Every day, we make decisions about what to eat and drink that can affect our long-term health. Each individual is ultimately responsible for determining the best diet for his or her body and life. Ideally, individuals should make nutritional decisions by balancing health goals and personal enjoyment, while considering their unique physical condition, family history, and risk for certain conditions.
Unfortunately, this is not what public health advocates or many in the media believe. Every new study that manages to get published in a journal (regardless of how reliable or unreliable the conclusions are) represents an opportunity to push for government policies or lifestyle recommendations, applying one-sized-fits-all prescriptions for the public.
For example: Alcohol has known health risks but it also has significant health benefits—not to mention the social and psychological costs and gains. This past November, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study linking moderate alcohol consumption to an increased risk for breast cancer. The study was conducted by the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), and it received a great deal of media attention. While earlier research had theorized that heavy drinking was associated with increased breast cancer risk, the NHS study found that even moderate and light consumption (less than one drink a day) could cause a 10 percent increase in a woman’s risk for breast cancer.
The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and ABC News among many others reported on the study. The Telegraph went as far as to tell female readers that they should “stick to one glass a day” or completely abstain if they have a family history of breast cancer.
However, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) released a paper this month that called the NHS study into question and saying that the “relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk needs further study.” They highlight some problems with the self-reporting method, such as underreporting of alcohol consumption, which might lead to the conclusion that less alcohol has greater effects. Also, the NIAAA points out that the study does not account for the potential difference in binge-drinking versus long-time light drinking. While epidemiological studies like the NHS study add valuable information, as the NIAAA notes, it’s inadvisable to create guidelines for consumers based on such preliminary evidence.
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We all know that eggs contain a lot of fat and cholesterol. While that does not make them “bad,” most of us realize that if you eat eggs or any other food to excess you will likely suffer some negative health effects. But are egg yolks as bad as cigarettes for heart health? That’s question that’s been making headlines in recent months after the publication of a study that asserts this idea. Unfortunately, most of journalists reporting on the story did not bother to actually read the paper, which has major flaws that cast serious doubt on the conclusion — something the authors of the paper note when they call for further study into their hypothesis.
Yet the presses roll on, leading a lot of readers to question whether or not they should change their diet based on what seems like new data. Even more worrying than individuals altering their eating habits is the likelihood that politicians could use this study as justification for any number of hare-brained schemes to improve the health of Americans.
Published in the Journal of Atherosclerosis, “Egg yolk consumption and carotid plaque,” was authored by three Canadian physicians motivated by an increasing lack of regard for the role that dietary fat and cholesterol play in the development of coronary heart disease, according to the paper’s introduction. They looked at nearly 3,000 people, all of whom they found at vascular prevention clinics in Canada, and asked them about their egg consumption and cigarette smoking. Over the years, they tracked these participants and found that “egg yolk years” — that is, the number of eggs eaten per week times the number of years in the study — are correlated with increasing plaque in the carotid arteries. They found that the egg yolk year-to-plaque correlation was similar to the cigarette-plaque correlation.
There are numerous problems with this study. First, the research was based on yearly self-reporting from patients. Self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate (can you remember how many eggs you ate last year?). There is also the major issue that all of the participants were patients at vascular prevention clinics — which one can assume means they either already have vascular problems or are at high risk as a result of genetic or lifestyle risk factors. As SUNY professor and biochemist Richard David Feinman put it, “this is a limitation of many nutritional studies and, while a source of error, it is depends on how you interpret the data.” But that brings me to what I see as the biggest problem in this study: the limited data the researchers chose to examine and draw conclusions about. The researchers did not track other foods the participants ate (maybe they always ate toast and bacon with their eggs) nor did it take account of activity level or exercise.
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Have a listen here.
Major forthcoming rules from a variety of agencies have been delayed until after the November elections, possibly for political reasons. Among them are FDA food safety regulations with a $1.4 billion annual price tag. Senior Fellow Greg Conko argues that these rules should be scrapped altogether for two reasons: 1) They will do little to improve food safety, and they will give large food corporations an unfair competitive advantage over smaller producers.
The FDA recently decided to delay implementing about $1.4 billion of food safety regulations until after the November election. The USA Today editorial board argues in today’s paper that the FDA should stop dragging its feet and enact them now. They were kind enough to give Greg Conko and me some space to put forth an opposing view. We think the FDA should scrap the rules entirely for two reasons: ineffectiveness and rent-seeking:
These rules, being drafted to implement last year’s food-safety law, will waste billions of dollars on antiquated practices unlikely to do much good. They will, however, aid giant food corporations by hobbling smaller competitors and make it harder for companies of all sizes to adopt innovative safety methods and technologies.
Enacted in response to 2010′s massive egg recall, the law will spend nearly $1 billion to double the number of inspections on farms and in food processing facilities. That may sound appealing, but it only means that most facilities will be inspected every five years instead of every 10. Designated “high-risk” facilities would be inspected just once every three years.
Read the whole thing here.
Today, the Independent Women’s Forum blog highlights a new NERA Economic Consulting study (produced for Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation) on the costs of regulation. IWF’s Emily Wismer notes:
According to the report, a major federal regulation is one for which compliance costs more than $100 million per year. Using cost estimates from the federal government, which the Washington Post calls conservative, Clinton averaged 27 major regulations per year, Bush 35 per year, and Obama has averaged 44 per year in his first three years. … Regulations are meant to keep us safe and should increase the quality and competitiveness of American products. Yet when compliance costs $164 billion per year, it is appropriate to question the role of regulations and whether or not 44 regulations per year costing over $100 million really make sense. We should also note that these regulations tend to come from federal agencies and are divorced from Congress, the body responsible for writing the laws guiding our nation and affecting Americans.
Meanwhile, environmental activists and others complain that the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is holding up too many regulations. In a story for Inside EPA last week, a coalition of environmental groups suggested that Congress or the president himself (via executive order) should eliminate policies demanding regulatory review and cost-benefit analysis at OMB. But this is a very bad idea.
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This year, Texas is experiencing its worst outbreak of the mosquito-transmitted West Nile virus ever. Fortunately, most people who get it won’t suffer the severe symptoms — some won’t even notice they have been infected, and others will experience a range of flu-like symptoms. But the bad news is, some people will suffer severe, painful and even a debilitating illness with permanent neurological damage, and some will die.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks the number of cases reported around the country. Texas appears to be experiencing the worst outbreak, but the problem affects many states and the illnesses and death toll will continue well into the fall. In fact, most cases occur late summer and into late fall, so we have many months to go.
Some greens suggest that we should not bother to control the disease using pesticides, because most people are not affected. But even a handful of unnecessary deaths and horrible suffering of those who get the illness warrants action. When deciding to spray, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings explained: “I cannot have any more deaths on my conscience because we did not take action.” Dallas County has begun aerial spraying of pesticides for the first time in 45 years.
Greens second guess the expertise of the local public health officials working to control mosquito populations and disease transmission — suggesting the activists somehow know better. I’ve presented at several meetings of the American Mosquito Control Association, which represents local mosquito control officials around the nation. The members include highly educated, hard-working people with PhDs in biology, entomology, etc., who work in concert with a host of other experts to protect communities around the nation. I’d rather put my confidence in their decisions over environmental activists who have exhibited a callous disregard for the people who suffer from West Nile.
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The FDA didn’t approve a home test for HIV until 24 years after it first received an application. According to an FDA advisory committee, the test “holds the potential to prevent the transmission of more than 4,000 new HIV infections in its first year of use alone.” That means thousands of people likely got infected with AIDS as a result of the delay in approving it. As Roger Parloff of Fortune notes, the FDA’s delay in approving the home HIV test is a “scandal.” It likely caused the deaths of thousands of people, given the mortality rate from AIDS. It may also have caused billions of dollars in additional costs for taxpayers, given that AIDS is a costly and debilitating disease to treat, resulting in treatment costs of perhaps $600,000 per AIDS sufferer.
The FDA is also thwarting the production of certain life-saving drugs. The Obama administration also sought to restrict the market for bone-marrow transplants, potentially costing thousands of lives. It tried to convince a federal appeals court to extend the reach of the National Organ Transplant Act beyond its text, in order to ban compensation needed for the collection of peripheral blood stem cells. The federal DEA recently caused shortages of the drug Adderall, which is needed by narcolepsy sufferers. Earlier, government regulations caused cancer and burn victims in the Third World to die in agony without any pain relief.
In Reason magazine, Baylen Linnekin writes about “the sickening nature of many food-safety regulations,” like the “poke and sniff” inspection method mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture “that likely resulted in USDA inspectors transmitting filth from diseased meat to fresh meat on a daily basis.”
Thousands of deaths from foolish food-safety regulations have occurred in other countries. A classic example occurred more than two centuries ago, when regional parliaments banned consumption of the potato in much of France, leading to a short-lived national ban beginning in 1748. “Among the host of diseases the government mistakenly attributed to consumption of the tuber was leprosy.” This ban was particularly problematic because at the time, France was plagued by recurrent famines. French officials banned the potato despite the fact that it had been cultivated and consumed for generations in neighboring Germany, where the potato saved villagers from starvation at the end of the Thirty Years War that lasted from 1618 to 1648. (Many German villages that refused to cultivate the potato died out and became ghost towns due to mass starvation during the war, as marauding troops destroyed or confiscated above-ground crops such as wheat. Villages that grew the potato survived. Emulating those Germans, hungry Europeans finally began eating the potato. The result was that “for the first time since the Little Ice Age began, 300 years before, Europeans became healthier, were better fed, famines were averted, and populations began to rise again. For example, over the next 200 years, the Irish population tripled.”)
The Obama administration earlier foolishly banned white potatoes from the federal WIC Program, under the theory that they aren’t healthy enough. But in reality, potatoes are perfectly healthy: they have more Vitamin C than a banana or an apple, are rich in essential minerals, contain all 8 amino acids (unlike most other staple foods like corn), and are not fattening. Only the potato, which produces much more food per acre and more cheaply than other staples, saved Europe from endemic malnutrition, and made the industrial revolution and massive population growth possible. Places that failed to cultivate the potato, like France, experienced growing malnutrition and famines, contributing to the French Revolution. Staple foods other than the potato proved inadequate to feed Europe’s hungry people. Villagers in Europe who lived mostly on corn were mentally stunted and ill due to Vitamin B3 and Iodine deficiency, to the point where such conditions became known as “Italian leprosy” and “Italian cretinism” due to their prevalence in certain districts of northern Italy. But Irish people who lived mostly on potatoes survived, with their mental faculties intact, until the Irish potato famine destroyed their potato crop.
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The Supreme Court upheld the health care bill, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. Over at The Daily Caller, I add a few quick thoughts about how Randy Barnett’s Commerce Clause argument also applies to Congress’ taxation power, on the Court’s reluctance to check the other branches’ excesses, and how happy rent-seeking insurance companies must be right now.
Read the whole thing here.
Some government officials would like to curb salt consumption, even though such restrictions could increase death rates. “The Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines still consider salt Public Enemy No. 1, coming before fats, sugars and alcohol.” But “eating less salt can worsen health outcomes,” notes Gary Taubes in a New York Times op-ed. (Taubes is a health policy researcher at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). As he notes, four “studies — involving Type 1 diabetics, Type 2 diabetics, healthy Europeans and patients with chronic heart failure — reported that the people eating salt at the lower limit of normal were more likely to have heart disease than those eating smack in the middle of the normal range.”
“Eat-less-salt” campaigners like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama depict salt as a dietary bogeyman that increases mortality. But, as Howard Portnoy notes, recent scientific studies have debunked the premises of “Michelle Obama’s war on salt.” Portnoy cites a May 2011 study in the American Journal of Medicine. It showed that “too little dietary sodium increases your risk of dying from heart disease“ and that “lower excretions of sodium in the urine—which correlate directly with salt consumption—were associated with higher cardiovascular disease mortality. ” Portnoy also cited recent similar articles in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, and the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Hypertension. Daniel Compton discusses Bloomberg’s “initiative to curb the salt content in manufactured and packaged foods” and why it doesn’t make sense here.
Anti-salt propaganda led to a baseless lawsuit against Denny’s over salty food that was dismissed in November 2009.
FDA officials want to restrict the salt content of food, even though that could indirectly lead to increased obesity rates, more heart attacks, and “higher death rates among some individuals,” by making it harder to market low-fat foods. If salt levels are curbed, people will compensate by eating fattier food, since there seems to be a trade-off between salt and fat.
While the Agriculture Department is demonizing salt, it’s simultaneously subsidizing the development of high-calorie foods that benefit politically connected agribusinesses. The Obama Administration also spent $766,000 of your tax dollars to open an International House of Pancakes in Washington, D.C. , despite IHOP’s sugary fare. Inconsistencies abound in the federal government’s food nannyism. It rejected a proposal to exclude sugar-sweetened drinks from the food stamp program. But the government earlier banned white potatoes from the federal WIC Program, under the theory that they aren’t healthy enough. (Potatoes are perfectly healthy: they have more Vitamin C than a banana or an apple, and contain all 8 amino acids, unlike most other staple foods like corn.) In short, the government does not know how to distinguish between “good” and “bad” foods.