The comma in the title is there for a purpose, because I wanted to talk about the similarities between the two fields, not their supposed connection. Judith Curry’s Climate etc website had an excellent piece on those similarities, and that prompted this post. But as I read the Comments section I came across exactly what I didn’t have in mind. It is priceless:

If you enter “obesity and global warming” into Google, you obtain 1,100,000 responses. Typical responses in the queue are: (1) Is Obesity Causing Global Warming? A new study has suggested that obesity is affecting the planet … by raising carbon emissions …; (2) Do Obese People Aggravate Global Warming? — ABC News; (3) Scoop: Burning the Fat: Obesity and Global Warming, a study in the latest issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology by Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts plays out a grim scene: a world of overweight …; (4) thinner is better to curb global warming, study says—CNN.com; and there are thousands more like this.

No, what I really had in mind is this: the the field of nutrition, like that of climate science, is not one where you can design nicely controlled tests of various hypotheses, so that what we get are only lightly-substantiated warnings that the news media like. ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ … that sort of thing. I’m old enough to remember how butter became a no-no: we should all move to margarine. Red wine and red meat were bad for you, then good for you. Diets were everywhere, and still are. My inheritance is largely Scots, and my forbears were on the whole skinny — or ‘slim’, if you want a nice word. I’ve never had to worry about my weight, enjoy physical exercise, played a lot of sport, and pretty well eat what I like. Even better, I stop eating when I’ve had enough, and stop drinking after two glasses. I don’t have to force myself; it just happens.

So I’ve looked at all these nutrition news items, over the 55 years since I married, with interest but on the whole without personal alarm. The Scots inheritance, however, cuts both ways: I’ve had a lot of skin trouble, with one large melanoma and many, many visits to the skin specialist to deal with incipient cancers.

Now Judith Curry looked at an article in the New York Times by Gary Taubes, and you can read it here. I don’t remember more than one or two of the kids at my school being even overweight, and though my best friend was known as Fatty Conway he got this nickname because he was just a bit more amply provided than the rest of us. Nor were there lots of  overweight students at university. Taubes makes much the same point about the USA: In 1960, fewer than 13 percent of Americans were obese, and diabetes had been diagnosed in 1 percent. Today, the percentage of obese Americans has almost tripled; the percentage of Americans with diabetes has increased sevenfold. I first went to the USA in 1965, and noticed at once that were indeed quite a lot of really overweight people, and that Americans seemed to just eat much more than we did. Everything in the food department of a supermarket was bigger, like ice-cream tubs, jars of anything, and packets. Sugar seemed to be in almost everything, even supposedly ‘savoury’ items.

Taubes says that more than 600,000 articles have been published on obesity and diabetes, and that this should have brought some clarity as to the causes of it all. But no, the situation apparently just gets worse and worse. Taubes says that these 600,000 articles are the noise generated by a dysfunctional research establishment. Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.

And why? The only way to test these hypotheses is through the use of specific, randomised, controlled clinical trials. Because the hypotheses are ultimately about what happens to us over decades, meaningful trials are prohibitively expensive and exceedingly difficult.  It means convincing thousands of people to change what they eat for years to decades. Eventually enough heart attacks, cancers and deaths have to happen among the subjects so it can be established whether the dietary intervention was beneficial or detrimental.

Now no drug company stands to make much if any money in these areas, so there’s no interest from the private sector in funding trials, while for the public sector — the government — they look like extraordinarily expensive endeavours that will take decades to produce results, which might be wrong even then. So nutritionists study rats and hope the results apply to us, or study humans for a few weeks or months and hope that the results apply to decades. Or they look at whole populations where particular food regimes operate and look at the general frequency of various diseases, and hypothesise causal links.

It’s a good piece, and a quick read. Does any of this story strike a chord for you about the field of climate science? It did for Judith Curry, and you can read her take on it here. I agree with her that there are many parallels. See what you think.

As for causes: I offer this historic overview. We have moved from being a physically active population to a sedentary one, where exercise has to be programmed into our lives rather than occurring naturally, while we are now rich enough to be able to afford to eat and drink for comfort rather than to enable us to be productive. No, I’m not proposing a long trial …

 

 

  • DaveW

    Hi Don,

    My ancestry clearly doesn’t have enough Scots, so I have read several of Gary Taubes books starting with ‘Bad Science’ (about cold fusion), ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ and most recently (2010) ‘Wy We Get Fat’ (essentially a concise, updated version of ‘Good-Bad Calories’, so the best one to read if you want to get more background on his hypotheses).

    I think Nutrition Research and Climate Science share some similarities, but also some significant differences. The similarities are primarily to do with a ‘dysfunctional research establishment’ propped-up by an inherently corrupt MSM and the misguided government regulations, dietary guidelines, and research directives that have resulted. As a result, many billions have been wasted on studies based on a false premise – that fats are bad. This is similar to the CO2/CAGW fiasco, and one can find similarly monomaniacal crazy/disingenuous scientists who forced these wrong vectors. Also similarly, there are private industries that have profited tremendously from the government misdirection: the diet and high fructose corn syrup industries come immediately to mind.

    I think the similarities end there. In contrast to CAGW, there actually has been a lot of well designed nutrition/health research and much of it is experimental and not entirely based on modelling. Unfortunately, most of this has been directed to bark up the wrong tree. Still, at least for obesity, diabetes mellitus and other ‘diseases of civilization’, the evidence seems to be clear: processed carbohydrates in the diet, not fats, are a primary cause. Thanks to my genetic heritage, I have been able to test this hypothesis at a personal level repeatedly: a diet low in processed carbohydrates quickly makes me resemble more my Scots heritage than my Welsh, Yorkshire or German aspects.

    One other comment. After having been away from Australia for 10 years, I was quite shocked to find how fat the average Australian has gotten since I left. Truthfully, I don’t think it is that different here now than in Canada or the USA.

    Cheers,

    DaveW

    • Don Aitkin

      Most interesting! My own hunch also is that it is processed carbohydrates, not fat, that can cause people to stack on weight, and we stick to a simple diet in which a biscuit at morning and afternoon tea is about it, plus a piece of dark chocolate after dinner.

      I also agree with you about the change to obesity on Australia. It seems we are running at #3 in the obesity stakes, and you can certainly see examples at any shopping centre.

  • David

    “My inheritance is largely Scots, and my forbears were on the whole
    skinny — or ‘slim’, if you want a nice word. I’ve never had to worry about my
    weight, enjoy physical exercise, played a lot of sport, and pretty well eat
    what I like. …..

    “The Scots inheritance, however, cuts both ways: I’ve had a lot of skin trouble, with one large melanoma and many, many visits to the skin specialist to deal with incipient cancers.”

    Don you seem to be of the opinion that Scots are not as overweight as other populations. So I was curious to see if what if this was correct, and came across this.

    http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc799_2_International_Comparisons_Obesi ty_Prevalence2.pdf

    If you go to page 3 you will see that the Scots are in fact the fattest of any of any nation in the UK and fatter than Australia.

    Not a hanging crime. And I don’t know if one link settles the debate on which nation is fattest but the confidence with which you are willing to just sprout “facts” never ceases to amaze me :)

    • Don Aitkin

      David, we seem to engage in a running dialogue.

      Why don’t you go back and read through what you wrote above, and think about it? I said that my forbears were mainly Scots, which is true back to about 1750, to the best of my knowledge. I said they were on the whole skinny or slim, which is true for the ones I knew. I added a few things about myself, which I believe to be true. You then write: ‘Don you seem to be of the opinion that Scots are not as overweight as other populations’, and then go to some trouble to show that I was wrong in thinking so.

      But I didn’t say that, and never thought it. I simply have no idea how overweight the Scots are. That wasn’t my point.

      Then you go on to be amazed about how I am willing to spout ‘facts’. The only facts there are the ones I gave. If you have a dispute with them, please tell me why. But it’s not great technique to put words into my mouth and then show how wrong I was!

      • David

        Why don’t you go back and re-read what I wrote. I did qualify my statement with “seem to be of the opinion”

        Then re-read what you wrote

        “The Scots inheritance, however, cuts both ways: I’ve had a lot of skin trouble, with one large melanoma and many, many
        visits to the skin specialist to deal with incipient cancers.”

        If you were just talking about YOUR Scots inheritance you MIGHT be off the hook but you refer to the effect as the “THE Scott’s inheritance”.

        But more importantly what are the two effects of a Scottish inheritance, to which you refer? One is a link between being Scottish and skin cancer. And the other effect?

        Clearly, given what you had just written, you were referring to skinniness!

        Don I admire your efforts to back pedal. You write and argue beautifully! But if you really did just want to share a potted history about your ancestry, perhaps you save that for another post rather than just drop it into the middle of a sentence.

      • David

        And further more when David W said

        My ancestry clearly doesn’t have enough Scots, so I have read several of Gary Taubes books starting with ‘Bad Science’ (about cold fusion), ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ and most recently (2010) ‘Wy We Get Fat’ (essentially a concise, updated version of ‘Good-Bad Calories’, so the best one to read if you want to get more background on his hypotheses).

        clearly he also thought you were implying a relationship between being Scottish and lack of obesity.
        I rest my case! .

        • DaveW

          Sorry to undercut your argumentativeness, but my reply was strictly tongue-in-cheek. I have no opinion about obesity in Scotland (or what proportion of those people may be of Scots descent) and my Scots grandmother was rather tubby, as I recall.

          • David

            No apology necessary.

            David W your comment may well have been tongue in cheek, but Don’s was not.

            My point being that your reading of Don’s post was the same as mine. That he was of the belief that being Scottish was correlated with skinniness.

          • dlb

            I thought the Scott’s leanness was due to their austere regard for the luxuries in life. Deep fried Mars Bars being an exception. Of course I have no facts to back this up and my tongue is firmly in my cheek.

    • whyisitso

      Get a life, David!

      • David

        Whyistso that is probably one of your more thoughtful posts :)