, a lot of objects will say 0 trans-fats, but if it’s in the ingredients (anything with the word hydrogenated preceding it), it means it has <.5 grams per serving and the recommended maximum is 2 grams per day (so it's easy to see how if you eat multiple foods with trans-fats, especially if more than one serving, it's easy to eat too much). There are a bunch of psychological tricks that one can employ to lose weight as well. The low fat thing doesn't really have any backing and is fading out of use. The good fats are the unsaturated fats, notable examples being nuts, coconut, salmon, and a bunch of different oils. Watch portion sizes for fats extremely carefully because they are very calorie dense.

    Also, pretty much all quick weight loss fads are scams. You can lose ten pounds of water weight, which then gives people the impression that they work, but then when they go off the diet, they retain water again, giving the impression that they failed, and the cycle begins. Some are generally good, but have some unnecessary restrictions and poor reasoning behind them (e.g. Paleo). Diet pills are essentially caffeine tablets. Also, extreme calorie restriction does not work in the long-term. I don't know why, it might be physiological (losing muscle instead of fat, making it harder to maintain weight) or psychological (simply haven't learned to eat right) or both.

    Like with all things, there are a host of logical fallacies that people use when trying to lose weight or eat healthier that go against them. For example, the halo effect; if you say that ice cream is fortified with calcium or put a couple leaves of lettuce next to a hamburger, people will think it's healthier. It's a marketer's dream, and it's ironic that the foods that are advertised as being good for weight loss and health are generally not (notice how chicken and broccoli don't have advertisements on them), so those types of claims are a red flag to me. Also, people are also horrendous at counting calories and estimating how many calories they burn. They tend to underestimate calories and overestimate calories burned, resulting in weight maintenance when they think they should be losing weight; and hence conclude that it must not be calories in, calories out. Other examples such as 100 calories packs of junk is still junk and low-fat just means that they replaced the fat with sugar (they usually have the same amount of calories), making it worse for weightless (since fats are more satiating than sugar), but making you eat more of it and more likely to buy it (again, it's the marketers dream). People also mistake foods that are healthy with you can go all out on them, which is not the case.

    You were kind of general, but if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.

  • Somite

    I would suggest reading “The End of Overeating” and “Fat Chance” both written by MDs with an interest in nutrition that actually work and publish on the field.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Hmmm… okay, I’ve put Fat Chance on my wishlist, if you or anyone else wants to buy them for me in order to get my comments.

  • John B Hodges

    An anecdote, all I have to contribute.
    In January 201 I stepped on the scale and saw 215 lbs, and said “That’s too much, gotta do something.” I started buying and reading books on diet and weight loss. In three years I lost 40 lbs, and my blood lipid numbers (HDL, LDL, etc.) greatly improved, to the point where my doctor’s computer now says I have a “below average chance of developing heart disease.” The course I have followed did not involve counting calories, keeping a food journal, or confessing before a crowd. Generally, I had a list of foods that were “in”, and a list of foods that were “out”, and I just ate from list A. I always ate until I was satisfied; I never went hungry or suffered.

    One of the first books I read was THE CHEATER’S DIET by Paul Rivas. His basic idea was to follow your weight-loss diet strictly during the week and take weekends off; from Saturday 9 AM to Sunday 9 PM eat whatever you like, (within reason, i.e. don’t binge.) This, he said (He’s an MD who has treated 1500 patients for weight loss) would (1) relieve boredom with the diet, and (2) reduce the chance that you would “hit a plateau”, reduce the chance that your body would adjust your metabolism to maintain your weight with the lower calorie intake. Myself, I found that relaxing the rules on weekends did indeed relieve boredom and make it much easier to keep a diet during the week, but after losing 15 lbs I hit a plateau anyway. That first year my diet during the week was very “mainstream”, taken from EAT, DRINK, AND BE HEALTHY by Dr. Walter C. Willett, Dean of the Harvard Medical School Dept. of Nutrition. After 7 months of plateau I decided to try something else.

    The second year I adopted a “mostly Paleo” diet, taken from THE PALEO SOLUTION by Robb Wolf. I continued taking weekends off, and I never tried to quit salt. Summary: eat meat, eggs, poultry, fish, preferably not grain-fed. Eat all non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruit. Eat tree nuts. Cashews are “honorary” tree nuts, Peanuts are not (peanuts are beans). “Natural” fats are OK (animal fats, olive oil, coconut oil, other oils if and only if they are fresh, cold-pressed and unprocessed), any processed fats are forbidden. Small amounts of dark chocolate are OK on occasion. . Do not eat grains, beans, potatoes, dairy, sugar, or salt. Being only about 90% strict, I found this an easy and satisfying diet to keep; I lost another 15 lbs and hit another plateau.

    The third year I tried a number of “short-term” diets, attempting to knock off a few pounds at a time, returning to “mostly paleo ” as a “maintenance diet”. Some of these worked, some did not; some worked briefly but then I gained back again. One that worked: during July I abstained from all fruit except berries, and lost five pounds. I ended the year ten pounds lighter than when I began.

    This year, the fourth year, I have read enough different books to become very confused. My focus and strictness have gone to Heck. Following some radical critics of paleo, I’ve added rice to my diet, and I’ve given in to binges on chocolate several times. As of today (April 7) I’m up three pounds. Gary Taubes’ book, WHY WE GET FAT, has an appendix giving a “no sugar, no starch” diet, essentially paleo but allowing a little dairy; I have it posted on my ‘fridge, as something to aspire to.