Eli Dourado

My crazy new ideas on diet and exercise

Here is what I used to believe about health and nutrition, mostly gleaned from my high school health classes and listening to people who claimed to be experts.

What I now suspect is true:

This contrarian view seems to be gaining support, but it’s still in the minority. All the details have not yet been worked out; among the contrarians there is substantial disagreement about how everything fits together. I’m the first to admit that one should be skeptical of fads, especially in the health industry, but the evidence is beginning to mount.

If the contrarians are right, the last 50 years have been a disaster, resulting in millions of unnecessarily early deaths and possibly billions of lost quality-adjusted life years (QALYs). This is a big deal. I haven’t organized all my thoughts on this yet, but here are some rapid-fire reactions on the assumption that my new views will ultimately be vindicated.

  1. Policy needs to be more humble. Yes, this is a market failure; it is the mainstream medical and nutritional establishment that got things wrong. But it was exacerbated, not corrected, by government policy. Public health policy has always endorsed the mainstream view, in this case lending it more credibility than it deserved. Agricultural subsidies artificially increase our consumption of corn (and corn-fed beef), wheat, and soybeans. Medical licensing limits the degree to which mainstream views can be challenged; this chokes off a lot of the experimentation that markets tend to provide. There is good reason to believe that under laissez-faire people would be significantly healthier.
  2. There are big gains to taking more direct responsibility for your own health. In an ideal world, you can use the market to outsource this task to someone with a comparative advantage in healthcare. If a significant component of medical practice is the modern-day equivalent of blood-letting, however, you’ll be much better off if you invest in the capacity to understand when it is that doctors are attaching leeches. I’m not against seeking medical treatment if you have a problem, but try to have a sense of whether the advice you are receiving is evidence-based or not. I’m planning to use Google Health to keep my own medical records and to engage in greater self-experimentation. No, self-experimentation is not the gold standard of scientific research, but it may be better than the status quo in medicine.
  3. Willpower is not the primary cause of obesity. Willpower exists in a feedback system in which doing the “right thing” is either rewarded or punished. If people think the right thing is eating a low-fat diet with lots of whole grains and doing aerobic activity, the results might not be sufficiently rewarding to assist in their goal of losing weight. If they had the right information and the same level of willpower they might succeed in losing weight. I encourage my readers who have struggled with their weight to try a contrarian program and report back. Keep stats, for science! (But remember this is not just about weight. The theory suggests that in addition to correcting your weight, you reduce cancer risk and improve mental health.)
  4. Contrarianism in one domain seems to correlate with contrarianism in other domains. I wonder if I can interest my new health and nutrition friends in my political skepticism.

I’m eager to know if my readers have any thoughts on this. Have any of you gotten results or failed to get results using non-mainstream health views? Am I crazy, and what would constitute evidence that I am not? Are any of you considering giving this stuff a try?