David Katz — How to Eat
David Katz Transcript
Great to be with all of you. I’m going to ask you to remember this three-word recipe: sense, science, balance. That’s my message, that’s the mantra in the book, and that’s really all you need to invoke to know what we know about the human diet, know how important it is, understand how we know, and put it to good use.
Just a quick preamble before we get to that three-word recipe. I want to make sure everyone understands how important diet truly is. We’re all pretty horrified, I think, that the US has suffered a mortality toll during the pandemic of over 500,000. I bring to your attention an op-ed in the New York Times Magazine, August 26, 2019, by Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts, and Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture, entitled Our Food is Killing Too Many of Us. Now, remember that title, just Google that when you have the time, Our Food is Killing Too Many of Us. It cites the primary literature, so you don’t need to worry about that, and makes the case that poor diet quality, something we have complete control over, is responsible for over 500,000 premature deaths in the United States every year. This is a pandemic and it is indeed a pandemic because it affects other countries around the world, we export this quite effectively. This is a pandemic that hides in plain sight, but because it’s in slow motion, it seems that familiarity may breed, if not contempt, at least complacency.
The other thing is diet is enormously important to the fate of the planet, whether or not there is an Amazon rain forest, whether or not there is a rain forest in Borneo, and we can get into those details later. The importance of diet to human health and planetary health could not be overstated. To put it bluntly, diet is the single most potent predictor variable of all causes of mortality and total chronic disease in the modern world today, full stop.
The three-word recipe, to remind you, is sense, science, balance, and that’s how we know how to eat. Let’s start with sense. Consider this, every wild species on the planet knows what and how to eat. Does it really make sense that our oversized brains cause us to un-know how to eat? Does it really make sense that the invention of science, randomized trials, meta-analyses, caused us not to know what every wild animal knows from instinct, adaptation, and basically see one, do one, teach one, the habituation of rearing. It doesn’t make sense, and when things make sense, they’re generally wrong.
We are not clueless about the basic care and feeding of homo sapiens and the fundamentals, what really matters most, captured, by the way, in seven words by Michael Pollan, eat food, not too much, mostly plants. That’s pretty much a meme, and it’s a good one. That’s just sense. Michael’s not a scientist, he basically just scanned this landscape and said overwhelming consistency of patterns, overwhelmingly clear what works in populations that have traditional and heritage-based diets. Sense tells us we should eat real food, not hyper-processed, hyper-palatable Frankenfood, we shouldn’t need too much, but frankly, if you eat the right kind of food that takes care of itself, and our diet should be plant-predominant because we’re that kind of animal.
However, science has a lot to contribute. First, there are many gaps in our knowledge, and that’s what science is for. Science drives with the force of a freight train towards hard-to-reach answers, but sense must lay the tracks. You may want to think of it this way. Science is the best means ever devised to answer questions, but only sense can pose good questions in the first place. I’ve devoted my 30-year career in academic medicine, before I left Yale to run my own company, to making sure there was a good synthesis of the available science. I’ve written four editions of a leading nutrition textbook, we had recourse to thousands of papers. I can tell you from firsthand experience in the ardors of textbook writing that there is vast, highly-consistent science telling us basically that Michael Pollan was right.
I summed it up in a paper that may be of interest to some of you, in 2014. The title of that is Can We Say What Diet is Best for Health? Again, you can just Google my name, Katz, and Can We Say What Diet is Best, you’ll pull that right up. I’ve been directly involved in making the case that if we want science to tell us what’s true about diet, we have to use science right. There is no one method that answers every question, as much as you may hear about randomized control trials, any more than there’s any one tool in a carpenter shop for every job. A hammer does hammering well, it makes a lousy saw, it makes a truly dreadful lathe. You need the right tool for the job, the same is true in science.
There is an incredible vigor in hybrid methods. We have hybrid methods telling us across populations and lifetimes and generations and decades and mechanistic studies and everything that you might want to consider, that we do best when we eat diets of real, whole food, plant predominant. To unpack that a little bit for you, essentially that means if your diet really is mostly minimally-processed, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts seeds, and plain water when you’re thirsty, if it’s mostly that, whatever else you do, you can’t go too far wrong. If it isn’t mostly that, no matter what else you’re doing, you probably have got issues, and we can talk about those.
Then finally, balance. When I say balance, I don’t mean everything in moderation. What I mean is this, balance is not something we make up, we’re in balance when what we’re doing is supportive of our native physiology. For example, we’re adapted to breathe Earth’s atmosphere, that is the right balance of gases for us to thrive. Anything that shifts in either direction, higher or lower oxygen levels for example, takes us out of balance. There’s nothing pernicious or evil about higher or lower partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere. There’s just the level that’s right for the kind of animal we are, based on our adaptations.
Moving toward that kind of balance is always good. Moving away from that kind of balance and exacerbating imbalance is always bad. I think, unfortunately, there’s an overlay of dogma about diet. Frankly, when dogma starts barking, we have a hard time hearing the science or recognizing sense. We tend to talk about food in terms of good and evil, that’s not the case. Saturated fat is bad because our diets contain too much, and more of what you get too much of is bad. Sodium is bad for the same reason, so too for sugar. We think that potassium, calcium, and magnesium are good, fiber is good, but that’s because we tend to get too little and getting more is good.
The three-word recipe to understand what and how to eat, sense, science, balance.
David Katz QA Transcript
One of the things we talk about is the value of your gut. From time to time, all of us have to take some antibiotics for one reason or another. How do we bring our gut back in balance after we’ve taken antibiotics?
That’s a good question. By the way, a quick shout out to my co-author, Mark Bittman, who needs no introduction I’m sure, but I wrote How to Eat with Mark. I brought the nutrition knowledge to the table, but Mark really has this expansive knowledge of the whole foodscape and I was really privileged to collaborate with him.
There’s more and more public discourse, more and more scientific inquiry, more and more awareness about the critical importance of our gut, because what we’re really talking about is not just the cells that line our gastrointestinal tract or how important that organ system is, but the microbiome, most of it lives there. A lot of it lives throughout our bodies, on our skin, other parts of us, but most of it lives in the gut. It’s just incredibly important because metabolize generated by the microbiome circulate throughout our bodies, influence our hormone levels, influence inflammation, immune system response, vascular health, and so forth.
The microbiome is incredibly important, and unfortunately, antibiotics are a form of chemical warfare that doesn’t really differentiate between friend and foe. The bacteria that are responsible for helping us thrive are wiped out, along with bad guys. One of the things you try to do in medicine is be very judicious about use of antibiotics. First of all, don’t use them when you don’t need them, they’re overused, and second, use the one with the narrowest spectrum so you don’t kill off any of the friendly bugs you don’t have to kill off.
But as you say, Larry, inevitably after a course of antibiotics, there’s been disruption to the microbiome. I would make a very simple recommendation following a course of antibiotics, a course of probiotics. Probiotics are ingestible bacteria. Many of them need to be refrigerated to maintain high-quality counts, but they don’t all need to be refrigerated. I take one myself called Peptiva. I can keep it my bedside table, it’s stable at room temperature. You want one that guarantees high colony counts. Generally, you want one with a diversity of strains, but essentially, you’re replacing the good, helpful bacteria that were wiped out by the antibiotic and helping to repopulate your gut. I think that makes sense.
To be clear, you’re right, there is the acute damage if you are prescribed antibiotics. I think there’s a case for probiotics pretty generally though, because we wind up being exposed to antibiotics in our food supply. The levels are less, but we all have some exposure, so just living in the modern world is pretty hard on the microbiome. When it’s studied, we find that people living in modern countries tend not to have the optimal distribution of bacteria, so I generally recommend a probiotic.
Okay. In your book, you talk about eggs. What you said is that you’re sort of neutral on eggs. In some cases, as you say, it improves diet, in other cases, versus an all plant-based diet, it worsens diet. But you said on balance, it matters what you replace eggs with. I guess I just wanted to comment on something that my father had told me, he was a cardiologist. I asked him, “Can I have eggs for breakfast?” He said, “Sure. Do me a favor, why don’t you have three eggs, but two yolks. Let’s increase the relative amount of egg whites relative to the yolk.” He said, “I understand that yolk tastes delicious, but there’s a limit on how much saturated fat and cholesterol I want you to have for breakfast.”
What are your thoughts on the combining, I’ll call it, more egg whites in your combination of eggs?
By the way, my dad’s a cardiologist too so we probably heard many of the same messages growing up. First, the high-level issue, as you say, eggs are good, eggs are bad, dairy is good, dairy is bad, this is good, grains are good, grains are bad. All of this is subject to the instead of what stipulation. That is routinely ignored both in the science, so studies fail to ask the question, what was replaced when we ask people to eat more eggs or anything else? What was bumped out of the diet and how did it reverberate through the diet? Because putting a food in or taking a food out is like tossing a pebble in a pond, it changes the overall composition of the diet. Where did you start and where did you land, that’s crucial, for eggs and everything else.
In general, the thinking about cholesterol … And really, egg yolk is a highly concentrated source of cholesterol, but a fairly negligible source of saturated fat. We get a lot of our saturated fat from meat and dairy; we get relatively little of it from eggs. The question then becomes how important is dietary cholesterol? Dietary cholesterol is measured in milligrams, our intake of fats is measured in grams. That’s three orders of magnitude difference and it does make a huge difference in terms of the impact on our blood levels of cholesterol. Saturated fat is much more impactful than cholesterol, and as a result of that, really good scientists, including some close friends of mine who were involved in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for the United States, said we can stop telling people to worry about dietary cholesterol because when they get other things right, it’s unimportant, and if they don’t get other things right, the other things are so much more important than cholesterol, it’s really just a distraction. It kind of dropped out of the official dietary recommendations.
I was okay with that, but I was okay with that principally because our diets are pretty crummy to begin with. In the context of a really bad baseline diet, and that is the typical American diet, cholesterol was the least of our worries. We have much more to worry about from fatty meats, high intake of sodium, saturated fat, added sugar. Essentially, it’s just, yeah, it’s not good for you, but it’s too small a problem to focus on. We’ve got, as the saying goes, bigger fish to fry.
The other thing I’d note just very quickly, and Mark and I emphasize this in the book, I think we should all be looking at optimal diets through three lenses, not just one. The one we’re talking about is what is directly good for human health, and as a physician, that’s always been what matters to me. But as I stated at the start, diet has a massive influence on planetary health, and whether or not we cut down the rainforest and the Amazon to graze cattle so we can eat more meat or raise the rainforest in Borneo for more palm plantations so we can eat more processed foods with palm oil. We really do need to be thinking about the impact of our dietary patterns at scale. Animal foods in general, including eggs, tend to have a much greater environmental footprint than plant foods.
Then there’s finally the issue of decency, ethics, how we treat other animals. If you’ve been to eat eggs, whether you keep all the yolks or discard one, as per Larry’s father, make sure you source them from a place where you know the hens are being treated decently, because in factory farms that’s not the case and I don’t think any decent person wants gratuitous cruelty on the menu.
I want to ask a question about your opening statement about 500,000 deaths from a poor diet. When surveyors asked smokers to estimate the reduction in life expectancy change from smoking, my understanding is that smokers overestimated the risk of death by a multiple. They thought that smoking was much more dangerous than it was, and yet they continued to smoke. I’m wondering about this diet as well. If you take someone who is not overweight and who doesn’t have, I’ll call it one of the chronic diseases, how important is diet to change in their expected loss of life? In other words, if you had someone with a bad diet, I would say you would call it a red meat diet, and someone who has a plant-based diet, and both are generally healthy at the outset, what do you think the reduction in the total number of years would be? Maybe with the mean and a standard deviation.
Well, it’s a really good question because we’re really good, and I say this as a physician with 30 years of clinical practice, we’re really good at forestalling death. I sort of turn it around and say 500,000 premature deaths, but premature just means dying before the full life expectancy in the United States, which before the pandemic was about 78 years. If you die at 75, it’s a premature death. Frankly, because we have the capacity to live with vitality well into our eighties and nineties, it truly is a premature death and many other countries have longer life expectancy.
But the simple fact is, people can have really advanced coronary artery disease and many complications of diabetes, and modern medicine is still pretty good at patching them back together so they don’t die. I’ve been involved in that for much of my career. What we can’t do is restore vitality. I’ve always tended to think, Larry, and it’s why I went on to train in preventive medicine after studying internal medicine, I kind of had the impression I was being taught how to be one of the king’s horses and one of the king’s men. We could never put true vitality back together again; we were basically trying to unscramble an egg. We prevented total calamity, but we didn’t restore health.
So yeah, I would say that the premature deaths generally are on the order of three to five years, I think that’s highly significant, but it depends how bad the diet is, what you compare it to, whether you’re comparing to an optimal diet. If you compare to Blue Zone diets, for example … Quickly, for those who don’t know, the Blue Zones are five places around the world described by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, where people routinely live to be a hundred, it’s very common, and those who don’t live to be a hundred routinely live into their nineties and they do it with vitality. They don’t get chronic diseases; they don’t get dementia. We know that they all eat real food, not too much, mostly plants. If we set that as the benchmark and say that’s the possible, because these are five very diverse populations, this is Ikaria, Greece, Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. These are not genetically alike, these are diverse populations who share elements of culture and lifestyle, so that suggests this is possible for all of us.
If we were to say if we weren’t living with the typical American see-food diet, I see food and I eat it even if it glows in the dark, but if we were routinely physically active, got enough sleep, weren’t stressed out, avoided toxins like tobacco, excess alcohol, and ate optimally, we would routinely live to be in our nineties to a hundred without chronic disease. Well then, we’re talking about 20 years of life lost. It’s hard to give you a mean and standard deviation because I would have to push back and say, tell me what benchmark you want me to use. If we want to use life expectancy in the US, that’s already dragged down by poor diet, poor lifestyle. If we want to use an example where people get diet and lifestyle right then the loss is actually quite staggering.
But even so, I would argue that the greater toll is not loss of years from life, it’s loss of life from years, because what kills you when you eat badly for a lifetime is not quick. It’s slow, it’s chronic disease. It’s obesity leading to insulin resistance, leading to type 2 diabetes, leading to coronary disease, degradation of multiple organ systems, nerve damage, eye damage, brain damage. It’s complications of dementia, which is generally insulin resistance of the brain and related to many of the same risk factors. It’s cancer that takes years and even decades to develop, but is fueled by a bad diet that tips the immune system out of balance, and on and on it goes.
I don’t think I can give you a mean and standard deviation, because I don’t really know what the reference standard ought to be, but if we compare ourselves to ourselves, it’s several years. If we compare ourselves to the optimal, it may be a couple of decades. But even so, the greater toll is the loss of vitality over an extended period of time. It’s incredible how many Americans live with the burden of chronic disease. Six in 10 American adults have at least one major chronic disease, four in 10 have two or more.
Hey, David, this is Todd. I have a question for you. Where do you think we are in the slope of the curve? I mean, I look at things like the highly anticipated IPO of Oatly and the fact that Beyond Meat’s got an $8 billion market cap, and there seems to be a lot of awareness around, at least in the financial community, about the potential of plant-based diets and plant-based foods and all those sorts of things. I just wondered if that’s just me being in my New York City bubble, or we basically at the point where we’re no longer getting worse and there may be cause for optimism.
Yeah. Well, great questions, Todd. I think it’s a bit of both. There’s more than one way to eat badly and Americans seem committed to exploring them all, and maybe we’re running out. One of the reasons I’m optimistic is we’ve tried every cockamamie, silly, quick-fix diet under the sun. At some point you have to say, “Okay, we can’t really think of any more of those. I guess we just have to eat well, damn it.”
I think there is this confluence of interest in human and planetary health. I think a lot of what’s driving innovation related to meat alternatives is conservation driven. It’s the notion, particularly among young people, millennials, that we’re going to wind up in a world where there are no lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Are we really going to be okay with having done that? If the answer is no, then we really need to do something about it. We like the idea of doing judo rather than karate. In other words, instead of arguing with people you want to eat meat, but you can’t and then losing the battle, we’ll say, “Okay, we’ll create a meat alternative for you that satisfies your palette, gives you what you say you want, but eliminates the damage to the planet and maybe we can still have orangutans and tigers in the world and whales in the ocean. What do you think?” Most people shrug their shoulders and say, “I’ll try it. If I like it, I’ll join your team.”
I kind of see the meat alternatives as a highly effective gateway drug, I’m hoping that people move on to less processed versions of plant foods once they rehabilitate their taste buds, but I’m very much in favor and I do think it’s a significant indication of a confluence of multiple interests in our health and the health of the planet and a timely opportunity. We now have the technology to do that and I think really clever people took advantage of the moment and they got it just right.
I think it is significant, I think we’re at a tipping point. I also think there’s more interest in some fundamentals about food, eating clean, shorter ingredient lists. I think there’s more and more resonance with Michael Pollan’s meme, eat food, not too much, mostly plants. That seems to be a recurring theme when I search for consumer trends, people are interested in clean eating. Now, they’re still quite gullible and easily talked into nonsense, so the competition fools and fanatics isn’t going to go away anytime soon, but I am optimistic.
I think things are improving and I’m trying to be part of that solution. I left academia after 30 years, founded a company called Diet ID. We’re on a mission to make diet a vital sign. There’s an expression from the world of business, we don’t tend to manage what we don’t routinely measure. I imagine nobody listening to this call has had a comprehensive diet assessment that told you here’s your diet quality, your diet type, your nutrient intake levels, because the tools are too onerous. We built one that can do that in 60 seconds. It’s easy, it’s even fun. We think then, if everybody is alerted to what their diet is and that’s compared directly to what it could be and they understand the value proposition, we can get a lot more people into the game. I think there are many factors that tell us we’re at or near a tipping point, and that encourages me.
I want to talk dairy for a second. In your book, you were slightly negative on dairy. The reason was saturated fat. I just wanted to ask one question about Frankenfood and then one question about yogurt. I have a protein shake and I use a whey protein powder. My instinct is that you would call that Frankenfood and therefore should be removed from my diet. On the other hand, you don’t mind dairy as long as it was not with saturated fat. How do you feel about a protein powder like whey protein?
I should be clear that I use Frankenfood maybe a bit glibly, just to castigate the array of willfully engineered, addictive junk foods that Michael Moss writes about. By the way, folks, another reference for you that I highly recommend. This was a New York Times magazine cover story by Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize winner. His book, Hooked, is just out. This was entitled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. If you haven’t seen it, definitely recommend it.
This is not by accident. Essentially, the Frankenfoods I speak of, it’s not just that they glow in the dark, but they’ve been designed by scientists using functional MRI machines to massively overstimulate the appetite center in the ventral medial hypothalamus of the human brain so that when they say, “Bet you can’t eat this one,” they can laugh about it all the way to the bank. I mean, it’s really a threat. I mean those foods, and I don’t specifically mean the addition of an isolated protein concentrate to make a smoothie or a shake. It’s not quite as pure as just eating whole foods, but I have advocated … I’m a public health pragmatist, and so throughout my career I’ve advocated that we not make perfect the enemy of good. I think anytime we get overly dogmatic, you must eat one specific way and any transgression, put out your hand so we can smack it with a ruler, I think that’s a grave mistake.
I’ll be honest with you, I like corn chips and salsa. There’s no question about it, the corn chips have three ingredients, usually it’s whole grain corn, some kind of oil and salt, but it’s certainly not a whole food, but I really enjoy it. I don’t eat it every day, but periodically, corn chips salsa with good beer. I mean, it’s a terrific combination.
And bean dip or no bean dip?
Yeah, sure, bean dip too.
The other thing we need to keep in mind, food should be a source of pleasure. Let me make a comment that may surprise you, I don’t know that Mark and I said it quite this way in the book but I have said it this way to my patients, we fail to think what health is for. Health takes on moral overtones, as if health is at the end of a physician’s admonishing finger, you’re a bad person if you’re not a healthy person. That’s nonsense. That completely misses the point of what health is for. Healthy people have more fun. The reason to care about your personal health is your life is better. Other things being equal, your life is better when you’re healthy. If the whole point of health is to have a better life, at some line that you’re crossing you say, “Yeah, but I’m giving up so much pleasure from the things I want to eat, that the net effect on my quality of life is to reduce it. And I look at the combination of years in life, life in years, there’s some level of asceticism where I’m giving up more than I’m gaining.” Don’t do that. You are the boss, that’s the sweet spot for all of us, where we optimize the pleasure we get from food, and it ought to be a source of pleasure when we have that luxury, as most of us here today do, sadly many people around the world don’t. But when you have that opportunity, food should be a source of pleasure, health should also be a source of pleasure. And what I advocate for is size up the two of them, maximize the sum and live there. That’s the place to be.
Michael Moss — Addictive Food
Michael Moss Transcript
Alright, let’s begin today’s program with Michael Moss who will discuss his book Hooked.
In 2008, I was in Algeria interviewing Islamic militants, when a couple of FBI agents showed up at the New York Times headquarters looking for me. I had been spending the previous few years traveling to Iraq, tormenting the Pentagon for failing to equip American soldiers with body armor, and then writing critically about the war on terrorism, and according to the FBI agents, I had managed to land myself on an Al Qaeda hit list. I actually think it was just the Algerian government trying to get rid of me, but when my editors ordered me home that night, and I came back to the United States looking for something new to do, it was like going from one war to another, because my editor, Christine Kay, had spotted this outbreak of salmonella in peanuts that were being used as ingredients by this billion-dollar processed food industry about which we knew very little.
And when I looked at that situation closely, it became the story about that industry losing control over its food chain. And then I started to write about E. coli in meat because I thought Upton Sinclair had solved the meat problem 100 years earlier, but there was a rolling wave of contamination of E. Coli, and hamburger making people sick. And this was a story of the meat industry intentionally losing control over its supply chain in order to avoid costly recalls. And I was continuing to look at contamination when one of my best sources who tests meat for the industry said to me, “You know, Michael, as awful as the incidents are you really should look at what my industry is intentionally adding to its product, over which it has absolute control.” He was concerned about the salt going into processed meat, which led me to look at sugar, and into fat.
And boy, was he right. I mean, the obesity rate was soaring. Pre-pandemic, we passed 42% of American adults being clinically obese, type two diabetes tied to bad diets is in the tens of millions, pre-diabetes, even larger. I think there were like 8 million cases of gout last time I looked. And as a journalist, I was incredibly lucky to come across this trove of documents that took me inside the largest processed food companies, as they were formulating, marketing, positioning their products toward us, and it was those documents that enabled me to meet insiders who opened up even more secrets about how they do it. And much of what you get from that material in those interviews is that this is an industry that’s striving day and night to use extraordinary science to get us to love their products and want more and more, and initially for the first book I worked wrote, Salt, Sugar, Fat, that I focused on that unholy Trinity, if you will. Because salt they call, “The flavor burst,” and fat, “The mouthfeel” and sugar, “The bliss point.” And in combination and individually, those three ingredients are meant to hit the brain’s reward centers so fast that we lose control over our eating habits.
And it’s not just that they engineered a bliss point for sweet foods, the companies moved around the grocery store, adding sugar to things that didn’t use to be sweet before, so now by one estimate, two thirds of the products in the grocery stores have added sugar, which is a really big problem for a lot of people. Still, I hesitated to call this, “Addiction” because frankly, if we’d had this conversation five years ago and you suggested to me that Oreo cookies were as addictive as heroin, I would have scoffed and said, “Where’s the excruciating pain of withdrawal and where are the people committing armed robbery of 7/11 to buy their Oreos like they might a pharmacy? And how come not everyone gets hooked on these product?”
But the more I looked at that question, the more I became convinced that actually, these products are in many ways as troubling as cigarettes, alcohol, even some drugs. And in some ways, even more troubling. And I’ll tick off the ways that they are similar. The industry is succeeding in getting us head over heels, over convenience foods, “fast groceries” as I like to call them, by tapping into our basic instincts. We by nature love food that’s cheap. They use chemical laboratories to mix and match formulations, in search of ever cheaper formulas for their product, knowing that we’ll get really excited by a box of breakfast pastries that cost 10 cents less than it did the week before.
We, by nature are drawn to variety; back in hunter-gatherer societies, eating different kinds of foods, helped to ensure you were getting the full range of nutrients you needed to survive, and we also became very adaptable to different foods, and it’s why we were able to roam around the world and fall in love with things as crazy as whale blubber if you happen to live in the Arctic. And so what the industry does; you walk into the cereal aisle and you’re confronted by 200 versions of sugary starch, them knowing that we get excited by variety. And maybe the most important thing that they use is that we, by nature are drawn to calories. We have sensors in the gut, possibly even the mouth to tell us how many calories are in there, and for most of our existence, we wanted the most calories because that was life and death. But these food companies have turned that on its heels, on its face, and made their products so dense with empty calories that now we have this biological mismatch. We get excited, especially by the snack foods, and can’t tell the difference between good calories, good nutrition, and the empty calories that they sell us.
Michael Moss QA Transcript
Michael, you make it seem like the industry is working together. Are they working together or is each big food company trying to find something for a customer to buy its product? How is it as an industry versus an individual firm?
So there’s about 10 companies that dominate the processed food industry. They are intensely competitive; the muzak you hear at the grocery store in an illusion; behind the scenes, they’re fighting for space on the shelf and in your stomach. And actually our detriment, whenever one of them decides they want to do the right thing, and I write about this in several instances where cabals of insiders in these companies get concerned about their culpability, and things like obesity and our general health trouble with these products and have tried to turn things around, when that individual company tried to respond, the rest of the cartel, if you will, I really believe this is a cartel in the sense that they dominate the food scene in the grocery store, swoop in and try to replace that company trying to do the right thing with even sort of more seductive versions of their products.
We’re going to have Brad Stone talk about Whole Foods in a second, but what is the role of the grocery store in this whole process of showing us foods, and can they do more of the right thing?
Yeah, I think so. The typical grocery store has a situation where 90% of the store is the part where if you’re meaning to eat or buy for good health and the health of your family, you’re going to want to be very careful. In 10% of the store is the produce aisle where every nutritionist says we should be spending more time, with the goal of filling up our plate with whole vegetables and fruits. The perimeter of the store, people often say, is the safest place to be, but that center of the store is typically the cash cow for supermarket owners, who by and large have a very thin margin of sales, and so, they’re looking to sell those things that sell the fastest and the biggest, right?
That said, one of the most powerful opportunities and changing the situation and helping people change how they value food has been the big chains, you know, the Walmarts who’ve come into food and a really big way, because if you can get them to change their attitudes about their formulations and their marketing of foods, then the rest of the industry may follow suit. It doesn’t exactly work that way, because the other phenomena we have today is this new chain coming from Europe called Aldi’s, which is actually even undercutting Walmarts, and going back to what I said about how we love cheap food, I mean, in the parking lot of Aldi’s you will find luxury imported cars because everybody loves a bargain on food, even if they think they’re shopping for health.
Why do you blame the food companies instead of the consumer, who so desires the salt, sugar, and fat? Why isn’t it my fault?
One of the hallmarks of addiction is the loss of control. And look, you have to remember that for decades, the tobacco industry vehemently denied that smoking was addictive, and they were winning lawsuit after lawsuit of people who were victimized by smoking; got sick, got cancer, what have you. And then ironically, in the year, 2000, they turned around and conceded that, “Oops, you’ve got it right; smoking is addictive,” and then they started losing law suits because juries, before that, were saying, “Okay, but there’s personal responsibility here, right? People have a choice.” But the problem is with addictive substances is that they’re able to hit the brain so fast, and so hard, that the thinking part of the brain where executive function lives, where free will lives, where our ability to make decisions about, “is this really a smart thing to be doing?” live. And that gets put to sleep, and these food products are engineered exquisitely in a way that excites the brain and destroys free will.
So I would argue that you look at somebody who’s obese, that is not their fault, that is not a matter of low executive function on their part, or a lack of willpower, that is about them succumbing to products that are designed in a way that overwhelmed their ability to ration through their actions and eating habits.
I want to talk about portion control for a second. Very often, we now have all sorts of choices with quantity. They’ve got little packages, normal sized package, and then the gigantic packages. And ironically, it’s when you go to Walmart, for example, when they offer you just an enormous scale at relatively inexpensive prices. You were mentioning before that Walmart has the potential to do the right thing, but do you think by the size of the packaging that they offer that by design, they’re doing the wrong thing?
Coca-Cola and McDonald’s pioneered the Supersize Me phenomena, right? Where you could buy twice as much product for hardly any more money. And that got people excited. I read about people in the book who said, “wow, that is a great deal. Of course, I would do that.” And that spread throughout the grocery business, throughout the restaurant business where we became attracted to, and expecting, big portions, right? I mean, think about the last expensive meal you had in a restaurant where you’re looking at how much food you’re on going like, “Wow, is that… It would be so much greater to have a little more.”
“And I’m still hungry.”
And that plays out in the fast grocery, fast food world too. As a corollary to that too, I write about one of the startling things for me was that, none other than the processed food industry, as obesity began to rise in the 1980s, turned around and bought the dieting industry up. Things like Weight Watchers, Atkins, and the South Beach Diet became owned by processed food giants. And not only that, but they moved around the grocery store creating diet versions of their main line product, so you’d be standing in the freezer aisle and there’d be Hot Pockets, and then Lean Pockets, with not a whole lot of difference between the two, but this is sort of a general strategy: the industry shifted responsibility back to us and they say to us, “Well, if you’re losing control on eating our Hot Pockets here, maybe you can try the Lean Pockets this week?”
And one of the aspects that’s also similar to tobacco is there’s disagreement in the science as to what’s really going on. In nutrition, you have big debates: should we decrease carbs? Should we decrease fats? Should we decrease the amount of salt? Should we avoid sugar altogether? And when we had Dr. Katz on, his view is different from what other nutritionists said, but the essence of what Dr. Katz was saying was we know certain things for sure, like you should eat more fruits and vegetables and more plant-based products, that was his thesis. How do you feel about the fact that the industry in many ways, like the science doesn’t know the right combination of foods to give its customers?
Well, as a journalist, , I’m not a nutritionist; as a journalist, it’s incredibly frustrating because you’re absolutely right, there’s nothing mushier than nutrition science. It’s just so hard to do those gold standard experiments where you sit people down. And it wasn’t until the year 2019 that this brilliant scientist at the NIH named Kevin Hall actually did the very first causative study looking at processed food, where he took two groups of people, and one of them ate ultra-processed foods for two weeks in the eating lab, and the other ate whole foods that David Katz would probably love, and guess which groups started to gain weight. It was the processed food group, but that’s the first time we could actually say that there was a causative link with processed food and the weight gain that we’ve been seeing for the last 40 years.
I can say this, that the food industries love this infighting in the nutrition community, because whenever we become kind of more concerned about one of their additives, like sugar, or fats, or salt, they’re really good at adjusting their formulas so that one decade they may be decreasing salt, and then they increase the salt and the fats in order to… or decreasing sugar, and then they increase the salt and the fat. Because the bottom line is seduction and allure; they’re not going to diminish the attractiveness of their product. But they’re incredibly good at adjusting these formulas, and obfuscating the bigger questions about their products, which are, it’s not kind of the nutrition, how much salt, sugar, fat, how much it is, how much calcium, etc., but it’s just like real food, this whole food that’s going to make me really feel good in the long=term and healthy and strong?”
I want to talk about variety for second, and I’m going to come about it a couple different ways. Let’s just take the Oreo for example. There’s the Double Stuff, that’s twice as much white filling. Then they’ve got the smaller Oreo. There’s just all sorts of different ways of which we can get the Oreo. You said that human beings enjoy and appreciate variety. And by its very nature, variety doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Why should we condemn an industry that provides infinite variety to meet our desires, cravings, and love affair with variety?
Michael Moss: So the reason I think we should be concerned about that is that they’ve created this mismatch between our biology and the modern food environment. And so, when we look at variety in the grocery store, it’s like the Smorgasbord Effect, and you’ve heard about that maybe where you’re moving down the Chinese buffet and you’ve already been through once and you’re probably semi-full and your plate’s full, but you see that new item to your right, and it’s irresistible, you’ll want to put it on your plate because of that attraction that we have to variety. Until 50 years ago, that wasn’t a problem for us, but the way that the industry has taken those essential, basic instincts of ours for cheapness, and for variety, and for calories and on and on, they have made over eating an everyday thing. So that’s the context that it’s trouble.
It even used to be a great thing to put on body fat that enabled our brains to grow, take us through hard times, to have more babies, but in the last 50 years, food has gotten so inexpensive and so ever-present that we’re putting on way too much body fat by falling so hard for these convenience foods. So, it’s in the context of their changing the nature of our food in a way that our biology hasn’t had a chance to catch up. In the future, right, with some 100s of years for our genetics to catch up, we might be able to tell the difference between the calories in a bag of Fritos and then the calories in a home cooked meal from scratch that’s going to give you the whole gamut of nutrients that you need to thrive and be healthy, but we’re not there now by any means.
Well, I know, and you know, that Fritos are not the healthy option. We both know that having an apple, for example, might be better for us. And yet, sometimes both of us do choose to eat Fritos. We do it even when they’re side-by-side. We recognize that the Fritos are salty, and taste great, and you can’t just have one, and it’s going to be hard to finish the apple. So, at some brain level, we know the answer, at another brain level, we choose the less healthy option sometimes. Why isn’t that on us? Why do we have to blame Frito-Lay for that?
Michael Moss: Well, you and I may understand the nutritional aspect of those, but many people don’t know what a calorie is, who know very little about nutrition. They kind of vaguely know that fast food is bad for them to eat every day. But look, it’s a matter of economics, and if you walk into the store wanting to eat healthy by yourself, you will find that a basket of blueberries costs as much as a two pound, three cheese, four meat frozen pizza that will feed the whole family. And so, if you’re under that financial pressure, which so many people are, which are you going to choose?
I think the other powerful thing about these products is that they encourage mindlessness on our part, they encourage us to act without thinking and to eat without thinking. So, yeah, if we stopped and really thought about that bag of Fritos before we ate the whole thing in one sitting, we may in fact be able to exercise free will, will power, but where they have us is getting us at moments when we don’t have to think about it, or when cravings, which are a real thing for many people, come on and sort of overpower us. I mean, look, what happened in the pandemic. I mean, we thought, at least we’re going to get away from the vending machine, arguably the most treacherous corner of the processed food industry, but many of us turned our kitchen cupboards into vending machines because we went shopping, and under the stress and the strain of the pandemic, we began buying things that we hadn’t had since we were kids; junky stuff, sales of those products went up and there’s still up, to the delight of the companies.
Which is another way that these products are, I would argue, are even more problematic than smoking and alcohol and drugs, is the power of the memory. We begin forming memories for these products at a really young age. I mean, we carry those memories with us for life and we often associate them with great, joyful moments, so that’s why the soda companies know they can put a soda in the hands of a kid when at the ballpark with their parents, the kid will forevermore associate that soda with joyous moments. So when they grow up and they want some joy and comfort, they immediately think of the soda. So that’s the depth to which these products get into our heads to shape how we value food and our eating habits.
Jon Levy — Using Dinner Parties to Meet Influential People
Jon Levy Transcript
We’re going to move on to our next speaker, Jon Levy. Jon is going to speak to us about dinner parties and meeting influential people. He is an author of a book that’s coming out in two days, called You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence.
So some of you might know this, but for more than a decade now, I’ve spent my time doing something absolutely ridiculous. I would invite 12 people at a time to my home and they had to cook me dinner with an additional twist: they weren’t allowed to even say what they did professionally, or even give their last name. When they sat down to eat, we play a game where they’d guess what everybody does professionally around them. And then they find out they’re sitting with a Nobel Laureate, an eight-time Olympian, an editor in chief of a major magazine, an executive from a Fortune 500 company, and even an occasional princess. Over the years I’ve hosted over 2000 people at 227 dinners in 10 cities in three countries. And what I’m really proud of is that it formed into a community in time.
And that community has actually ended up doing a lot of good. We’ve raised a lot of money for social causes and brought awareness to major issues. But when I started this, I had no idea really how much people needed it. And as I was researching this new book, You’re Invited, I came across some pretty startling information. You see, in 1985, the average American had just about three friends besides family. By 2004, that was down to just about two.
Now, I know we love to blame social media and technology, but frankly, this is before much of that took hold. The real culprit is probably people moving more often for work. And every time they move, they reset their social circles. Now, that in itself is just concerning, but what became even more upsetting was that when you look at the greatest predictor of human longevity, it’s not doing that papaya cleanse your friend recommended or eating lots of kale. It is actually having close social ties and number one is social integration, feeling like your part of a community, that you have an experience of belonging.
Research by Paul J. Zak actually found that you can predict company stock value, employee sick days, and even profitability, based on the level of trust, or even oxytocin, in people’s bloodstreams. Fundamentally, human beings have this need to belong. Now during the pandemic, this has probably gotten significantly worse. We keep hearing about how people are lonelier and more isolated than ever.
Unfortunately, we’re also really confused about what actually causes us to connect, build trust, and even develop a sense of belonging. I’ll give you a few examples. The first stage in any of this would be to be able to connect with people, and in American culture, when you hear, oh, you need to build more relationships, the automatic response is: you need to go network. Now, research by Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, literally found that human beings association to networking is feeling dirty and needing to wash.
What’s interesting is that we don’t feel that association when it comes to making friends. And it doesn’t matter how introverted you are. We all like making friends. We’ve just forgotten that we make friends over shared interests, like if you’re a stamp collector. Or shared activities, if we work out together or in the case of my dinners, we cook together. Or, shared history or culture. Now, that’s how we tend to meet because we have something in common, but that’s only part of it. In order to really build meaningful relationships, we need a profound level of trust. And in American culture, we often try to accomplish this by, especially in the business world, taking people out for expensive dinners or inviting them to a party with a swag bag to win them over. The problem is that none of that actually works. And in fact, the exact opposite works.
It’s called the Ikea Effect. It turns out that we disproportionately care about our Ikea furniture because we had to assemble it. And as a result, we care about it more. In fact, anything we invest effort into, we care about disproportionately. It’s why people like their own kids. It’s not despite the fact that they had to stay up late with them and help them with their homework and care for them when they’re sick. But because of it. This means that we fundamentally have to flip everything on its head.
Instead of networking, you need to focus on making friends. And, instead of trying to win people over, you have to find ways to do things together, to invest effort into one another, so we care more about each other. Now, from what I’ve seen, maybe just as much as we need masks and vaccines to get us through this, what we also need is to connect and reach out to people, to find something in common and find something to invest effort into. This means that us introverts need to start accepting invitations and the extroverts: find those people out there who are isolated and lonely and reach out to them. Who knows? It might change their life.
Jon Levy QA Transcript
How do you make the first step? I like the dinner party idea. How do you start that process?
I’m going to throw some science at you because that’s my geeky way of relating to things. So the funny thing is that people expect that trust precedes vulnerability, and it’s actually the other way around. There’s a process called the vulnerability loop, which is that, I’ll signal vulnerability first. Let’s say I’m sitting and we’re taking a walk, Larry. And I go, “oh my God, I’m so overwhelmed.” If you make fun of me or ignore me, trust will be reduced. But if you acknowledge that I just put out a signal of vulnerability and you match it and say, “John, ever since COVID, I’ve been totally overwhelmed too. What are you dealing with?”
Suddenly we both demonstrated that we can be safe with each other at a higher level of vulnerability. I think the starting point, in general, is realizing that all of us are in this situation where we’re a bit overwhelmed or our social skills have atrophied. We don’t know how to behave anymore. Is it appropriate to hug, to shake hands? When we even see people in a safe outdoor space and everybody’s vaccinated? Step one is to give us a little bit of slack.
And then the second is that we need to really just reach out to people and be okay with it being a little uncomfortable. From viewing social interactions, as I’ve been running them, it takes people a few seconds. And then it seems that they remember what it’s like. And they’re back to normal.
When you described your dinner parties, there an element that I thought was important, which was making the guests cook and clean up and participate in the effort. And you related that back to the Ikea Effect later. When you’re planning a dinner party, and to simplify it, what are the key elements you think that make it successful for building friendship and building trust?
So I think the first thing is, that the things that we tend to worry about don’t really matter. Meaning, hosts are often really worried that, oh, do they have the right table setting? Is it the right drinks, the flowers? And I see people worrying about this. And the fact of the matter is none of us remember that kind of stuff.
But the most important thing in my mind is curation, which is selecting the right people to be in the room. And personally, the way I look at it is, that I look for diversity of life experience. Iif all of us were in the same industry, it might be a nice industry mixer, but if I’m throwing a dinner party and I want it to be interesting, your life experience is very different than mine. We could be mutually interested in one another, right? At my dinners, we have 12 people. I try to avoid any more than two in the same industry, because otherwise it could potentially be a bit more competitive or people feel like there’s a ranking.
The other thing is that the reason we cook together is this Ikea Effect, but an activity or an action actually accomplishes two things. One is, it makes the experience fundamentally novel. And that’s really important for human beings. We have an entire section of our brains called the SN/VTA and it responds to novelty, and it entices us to explore and understand. When something stands out, it’s different, and yes, the no talking about work is kind of gimmicky, granted.
And it actually draws us out and makes us more interested in participating. The other thing it does is, if you put two people who don’t know each other next to one another, or across from each other, it feels like an interview. And hopefully one of them is skilled enough to maneuver it. When you give us a task or an activity or a game, then it becomes a much more natural experience. I know a woman who runs a wine and cheese event, and she asked people to bring a two-minute story on a single word, and it could be truth or friendship or whatever it is. And then, you could do this sitting around a dinner table, or you could do it standing, having cocktails, is to share that story. And everybody’s got a story. I think that these kinds of allow for novelty, and also allows for something that functions as an icebreaker. People feel more comfortable around each other, especially if they’re strangers.
I don’t know if there’s any research on it. It would be understanding. Is it different talking, for example, over the telephone with somebody, or doing it on FaceTime or on Zoom, other than seeing them, does that increase trust? Is it the same as just talking on the phone or the fact that you actually see them doing it, even if you don’t need to see them, enhance sort of the bonding experience?
So I’ll be honest. I haven’t looked specifically at this research, but I think one of the easiest comparisons, which would suggest yes is,… are you a sports fan?
I’m at Ohio state, so I have to follow the football team.
So watching them on television fundamentally feels different than being at the stadium.
And I don’t know why. And you could argue that it’s the energy: the noise, the background experience, the number of people. There is something fundamental that happens when we are in the same physical space that is different, and can’t be, or hasn’t yet been, reproduced digitally. Right? And so my inclination is to think that we just aren’t there technologically, or maybe if we were one day in the matrix, we can get to that point. But in human interaction, it’s just fundamentally different. There’s also probably a small subset of our culture that just feels more comfortable doing things over phone or Zoom just because they may be shy and really uncomfortable.
But the thing would be, that it’s not so much the sporting event, being there where you’re in those massive community and so forth, but it’s interacting with just one person or maybe two or something … where if you can see them when you’re doing it, is there any difference from with not being able to see them?
The classic research that’s pointed to in this is research that was done on body language and voice tonality. So how much information are you getting? Here’s my reasoning for thinking, yes. And I’ll be honest. I just haven’t looked at this specific research –is that the experience of belonging is so much at the heart of our species that the greatest punishment we can give people is being physically separated from the rest of the group, right? It’s solitary confinement or it’s exile, which means that we’ve evolved to be around each other. And so my guess is that is just fundamentally different. Some might argue it’s pheromonal. Some might argue it’s visual, but my inclination is to say yes, being physically around each other is probably more effective than being on Zoom. And Zoom is probably more effective than being over the phone.
I was thinking about how you think about these dinner parties and how I organize these podcasts is similar. I mean, on the phone right now, we’ve got John Mueller. We’ve got Jon Levy. We’ve got Kay Hymowitz. Each of you has written books on different topics. You don’t know each other. I’ve thrown you into this podcast to ask questions and to engage with each other. How do you think about this podcast as compared to your dinner parties as an example?
So I think that this serves a lot of the kind of check boxes that I try to check. I’ve generally found that if I want to engage with highly influential people, they’re kind of four things I try to make sure are present. The first, is that it’s a generous experience, meaning that overwhelmingly, virtually nobody who attends a dinner that I run is like somebody I’m trying to do business with, right? I’m not going to do work with an Olympian or a Nobel Laureate. It’s not my field. The second, is that it’s novel. I think you’re, so far, like a hundred percent, right? This is a very generous experience. You take your time to do this. You don’t charge anybody anything. You don’t have ulterior motives. The second is it’s novel. I mean, you have your own format that’s different than other people. It really functions as a draw.
You’re able to then, the third characteristic, is curation. The people who are participating are highly selected and super respected in their industries, right? And then the fourth characteristic, is one that I virtually never am able to hit. Arguably the most desired emotion or experience is awe or wonder. It’s that moment where people like hold their child for the first time. And the universe disappears around them.
Now that happens on rare occasions when people meet their like childhood heroes or something like that at my dinners. But it’s kind of that goal that we have. My hunch is that probably happens occasionally on here when an idea really shifts somebody’s thinking. Where I think it differs though … so you have like a phenomenal setup, right? Where I think it differs a little, is how do we get people then to feel more connected to each other? So how do we implement that Ikea Effect so that it ends up being more of like a community feel if that’s something that you care about? But overwhelmingly you’re hitting like … you’re one of the few people who really hit the marks on these things.
I’m wondering … imagine you’re a listener at home and you’re saying, you know what, I want to start … I want to begin this Jon Levy process. And I want to put my toe in the water. How would I do it? Can I … and normally what happens is, I invite a bunch of friends over for dinner. Some people know each other. Some people don’t. But at least I know everyone invited. Is it critical that I get strangers to my dinner party? Or can we start with people who don’t know each other as a first step?
So as a first step what I’d actually encourage, is not to do a dinner party. I know this is going to sound strange, but dinner parties are a great time of day because people are generally free in the evening and they need to eat. But the success of the influencer dinner, isn’t the dinner. I’d argue it’s the cooking because it’s that joint activity that actually lets them bond so that the dinner itself is interesting.
Dinners can actually be very uncomfortable because you don’t know who you’re going to be seated next to you. They might be boring, like all that kind of stuff. What I’d actually recommend, if people really want to dip their toe in, is finding an activity that you already love. It could be running. It could be hiking. It could be knitting. Something that you enjoy already, so that you’re happy to participate regardless. And then, I’d invite just a handful of people. It doesn’t need to be strangers. It can just be some close friends and go on a hike. And if you enjoy it, then do it again. And maybe this time have your friends invite some of their friends.
Have you thought about making it a consistent concept? Like having an open house every Saturday at three, or pick a specific time and place and say, I’m going to have an open house, come on over? Or do you like to have it much more regulated? In other words, you lose the element of curation if you make it up to the people who decides to come.
So you can handle that aspect of curation depending on who’s on your email list, right. Or your communication list or invite list. I think there’s two things. One is that I do this in four cities every month when it’s safe to do it. And timing becomes really difficult with everything else, like holidays and so on. So, we just have to do it when calendars allow. There is an incredibly famous dinner in France. I mean, I think thousands upon thousands of people have participated and I believe it happened either, it’s one of the weekend nights.
It’s like either every Friday or every Sunday or something like that. This man, he’s not particularly wealthy or anything like that. I don’t even think his apartments that big. All you have to do is send him a note, letting him know that you want to come. And he opens his doors. And for years, I think it’s probably been 15 plus years, he’s been doing this to huge success and there’s been tons of media about it. And he doesn’t do curation in that way, but the curate itself, which I think is phenomenal. I’m just frankly, kind of maxed out on dinner parties, six a month.
I bet that’s right. Jon, thank you so much for speaking.
Oh, this is an absolute treat. Thank you for having me.