Diet Research: Far More of it Than is Necessary

We live in a world of oral fixation, or whatever equivalent post-Freudian term you'd like to use. It's not too hard to drawn the lines that lead unbroken from the magic of early human societies, insofar as it touched on beliefs regarding the consumption of various things, and the magical thinking of modern societies illustrated by the popularity of useless potions and pills. On the one hand tricksters cloaked as shamans, and on the other hand tricksters cloaked as marketing professionals pretending to use the methods of science. For every hot field of medical science, there are frauds out there somewhere selling edible goods to the credulous, trying to claim some of the mantle.of legitimacy enjoyed by the scientific community while practicing what is in effect an anti-science of belief and deception.

But back inside the real scientific community, we see the oral fixation at work in the amount and range of work on ingested substances. On diet, on tiny portions of diet, on the ingestion of specific substances beyond count, looking for results of significance. Funding for this sort of thing is evergreen, and I think that much of it is a grand waste. The path to longevity is not a freeway passing through the human stomach, but from the weight of research devoted to what we eat you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Would that these researchers were spending their time on something more useful, but the fixation of broader society on the mouth and what we put into it steers the strategic direction of research and research funding.

Here are a couple of examples:

Mediterranean diet gives longer life

Scientists at the Sahlgrenska Academy have now studied the effects of a Mediterranean diet on older people in Sweden. They have used a unique study known as the "H70 study" to compare 70-year-olds who eat a Mediterranean diet with others who have eaten more meat and animal products. The H70 study has studied thousands of 70-year-olds in the Gothenburg region for more than 40 years. ... The results show that those who eat a Mediterranean diet have a 20% higher chance of living longer. "This means in practice that older people who eat a Mediterranean diet live an estimated 2 3 years longer than those who don't", says Gianluca Tognon, scientist at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg.

Are there differences in mortality among wine consumers and other alcoholic beverages?

Wine consumers, especially in comparison with spirits drinkers, have been shown to have higher levels of education and income, to consume a healthier diet, be more physically active, and have other characteristics that are associated with better health outcomes. However, epidemiologic studies have been inconsistent in showing that, after adjustment for all associated lifestyle factors, consumers of wine have lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality than do consumers of other beverages. A study based on the long-term follow up of a group of older Americans concluded that the associated lifestyle habits and environmental factors of wine consumers largely explained their better health outcomes.

We live in a world in which ingestion of alcohol has a greater and more active research community associated with it than is the case for serious efforts to develop the means to reverse aging. There will be more and greater publicity and funding generated by debates over tiny changes in life span and risk of disease through alcohol in the diet than there will be for the most important advance in longevity research this year, or any of the other high points in longevity science from the past twelve months. Sad but true. Real longevity science and biotechnology doesn't have much to do with sticking things into your mouth - it's largely low-level manipulation of cells and biomolecules - and in this world of oral fixation that's something of a disadvantage when it comes to publicity and support.


A good point which I agree with: that there is *much* money and time spent researching foods, or specific compounds in foods, to determine their effect on health. Unfortunately, I agree with the author of the above post in that usually these (consumed) foods or compounds don't do all that much for healthspan - certainly not enough to justify the (tens or hundreds?) of millions of dollars spent each year to test them. There are certainly better ways to spend one's time, if one wanted to advance the extension of healthy human life, than studying those things *already well-studied*, and are administered via oral consumption.

Maybe a very important compound or drug will be discovered that *will* have significant rejuvenation benefits that *will* be taken orally. But it's not ethanol (alcohol), and probably not green tea extract, or many of the other compounds being tested by dozens of labs around the world. There's lots of evidence on these compounds, which makes clear that these are not breakthrough compounds. So I, too, strongly urge such groups to considering studying or developing something novel, which may have much greater healthspan benefit (i.e. to discover just *what* that *currently unknown* benefit might be!)

Posted by: Maximus Peto at December 23rd, 2011 7:04 PM

Any discussion citing a "Mediterranean diet" needs a higher level of specificity. A similar problem obtains with "low fat" discussions.

Posted by: GERHARDT STEINKE at December 25th, 2011 6:40 PM

When you consider that practically every molecule in your body, since birth, got there via what you put in your mouth, then you realize that you quite literally are what you eat. The effort to understand how this happens is a major part of the study of the human body. Thus, insofar as developing anti-aging or "rejuvenation" biotechnology is related to understanding the human body, the study of nutrition is important.

Posted by: Brent at December 27th, 2011 7:47 PM
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