The Black Swan, and why there is no perfect diet

The Black Swan and why there is no perfect diet
Courtesy Niklas Rhose

The nutritional literature frustrates me to no end. You can find data-supported advice to avoid saturated fat. You can find data-supported advice to avoid simple carbohydrates. You name one part of a diet…any part of a diet…and you can find data-supported claims to eat it or not eat it.

Frustration is an understatement.

With that said, I’ve made my peace. I found the diet that works best for me. (Because of my lifestyle, I end up eating 60% of the time vegan, 30% of the time vegetarian, and 10% of the time “other”.)

I’ve done months-long experiments with multiple diets, and I’ve found the diet that makes me feel best. I’ve kept this diet for about three years now, and I feel great.

Even so, I don’t recommend a vegetarian or vegan diet for anyone. I don’t recommend any one diet for anyone, because there’s way too much evidence that different people respond differently to different diets. There’s no one size fits all diet, as far as I can tell.

Take cardiovascular health. I’m very interested in this topic. My dad had a heart attack and a triple bypass surgery when he was 45 years old. He’s doing great today, but of course I’d love to avoid the difficulty he faced along the way.

Let’s use the analogy of the vascular system as a plumbing network. (I know, the plumbing model is way too simple and misleading. I only want to use it as a highest level abstraction.) It’s easy to think of blocked arteries as blocked pipes.

But what if your cardiovascular system has stainless steel pipes, while my cardiovascular system has PVC pipes? What if some people have blood that’s a mix of baking soda and vinegar, while other people have blood that’s salt water?

And what if cardiovascular health doesn’t even exist? What if the health of what we call the cardiovascular system is tied deeply to the health of the gastrointestinal, or some other, system? What if, when we talk about health, sub-systems within the body mean next to nothing?

I’m reading the second edition of The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. At the end, it includes a new essay on robustness and fragility, where Taleb writes in part about health. Here’s one excerpt:

…we had to have been designed to experience extreme hunger and extreme abundance. So our food intake had to have been fractal. Not a single one of those promoting the “three meals a day”, “eat in moderation” idea has tested it empirically to see whether it is healthier than intermittent fasts followed by large feasts.

It’s an important point. What if our health is dictated less by what we eat, and more by when or how we eat? We have tons of research about the relative merit of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. What if, by focusing on macronutrients, we’re completely missing the point?

Taleb says that “living organisms (whether the human body or the economy) need variability and randomness”. I don’t see any reason why randomness needs to exist only within an individual organism. I can see immense value in having randomness distributed throughout a collection of organisms. How would that work? By, say, having the cardiovascular systems of different humans have different properties. What clogs one person’s arteries may lubricate another person’s arteries.

I’m not a nutritionist. Clearly. But I’m super frustrated by the conflicting data-driven advice we get from experts. It’s one thing if it’s just your average Joe screaming about his Paleo diet. It’s different when you have well-respected, disciplined researchers reaching different conclusions from different datasets.

The Black Swan helped me make peace with why so many data-supported nutritional recommendations conflict. We’re probably focusing on the wrong questions. We’re probably trying to generalize across systems that aren’t universal. I can easily see a scenario where nature’s pursuit of variability and randomness manifests in different people responding differently to different diets.

We can take a lesson from this far beyond nutrition. The questions you ask will determine the answers your get. If you frame the importance of diet around macronutrients, you’re limiting the potential answers you’ll find. If you assume all people respond the same way to all diets, you’re similarly limiting your investigation.

The same is true for business. Be careful how you pose your questions. Know what constraints you’re introducing. A lack of vigilance can lead you down a fruitless or, worse, destructive path.

(By the way, Nassim Taleb wouldn’t agree with me on the diet advice. He recommends everyone minimize their carbohydrate intake.)

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