Biohacking: Nutrition as Technology

Many of the ideas on diet and health that I have written about here on this blog have attracted the attention of Silicon Valley companies. (That is cousin causality, not any causal influence flowing from my blog!) I wanted to give my reactions to various things Amanda Mull reports are on the market in her October 30, 2018 Atlantic article “The Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Language of Dieting.”

Let me begin by saying that I find it a very congenial perspective to think of what I eat as a practical question without any big moral dimension beyond the idea that extending one’s life and improving one’s health might have some positive spillovers on other people. (By contrast, getting accurate information and useful perspectives to people about how they might extend their own lives and improve their health has a strong moral dimension. And intentionally obfuscating evidence about diet and health—say, in order to uphold sales of a product—is reprehensible to the highest degree.) So I find this that Amanda describes a positive development:

Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves. Where bodies might have previously been idealized as personal temples, they’re now just another device to be managed, and one whose use people are expected to master. We’re optimizing our performances instead of watching our figure, biohacking our personal ecosystem instead of eating salads.

Amanda makes the point that this way of looking at things is especially important to men, but it seems to me likely to be helpful to women as well. If not, I would like someone to help me understand why not. The way dieting has been sold to women sounds pretty alienating to me, even if it has been successful in manipulating many women. As Amanda writes:

The diet industry’s modern history in America is feminized, which until recently left men as a relatively untapped potential market. “Gender contamination,” as the Harvard researcher Jill Avery coined it, is when a product or idea becomes so female-coded that men are no longer willing to engage with it. The classic example of this phenomenon is diet soda, and it’s no coincidence that gender contamination shows up most recognizably in the things people eat: The diet industry has always found its easiest prey among women, who are culturally primed to hone their appearance toward impossible ideals to demonstrate their social worth.

Note that the diet soda men shun probably hasn’t done much good for women either. There is little evidence that people’s weight goes down when they drink diet sodas. For some of why this might be, see “Which Nonsugar Sweeteners are OK? An Insulin-Index Perspective.”

Having discussed the new rhetorical angle for nutrition as technology, let’s talk about some specific things out there. Let me chop up one of Amanda’s paragraphs into bullet points and comment:

I attend social science genetics conferences where the latest developments in human genetics in general are also talked about. There are some long-known disorders that depend only on a few genes, but aside from those, I don’t believe anyone who claims there is currently a measure based on tiny effects from many, many genes for people that could generate replicable results for diet and health. Basically, to get a reliable measure that would generate replicable results for a highly polygenic measure (based on many genes, each with a tiny effect), one would need very large samples of people with very good data on their diets. The best existing data sets are still not good enough. On the other hand, if you want the illusion of a result, a small sample is good for p-hacking. And with p-hacking, you could glom onto false positives of supposedly big effects of a few genes. My guess is that the services being sold are based on p-hacked science. But I would be glad to be told convincingly otherwise.

In a phrase that predates any tradename, “bulletproof coffee” is coffee with butter melted in it. For coffee drinkers, bulletproof coffee is a great way to deal with a desire for something foodlike while still keeping one’s insulin levels low. (See “Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon” and “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.”) But you don’t have to pay someone extra to put the coffee and the butter together for you! And indeed, if you do it yourself, you can make it a bit healthier by using goat butter rather than cow butter. (See “Exorcising the Devil in the Milk.”)

“Studying your biomarkers” means looking at a saliva sample and three blood samples taken after drinking a nutrition shake. I don’t know exactly what Habit does, but in principle, it could be very much like what some doctors do. It is a matter of what level of quality they are actually delivering, which I don’t know.

This is an attempt to mimic what happens during an extended fast. It may have some fraction of the benefits of actually fasting, but I doubt it has all of the benefits.

This one I have to laugh at. Fasting doesn’t need any particular pattern. The environment of evolutionary adaptation for humans likely had a lot of random involuntary fasting. So we are likely to be designed for patternless fasting. The main thing is to (a) do enough total fasting and (b) fast for some reasonably long chunks of time, and (c) work up slowly to anything more than 24 hours so that you know your tolerance for fasting. That’s it. No particular pattern needed. Do a water-only fast (or allow unsweetened coffee and tea) when it is most convenient, which might be either when you are especially busy or when you have many distractions to keep your mind off of food (which could happen at the same time).

Let me do one more from Amanda’s first paragraph:

  • Late last year, the health-care start-up Viome raised $15 million in venture-capital funding for at-home fecal test kits. You send in a very small package of your own poop, and the company tells you what’s happening in your gut so that you can recalibrate your diet to, among other things, lose weight and keep it off. In the company’s words, subscribers get the opportunity to explore and improve their own microbiome: Viome “uses state-of-the-art proprietary technology” to create “unique molecular profiles” for those who purchase and submit a kit.

A lot of science is documenting that the gut microbiome is very important for health. And what you eat can have a big effect on your gut microbiome. So it would be good if we all knew more about our gut microbiomes. There is a cost here in money, trouble and disgust, but I think those willing to pay that cost will gain some benefit. (I am not yet ready to go for it, personally.)

Amanda uses the word “biohacking” several times. I consider the approach I take in my diet and health posts to be a “biohacking” approach. (Note: biohacking good; p-hacking bad.) I hope you find the biohacking approach in this blog helpful. One thing you should be reassured by is that I am currently making no effort to monetize any of what I am saying about diet and health. And what fantasies I have about monetization are about books and advice-giving rather than about selling products. (When I think about inventing new products, it is so I can eat them! I would love to see a commercial ice cream invented and marketed that was designed to have as low an insulin index as possible for a reasonable level of deliciousness. Halo Top is not terrible, but it is too focused on getting the calorie count down. With healthy dietary fats bringing the insulin index down, the healthiest ice cream would be a very rich, high-fat ice cream.)

Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography.