John Locke: Property in the State of Nature

Because my mother twisted my arm to get there, I am an Eagle Scout; I am no longer embarrassed to say so now that the Boy Scouts have moved away from homophobia.

Groups of Boy Scouts often go camping and on hikes. When they do, it is a commonplace among them that John Locke's law of nature applies to interesting objects they pick up along the way. (Here I am assuming a case in which civil law does not prohibit taking the objects in question.) If one boy picks up a pretty rock that was not his at all until he picked it up, and then another boy took it out of his hands, the boy who first picked it up would say that he had stolen it. And other boys would think the same thing. 

Boys do debate question such as whether it is the first one who saw a thing or the first one who got something into their own hand that can claim ownership. I think, typically, the first who saw it would have the better claim. Why? I think it is in line with John Locke's notion that the labor involved helps to establish one's claim. If the main labor is in noticing something, then noticing it (and perhaps calling dibs) would be enough to establish ownership. On the other hand, if even after noticing it, it is worthless without additional effort to extract it from the ground, say, then it would be the one who extracted it from the ground who had the better claim. 

Consider how John Locke describes the principle that mixing natural bounty with one's own labor helps to establish a claim, as he lays it out in section 28 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (Chapter V "Of Property"):

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself, what belonged to all in common? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them.

Despite the existence of relevant merit badges, Boy Scouts do not typically know a lot of civil law or constitutional law. But the law of nature that John Locke talks about for claiming a part of nature's bounty for one's own they do understand. 

Don't miss other John Locke posts. Links at "John Locke's State of Nature and State of War."

Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon

Link to the Amazon page for The Obesity Code Note the cover's tagline "Why your body's own insulin is the key to controlling your weight." 

Link to the Amazon page for The Obesity Code

Note the cover's tagline "Why your body's own insulin is the key to controlling your weight." 

Milton Friedman's dictum "Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon" has some complex ragged edges (in particular the variability of velocity), but it is an excellent place to start if you want to understand inflation and how to engineer disinflation. Similarly, the statement "Obesity is always and everywhere an insulin phenomenon" is an excellent place to start if you want to understand obesity and how to engineer weight loss.

The upward trend of obesity is well-known; you can see some scary graphs in the slides for my talk "Restoring American Growth." In "Restoring American Growth" I point out the importance of the issue by this thought experiment: think how much better we would consider the situation in America today if the distribution of income had evolved in exactly the same way it actually did, but there had been no rise in obesity. 

I view the continuing rise of obesity around the world a first-class scientific mystery. Scholars in many different disciplines, including economics, should take a crack at deepening our understanding of it. This post gives what I think is some of the relevant theory on the biological side.

My understanding of the function of insulin relies heavily on Jason Fung's excellent and persuasive book The Obesity Code, which I highly recommend. Jason discusses available evidence at length and fills in with his own judgment where evidence is lacking. I am not aware of any point at which evidence decisively shows Jason's views to be wrong, though there are definitely areas in which he goes against a conventional wisdom founded on underpowered studies. 

Jason's other book, The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and ExtendedIn line with his usage, from here on, I will use the term "fast" to describe any period of zero food consumption, while drinking only water, tea, black coffee, or the bone broth Jason recommends as an option. However, I will mainly apply the term to twelve hours or more of zero food consumption.

 

Insulin, Glucagon and Glycogen

Insulin is a central regulatory hormone for our bodies' handling of food energy. Among other roles of insulin, insulin has these key roles: 

  • High insulin levels instruct muscle cells and fat cells to take glucose (blood sugar) from the bloodstream. In the case of fat cells, the glucose taken up is made into triglycerides—precursors of body fat.
  • Low insulin levels instruct fat cells to convert body fat into glucose and add it to the glucose circulating in the bloodstream.

The current Wikipeda article on "Glycogen" (see below) explains that "Glucagon, another hormone produced by the pancreas, in many respects serves as a countersignal to insulin." So when I write about insulin levels being low, that is a shorthand for insulin levels being low and glucagon levels being elevated.

Glycogen is a molecule made from hooking glucose molecules together in a fairly simple way that is used to store glucose in the liver and muscles. Not all of the effect of high and low insulin levels on energy stores fall on body fat; especially at first, much of the effect falls on glycogen.  It seems likely that as the stores of glycogen get further from the target buffer stock of glycogen (or in the extreme, close to zero or to capacity) more and more of the effects of high or low insulin on energy stores falls on body fat.

To get an idea about the relative importance of fat burning versus glycogen burning, here is a useful passage from the Poliquin Group nutrition article "Eleven Myths About How the Body Burns Fat." (I interpret "carb burning" as "glycogen burning.") 

Fat is your body's primary fuel when you haven't just eaten and aren't exercising (a state we call "at rest"). At rest, when you're sitting at your desk or even going for a walk, your body is burning mostly fat, but depending on the need for energy (such as if you had to walk up three flights of stairs), [your] body may increase carb burning. ...

Here's an example: If you burn 200 calories per hour walking slowly, 60 percent is fat (120 calories) and 40 percent is carbs (80 calories). But if you burn 600 calories running at a pace of 8 minutes a mile, 40 percent is fat (240 calories) and 60 percent is carbs (360 calories). 

 

The Central Analogy

My central analogy is this:

  • High insulin levels are like a high growth rate of the money supply.
  • Low insulin levels are like a low growth rate of the money supply.
  • Body weight is like the level of inflation. 

(However, insulin levels are strongly influenced by the types and amounts of food eaten, so insulin levels are more like endogenous than exogenous movements in the money supply.)

There is one other important piece of the analogy:

  • Fasting (a period of no food) is like a recession. 

 

Executive Summary

The analogy between insulin levels and money growth gives an answer for the dominant reason people get fat and how people can lose weight:

  • When insulin is too high for too much of the time, people get fat. What makes insulin too high for too long is complex. 
  • Just as it is very difficult to lower inflation without a recession, it is very difficult to lose much weight without substantial periods of time with essentially zero food consumption—"fasting". To those who treat the idea of skipping meals as too horrible to contemplate, losing weight and keeping it off can seem as difficult as taming inflation seemed in the late 1970's, before Paul Volcker demonstrated the efficacy of sharp recessions in taming inflation. 

The bottom line is that chronically high insulin levels lead to obesity. Low enough insulin levels lead to weight loss.

The key question is then: "What drives insulin levels?"

 

 

Blood Glucose Levels as a Driver of Insulin Levels

One key driver of insulin levels is blood glucose levels. To avoid big problems, a high priority for our bodies is to keep blood glucose levels within fairly tight bounds. (Integrated over substantial period of time, this implies keeping blood glucose production and use in close balance.) The key regulatory mechanism for blood glucose levels is a predator-prey type relationship between insulin and blood glucose. When blood glucose rises, blood insulin levels rise, which brings blood glucose back down. When blood glucose falls, blood insulin levels fall, which brings blood glucose back up. 

The kinds of large oscillations shown in the image above only occur if an outside driving force has a relatively sudden impulse. Of things with a direct effect on blood glucose, the most common sudden impulse is eating sugar or some other quickly digestible carbohydrates. Other than sugar in all of its forms, including in fruit juice, what do I mean by easily digestible carbohydrates? First, I mean anything made with flour. Second, I mean whole foods with a high "glycemic index." (The glycemic index measures the blood glucose response to eating a particular type of food.) Starchy foods often have a high glycemic index. In the table below, think of anything above 40 as high. Thus, for example, rice, potatoes, carrots, bananas and watermelon (as well as baguettes and tortillas made from flour) have been found to raise blood glucose quickly.  

The Carb Rebound Effect: Why Eating Food and Drink with a High Glycemic Index Can Lead to Renewed Hunger a Couple of Hours Later

According to the logic of the predatory-prey relationship between blood glucose and insulin,

  • food and drink that raises blood glucose quickly enough causes a spike in insulin that
  • drives blood glucose levels down below normal,
  • leading to intense, insistent hunger a couple of hours later. 

For example, I have noticed this when I eat Thai food with a bowl of white rice (and to a lesser extent when I eat Thai food with a bowl of brown rice). I am not the only one to have noticed that eating a bowl of white rice during a meal can lead to hunger an hour or two later. There is a genre of Chinese restaurant jokes about this, not all of them in good taste. (I have wondered whether those from ancestries that have been eating a great deal of rice for thousands of years have some genetic adaptation to reduce this effect for rice specifically. In The Obesity CodeJason Fung suggests that eating rice with something sour may blunt some of the carb rebound effect from the rice.)

The carb rebound effect is not limited to rice. The logic applies to anything that makes blood glucose spike relatively quickly.  

If you pay attention, it is easy to gather data on the carb rebound effect for you personally. (Indeed, if you work at noticing and remembering hunger an hour or two after you eat various things, your personal time series can soon contain as much information is in the aggregate time series of US GDP growth.) Whenever you feel hungry and can't quite figure out why, look at the label on the package of what you had eaten to see if there is added sugar you hadn't realized was there. 

 

Other Drivers of Insulin Levels

Blood glucose is not the only thing that drives insulin levels. For example, nonnutritive sweeteners do not directly raise blood glucose levels; but a great deal of research is being conducted on the suspicion that common artificial sweeteners raise insulin levels. (I would call them "artificial sweeteners," but many make a big point of being "natural" in some way. In addition to their direct effects on insulin, nonnutritive sweeteners may affect the microbiome of gut bacteria in a bad way.)  

One intriguing study had people rinse their mouths with a saccharin solution, then spit it out to test the idea that sweetness itself has some effect on insulin levels. So far the evidence against nonnutritive sweeteners is mixed, and one should worry about possible prejudice against nonnutritive sweeteners distorting scientific judgments about them. But if any nonnutritive sweetener raises insulin, it is by a pathway other than through a direct effect on blood glucose. I hope a great deal of research is being conducted for each specific nonnutritive sweetener, because sugar in all its forms definitely does mess with the insulin system.  

Jason Fung reads the evidence against nonnutritive sweeteners as quite damning, after combining evidence for the effects on obesity itself, disease, and on insulin. Here is a key passage from Chapter 15, "The Diet Delusion": 

Despite reducing sugar, diet sodas do not reduce the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, strokes or heart attacks. But why? Because it is insulin, not calories, that ultimately drives obesity and metabolic syndrome.

The important question is this: Do artificial sweeteners increase insulin levels? Sucralose raises insulin by 20 percent, despite the fact that it contains no calories and no sugar. This insulin-raising effect has also been shown for other artificial sweeteners, including the “natural” sweetener stevia. Despite having a minimal effect on blood sugars, both aspartame and stevia raised insulin levels higher even than table sugar. Artificial sweeteners that raise insulin should be expected to be harmful, not beneficial. Artificial sweeteners may decrease calories and sugar, but not insulin. Yet it is insulin that drives weight gain and diabetes.

Artificial sweeteners may also cause harm by increasing cravings. The brain may perceive an incomplete sense of reward by sensing sweetness without calories, which may then cause overcompensation and increased appetite and cravings. Functional MRI studies show that glucose activates the brain’s reward centers fully—but not sucralose. The incomplete activation could stimulate cravings for sweet food to fully activate the reward centers. In other words, you may be developing a habit of eating sweet foods, leading to overeating. Indeed, most controlled trials show that there is no reduction in caloric intake with the use of artificial sweeteners.

More generally, the effect of many different foods and beverages on insulin have been measured; the effects on insulin are not simply proportional to the effects on blood glucose, so other things are going on, too. Here is a link to an ungated food insulin index table for many types of food and drink. Let me copy out a few results that intrigued me, doubling the standard errors in the table to get 95% confidence intervals. Glucose itself is normalized to have a food insulin index of 100. I consider anything above 40 high. 

 

Food Insulin Indices

Dairy

  • strawberry lowfat yogurt .   64 ± 12
  • skim milk                               60 ± 26
  • 1% milk                                   34 ± 8
  • whole milk                             24 ± 6
  • cream cheese                       18 ± 12
  • butter                                      2 ± 2

 

Fruit and Fruit Juice

  • fresh honeydew melon       93 ± 30
  • bananas                                59 ± 8
  • oranges                                 44 ± 4
  • orange juice                          55 ± 14
  • red delicious apples             43 ± 6
  • apple juice                             47 ± 4
  • avocado                                  4 ± 2
  • olive oil                                    3 ± 2

 

Other Beverages

  • fruit punch                             76 ± 20
  • ice tea                                    69 ± 18
  • Coca-Cola                              44 ± 6
  • beer (4.9% alcohol)               20 ± 8
  • white wine (11% alcohol)         3 ± 2

 

Vegetables

  • frozen corn                           39 ± 14
  • peeled, boiled potatoes      88 ± 16
  • McDonald's French fries      57± 12 

 

Grain and Flour

  • white rice                              58± 18
  • brown rice                            45± 16
  • white bread                          73± 10
  • whole-meal bread                70± 18
  • fat-free blueberry muffin      69 ± 12
  • pizza                                      47± 8
  • brown pasta                          29± 8
  • white pasta                           29± 8

 

Meat and Eggs

  • eggs (poached)                    23± 8
  • steak                                     37 ± 24
  • skinless roast chicken          17± 8
  • white fish                               43± 26
  • hot dog                                  16± 6
  • bacon                                      9± 4
  • tuna packed in water            26± 8
  • tuna packed in oil (drained)  16± 4

 

Beans, Lentils and Nuts

  • canned navy beans               23± 8
  • lentils                                      42 ± 18
  • salted, roasted peanuts         15 ± 4
  • walnuts                                    5± 1

standard errors doubled to indicate 95% confidence intervals

Let me make several points based on this table.

  1. Although the 95% confidence interval is wide, these results back up the idea that skim milk is fattening that I hint at in my post "Whole Milk Is Healthy; Skim Milk Less So." 
  2. Fruit is not innocent if one is worried about insulin elevation and the consequent effects on obesity.
  3. Fruit juice elevates insulin more than whole fruit—note the comparisons between oranges and orange juice, apples and apple juice.
  4. Avocados and olive oil are great if one wants to avoid elevating insulin.
  5. I was surprised at the results for beverages—ice tea being so high, beer and wine being so low, in generating insulin; Coca-Cola not being worse. 
  6. Oil tends to reduce the effects of a food on insulin. For this, look at the comparison between boiled potatoes and McDonald's french fries, the comparison between tuna packed in water and tuna packed in oil, and the fact that pizza isn't worse.
  7. You should worry about anything labeled "fat-free," "low-fat" or "reduced-fat." Besides skim milk, the lowfat yogurt and the fat-free blueberry muffin are things to stay away from. The entire table (too big to reproduce in its entirety) reinforces this point. 
  8. Bread and rice look bad, backing up what I said above.
  9. I was surprised that pasta was as low as it is in its tendency to generate an insulin response. I have no good explanation for this. 
  10. Eggs look good.
  11. In general, meat is OK in terms of its effect on insulin. I was surprised that bacon and hot dogs were so low in generating an insulin response and white fish so high.   
  12. Nuts look good.

 

Insulin Resistance and the Side Effects of Chronically Elevated Insulin

A hormone can be thought of as a drug the body itself produces. In that sense insulin is a powerful drug. Like other drugs, high doses can lead to drug resistance. Insulin resistance is a very serious problem. Indeed, insulin resistance is very closely linked to metabolic syndrome and prediabetes

Because keeping blood sugar within a fairly tight range is such a high priority for the body, when target cells become resistant to insulin, to get the job done, insulin levels simply go up more in response to any given increase in blood sugar. That is, the insulin system starts shouting if some of the cells insulin talks to become hard of hearing. 

If every effect of insulin were blunted to exactly the same degree by insulin resistance, this wouldn't be a big problem. But typically, many dangerous side effects of high insulin remain at close to full strength even when the blood-glucose-lowering effect of insulin is blunted.

When people respond to the carb rebound effect by eating more carbs when they get hungry again, easily digestible carbohydrates can lead to a chronic elevation of insulin which is enhanced in a slow-moving multiplier effect by insulin resistance. Gary Taubes, in his excellent history of nutritional thought Good Calories, Bad Calorieshypothesizes that refined carbohydrates, with the chronic elevation of insulin they cause, could be behind many of the diseases that distinguish the bulk of those living in a modern way from those living in traditional ways that have now mostly vanished from the Earth.

Here is the way Gary Taubes frames his argument in Chapter 5, "Diseases of Civilization": 

On April 16, 1913, Albert Schweitzer arrived at Lambaréné, a small village in the interior lowlands of West Africa, to establish a missionary hospital on the banks of the Ogowe River. Attended by his wife, Hélène, who had trained as a nurse, he began treating patients the very next morning. Schweitzer estimated that he saw almost two thousand patients in the first nine months, and then averaged thirty to forty a day and three operations a week for the better part of four decades. The chief complaints, at least in the beginning, were endemic diseases and infections: malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, elephantiasis, tropical dysentery, and scabies. 

Forty-one years after Schweitzer’s arrival, and a year and a half after he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his missionary work, Schweitzer encountered his first case of appendicitis among the African natives. Appendicitis was not the only Western disease to which the natives seemed to be resistant. “On my arrival in Gabon,” he wrote, “I was astonished to encounter no cases of cancer…. I can not, of course, say positively that there was no cancer at all, but, like other frontier doctors, I can only say that if any cases existed they must have been quite rare.” In the decades that followed, he witnessed a steady increase in cancer victims. “My observations inclined me to attribute this to the fact that the natives were living more and more after the manner of the whites.”

As Schweitzer had suggested, his experience was not uncommon for the era. In 1902, Samuel Hutton, a University of Manchester–trained physician, began treating patients at a Moravian mission in the town of Nain, on the northern coast of Labrador, or about as far from the jungles of West Africa as can be imagined, in both climate and the nature of the indigenous population. As Hutton told it, his Eskimo patients fell into two categories: There were those who lived isolated from European settlements and ate a traditional Eskimo diet. “The Eskimo is a meat eater,” he wrote, “the vegetable part of his diet is a meager one.” Then there were those Eskimos living in Nain or near other European settlers who had taken to consuming a “settler’s dietary,” consisting primarily of “tea, bread, ship’s biscuits, molasses, and salt fish or pork.” Among the former, European diseases were uncommon or remarkably rare. ...

Most of these historical observations came from colonial and missionary physicians like Schweitzer and Hutton, administering to populations prior to and coincidental with their first substantial exposure to Western foods. The new diet inevitably included carbohydrate foods that could be transported around the world without spoiling or being devoured by rodents on the way: sugar, molasses, white flour, and white rice. Then diseases of civilization, or Western diseases, would appear: obesity, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, various forms of cancer, cavities, periodontal disease, appendicitis, peptic ulcers, diverticulitis, gallstones, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and constipation. When any diseases of civilization appeared, all of them would eventually appear. This led investigators to propose that all these diseases had a single common cause—the consumption of easily digestible, refined carbohydrates. The hypothesis was rejected in the early 1970s, when it could not be reconciled with Keys’s hypothesis that fat was the problem, an attendant implication of which was that carbohydrates were part of the solution. But was this alternative carbohydrate hypothesis rejected because compelling evidence refuted it, or for reasons considerably less scientific?

It is not impossible to think that taking a very high dose of a powerful drug every day, year after year could cause many serious side effects. Likewise, the possibility must be considered that very high doses of insulin every day, year after year, could contribute to a wide range of diseases through its side effects on a wide range of cell types. (And of course, a few of these diseases, such as dental cavities, may result from sugar or other refined carbs in a way that does not involve insulin.)

People often talk as if obesity itself caused many chronic diseases. But other than joint problems, and the social stigma of obesity, almost all of the diseases associated with obesity could be due to the common cause of elevated insulin levels. That is,

  • chronically elevated insulin levels usually cause obesity, and
  • chronically elevated insulin levels have many dangerous side effects. 

There is an interesting theoretical case in which chronically high insulin levels would be de-linked from obesity. Suppose the fat cells of someone caught in a carb rebound cycle became resistant to insulin, but his or her muscle cells retained their normal sensitivity to insulin. Because the fat cells would not respond much to the insulin signal telling them to take in glucose from the bloodstream and convert it into triglycerides and then fat, he or she would not gain much weight. But to keep blood glucose levels in line, insulin levels would have to go up even further to get the job done just from the muscle cell response to insulin. If high insulin levels cause most of the chronic diseases we associate with obesity, then while still normal in weight, he or she would be at risk for all of these chronic diseases. This is someone others might envy for being able to eat anything without gaining weight—right up until he or she died of a heart attack. 

 

The Implications of Insulin Resistance for Obesity

If, on the other hand, muscle cells become more resistant to insulin than fat cells, then the higher insulin levels that result from insulin resistance will lead to weight gain. Moreover, the fact that even a little food can still elevate insulin levels quite a bit will make weight loss very difficult. In saying this, I have in mind this model relating insulin levels to fat accumulation and decumulation

  • high insulin level —> accumulation of body fat
  • medium insulin levels over a substantial range —> body fat steady
  • low insulin level —> fat burning

If you have insulin resistance for muscle cells but not fat cells, even small amounts of food will prevent reaching an insulin level low enough to lead to fat burning. The only way to get insulin levels low enough to lead to fat burning may be to have a substantial period of time with no food at all—fasting.  

I should say that in addition to insulin levels, weight gain and loss are also regulated by the amount of body fat an individual already has. Presumably there are hormones fat cells send out saying "Here I am." Because of the effect of high body fat levels in restraining further fat accumulation, high insulin levels lead to a higher steady-state weight, not unending weight gain. According to this theory, current average insulin levels are the main determinant of an individuals weight setpoint or "fat thermostat." Current average insulin levels are in turn determined mainly by current diet and by the progression of insulin resistance.

Similarly, the restraining effect of low body fat levels on further fat burning means that lowering one's average insulin levels a given amount typically leads to a lower steady-state weight, not unending weight loss. In addition to the direct effect of changes in what and when one eats on average insulin levels, it may  be possible to lower insulin resistance by the equivalent of a "drug holiday": prolonged periods of very low insulin levels. The way to get prolonged periods of very low insulin levels is through fasting.

 

The Short-Run Blood Glucose Steady-State Theory of Fasting Done Right

The image many people have of going without food for a period of time is strongly conditioned by their experience of the carb rebound effect, with its abnormally low blood sugar levels. Absent the carb rebound effect, going without food for a period of time is much easier. 

Suppose one's last meal before beginning the fast is comprised entirely of food with a very low food insulin index. Then there will be no rebound. Instead of blood sugar dropping so low it generates intense hunger, blood glucose and insulin levels will drop just low enough that the rate at which glycogen and body fat stores are raided is just enough to replace the glucose that is used up to provide energy. That is, one will go into a short-run steady-state with a slightly low—but not severely low—level of blood glucose.  

Based on my own experience and that of a couple of other people I know who are following Jason Fung's recommendations, I can describe the phenomenology of this short-run steady-state with a mildly low level of blood sugar as one of gentle hunger that I can readily distract myself from by something as simple as work or TV. (But if I have occasion to think about food, this gentle hunger feels a bit stronger.) 

 

Is Fasting Dangerous?

One danger of fasting is the danger of getting one's electrolytes out of balance. This danger is straightforward to address. One can either drink bone broth during one's fast as Jason Fung recommends, or take the simpler course of taking electrolyte pills such as these SaltStick capsules I have used.

Link to Amazon page for SaltStick caps. Note: Amazon may not have the cheapest prices.

(Some other electrolyte products are loaded with nonnutritive sweeteners.)

A much bigger danger of fasting is that after a while it becomes so easy that one can get tempted to try very long periods of time lasting weeks. Sparse anecdotal data discussed in this useful PaleoLeap blog post suggests some dangers from fasting for weeks, even if it seems easy and fat stores remain. But (in many cases for religious reasons) people have fasted for one or two days frequently enough it is unlikely fasting done right for these length of times is dangerous for someone in good health to begin with. Another argument that fasting for up to 48 hours should be quite safe is likelihood that our ancestors in the Pleistocene almost surely had to weather frequent periods of foodlessness for at least that long. So we should be fairly well adapted to intermittent fasting for such relatively short periods. 

Legal Notice: Fast for longer than 48 hours at your own risk. Indeed, let me copy and say on my own behalf the disclaimer in that PaleoLeap blog post:

Since this article touches on a subject that could potentially have negative health outcomes, it’s in order to reiterate the website’s health disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.

Be sure to replenish your electrolytes even during shorter fasts. And sit or lie down if you ever feel faint. 

Since glycogen stores add up to only about 24 hours worth of calories, 42-48 hour fasts should be long enough to occasion quite a bit of fat burning. Even 18-hour fasts—for example, skipping lunch and snacks; eating lunch and dinner close together—are likely to lead to substantial fat burning when one's initial long-run steady-state level of body fat is based on never "fasting" longer than the 8 hours or less of sleep.  

For those tempted by longer fasts than 48 hours, a safer approach (given how little solid evidence we have about the safety of longer fasts) is to do a long modified fast broken up by a meal with a very low food insulin index every 48 hours. Then when the long modified fast is over, feast on a wider variety of foods with somewhat higher food insulin indices (but still below 40) so that the overall program retains enough food fun to be sustainable. 

 

But What About Calories-In/Calories Out? 

My views on calories in/calories out are well expressed in my Storify story "How the Calories In/Calories Out Theory Obscures the Endogeneity of Calories In and Out to Subjective Hunger and Energy." Including in weight gain in calories all three of glycogen (at about 450 calories per pound of glycogen plus associated water), body fat (at about 3500 calories per pound) and muscle (at about 2500 calories per pound) there is indeed an energy balance identity

Weight Gain in Calories = Calories Consumed - Calories Expended.

However, the terms on the right-hand side of this equation are not exogenous.

  1. Calories expended depend on blood glucose levels both through changes in metabolic rates and subconscious changes in activity levels. 
  2. Insulin initially raises calories expended, but then drives blood glucose levels down, leading not only to lower calories expended but also to greater hunger and thus often to more calories consumed. 

On the endogeneity of calories in and calories out, also see "Julia Belluz and Javier Zarracina: Why You'll Be Disappointed If You Are Exercising to Lose Weight, Explained with 60+ Studies." 

In many ways, it is more instructive to read the energy balance identity in this direction:

Calories Expended = Calories Consumed + Weight Loss in Calories

That is, for a given amount of calories consumed, the more effective one is at weight loss, the more energetic one will feel. If insulin levels are high enough to prevent weight loss, one will feel less energetic for a given amount of calories consumed than if insulin levels are low enough to allow weight loss. What this means in practice is that eating just a little bit that is mostly easily digestible carbs feels awful, while if one eats nothing one can effectively feast on one's own body fat.

Both of these experiments have been done. Calorie restriction with easily digestible carbs in the mix is very unpleasant. (More on that in a future post.) Fasting is not that bad, done right.  

During fasting, the energy balance identity becomes

Calories Expended = Weight Loss in Calories

Weight loss in calories in turn goes up with very low insulin levels. Fortunately, even insulin resistance doesn't prevent insulin levels from being very low by the end of a substantial fast. But insulin resistance does mean that the initial part of the fast before insulin levels have fallen all the way might be somewhat harder, both in less weight being lost and in how energetic one feels. 

There is a lot more to be said to trash the way the energy balance identity is misinterpreted. The main mistake is adding in false exogeneity assumptions under the table. I hope to write more posts about that. In "How the Calories In/Calories Out Theory Obscures the Endogeneity of Calories In and Out to Subjective Hunger and Energy" I make the analogy that the way calories in/calories out is usually interpreted—"To lose weight, eat less, exercise more"—is about as insightful as saying that the way to improve the trade balance is to increase exports and reduce imports. To dig into that analogy, the way calories in/calories out is usually interpreted is like taking the identity

Trade Balance = Exports - Imports

and assuming that exports and imports are exogenous except for the effects of tariffs. In reality, it is much closer to the truth to say that the adjustment of the exchange rate makes exports and imports adjust to equal desired capital flows. (See "International Finance: A Primer.") My central analogy in this post is to compare insulin levels to the money growth rate. But a secondary analogy here at the bottom of this post, the new analogy is to compare insulin levels to the international capital flows that drive trade balances. Everything else adjusts to be in line with the insulin signals.  

 

Conclusion

It is common for family practice doctors to tell their patients they should lose weight. The typical advice is "eat less, exercise more." Think of this advice "eat less, exercise more" as an intervention. If being told the words "eat less, exercise more" were a pill, we would judge this pill a public health failure. People all around the world keep getting fatter, despite being well dosed with this "eat less, exercise more" advice. 

The problem is that the advice "eat less, exercise more" treats food intake and energy expenditure as if it were an exogenous conscious decision. My view is that effective weight loss is all about understanding the body's regulatory mechanisms. (Of course, exercise has many other benefits, however little it contributes to weight loss.) 

One nice demonstration of the importance of the body's regulatory mechanism for weight is that if one gains a pound a year of fat, as is the trend throughout adulthood for many Americans, that excess of 3500 calories a year of calories consumed over calories expended is a little less than 10 calories a day. Getting things in balance within an average of 10 calories a day is quite a feat! Clearly a lot is going on at a subconscious level. To an excellent approximation, it is all about the regulatory system. 

Insulin and its countersignal glucagon are the central hormones in the human body's overall energy regulation system. Pay attention to how their levels are determined, and devising effective weight control strategies becomes much easier. 

 

For more contrarian discussion of nutrition, obesity and chronic diseases, don't miss:

 

Greg Ip—The Fed's Choice: Overheat the Economy or Give Up Its 2% Per Year Inflation Target

My post "When the Output Gap is Zero, But Inflation is Below Target" appeared on August 17, 2017. On September 13, 2017, I was pleased to see Greg Ip pick up much of the argument in my post in his Wall Street Journal article "The Fed’s Bad Options for Addressing Too-Low Inflation: The central bank’s choice: overheat the economy or give up its 2% target." 

In "When the Output Gap is Zero, But Inflation is Below Target" I write:

Sometimes journalists discuss a zero output gap combined with too-low inflation as if such a situation were strange, but a range of different macroeconomic theories all have the property that a zero output gap is consistent with any constant inflation rate. (This is an aspect of "monetary superneutrality.")

 27 days later, Greg Ip writes:

Ms. Yellen’s worldview assumes that when unemployment is this low—4.4% in August—inflation should move up to the Fed’s target of 2%. Instead, it may have stabilized around 1.5%. That presents the Fed with some unpalatable options: deliberately overheat the economy for years to get inflation back up, then potentially induce a recession to stop it from overshooting; or give up on the 2% target, which could hobble its ability to combat future recessions.

This isn’t scaremongering: It’s the logical consequence of how central banks believe inflation operates. At the center of their model is the Phillips curve, according to which inflation edges lower when unemployment is above its natural, equilibrium level and putting downward pressure on prices and wages. Below that natural rate, also known as full employment, inflation crawls higher.

Later on in his article, Greg Ip argues that trend inflation has indeed fallen:

Since the current expansion began in 2009, inflation has persistently fallen short of 2%. ...

That leaves the third explanation: Trend inflation has fallen. ...

He uses this graph to help make that argument,

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 10.18.35 AM.png

and backs it up by referencing the Fed's own internal deliberations:

In 2014, Fed staff slightly revised down its own assessment of trend inflation, according to minutes to the central bank’s June meeting that year. ...

Greg Ip sees a dilemma:

Raising inflation half a point could require letting unemployment drop to around 3.5% and keeping it there for five years. Then, to prevent inflation from overshooting, the Fed would have to slow the economy and guide unemployment back over 4%. In theory it could do this gradually enough to avoid a recession; in practice, the number of times since 1948 when unemployment has gone up that much without a recession is zero, according to Goldman Sachs.

The alternative is to ditch the 2% target and accept 1.5% as the new inflation trend. 

I see much less of a dilemma. Here from my post: "When the Output Gap is Zero, But Inflation is Below Target":

To bring inflation back up to target would require a period of time with a positive output gap. 

Since positive output gaps are pleasant given all the distortions that make the natural level of output lower than the level at which (other than the effects on inflation) the marginal benefit of output equals the marginal cost, why don't central banks shoot for a positive output gap until inflation returns to the target of 2% per year? I think the answer is:

1. Central bankers are not used to trying to have positive output gaps. The low unemployment rates associated with positive output gaps seem dangerous.

2. Central bankers don't really like having an inflation target above zero. They feel in their bones that their job is to keep inflation down, close to zero, not to push it up. 

I then go on to point out that it is OK to have a lower inflation target when one is prepared to use negative interest rates, as I discussed at length in  "The Costs and Benefits of Repealing the Zero Lower Bound...and Then Lowering the Long-Run Inflation Target." What a central bank thinks about negative interest rate policy matters even when the central bank is not currently using negative interest rates. 

 

On the Virtue of Self-Distraction

There are downsides to being distracted. (See above.) But here I want to talk about the upside to being able to distract oneself when appropriate. A good example is the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment. Here is the current opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Stanford marshmallow experiment:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment[1] was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores,[2] educational attainment,[3] body mass index (BMI),[4] and other life measures.[5]

One detail not mentioned in the Wikipedia article that I remember reading somewhere is that many of the children who didn't eat the marshmallow managed this feat by distracting themselves somehow (despite the lack of outer distractions in the room).  

Distracting oneself can be a good way to resist temptation. For example, if tempted to eat something with sugar in it (see Sugar as a Slow Poison, turning one's attention to a good TV show out of immediate reach of anything sugary can reduce the strength of that temptation. At a bigger level, constructing an interesting life for oneself in other ways can provide distraction sufficient to reduce the strength of the temptation to lie, cheat and steal. 

For moments of temptation when one is caught otherwise unprepared, it is good to have ready a powerful, innocent mental distraction. For some, a good math problem would work; for others, a memorized poem or song might work. One way or another, figure out a way to distract yourself from temptation. 

If there is no way to distract yourself from a temptation, chances are the temptation has an element of addiction or obsession to it. Assuming it is a bad addiction or obsession, it is then good to get help when one runs up against a temptation not amenable to the power of self distraction. 

If the temptation is the temptation to get distracted, that is not the subject of this post. But the image at the top may be helpful. 

Hilary Putnam on the Philosophy of Science

Thanks to C. Trombley for pointing me to this video.

One of my best memories from graduate school (while getting a PhD in Economics at Harvard) was sitting in on a Philosophy of Science class by Hilary Putnam. Hilary Putnam argued that each discipline has its own wisdom that is much deeper than attempts to legislate methodology from on high. 

Indeed, when academic disciplines display a lack of wisdom, it is often because someone has tried with some success to enforce a methodology. 

The Economist on Minimum Wages Versus Wage Subsidies

I am glad to have the Economist reinforce the arguments against minimum wages that I made in "Inequality Is About the Poor, Not About the Rich." Here is the Economist's view:

Yet however well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal, and in a world which is increasingly polarised economically, many will find their job prospects dimmed and wages squeezed. The best way of helping them is not, as many on the left seem to think, to push up minimum wages. Jacking up the floor too far would accelerate the shift from human workers to computers. Better to top up low wages with public money so that anyone who works has a reasonable income, through a bold expansion of the tax credits that countries such as America and Britain use.

On John Locke's Labor Theory of Property

John Locke enunciates an intriguing principle to govern property rights in section 27 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (Chapter V "Of Property"):

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

The starting place for John Locke's argument seems sound: 

  1. People have a property right in their own bodies.
  2. To the extent possible, people should have a property right in their own labor.

The difficulty that John Locke does his best to minimize is this: what if my labor modifies something to which I did not have a property right? Then

  • if the modified thing is made mine, I have arrogated to myself something that was not mine by "mixing it with my labor";
  • if the modified thing is not made mine, then the labor I have put into modifying it has been taken away from me. 

John Locke supposes that there are plenty of things available that have not been mixed with anyone's labor, so I might as well be given that thing that was not mine if I mix my labor with it. Yes it was not mine and now it is mine, but anyone else can get one if they want, John Locke argues. But this is too optimistic. In the world of 2017, there is a shortage of attractive land that is unowned by anyone, and an even greater shortage of land over which no nation claims political dominion. Even when it comes to ideas, I might pluck an idea out of the Platonic realm and claim ownership of it by thinking about it a little bit, when given another week or another year you might have figured that idea out. 

The marginalist theory has another proposed principle: whoever owns the thing to begin with, they should be willing to pay me the improvement in value from modifying it. The marginalist theory then has no theory at all for the ownership of things that are not themselves the results of someone's labor.

The Coasian principle is that if there were no frictions, it there would be Pareto efficiency regardless of how the property rights are assigned, but in practice, various frictions suggest who should own something in order to minimize the efficiency costs of those frictions. For example, it might be convenient, other things equal, to assign ownership of something to someone who is mixing labor with it in order to reduce transactions costs and any problems from imperfect competition. This is only one possibility when coming from a Coasian point of view, but it is a possibility in the direction of what John Locke is suggesting. 

For an initial allocation of property when there really is an abundance of items that no-one has labored over, Locke's labor theory of property seems fine if one does not carefully think through what happens over time. But when items no-one has labored over will become scarce later on, that future scarcity cannot be ignored. Overall, Locke's labor theory of property seems like an excellent early attempt at a theory of property, but it is far from being a fully acceptable theory of property. It is well worth considering what other alternatives there are. I hope to return to this issue in future John Locke posts. 

 

Don't miss other John Locke posts. Links at "John Locke's State of Nature and State of War."

Greg Ip Defends the Dismal Science

Going forward, in principle, economists have the knowledge and tools to avert another financial crisis and to pull the economy quickly out of another potential Great Recession, or failing that to provide clear enough warnings and admonitions that the blame falls on those who don't heed economists. But the failure to avert the last financial crisis in 2008 and the long-drawn-out aftermath of that financial crisis and the Great Recession have hurt the reputation of economists. 

However, some of the negative views of economists predate economists' failure in 2008 and after. In his August 25, 2017 Wall Street Journal article "In Defense of the Dismal Science," (All the quotations here are from that article.) Greg Ip explains negative views of economics and economists and defends economics and its practitioners. These two paragraphs best sum up his discussion:  

Thus, when economists preach the virtues of globalization, market solutions or cost-benefit analysis, they sound to critics on the left like corporate shills lacking any moral anchor. To critics on the right, they sound like globalist elites who despise patriotism.

Yet it is precisely their love of numbers that makes economists invaluable. By stripping the emotions from pressing problems, economists can often illuminate the most practical ways to tackle them—but only if ordinary people and their representatives are prepared to listen.

On the first charge against economics, some economists no doubt are corporate shills lacking any moral anchor, but that is mostly limited to a subset of those on the payroll of corporations or wealthy patrons. (Incentives affect economists, too.)

Something I hope will tug the overall worldview of economists away from too much of a corporate worldview is the increasing amount of work on measuring nonmarket goods with subjective well-being data I am involved in (1, 2). 


As to the second charge, I view caring about the welfare of all human beings as consistent with patriotism. The United States is still the indispensable nation, and needs to strengthen itself by welcoming more people as citizens rather than discouraging people from joining in the historic mission of the United States. 

I love Greg's line "it is precisely their love of numbers that makes economists invaluable." In addition to the obvious meaning, it is their love of numbers—and in some cases their interpersonal cluelessness—that makes many economists more likely to tell the truth than others who are more sensitive to the political ramifications of any statement. 

Today, the greatest strength of economics as a discipline is its devotion to statistics:

In 1963, roughly half the papers published in the top three American economics journals were theoretical, according to a tally by Daniel Hamermesh, now at Royal Holloway, University of London. By 2011, that figure had shrunk to 28%; the remainder were empirical papers based on public data, on data gathered by the authors or on experiments. Economic debates these days are won not by the best theory but by the best data: Statistics are more important than calculus. Economists are far more obsessed with measurement than with math. When public discourse is plagued by innumeracy, this capacity to count is no small thing.

Economics has the most unity where economists have done good statistical work: 

A study by Gordon Dahl and Roger Gordon of the University of California, San Diego, found that disagreement among economists was greatest where the empirical research was most sparse ...

The second great strength of economics is the understanding of endogeneity that comes from learning economic theory: 

Economists are also instinctively skeptical of simple explanations. They are trained to look for equilibrium, which is another way of saying, “When you change one thing, how do other things respond? Where do things settle once all interactions have occurred?”

These two strengths of economics make it important for economists to pursue a wide range of research topics that go far beyond the traditional domain of economics. On that points, see:

Circling back to the financial crisis of 2008, Ricardo Reis describes well both the limitations and value of economics:

But such misjudgments don’t justify the charges leveled at economists. Take, for example, their inability to predict financial meltdowns. Crises almost by definition are unpredictable. In a recent essay, Ricardo Reis, an economist at the London School of Economics, argues that failing to foretell a financial crash is no more an indictment of economics than failing to predict when a patient will die is an indictment of medicine. Economists didn’t predict the financial crisis, Prof. Reis notes, but they did help to arrest it by applying theory and experience: “The economy did not die, and a Great Depression was avoided, in no small part due to the advances of economics over many decades.”

Economics can say that high capital requirements will lessen the chance of a financial crisis but if that advice to have high capital requirements is not heeded it can't easily predict when the financial crisis will happen. Economic can't always predict when a recession will strike, but it can say that negative interest rates will shorten the length and reduce the severity of a recession. And economics can give insight into a thousand other issues. But it can't keep us from being surprised by events.