Bone Broth

Bone broth is having its moment- paleo likes it, nut jobs who believe vaccines cause autism like it*, whoever the hell these people are like it, my nutritionist is a big fan.  The idea seems obvious- bones are full of nutrients that hard to get, especially in the typical American diet, surely drinking bones would be good.  Especially for calcium.  Everyone knows bones have calcium.

I got suspicious when I noticed that the nutritional label on my broth** reported 0% of my RDA of calcium.  I checked a few more brands, the top contender lists 2% calcium RDA and 4% iron/6 grams of protein.  Most list 0.  nutritiondata.self.com gives considerably better numbers, but no source.  Their listing contains a good deal more fat (9g, as opposed to 0 in any of the commercial broth I’ve found) and a non-zero amount of carbs.  None of the micronutrients they listed (vitamin C, a few Bs, iron, calcium, manganese) are fat soluble, but maybe there is something to preparing it at home.

Some of the websites touting bone broth list other substances that aren’t on nutritional labels but they believe are important.  I am well disposed to believe this claim.  There is no reason to believe science knows all the micronutrients we need, much less a USDA oriented towards the well being of farmers, not consumers.  The specifically mention glycosaminoglycans, a class protein/sugar hybrid found in joints.  This seems utterly plausible, but I was unable to find any numbers of this. At all.

I found one scientific paper on bone broth.  It is in Korean***.  It has some English but not enough for me to actually determine the micronutrient:protein ratio.  Beyond that you have studies about the components of bone broth and the assumption that it will be absorbed in this form.  For example this paper on collagen and rheumatoid arthritis (PDF).  Given it has 60 people and RA is a cyclic disease, their results are actually pretty good, but that still leaves it open to any number of manipulations.  The second best paper is a press relief on an informal study of chicken soup.

That leaves protein.  Everyone agrees bone broth has serious protein, but unfortunately not the most important kind.  Protein is made up of amino acids, of which there are two kinds: non-essential (which your body can manufacture) and essential (which you must take in via diet).  The RDA for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight, of which 0.1 g should be of the essential amino acids (there are per-acid requirements but I’m not tracking 9 individual requirements), so 20% is putting  you ahead of the game, except that broth is missing two EAAs entirely.  After 20  hours of cooking (see korean) paper, 25% of the amino acids are glycine.  For comparison:

  • The pumpkin-based protein powder in front of me is 20% essential amino acids (and has way more iron than broth)
  • Whey protein is 60% EAAs.
  • Soy is 34%

I have trouble digesting protein and find bone broth stunningly easy to digest, so this is still a win for me, but it’s a slam dunk.

While traveling I’m using bone broth powder, which I’m increasingly convinced is a fancy way of saying “bone-based protein powder”.  I’m okay with bone based protein powder, although I might not have packed the pumpkin if I’d realized this.

Do you know what else is basically a protein powder?  Cricket flour.  They taste similar, cricket has a better amino acid profile (25% essential) and more trace nutrients (although I’m still tracking down how many more).  It is also cheaper, which should make !broth feel bad.

I find it more plausible than the average miracle food that bone broth has effects beyond what you’d expect from a naive read of the nutrition facts, because I expect animal bone + meat to fulfill a broader range of requirements than some berry.   I do feel better when I drink it, but a lifetime of digestive and chewing problems has given me a tendency to develop food security blankets, and broth is currently filling that role.   Simply by being a security blanket that is not jelly beans or peanut butter cups****, broth is a health food for me, personally, but I can’t really extrapolate beyond that. The current press around it appears to be almost entirely groundless.

Once again, the state of nutritional knowledge is embarrassingly bad and I would like us to shift money towards increasing it.  Also why the hell can’t I test the  nutritional content of broth I make myself?

 

*To their credit, they have an explanation that doesn’t rely on mercury, which has been extremely thoroughly disproven.  If they had presented it as a fringe thing they needed to prove, I would have entertained their hypothesis.  They presented it as fact, without any attempt to distances themselves from the atrocious denialism of the mercury-based anti-vaxxers.

**I buy it frozen on the theory that my time and not having my house continually smell of meat was worth the extra money.

***I don’t think this would be hard to determine if you read Korean, volunteers would be welcome.

****Trader Joe’s brand- I’m not an animal.

ETA: I only just learned that bone broth means “bones + connective tissue”.  Clean bones give you hardly any protein, even if there’s marrow in them.  Apparently I don’t need to pay $10/bag for store made stuff, I can use $8 worth of chicken feet and liver and eat for a week.

Food Choices at EA Global

[EAGlobal was a wonderful experience that I haven’t written much about because my brain was too stuffed full of wonderfulness to produce anything useful.  I dislike that the first thing I’m writing about it is a controversy/complaint]

There’s a utilitarian thought experiment: would you rather have one person tortured for their entire life, or a googolplex of people experience a single dust mote in their eye?  I always viewed it as too theoretical to be anything but an ideological purity test, but I think I’m seeing a version of it in action right now, in the debate around serving animal products at EA Global.

You have a small number of animal rights activists saying “this is torturing and consuming a sentient being and that’s morally abhorent”, and a much larger number of omnivores going “but seriously, they’re delicious”.  The ARAs don’t understand why aesthetic preferences are overriding morality (and either don’t believe that animal products are ever medically necessary or don’t believe that outweighs the cost to the animal), and the omnivores don’t see why such a small group is getting to override their preferences because of a principle they don’t believe in.

I think the moral weight of the ARA’s concerns may actually be working against them here.  I don’t think many people would object if the organizers said “the local cuisine is vegan and shipping in meat is just too expensive, bring some in your luggage if you must.”  But the fact that the morality arguments exist and tend to resonate with people even if they don’t agree makes people defensive, and then aggressive.  Allowing the organizers to drop meat for morality reasons is an implicit endorsement of the idea that meat is indeed immoral, which has unpleasant implications for omnivore’s moral standing the rest of the week.  By the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, better to deny that there is a problem than participate in an incomplete solution.

My original position, based mostly on the fact that I am simultaneously really bothered by and completely immune to ARA’s disgust-based arguments, was that EA Global had made the right call: vegan or at least vegetarian options in the main line, a small amount of meat hidden off to the side.  But now that I think the insistence on meat is strongly Copenhagen-driven, I’ve changed my mind.  Admitting unpleasant things about ourselves and making incremental progress is supposed to be one of our things.

[By that same token I think ARA’s should be a little happier about how much meat consumption was reduced that weekend, even if it didn’t go to zero.  But then, I’m an incrementalist]

At the same time, some people need animal products.  The definition of need is tricky here- my doctor has told me to eat small amounts of meat, but going three days without any will be fine, but in practice what was served at EA Global was too hard on my stomach and I wouldn’t have been able to eat enough calories from that alone.  Some people are on paleo and even if that wasn’t the healthiest choice, a sudden drop off in meat will be physically hard on them.  Some people have a lot of things they can’t eat such that meat is the easiest way to get them a nutritionally complete meal- especially when you have a lot of different people with a lot of different exclusions.  But even if meat were served, it’s impossible to fulfill 600 people’s dietary requirements with a reasonable amount of effort and money. The best solution may have been to announce the menu ahead of time so people could plan, and then let the chips fall where they may.

But I think we can do one better.  My new favorite solution is to offer both meat and whatever vegans nominate as the best fake meat and offer both without a way to distinguish between the two at the time.  Omnivores would be given one at random with a code that they could later use to register 1.  how much they liked what they were served and 2.  whether they think it was real meat or not.  If they really don’t like what they got they could go to a back room somewhere with their code and ask for the other one (still not telling them which they got).  The same back room could serve people who medically need meat and people who want the definitively vegan option.

This gives people who want but don’t need meat (and are able to eat !meat) a way to get it, and vegans a way to advance the cause of veganism, possibly further than they would get by banning it (by showing people how good !meat tastes).  In most circles neither side would find this adequate, but Experimenting and Using Data are What Effective Altruists  Do, and I think that could convince/pressure enough people (on both sides) into it that it would be worth trying.

Motion Sickness

The typical explanation for motion sickness is that your inner ear and your eyes disagree about whether or not you are moving, your body interprets it as food poisoning, and prepares to throw up.  This does not quite make sense to me, because it fails to explain any of the following:

  1. Why being a passenger is so much worse than being the driver.
  2. Why playing video games (eyes say movement, ears say stationary), reading in a bus (eyes say stationary, ears say moving) and riding a roller coaster (eyes and ears both say moving very fast)  produce the same feeling.
  3. Why smooth rides (subways, no-turbulence airplanes) are so much easier than busses, or why highways are easier than stop and go traffic.
  4. Apparently other people consider nausea a stomach issue, but for me it’s very much a head issue.  Motion sickness also gives me headaches.  What’s up with that?  Why is it so tightly correlated with sinus pressure?
  5. Why does low blood sugar feel so much like motion sickness?
  6. I’ve never experienced this, but television assures me heavy drinking produces the same effect.  Why?
  7.  Why does motion sickness give me temperature fluctuations.

I’ve heard a partial explanation for #3, which is that your inner ear actually senses acceleration, not movement, so a steady velocity doesn’t feel like movement.  And we have a very compelling proximal explanation for #6: the difference in density between water and alcohol stimulates your inner ear both as you get drunk and as you sober up.  So obviously the inner ear is very involved in this, but how?

Alternate hypothesis: motion sickness is designed to keep you from eating, because your body is not in a good state to digest. One way that can happen is if your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight-or-flight-or-stand-there-being-really-anxious) has kicked in, because it redirects blood flow and energy to things that are immediately useful in escaping from tigers (muscles, senses) and away from things that solve future you problems like digestion and the immune system (which are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system).

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are regulated by the hypothalamus.  For fun I googled “hypothalamus motion sickness” and the first result was this rat based study,* which put rats in a “animal centrifuge” to induce motion sickness. I couldn’t find video of a rat centrifuge, but NASA helpfully provided video of a dog centrifuge.  It looks not quite as bad as a tilt a whirl, although the rats were exposed to double gravity so I should probably cut them some slack.

During their amusement park adventures, the rats experienced a spike in histamine production in the hypothalamus (how cool is it that we can continuously measure that?), and caused the rats to display characteristic motion sick rat behavior.  Inhibiting histamine production or removing the inner ear (the part that detects motion) caused both of these to disappear.  Histamines also help regulate body temperature, so that’s #7.  This suggests that anti-histamines would be useful at fighting motion sickness.  The good news is that this is correct, the bad news is that they make you sleepy and possibly give you Alzheimer’s.   That’s fine for any one time but I don’t want to make a lifestyle out of taking them.

A website my laptop unfortunately ate the link to has a subtly different explanation:  your brain tracks motor movement via an efference copy, creates a prediction of what sensory changes that should create, and they compares that to the actual sensory input.  Motion sickness might be your brain saying “these are too different, abort, abort”, or buckling from the intensity of calculation needed to reconcile the input.

I have always wondered why I/people hold my (our) breath during times of stress.  Unless you’re being hunted by a xenomorph right that second, oxygen deprivation is not helpful.

An artist's rendering of when holding your breath is useful
An artist’s rendering of when holding your breath might be useful

The most convincing hypothesis I’ve found is that your brain can only do so many calculations per second, compensating for breathing takes calculation, so you stop breathing.  That this rapidly starves your brain of oxygen, lowering the number of calculations you can do, is exactly the kind of long term thinking I expect from the human body which, lest we forget, takes in air and food through the same hole.  If both breath-holding and nausea can be caused calculation overload, we would expect the same things to cause them both. I can think of two things that do exactly this off the top of my head- sparring (but not drills) in martial arts, and playing Katamari, both of which involve complex spatial reasoning.  These are not great examples because there’s a lot of confounding variables, like extreme physical exertion while being hit in the stomach.

To summarize my speculation:  sensory input requiring too high a rate of calculation points you towards your sympathetic nervous system, which makes you nauseous so you won’t eat while you’re not capable of digesting.

This suggests that anything that kicks you towards the parasympathetic system should reduce motion sickness.  Unfortunately the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems run on the same neurotransmitters, so looking at the relevant drugs does not provide useful information.

This also suggests that anything that lowers the number of calculations you need to do will be helpful.  BCMC tested a heads up display that showed users their head position relative to the horizon.

Studies found it overwhelmingly helpful, although I haven’t dug into that paper in detail yet.  Unfortunately there’s no way to purchase the technology, so I’m left hoping someone picks up the patent.

In conclusion: we don’t really know what causes motion sickness and that there’s no known really good treatmen.  I am going to experiment with consciously tracking my head position relative to horizon and with rhythm games (which help integrate sensory data).

*The second result appears to be the exact same experiment, done 10 years earlier, with the exact same result.  It’s nice to see something reproducible.

Autism as Developmental Injury

Left untreated, people with phenylketonuria (PKU) can develop intellectual disabilities, seizures, and “other medical problems”.  But PKU does not cause any of those.  Phenylketonuria + a normal diet causes a build of of phenylalinine in the body, which causes those problems.  If PKU is caught at birth and the sufferer is kept on a phenylanlinine-light diet, they will never develop these problems.

Henry Markram suggests that something analogous is going on with autism.  He and his collaborators think that the actual problem is that autistic babies have extraordinary sensory sensitivity, and this sensitivity causes defenses that cause them to miss certain critical information during developmental periods.  What is challenging but achievable (the zone necessary for learning) for other people is overwhelming for them, so they don’t learn.  The developmental window closes and they’ve lost their chance to truly master that skill.  But if they were given stimulus in their zone of achievable challenge, they would learn those skills and maintain them for life.  They might continue to need accommodations, the way phenylketonurics need to stay on a phenylalinine-light diet their whole life, but with those accommodations they could function “normally”.  This is known as the intense world hypothesis.

The example they give is the critical period for learning language.  You *can* learn a new language after the critical period, but it will never be as easy, most people will never attain genuine fluency, and if you never learn any language it may be truly impossible to pick one up later.  If normal human speech is overwhelming to an autistic infant they will miss that period and their language will be impaired for life.  But if they’re given regular access to speech they are comfortable with (probably quieter and slower) they could learn it just fine, the same way hearing impaired children do fine with sign language.

I was also really impressed with the writing of this lay-press article.  I’ve been avoiding doing take downs, especially of popsci articles, because there are millions of wrong things every day and criticizing them is easy.  For a while I could justify them as case studies in critical reading, but now it just feels bad.  This had led to a lot of aborted blog entries, as I read something amazing and then realize it’s too flawed to pass on uncritically.   I don’t agree with everything the article says (insisting there’s only one cause of autism strikes me less as brave and more as idiotic), but it lays out its case in an informative and responsible manner.

Review: Surprisingly Vegan Waffle Mix

Before I was tested for food sensitivity my diet was incredibly reliant on eggs, dairy, and wheat, so you can imagine my dismay when I tested sensitive to all three things and was told to give them up.*  When I did so, I decided to shift to eating foods that naturally didn’t contain any of those things, rather than search out substitutes for my old staples.  My theory was that vegetables can be really awesome at tasting like vegetables, and meat can be… well at the time eating any meat was a huge struggle, but it was one I eventually expected to pay commensurate dividends.  But the vegan milks just remind me of how much better actual milk is, and the thing that makes gluten-containing food delicious is gluten.  Plus the imitation food tends to be incredibly processed in order to more closely approximate their originals.  If I was going to put a ton of work into learning to cook and enjoy different foods, I might as well pick the healthier of the two.

But everyone needs easy carbs some times, and more than one thai restaurant in my neighborhood now recognizes me on sight, so I needed some new options.  John served this vegan, gluten free waffle mix (referral link: Charity Science) at an EA event and I have to say: it’s pretty good.  Not good enough you’d choose it over regular waffles for taste alone, but pretty good.  The ingredient list is short and full of actual foods.

I seriously doubt this will apply to anyone else, but it’s interesting in light of my recent deep dive into appetite hormones.  When I eat waffles + syrup and nothing else, there is an obvious disconnect between different parts of my brain as to how full I am.  Each bite of waffle is ridiculously rewarding (indicating high ghrelin?), and yet I never seem to feel satiated, even as my stomach reports it is uncomfortably full.  I solved this problem by putting chia seeds in my syrup and interspersing waffles with swigs of protein powder (also mixed with chia seeds).  This seemed to get me the good parts of waffles while ensuring I also eventually stopped eating them.

One warning: they are not kidding about the cooking time for this mix.  It takes much, much longer than you are used to.  It is theoretically possible to turn this into pancake mix by watering it down, but I could never manage to give them enough time to fully cook.  Putting them in the waffle iron and walking away was easier.  The good news is they’re not as temperamental as regular waffles either, a few extra minutes doesn’t ruin them.  But do give them that extra time, or you will be eating batter.

*Many professionals believe that the test is purely a measure of what you’ve eaten, and that the immune reaction does not present a problem.  My personal experience is that I do much better when I avoid these foods.

r/fatlogic endorses creationism

Normally when I’m investigating something I like to read well regarded books on both sides, in the hopes that the ignorance will cancel out.  Finding a suitable counterpoint to Health At Every Size is hard, because its opposition is “everyone in the world”, and there has been no selective pressure to elevate the actual science away from the shame and aesthetic preferences.

For example, I spent a little bit of time on r/fatlogic which, as decisions go, was not my best ever.   r/fatlogic frames itself as a criticism of horrible “fat logic”- things like “700 pounds is no less healthy than 200 pounds.  Possibly healthier.”  This is not a great start.  I have a deep personal understanding of how frustrating it is when people are wrong, but I have found I am happier and a better person when I say “yup, wrong”, and then move on with my day.  For the truly awful I might e-mail a friend making fun of it (thanks, Rachel!).  Forming a whole club around criticizing people, especially people that are already having a pretty tough time in life, is bad for everyone.

r/fatlogic is even worse than that, because it has an extraordinary case of the cowpox of doubt.  Wrong people keep insisting body fat is independent of calories consumed and exercise?  Well then body fat must be solely dependent on calories consumed and exercise, and anyone who suggests it is affected by anything else is a fatty fat fathead making excuses for their fat.  They are literally denying  the possibility of individual variability in the translation of external environment into physical state.  For bonus points, they invoke “but thermodynamics”, which is the same argument creationists use against evolution itself.

Here I tried several ways to explain exactly how wrong they were and how that was terrible, but then I decided to take my own advice and stop before I endorsed the hollow Earth theory.  My current contender for an opposition book is Good Calories, Bad Calories, but I’m open to suggestions.

Health At Every Size Roundup

I read Health At Every Size and wrote a number of blog posts on it.  Some are follow ups on science it mentions but didn’t not examine in depth, some are spot checks of its scientific claims.  Neither set is comprehensive, but hopefully they are helpful.

HAES pre-check: What I thought about fat, food, and health before reading HAES.

Now I’m learning about hypothalamusing: The hypothalamus is the main coordinator of food consumption and use, and we have no idea how it works.

Ghrelin: The Hunger and Lung Development Games: the discovery that the hunger hormone also plays a crucial role in fetal lung development inspires a pun I will find increasingly difficult to maintain as the series progresses.

Leptin: Catching Chemicals: This one was a stretch.

Insulin and Glucagon: Mockingsugar: you try and come up with a food/health/fat based pun on the word Mockingjay.

Bariatric Surgery: HAES says it’s universally bad, my reading of the literature is that it’s awful, but sometimes the better choice.

Fiber: The Mr Rogers of Nutrition: Everyone likes fiber.

Obesity, Blood Pressure, and Study Design: partially an examination of the link between obesity and blood pressure, but mostly an explanation of why the studies we’ve done so far are so unhelpful.

Controls and Confounds: Why designing a study to determine causality is so hard.

HAES post-check: What I thought about fat, food, and health after reading HAES.

An Apple a Day Does Surprisingly Little?

How did apples get to be the standard bearer for all that is good and healthy? In terms of nutrient per calorie, they’re not that good. 1 cup has 65 calories, 3 grams of fiber (12% RDA), and 5.7 mg vitamin C (10% RDA), and very small amounts of a wide range of other nutrients. Pears are just slightly better: 1 cup has 81 calories, 4g fiber, 5.7 mg vitamin C, and enough potassium to be noticeable.  Meanwhile the same volume of grapes, so long derided as nature’s candy, have 104 calories, 1.4g fiber, 16.3 mg vitamin C, 22 mcg potassium.  Almost everything apples or pears have trace amounts of, grapes have slightly more of.

Wasting their lives
Wasting their lives?

I wonder how much of this is because of the skin:pulp ratio.  Produce skin tends to have a lot the bulk of the vitamins*.  Plus grapes are more colorful, and color intensity is a shockingly good proxy for nutritional value in produce.

I also wonder how apples got such a sterling reputation without the benefit of a good marketing firm.   My best guess is that they grow further north than most fruit and keep for much longer, and established cultural supremacy back when produce was scarce and fruit did not regularly fly.

Full disclosure: I was originally going to compare apples to iceberg lettuce, which I had previously seen described as nutritionally vacuous but easy to ship.  But when I looked it up I discovered iceberg lettuce actually has a pretty good nutritional profile.  1 cup has 10 calories, 1 g fiber, 2.0 mg vitamin C, and 22.0 mcg potassium (22% RDA), and trace amounts of other stuff, which makes it strictly better than apples on a per calorie basis.

While we are at it: spinach does not have that much iron.  It has a number of other vitamins and is very good for you, but the original reputation for iron-richness came from some guy putting the decimal point in the wrong place (source: some guy at a party 6 years ago).  In fact the oxalates in spinach bind iron, making it harder to absorb.

Apples aren’t bad for you.  If you want an apple, eat an apple.  But if don’t want an apple and are trying to cajole yourself into it to make doctors keep their distance, consider grapes instead.

*Also the pesticides.

HAES post-check

A chief contention of Health At Every Size (Linda Bacon) is that human beings can’t lose weight, so even if it would optimal for them to weigh less, there’s nothing to be done about it.  Is this true?  It’s hard to answer, because the question isn’t very well defined.  Bacon admits there are things human beings can do to gain weight, and when they stop doing them, they sometimes lose weight.  So if you’re doing those things, you probably can lose weight.  And that people have a set range they can move around in healthily, based on diet and exercise, so if you’re at the top of your range now you could lose 20 pounds and still be okay.

On page 143, Bacon very strongly implies that twins maintain the same body weight even when they have very different activity levels, so weight is controlled by genetics.  The studies she cites do show that when activity and diet is held constant, two unrelated people will have different health metrics.  They also show that when two identical twins have different activity levels or diets, they will have different health metrics (including weight).  Oh, and the combined sample size of both studies together is 35 sets of twins.  This is where I started to get angry.  I get using weak studies that strongly support your hypothesis.  I get misleading people about what a study stays to support your hypothesis.  But doing both is just…argh.  I supported HAES.  The actual prescriptions for food are basically the Michael Pollan diet (eat food, mostly plants), and motivation to retrain yourself to like real food rather than hyperprocessed crap.  Those goals are good.  Those goals are good even if they lead to weight gain, because under most circumstances produce is good for you and cheetos are not (although not all- this Captain Awkward post is full of people for whom carrots trigger intense digestive distress but hamburgers are safe and nurturing.  I used to live off of pasta because anything else felt like eating death.)

I did check Bacon’s sources on the claim that people who lose dramatic amounts of weight tend to gain it back within 5 years.  That appears to be true, at least in the studies she cited.  And yet, she also cited studies showing that activity level affects weight.  My explanation is that losing weight is not a thing you do.  Your diet and activity level translate to a weight or body fat percentage*.  If your current weight is different than that, it will move towards it.  If you change your behavior, you will move towards the new translated weight.  The translation appears to be a combination of genetics and perhaps past experience (she claims loss-and-regain cycles increase the set point.  I’ve read that a lot of places, but at this point I neither trust her nor have the heart to investigate).

So how do my current views compare to those I held before reading HAES?

Exercise- still good for you.

Human diversity- still vast.

Impervious of weight to diet and exercise- depends a lot on what you mean.  I will never look like Keira Knightley, but I will probably lose fat if I exercise more.  Which I have just started to do after ceasing for a very long time because I was recovering from surgery, and will pause again when I have my next surgery, because the health harms outweighed the benefits.  Fat is a proxy for health, but not the only measure of it.

Large amounts of fat are quite bad for you, but it’s unclear where that effect kicks in.  The American aesthetic ideal is much lower that the healthy weight cut off, and may be actively unhealthy. In the normal range, diet and exercise have bigger health impacts than fat.

Our food supply is definitely fucked.

Fat people still don’t deserve to be shamed, especially under the guise of for their health.  First because no one deserves to be shamed, but especially because shame is super bad for your health.  It is intrinsically bad and it keeps people from seeking medical care, for both things related and unrelated to their fat.  Stop doing it.  People owe you neither their health nor their attractiveness.

*Weirdly, in my case it appears to be weight.  I’ve had a shockingly consistent weight despite large changes in activity level and muscle mass.

The Limits of Metrics

For a long time now I’ve been trying to describe a hesitation I’ve had around EA.  Outcome metrics are great.  Outcome metrics are a huge improvement over “but look how much money we spent.” and “have you seen how sad this child is?“.  And yet.  My original stated concern was that over-reliance on metrics would drive us to focus on easy-to-measure outcomes over equally more* important hard-to-measure outcomes, or on known outcomes over more important unknown outcomes.*

Now I have a better analogy.  Metrics are like nutritional labeling.  Nutritional labeling is great when you want to decide between cheetos and soylent, or between soylent, mealsquares, and any one of their homebrew competitors.**  But suppose I set a fiber quota for myself.  The ideal way to do that would be to eat a variety of fruit, vegetables, beans, and nuts throughout the day, but that is super hard to keep track of.   I either have to eat in exact serving sizes (forcing the continuous variable of hunger to the granular treatment of serving size) or calculate exactly how much I ate after the fact (a pain in the ass and/or impossible), and then look up how much fiber is in the food (ignoring any natural variation), write it down, total it up… and if it’s midnight and I’m short, eat a ton more food I may not want.  Or I can pour a bunch of psyllium husks in a glass in the morning, check “eat fiber” off my todo list, and eat HoHos for the rest of the day.

Obviously the first choice is better overall, even if I ultimately end up with less fiber. But it is much harder to measure, in part because the benefits accrue over a wide variety of nutrients, whereas the psyllium and HoHos diet produces one big shiny number to trumpet in brochures.  I think this is a problem in charity too.  The Ugandan girls-club study I looked at last week had some outcomes that were both easy to measure and to value (spending), easy to measure but hard to estimate the value of (delayed marriage and childbirth), and kind of fuzzy to measure and of unclear value (age at which they do marry, as measured by proxy “when would you like to get married”).  Luckily for that project the increase in girls’ income per unit NGO spending was almost as high as it was for pure vocational training, plus it had these social benefits, but suppose it had been 75% as good?  Half as good?  10% as good?  What is the cut off for being better than pure vocational training.

I’m solving this problem in my nutritional life by drinking a full serving of vitaminized protein powder*** mixed with chia seeds every day, plus whatever the hell I feel like eating.   The almost-food frees up my stomach and brain to figure out what I especially need and seek that out, without fear I’m letting some other deficiency fester.  This is startlingly similar to Holden Karnofsky’s (co-founder of GiveWell) suggestion that westerners focus on the problems of the 3rd world they are in a good position to fix (e.g. malaria), and let the locals do the rest.   So I guess Effective Altruism has addressed this problem, it’s just that it addressed it by limiting itself, which is not the most emotionally satisfying answer but is something the world could do with more of.

BONUS FACT: EA and soylent have both found their home primarily with the rationalist community, and my rationalist friends (all of whom I met through EA) are simultaneously the most likely of anyone I know to drink soylent and to host communal dinners with secular grace.

*E.g. Food aid to the third world looks great measured by “people who stop starving in the short term.”  We know now that this destroyed the local farming economy and left entire regions either starving or in ongoing dependence on 1st world aid.

**Of these, mealsquares have been the clear winner among my friends.

***Not quite the same as soylent because it lacks the fat, carbs, and fiber to be a meal replacement.  This presents two slightly different problems.  The lack of fat and sugar I feel fully prepared to make up for in the rest of my diet.  But nutrients are digested differently depending on what other nutrients they are in proximity to.  The chia seeds are attempt to get the benefits of protein x fiber.