Is Our Modern, Chemical-Laden, Twinkie-Guzzling Lifestyle Killing Us?

Burger4How often do we hear that we’re so much more unhealthy than our ancestors? That our modern chemical-laden diet is responsible for the fact that in 2010, the top three causes of death were heart disease, cancer and chronic airways disease? That if we only ate like our ancestors did (if you can’t pronounce it, it shouldn’t be in your food…) we’d have the secret to eternal life?

Let’s take a trip back to 1900 – the US contained 70 million US inhabitants, McKinley was president, and the first Hershey bar was introduced. Life was so much simpler without those pesky whipper-snapper millenials on social media and everybody lived till they were 95, passing with a smile on their face surrounded by their 17 children…or did they?

It’s a beautiful image – and an absolute fallacy. Life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47.3 years. To put that into context, Michelle Obama, Keanu Reeves and Elle McPherson would already be dead, and Julia Roberts, Matt LeBlanc and Will Ferrell would be enjoying their final days of celebrity life. The low life expectancy was skewed by the high rates of infant mortality in 1900 – premature birth was the #11 most-common cause of death and up to 10% of infants died before their first birthday. Any child that made it past 5 years old had a pretty good chance of surviving – as long as disease didn’t set in – the top three killers in 1900 were pneumonia/flu, tuberculosis and heart disease.

Hold on… heart disease? Surely that’s a consequence of our modern, slothful, twinkie-guzzling lifestyle? Let’s move on to 1950, when most food was still organic, high-fructose corn syrup hadn’t yet been invented and the majority of beef and dairy cattle were grazed on pasture. Top three killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke.

There’s a reason why Mark Twain’s saying “lies, damned lies and statistics” gets quoted so often. In this case, the data is true. However, when we look at the statistics, i.e. the % of people killed by heart disease or cancer, those have indeed gone up. Why? Because very few people die of pneumonia, flu or TB. If we express something on a percentage basis, a decline in one factor means an increase in another. Simple 3rd-grade math. I hate to point out the obvious, but we’re all going to die – and there will always be a cause.

Many enthusiasts for the “Paleo” diet like to suggest that it must be a healthy lifestyle, because the average lifespan for our ancestors was the same as it is now – providing that they didn’t die in accidents, war or from infection. Way to go for those few ancestors who stayed in their cave and didn’t get attacked by a wildebeest! All that actually suggests is that a human body has a genetic potential for life of 75-80 years. Europeans who died from the Black Death in 1348-1350 weren’t genetically programmed to live shorter lives, they were just unlucky enough to run up against the microorganism Yersinia pestis. We can’t eliminate specific causes of death that don’t suit our theory to “show” that one lifestyle is more healthy than other – everything that we do, every single day will have some positive or negative effect on our eventual lifespan.

We’re lucky enough to live in a society where we have effective sanitation, a wide variety of nutritional choices, antibiotics, vaccines, x-rays and prenatal vitamins. In the US, nowadays only 6 babies die per 1,000 births compared to ~100 per 1,000 births in 1900. Average life expectancy is 78.1 years. If I were to follow the activist “correlation = causation” logic I could point out that in the past 114 years we’ve seen the introduction of cell phones; nuclear bombs; GMO-crops; rbST for dairy cattle; implants and antibiotics for beef cattle; and corn-fed beef… so these technologies must make us live longer!! Hooray!! Instead, I’ll just be thankful that I will be giving birth within the next week in a world where we have a safe, effective food supply and that my baby will have a far better chance of surviving than her great-grandparents did. Thank goodness for technology.

23 thoughts on “Is Our Modern, Chemical-Laden, Twinkie-Guzzling Lifestyle Killing Us?

  1. I actually saw a comment yesterday that 45% of babies in the northwest don’t live to see their first birthday. All due to GMOs.And the media isn’t covering it. Of course if 45% of babies in the northwest were dying it’d be worldwide news…so I didn’t give it credence enough to remember or copy where it was.

    • That’s just frightening. Not because it’s in any way factual, but because people will actually believe it. It’s amazing what can be blamed on GMOs with no scientific foundation whatsoever – I keep expecting to see “new” research blaming them for World War II, or the Black Death… or maybe even the extinction of dinosaurs?

      • I’ve seen some say 4 horned sheep are GMO. Jacob,which can have multiple horns, were mentioned in the Bible. I kinda think that was before GMO. But I’m a peon small farmer with no letters behind my name or foundation to dispute it so what do I know. ;-)

      • Ha! In my experience (we used to have 3 or 4 Jacobs in a flock of 120 or so ewes) Jacob sheep may well be evil incarnate… but they’re not GMO! ;)

  2. Wow, thank you for putting it into perspective. Perhaps the fact that our nation appears “unhealthy” has nothing to do with what we are putting in our mouths, but the fact that we are lazy! There is nothing wrong with eating a bacon cheeseburger if you are active. If more people would get outside and move around they would be better off. Everything in moderation. I am incredibly thankful for the technology that enables us (famers) to feed a growing population!

    • I agree! It’s too easy as a society to blame our food choices on “big food” making it more affordable, or portion size forcing us to eat 3,000 calories vs. 800 in a single meal, but how often do we see an overweight marathon runner or quarterback?

      • Seriously marathon runners are not skinny because they run. They run because they are skinny. There is a lot more to body size than calories in calories out. A bunch of B.S. we have all been fed. You included. Our bodies are made up very differently that’s why we have tall people and short people and everything in between. Genetics plays a huge role here. I know people that can eat anything and as much as they want and never gain a pound and no they do not exercise. Others gain weight just looking at food. So you may want to think a little more on that.

      • Interesting perspective. I totally agree that genetics plays a huge role in body size and general shape, but let’s think about simple thermodynamics here. Although everybody has a slightly different metabolism, it’s a fallacy to suggest that calories in vs. calories out is some kind of conspiracy that we’ve been fed (no pun intended) by the medical or nutritional sectors. To use an extreme example, let’s look at starving populations in developing worlds. Yes, there’s absolutely a range of heights, some people have proportionally longer or shorter torsos, smaller or bigger heads, but in a situation where food is limited and people are forced into a diet that only provides 50-80% of their nutritional needs, I defy you to find anyone but skinny people in that population. As for marathon runners being skinny, I think you’d be interested in this blog (darenwms.blogspot.com) – a friend of mine who transformed himself from an anything-but-skinny 270 lbs to a runner, cyclist and athlete.

  3. While I understand how you came to the conclusions that you reached, it’s somewhat apparent that you don’t have an understanding of the biochemistry and biology behind much of what you talked about. For example, you’re referencing HFCS in the context of heart disease or stroke, when in fact, if you looked at a health condition actually relevant to high sugar consumption, such as type 2 diabetes, you would notice that incidences have absolutely skyrocketed even just in the past 3 decades or so. Shortening and trans fatty acid consumption in the early 1900s was not as high as it is today, but it certainly wasn’t low–you can gather as much simply by looking at some vintage advertisements.

    When it comes to things like “GMO-crops” and milk from rBST-treated cattle, I also think you are a little bit misguided, and potentially a victim of commercial scare tactics driven by political and economic interests. I think getting your hands on some relevant scholarly studies from peer-reviewed journals would do you well, especially in relieving some of the rampant paranoia about food that is perfectly fine, such as genetically modified corn.

    • Thanks for your comment. If you’d care to take a look at some of my other posts (specifically these two: http://bovidiva.com/2013/12/11/activism-101-how-to-write-like-an-angry-internet-expert-on-gmos/ and http://bovidiva.com/2013/09/30/scare-tactics-why-do-so-many-public-health-experts-promote-fear-vs-food/) you’ll see that I am absolutely science-based and a believer in the value of the peer-review system – in fact I spent a great deal of my time debunking some of the most common activist-promoted scare-mongering myths (e.g. that GMOs are harmful or that rbST affects humans through dairy intake) using science.

      I completely agree, HFCS is more closely linked to diabetes than heart disease or cancer, yet this post was a) related to mortality issues (vs. chronic disease) and b) HFCS was simply used as an example of the type of propaganda used by the activists to try and relate cause and effect. For example: “HFCS was introduced in the 1970s and since then we’ve seen a X% increase in Y. That MUST be cause-effect” (no it’s not). However, your explanation is oversimplistic – we have also seen increased rates of type II diabetes in countries such as the UK, where HFCS is relatively uncommon – beet sugar is the principal sweetener used. It appears to be a carbohydrate effect versus a specific type of CHO effect – I have yet to see any strong peer-reviewed science suggesting that HFCS has more negative effects upon health than other plant-based sugars, although there is certainly plenty of anecdotal quackery suggesting the opposite.

      I firmly believe that there are no deleterious health effects of GMO crops and have actually been accused of being on Monsanto’s payroll as a consequence of publishing work on the positive environmental effects of rbST use in dairy cattle (http://www.pnas.org/content/105/28/9668.long). As a side note, rbST, as a bovine enzyme, has no human health effect, despite the activist claims. If you’d care to explore the entire blog, I think your fears will be relieved.

  4. So the argument here is that since our Life expectancy is better than 100 years ago lets not correct the known flaws in our food system? Why stop at 100 years? Were better off than the cave men so forget improving the system ever. Its a good thing medical care has turned into such a booming Billion dollar industry otherwise our all important statistics might fall off. Look around, 33% of our population is considered ‘Obese’, how many people do you know who have or have had diabetes, cancer, heart disease…etc. Sure most of them live, but whats the cost to them or us. And not just in financial costs, but in quality of life? Its a fact that the Hormone/Antibiotic/Grain based agricultural system we have today has very real and very harmful effects on our bodies and our environment. The system is broken…so we should fix it. The statistics show that your new child, congratulations, has a one in three chance of becoming obese and ending up as a chronic patron to our wonderful medical industry.

    • Known flaws? My argument (in response to that particular comment) would be that I don’t believe that the food system is “broken”, so why fix it? I absolutely believe that society may be broken, at least when it comes to self-control and taking responsibility for our decisions. In developed countries we often consume more nutrients than we need to, which absolutely leads to obesity and health issues. However, that is a consequence of free will and the denial that an excess of calories will lead to health issues. The suggestion that it’s all caused by the hormone/antibiotic/grain-based food system is absurd. Are you really suggesting that if I increased my calorie intake to 5,000 calories per day but only ate grass-fed beef, organic cheese and pork produced without antibiotics that I wouldn’t have issues with obesity and chronic disease?

  5. I love beef. Our ancestors have thrived on beef and other meats. I was diagnosed with MS may ’97, and feel better than my best day while being doped up to treat it. I’ve been doing Paleo since August 1 2013. Everyone around me is amazed at what they see.
    This article is seriously misleading. If we ate like our ancestors did 200 years ago, we could be free of the obesity, arthritis, diabetes, MS,
    and a bunch of other “modern maladies” that didn’t exist except in the wealthy, over – indulged sufferings of gout. I am grateful that
    we live in a cleaner, safer world with antibiotics available and not so many predator animals, but to declare our food “safe” is ridiculous! !!
    Look around you. Talk to people who will be honest about their health. I do that. I am not a great example of anything but a bad example most of my life, but since I’ve been eating like our ancestors, I feel great.

    • I’m very pleased that you’re doing so well and that your diet suits you – that’s great! :) Believe me, I’m not trying to dismiss Paleo (or any other lifestyle choice), just making the point that we cannot make overwhelming, simplistic claims about lifespan. Yes, diet undoubtedly plays a huge role – but so does everything else that we do, from the minor choices (if I never ride on a motorcyle, I’m certainly not going to die on one) to the major decisions (if I didn’t choose to have surgery and chemotherapy for cancer 10 years ago I almost certainly wouldn’t be alive now). I haven’t seen any peer-reviewed evidence whatsoever that we would be rid of chronic disease if we ate as our ancestors did (which obviously leads to the question of how far we go back in looking at ancestors), yet given that heart disease was still the #3 cause of death in 1900, when our diets were very different, can we really claim that all our modern maladies are due to our modern diet?

  6. You are using the same old tired Monsanto lines to defend Bovine Growth Hormone. rBGH is not an “enzyme”, it is a hormone. That misrepresentation is an old Monsanto trick because “hormone” has a more negative connotation. rBGH creates exponentially higher levels of IGF-1, a growth promoting hormone in the milk. While scientists tied to Monsanto’s apron strings deny any problem with IGF-1, independent researchers say differently. This article was clearly an attempt to cover for the bad technologies and practices of industrial agriculture. Stop working at looking like a shill… it feels good. By the way, Bovine Growth Hormone is the correct term for this product. One of the first attempts at public relations slight of hand was when the Bio-tech industry attempted to pass off the term rBST on the public in an attempt to hide the true nature of the product.

    • I’m not sure where you got the impression that I was labeling rbST as an enzyme, it is indeed a hormone and is metabolized as such. IGF-1 is also a hormone. From basic physiology, note that protein hormones are digested and metabolized within the stomach thus do not have biological effects elsewhere in the body – that’s why diabetics have to inject insulin rather than taking it by mouth. IGF-1 is produced by cancerous tumors in cancer patients, thus they often have higher concentrations of IGF-1, but note that this is NOT cause-effect but a correlation. Alas, it appears increasingly fashionable for anti-technology activists to rely on such correlations to try and prove a cause-effect relationship, despite the scientific in accuracy of doing so. RBGH is one term for the hormone (note that H is this regard stands for hormone) but rbST is the scientific name, i.e. Recombinant bovine somatotropin. To claim that the scientific name is somehow used to mislead is a serious misconception – most chemicals/hormones/enzymes have scientific and lay names (e.g. Ascorbic acid = vitamin C) and that is not related to any wish to mislead.

  7. High fructose corn syrup gets metabolized differently than sucrose and does not trigger the psychological fullness effect of sugar and other nutrients causing people to eat more in order to feel full and using antibiotics in agriculture is one of the leading causes of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Technology certainly has done great things to extend lifespans and some of the things you listed are correct such as pasteurization, but grouping high fructose corn syrup and the over use of antibiotics in as well is very scientifically inaccurate.

  8. Great post! I too am grateful to live in an age when people are so well fed we can turn up our noses at any food we like and still be full. (Or too full!) Unfortunately it seems we keep loosing this discussion because most of us prefer to make decisions based on feelings and anecdotes rather than facts. I think we’d all feel better eating on any kind of diet because eating healthy IS key, it’s just that diet doesn’t have to be GMO-free to have healing effects. French fries will kill you, be they bio-tech potatoes or the most organic spuds ever grown. Let’s not confuse eating right with eating local, grass- fed or all natural.

  9. soil-to-soul
    Let’s most of us, try to correct what really is going on in any and all nutrition; we are what we eat, and obviously no one is getting out of life alive with everything. The point is….. do you want to live as long as you will or as long as you can.
    Prevention is in what we drink and eat, be it moderation or learning not all calories are the same, it’s up to each of us that respect our own freedom and education by knowing what our own body reactions are to what we ate. (I Do realize that each humans genetic predestination is very relevant to one’s health; yet very improvable also that one’s environment has a huge effect on our quality of life)
    Red blooded mammals do not get sick because they have a drug deficiency, Only dehydration,malnutrition,unbalanced mineral intake and by taking the correct vitamin form, is very important,{ unnatural or to big a rock form in some vitamin’s is where discredit to vitamins comes from..in my opinion} the digestive system is over challenged and gets rid of them if they are in the wrong form.
    My life’s work is in correcting soil nutrient content to the plant that I or the cow or sow or chicken eats to effect the quality of the food I chose to put into my body,
    Anyone can study Ammino Acids in nutrition and learn the rest of the story, when natural complete proteins are ate our god given immune system’s; naturally have the defense in place to fight disease. [order equals ease // disorder equals disease]
    No fight intended with anyone, I have never involved my opinion on line before, I am wide open minded for honest debate to help much confusion on these subjects in health [if we do not have our own health the rest does not matter] so education from people you trust not just because they have letters behind their name, mean that they have your best interest in their account…That said I have the most utmost respect for Doctor’s that are teacher’s, and then are, our most precious resources in human kind.

  10. “God created the human body to live forever, only the ignorance and stupidity of the human mind put a limit to our life span.” I am totally agree with John A Warren. Thumbs up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s