the self as the next great frontier
October 31, 2018 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Viome and an ever-increasing number of new health companies are encouraging people to think and talk about nutrition: as a problem of personal technology, where losing weight isn’t an experience of self-deprivation, but one of optimization, not unlike increasing a year-old iPhone’s battery life or building a car that runs without gas.

CW for mentions of eating disorders and silicon valley thinking
posted by devrim (16 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The problem with this is that it’s solving a problem only for people who already have the money to solve the problem. Like: I already know how I can eat healthy and lose weight. Hire a personal chef/nutritionist and tell them to fill my day with cooked meals containing lean proteins I like, like shrimp, and lots of fresh, interesting vegetables. Except - I don’t have the time or money for that, so I’m going to eat the sausage McMuffin that I can purchase for 1$ and 2 minutes of my time, rather than starting my day with freshly cut fruit and a shrimp ceviche.

Similarly, anyone who has thousands of dollars to send away for a fecal profile and nutritional suggestions is already able to make those changes and doesn’t have as many of the issues that combine to make you heavier.
posted by corb at 8:05 AM on October 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

I was about to say that worrying about the right gear is not really the issue here, but then remembered TFA:

In a 2015 study, the University of Manitoba researcher Luke Zhu found that gendered food stereotyping was so profound that in order to make healthy foods seem masculine, marketers had to go so far as to invoke hypermasculine ideas like performance enhancement, which is exactly what diet-tech companies do.
posted by skewed at 8:24 AM on October 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

[A bunch of comments deleted. Let's rewind this and talk about the article rather than needless fight-starty comments about how $x is "cheap" or isn't.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:34 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the CW. I get hives when I read a phrase like "nutrition-adjacent"...
posted by PhineasGage at 9:03 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

If these types of companies and tests are actually useful, then that's great. The confusion about diet and food as energy, not solely as pleasure is so rampant and uncontrollable and you can see it in this thread. The current trend is 'high protein, low carb' and the costs on a per meal basis are made to seem incredibly high.

I also respect and can agree with the idea that changing the terminology from 'dieting', where the ultimately goal being to lose weight, is great. 'Losing weight' implies there are optimal and sub optimal weights.

Unfortunately it's probably mostly snake oil.

Even the comment at the end "Science has already made relatively clear that healthy diets involve eating a diverse, primarily plant-based diet of fresh foods over the course of one’s life. " is useless even if it is mostly correct. What is 'fresh' is just one example. Is rice fresh? Processed meat that has been frozen? Honest to god there aren't that many plants when you are talking about a lifetime of 3X a day meals. A primarily plant based diet is not going to be that 'diverse'. I know these are language concerns, but it matters.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:19 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Honest to god there aren't that many plants when you are talking about a lifetime of 3X a day meals.


First, there's a TON of plants you can eat, and a ton of different ways to prepare them. Roasted or fried parsnips are a completely different beast compared to boiled. Fresh blueberries are totally different to baked in a pie.

Second, how many different kinds of meat are there? Like maybe ten you can get regularly? Cow, Pig, Chicken, Shellfish*, and Fish* are likely make up 90% of your diet.

yes I know these are classes of food, not individual animals
posted by leotrotsky at 10:12 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

The article is really good, and critically on-point. It's worth engaging with. Some quotations:

In order for [Silicon Valley's] vision of your body to take hold, it needs you to speak its language [...] —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.

For new companies, laundering what are often fairly conventional diet practices through the language of technology provides the imprimatur of newness in the eyes of seasoned dieters, as well as a Trojan horse to reach consumers who, for whatever reason, were never interested in dieting qua dieting.
Many people who fall into the latter group are men. 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.

If people internalize the idea that changing your body should be as simple and necessary as cleaning up old files on your laptop, then the stakes for those who don’t or can’t do it could easily become even more severe.

What’s unclear is what would become of people who lack the desire to self-optimize according to Silicon Valley standards. In the tech vocabulary of dieting, there’s little space for deviation based on pleasure or personal preference, let alone on differing ideas of what actually constitutes a flaw in need of fixing.

and finally, emphasis added for eponysterical:
“I’m focused on longevity and cognitive performance,” Geoff Woo, the CEO of the biohacking start-up HVMN, told The Guardian last year.
posted by smokysunday at 10:45 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

[Couple deleted; "who wants to live anyway" is a crummy direction to take the conversation, let's not.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:51 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks for highlighting this article.

I'm a PhD biochemist, and for the last decade have worked in the biomedical industry at the intersection of scientific innovation and computational innovation. I'm also a fat lady, who was fat as a kid and got really fat during my early adult life, despite doing my absolute damnedest to comply with the best, evidence-based recommendations available at the time (80s, 90s, 00s).

You could say I have both an academic/professional and personal interest in these topics. I keep an eye on the current controversies about nutrition and health, and fold it into what I see in the biomedical realm in general. I apply it personally and I have, in fact, paid to get my gut microbiome assessed and receive nutritional suggestions therefrom.

My take:

The science of the last century did a really, really good job about laying down the basic framework of human nutrition, and the biochemistry that relates to it (both in humans and in the organisms we eat). Advances in understanding and technology, including computing power, mean that the science of this century is focusing on the variations that play out on those basic themes.

In general, people are comfortable with the idea that there are variations in human metabolism. There are clearcut phenomena like lactose tolerance/intolerance, phenylketonuria, celiac disease and the like.

What is new is that, increasingly, there is evidence that there is very wide variability in human response in fundamental processes of metabolism. For instance, blood sugar response after eating varies widely by individual; see this TED talk by an author of a groundbreaking 2015 paper, or this study that undermines the concept of glycemic index. There is absolutely no reason that metabolic processes among humans would not show a range of functional variation subject to genetic, epigenetic, and microbiome influences as any other phenotype would.

I think it's inevitable that the era of "one size fits all" nutritional advice is going to end, and that the companies profiled in that article are working to try to figure that out (and, of course, make a buck in the process.)

Personally, I don't find it as ominous as the author of the article does because I found that adopting nutritional practices rather at odds to the standard advice has had a significant impact on my health. Thanks to a FPP in Metafilter a few years ago, I watched a short video that set me on a path to eating keto (via reading Gary Taubes and on from there.) Omitting carbs and eating lots of fat has been revolutionary to my own health (down ~100 lbs from my highest weight ever), and incidentally was incredibly impactful to my now-ex husband (lost 120 lbs in a year). After a few years of watching their father and me respond to eating ultra low carb, both my teenagers tried it too and went from being pudgy to lean over the course of a summer. Anecdata, sure, but in terms of practical effect it seems pretty clear that my kids got the carbs --> fat propensity from both parents. As a parent I'm glad I could help them figure this out early because I wish to hell I'd been able to learn this when I was a young person.

After I'd been eating keto for a few years and had lost all this weight, I did take the microbiome test I linked above. The results came back basically saying: don't eat anything with a lot of starch or sugar. It's hard to know whether it's cause or effect. Would the results be different if I had been eating according to the standard advice? I don't know--and I have no intention of finding out.

I think it will be great when there are clinically validated diagnostics that can help people avoid the trial and error that has been the only option so far.
posted by Sublimity at 11:01 AM on October 31, 2018 [24 favorites]

Roasted or fried parsnips are a completely different beast compared to boiled. Fresh blueberries are totally different to baked in a pie.

Yes, but if you are comparing them to some generalized version of 'health' then many if not most of the ways to prepare them either negate or seriously minimize their health effects, such as popping blueberries into a pie.

And there aren't many types of meat either, but saucing and preparation methods make the flavor combinations essentially limitless, which is not currently true for vegetables and fruit, at least again without seriously negating their health effects in the scope of "eat mostly freshly prepared vegetables ". Is a pie still fresh?
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:02 AM on October 31, 2018

It's fine to trash SI valley, capitalism, and the status displays that come with any "product." But science nutrition is by no means complete - I used to buy the "generally eat plants" but what works for a given individual is wildly varied. The next step is to map genes and the gut biome to what will work for an individual diet wise. And with obesity, it's not as simple as calories in versus calories out - our bodies direct how calories get used. Some people's bodies will always put calories into fat storage at the expense of things like running the rest of the body properly, some people's bodies will ignore fat storage and always be skinny, and the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And for most of us, diet does, to varying degrees, alter how hungry we are, and how our bodies use calories.

And on preview, yeah, what sublimity said.
posted by MillMan at 11:04 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

The_Vegetables: And there aren't many types of meat either, but saucing and preparation methods make the flavor combinations essentially limitless, which is not currently true for vegetables and fruit, at least again without seriously negating their health effects in the scope of "eat mostly freshly prepared vegetables ".

This is so seriously confusing to me that I think I must be misunderstanding something fundamental in what you're saying. Are there vegetables that can't be sauced or seasoned? (I ask this as someone who puts Montreal steak seasoning on vegetables multiple times per week. I even had chimichurri on a cauliflower steak a few days ago and both parts made it into my mouth in the same bite!)

"Freshly prepared" can mean "cut up and sautéed", "boiled", "steamed", "stir-fried", etc. just as much as "raw". The options are not "freshly eaten without even being picked off of the vine" or "processed into goop".

Unless this is another rehash of the "vegetarian food is always bland, boring, and identical and so I'm going to go eat my 12th burger this week" statement, which is tiresome and wrong so I'm hoping it's something else
posted by fader at 12:21 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I tripped over a one inch curb last New Years eve, at six in the evening. I have no idea how I could have been so out of it, but I was sober, (I don't drink more than a half dozen drinks a year.) Trying to not fall I did more damage than you can believe, and it took me 4 months to walk nearly normally and 6 to sit comfortably. I looked at my weight in simplistic terms, I worked in dietetics for 17 years. I needed to lose 2/5 ths of my total weight. I was standing in my place about that time wondering if I had enough food to last out the month. I cut my intake in half, and had food left over, and started to lose weight. I started walking and upped my mileage to two miles with calesthenics designed for structural strengthening, and parts from martial arts, and some Kundalini yoga. This week I had car trouble, so instead of driving to the park, I walk to the park and back, which is 4 miles, and though longish and tiresome if I don't have a couple of hundred calories to go on, and I prefer to burn adipose to exercise. So I fast until after, with the exception of soy milk in my coffee.

I carried a 5 gallon water carboy through my house yesterday and heavy as it was, debilitatingly so, it weighed less than the 50 pounds I have burned off since March

I am 68 years old, past 65, humans start to muscle waste. So I have to take in a good amount of protein and a good amount of fiber. I like the idea my fitness life plan costs half of previous food bill, and my exercise plan is now completely free, with the exception of rent and food..

These are my food friends, organic Marinara, tomatoes, organic celery, onions, garlic, extra virgin organic olive oil, organic grapefruits from my daughter's tree, blueberries, organic eggs, costco chickens, Trader Joes wild sockeye salmon, La Sirena Pica Pica Sardines in the twelve ounce oval can, gallon jars of Mount Olive Kosher Dills, soy milk for coffee, spring water, yellow squash, cucumbers, fresh basil, corn meal, whole grain oats, white whole wheat flour, the yeast to make bread, if I run out of Milton's multi grain bread, mayonnaise, limes, vinegar for dressing, leeks sometimes, and Trader Joes small bag of organic russet potatoes, choosing bags with smaller potatoes. A toaster oven is helpful, home made fruit spreads are nice, feta cheese. I have built a new cuisine for myself, and I eat predominantly in the middle of the day, very lightly in the evening if at all. Popcorn cooked with garlic and olive oil is a fave treat. I never feel deprived. I shop the farmers markets for fresh seasonal fruits and vegggies.

My balance has improved drastically and my gait, why I have a gait now, as opposed to a stagger. This is all free, and my life costs are reduced. The changes are for good, and I still have at least 50 more pounds to lose.

You don't really have to spend a lot of money to get in touch with yourself, when Earth hits you up side the head, it can be life changing.
posted by Oyéah at 12:33 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

My biggest problem here is that I have absolutely zero faith that Silicon Valley is going to ever do anything for my benefit. Their whole strategy seems to be to try and reduce the human experience to a set of easily-quantified metrics and then game those metrics to make me behave in whatever way makes them the most money.

Fuck. That.

I just don't want my diet controlled by a bunch of techlord assholes, period. They can all fuck off right into the sea.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:02 PM on October 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm a developer. I follow a lot of dev people on Twitter. I have had to unfollow several guys now whose work I really respect because their Twitter turned into half tech and half flagrant orthorexia. I think meal replacements like Soylent have a place, but if you start using a meal replacement product to make your life simpler and then you talk about it 24/7, something's wrong. My lead at work went through this period where he went keto and then proceeded to explain to me every single day everything he ate. I didn't ask! I didn't want to know! I don't need to know a total stranger's fasting schedule. So if Viome really helps, even though it's super expensive right now, I'd expect the price to drop, and that might be fine... but even if it "works", is it helping, or is it just providing the illusion of control over your body in a world where you can control nothing else? Because that is basically the classic eating disorder. I am in control of my life, and you can tell because I am in control of my bodily metrics!

I do think there will turn out to be genuinely useful new things on this front, but it's definitely hard to tease out which bits are going to improve lives at this stage. There will be some people who can figure out how to use even the dumb stuff to make their lives better, and I'm genuinely in favor of that. But I'm pretty sure the net result is mainly that I'm going to add things like "gut flora" to the list of things that men in my profession get super TMI about.
posted by Sequence at 1:15 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have questions about the underlying science of a "good" microbiome here. Your gut flora adjusts after a couple weeks of whatever new dietary regimen you try. It's not like this is a stable community that's unique to you. Overall in microbial ecology, there's an important theory that a very wide variety of bacteria are everywhere, and the environment selects which ones are prevalent. Your gut microbiome isn't a fingerprint, it's more like a snapshot.

As an example, I sequenced my fecal bacteria four-ish years ago as part of a class on analyzing that sort of sequencing data, and we pooled the class data and made an ordination. The most important differences in our poop bacterial communities were how much alcohol we drank and how much meat we ate. A heavier guy and his skinny labmate had the most similar communities, probably because they ate a similar diet (skinny guy ate part of his labmate's lunches pretty much daily, for starters). There are almost certainly important differences in how individuals extract energy from food, but I doubt science understands that usefully well yet, and I'm not sure sequencing your poop is ever going to be the right metric.
posted by momus_window at 9:23 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

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