Currently viewing the category: "Advice"

Many organizations have stepped up with amazing resources on COVID-19 impacts and responses around the world. Here’s a set of links I’ve found helpful that might be of use for students, faculty and staff around the Friedman School of Nutrition or in related groups. Categories shown are in rough order of urgency and relevance for us, especially regarding impacts and responses in agriculture and the food system. Please comment or email to me any additions or updates.

1. Boston-area volunteering
— Public health students supporting local public health agencies
— Health science students supporting medical staff at BMC & HMS
— Neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid compiled by Boston Public Library

2. The basics
— Our indispensable U.S. CDC & Massachusetts Dept of Public Health
— Announcements and info for Tufts University & the Friedman School
–Covid-related nutrition advice from dieticians in the US and UK

3. Data on impacts and responses
–Epidemiological forecasts
– for the U.S. and individual states, from IHME
– for the U.S., UK and Europe, from Imperial College MRC
–Global monitoring from Our World in Data
–Daily situation reports from the WHO
–Africa-specific info from Amref, AfricaCDC, and WHO-Africa

4. Agriculture, food and nutrition
–UN Standing Committee on Nutrition list of resources
–UN system agency responses from FAO, WFP & UNICEF
–Research from the Center for Global Development & IFPRI
–Global impacts on school meals: https://gcnf.org/covid

5. Analyses and writing of special interest (to me)
— IRI on consumers’ response in terms of food purchases
— Eater’s data on impacts for US restaurants
— IEG Vu on food system in Italy (+ useful weekly agribusiness briefing)
— Gro Intelligence ag data analyses: https://app.gro-intelligence.com/signup
— Economists estimating the payoff from social (physical) distancing

6. The great migration to online learning
— AAUP on Coronavirus impacts & response in higher education
— Michael Bruening’s version of I will survive (>2 million views!)

5. A daily general news source that won’t drive you crazy
— Website and newsletters from Axios (“smart brevity”)

 

People occasionally send me questions about food. Once before, I posted my responses on this blog — that was about sustainability. This time, the questions were mostly about veganism, and I think you’ll agree that they’re worth answering. I hope I’ve done them justice.

What book about nutrition do you frequently recommend to friends?

My Year of Meats, by Ruth Ozeki. Long ago, a copy was given to me by the great Jerry Shively. It’s not actually about nutrition but it’s fun and insightful about food.  If people really want to learn about nutrition science, check out a standard textbook like Wardlaw’s Contemporary Nutrition. It’s surprisingly readable.

How much does diet really affect mood and psychological well-being?

A lot.  In my experience, mood and metabolism are closely related, but I’m no psychologist — at Tufts our expert on this is Robin Kanarek.

Is the vegan diet equally good for everyone? (Why or why not?)

No. I see no reason why everyone “should” be vegan. But many people often eat too much red and processed meat, relative to what most nutritionists consider a healthy diet.  The most recent instance of this argument is the EAT-Lancet report led by Walter Willett, who is the world champion of this view. Another reason to limit animal foods is that livestock are often treated terribly, and also cause environmental harm (eg the methane burps of cows and other ruminants, and the land used to grow feed which would otherwise be used in other ways), as well as antibiotic resistance (in settings where antibiotics for livestock are overused).   But none of those harms provide a persuasive call for zero animal foods, or even near-zero. Ultimately it’s pretty clear that the evidence favors a reducitarian or flexitarian approach, in which choices depends on local circumstances at each place and time.

In my view, zero is the right number mainly for people who want bright lines and absolute rules. Often that rigidity is a temporary — a first step towards a balanced approach.  A diet with some red meat, poultry or pork, milk and eggs can easily be helpful.  These food groups are needed for human health especially in utero and infancy for maternal and child health, and useful in agriculture for crop-livestock interactions.  Even animal welfare does not call for zero farmed animals, since that argument would rely on an ethical argument that places any suffering above the value of coming to life in the first place. 

On this and other topics, the biggest challenge I see is how to improve our own diets while helping others get more of what they want and need.  It’s not helpful to focus only on improving the diets of relatively privileged people, without doing what we can to bring better diets into reach for everyone else.  

What are the top dangers of veganism, and how would you recommend avoiding them? (More generally, things that keep people from leading a healthy, balanced, and sustainable diet.)

As far as I can tell, the main danger associated with veganism is sanctimony — real or perceived.  Whenever one groups casts itself as enlightened, others will push back and proponents risk getting stuck in an echo chamber.  Some people are very skilled at pursuing their own ideals without losing contact with others, like the brilliant journalist Ezra Klein in his memorable interview with Melanie Joy.

Three big meals or seven small meals? (A lot of people are confused about the question of snacking.)

I don’t know about meal size as such, but intermittent fasting seems like one of the most exciting new frontiers in nutrition.  Allowing for more complete digestion of everything one has eaten, especially overnight, could be a good idea for many reasons.  I’m not sure the term “fasting” is the right word, however — I’d rather just call it concentrated mealtimes, choosing times when one can plan ahead for mindful eating. 

What purchase of $50 or less has improved your ability to lead a healthy diet the most? (e.g. soymilk maker, fitness tracker, etc.)

A bathroom scale, around $20.  It’s an amazing technology, but challenging to ignore fluctuations and use it only to see trends.

If I were an entrepreneur I’d make one whose screen shows each day only as a dot relative to your moving average, and glows to say thanks when you step on it every day at about the same time. Like a wifi scale, but simpler and cheaper.

What are the two foods you’d recommend to stop eating or drastically cut out?

I wouldn’t. First because I’m not a dietitian, but also because I know they don’t shout against any one or two foods. They focus on the whole diet, because when we deliberately cut out something, we often compensate in other ways.

Ingredients are another matter — one priority for global health is to spread the ban on trans fats to developing countries like India.

What is worst advice you hear people give in the nutrition community routinely?

I’ll pass — there’s too much noise, and no need to single out anything in particular.

What’s the top “superfood” or supplement that you recommend everyone should incorporate into their diet? (Does not have to be an exotic superfood.)

There’s nothing I would recommend to everyone.  I happen to love peanut butter, but maybe that’s because it was a favorite after-school snack when I was little, and also a popular luxury among villagers in rural Zimbabwe where I lived after college. In general, I like buying things like peanuts that are often grown by poorer farmers, since those crops usually employ a lot of workers and don’t require too much energy or water.

Low-fat vs. low-carb diet for weight loss? (Is one inherently better? Does it matter?)

Definely pass — weight loss advice is for dietitians and other health professionals, not economists.

What is detoxification and how do you feel about the need for it? (Including intermittent fasting.)

Again I’m no expert on anything biochemical, but I have seen some evidence suggesting that autophagy, triggered by periods of not eating, can be helpful.  What I don’t understand is why call that detoxification — why not just call it healthy metabolism?

Breakfast or no breakfast?

Presumably that depends on the rest of one’s daily schedule and family circumstances.  I’m lucky and can choose my mealtimes, but many people don’t have that luxury.

In the past few years, what new attitude or belief has most shaped your understanding of healthy nutrition and lifestyle?

So many changes: towards lower carbs and more whole grains, towards healthier fats, concentrated meal times, exercise to avoid back pain, etc., but maybe those changes just trace my own aging!

What do you do when you’re craving junk food? (It can be when you’re traveling, at a party, etc., if you normally don’t crave it.)

I eat some and then stop.  One of the most useful ideas in all of economics is diminishing returns: the first few spoonfuls are the best-tasting, and eventually one reaches the point where harms outweigh benefits.  Economics is all about such U-shaped functions, about learning when to slow and stop. Studying the economics of food markets also helps me resist food marketing.  A lot of what we find delicious is the power of suggestion.

A little bit about you – how would you describe your work on food?

I’m an economist in a nutrition school.  That means I use nutrition science to inform my own and others’ understanding of individual behavior and societal outcomes — an example of this work is a literature review I just did called “Beyond calories: The new economics of nutrition

 

Academic spam is a real problem.  Every day I get many emails inviting me to fake conferences and pretend journals.  This junk mail is clever enough to pass through automated filters, and to fool just enough students and researchers into paying for their useless services — or tempt them into trying to fool employers with a puffed-up CV.

It takes time and attention to distinguish fake from real.  Much has been written about the problem.  The pioneer effort is Beall’s list, followed by other efforts to stop predatory journals and help people choose better outlets. The pay-to-publish and pay-to-attend industry even puts out their own guide to using their services, encouraging people to think and check before submitting.  Some academics are really into this, with fun blogs about flaky conferences and flaky journals, or this fancy Christmas joke.

This year I started building my own blocked senders list of sites that have sent me academic spam.  It’s pretty easy:  instead of deleting the junk, I add the sender to my blocked list.  This takes a couple more clicks, and I’ve ended up with a list that looks like this:

My list of about 400 senders now catches about two-thirds of the incoming spam, sending it directly to the junk folder.  The filtered ones are in bold, unread, in case you want to check what was blocked:

I did this partly for myself, but also to share the list online so others could import and add to it, here:  http://bit.ly/academicspammers.

With a little crowdsourcing, we could all enjoy a less spammy future.

 

It’s the first weekend of a new semester – time to take stock and set direction for the spring.  As Anne of Green Gables put it: ‘a new day, with no mistakes in it yet’.

With that… time for what might might be my first mistake:  an overly long blog post.  In the past I’ve used this site to post short roundups of great new stuff from the internet, with links to some of the best ideas that feel new to me for the start of each semester.  Topics have included filter bubbles, redefining sustainability, song lyrics, ethical economics, teaching economics, and data visualization.  My goal is share ways to avoid previous errors, so when I do make mistakes at least they’ll be new ones.

In 2017, the whiplash transition from Obama to Trump has shaken every aspect of American life, down to the root of rethinking how we talk about race, gender and other aspects of who we are.  That calls for many things, including perhaps the need to address those issues more directly in this kind of blog.  Taking on something so fundamental as social identity means my mistakes could be bigger and more consequential than usual, but I hope they are not quite the same old errors as in the past.

For NUTR 238, our focus is how economics can help improve the food system.  Economic analysis starts with individuals’ choices, and there is now a lot of economics about how we form and use various identities.  What sort of person do we want to become?  How do we categorize other people?  Identities like being a vegan or an environmentalist play huge roles in our food choices, and could even cause bias in nutrition research.

Many features of social identity are inherited, and change only gradually.  My own family name was changed completely by my great-grandfather on arrival in Boston.  My father’s parents changed it again, to sound even more English.  Identity evolves in part through choices like that – and yes, there are economics studies of this, both family names and first names.

Each of us has many interacting identities, of which some aspects are private and others can be used as a public signal.  Many signals involve things we say, including what we say about race and gender.  A meta demonstration of this is one of my favorite signs from the women’s march of January 2017: If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.  That sign says a lot, including:  I am a person who uses the word ‘intersectional.

By definition, the meaning of a social identity is what other people make of it – especially distant people, who don’t know the real you.  As the old joke has it, a loving parent might say their kid in a new uniform, “To me of course you’re a real captain, but… to a captain are you a captain”?  We can alter our own social identity through our names, our language and clothing – and we can also contribute to how others’ traits are interpreted, including immutable traits like skin color.

Regarding racial identity, as a white professor in a largely white school, my own change of perspective begins with Seeing White.  It’s a long-form podcast, 14 episodes each of which runs for 30-45 minutes.  New listeners might start with the last episode on transformation that includes a lot of solid economics.  Agriculture and nutrition are mentioned only in passing, but the question of food justice does appear; in that last episode Robin DiAngelo describes her own initial self-perception as “of course I’m not racist — I’m a vegetarian!” As an aside, this series with a nice personal connection to our field because the co-host’s mother is a prominent nutrition professor.

Regarding gender dynamics, my job is a lot easier.  The Friedman School’s student population is about 85% female, and the faculty about 65% female.  There are plenty of problems in the field of nutrition, but teaching at Friedman is an escape from so much more sexism in economics.  In NUTR 238 we already devote a lot of class time to gender as a topic, and on all topics I feature the work of many great female economists so students will know it’s not all men.  I also try to manage classroom dynamics in a way that will help students express their own point of view.  I rarely call on anyone until they raise their hand, to encourage self-motivation, and gender disparity in classroom participation runs so deep that by week 3 or 4 there’s inevitably a moment when raised hands are almost all male.  That’s what we call a teachable moment:  I can stop the class to ask why – and point out that everyone else needs to speak up for their own perspective to heard.

Most importantly for our work at the Friedman School, thinking about diversity and inclusion includes discovering the unintended consequences of our own identities within the food system.  The big change in the NUTR 238 curriculum for 2018 will be on that front.  I will try to do even more than in the past regarding racial, gender and other disparities in the food system, but what I’ll add for the first time is the possibility of unintended harms from identities over which we have more choice: for example, that ‘healthism’ might worsen weight discrimination, or how the food movement affects the urban-rural divide.

When talking about identity and its consequences, we’ll surely make mistakes – but if we learn from each other we can make some real progress.  On to a new semester!

 

A big part of economics is data analysis, which starts with data visualization:  “seeing like an economist” means looking for patterns across many observations, recognizing that the data we see result from peoples’ choices.  In class we practice this through weekly exercises and a course project that start with analytical diagrams (such as supply and demand curves) to show the logic by which we explain each observation, and then download data from authoritative sources to make our own charts and tables that summarize what’s been observed.

This blog post pulls together a few suggestions and links about data visualization for convenient reference.  The dataverse of available information is expanding rapidly, with increasingly sophisticated expectations about data visualization.  That complexity can be daunting, making it hard to get started. My vote for best quick advice about data is to keep it simple, as explained in great posts about how to clear off the table and remove to improve.  Those start with bad examples and show how to clean things up and avoid numbo-jumbo.

Successful data visualizations help you tell a story, by making comparisons that highlight both similarities and differences.  Charts and tables offer a kind of language designed to help us communicate clearly.  The grammar of this language is nicely explained here: http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWtablefigs.html.  Change over time is usually best shown with line graphs like Figure 1 of that page, while differences among categories is usually best shown with bar charts that are sorted by magnitude, and a cloud of individual observations is best shown by a scatter plot.  It’s useful and fun just to browse through the different charts presented here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery.aspx, and also click through https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/data-visualizations.  Other thoughtful guides to making scientific charts and tables include: http://guides.library.duke.edu/datavis/topten and https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/gsspolicy/effective-graphs-and-tables-in-official-statistics.

Your final reports and presentations weave together a sequence of charts and tables.  To keep things straight, all figures (whether an analytical diagram or a chart of data) should be numbered consecutively as Figure 1, 2, 3…, and all tables should be numbered separately as Table 1, 2, 3…  Each should have a clear title and note describing the nature and source of all data shown in the chart or table, so that a future reader could replicate or update your visualization in the future.  Different fields use different conventions about table or figure titles and footnotes, and have preferred visual styles for how things are presented.  In general, economics and other social sciences use brief titles above the chart and detailed notes below it, while many health science readers expect a single long figure caption that combines both kinds of information.  Examples from my own recent papers include one in health economics style (title and footnote), and one in health-science style (a long caption)

For oral presentation, your charts and tables should appear in ways that help you tell the story.  There are many good guides to using PowerPoint effectively, of which one of my favorites is from a prominent biologist named Susan McConnell: https://www.ibiology.org/professional-development/designing-effective-scientific-presentations.

And finally, if you’re interested in guides to writing in general, my favorite is Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style — especially for his brilliant description of how all communication requires effort to overcome the curse of knowledge, in part by chunking information into digestible units which you can then bundle up into increasingly powerful stories.  I look forward to seeing how you put your pieces together!

 

New students at the Friedman School have just arrived, and students everywhere are thinking hard about a lot of things. I often get emails from like the one below but they almost never ask so many great questions at once. After replying, I realized that this exchange would make a good blog post. It’s posted here with Abigail Auner’s kind permission and lightly edited for readability: a good intro to a great year of research and discovery ahead.

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From: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 8:33 AM
To: Masters, William A. <William.Masters@tufts.edu>
Subject: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)

Good morning, Dr. Masters,

I am Abigail Auner, Joe’s niece. He told me that you study many of the same topics that I am learning about in school and want to learn more about, so if I may, I would like to ask you a few questions. First off, I study plant sciences at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in greenhouse management, and I am minoring in sustainable agriculture. My career interests include vegetable production and integrated pest management, but I am also trying to learn more about the economics of food, as that is often the weakest link in discussions of sustainability.

The main thing I want to ask is how do you see the future of agriculture? What, in your estimation, are some of the solutions that society must adopt to feed itself without bankrupting itself?

There are certainly countless attempts in progress to solve the food security problem. Lately I have read a bit about indoor agriculture powered by LEDs. This technology has become much more affordable in recent years, and one of the purported benefits is that, since the systems are not weather- or light-dependent, they can be used anywhere in the world. Some companies are creating modular “farm” units in shipping containers, and in Japan there are indoor farms in abandoned subway tunnels. I think this idea holds promise, but I have not seen any numbers on the cost and energy requirements, and these seem like limiting factors, along with training people to use the technology and adapting the systems to regional staples. What do you think of these developments?

Another facet of food in which I am intrigued is entomophagy. I studied abroad in Thailand over an intersession a couple of years ago, and there I had the opportunity to eat roasted crickets. They were surprisingly like potato chips, only with more crunch and protein. And recently there have been several new companies starting to purvey either food-grade insect products (like flour, protein bars, or corn chips) or insect-rearing kits for home production. Do you think that insect production has a viable future in the United States?

Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?

I appreciate your time.

Sincerely,

Abigail Auner
B.S., Greenhouse Production – Expected May 2016
President, University of Missouri Horticulture Club
Greenhouse Assistant, University of Missouri

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From: Masters, William A.
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 11:35 AM
To: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Subject: RE: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)

 

Hello Abigail, nice to see this from you.  All great questions.  Way too deep for email… more like phd dissertation topics, but here goes:

 

— future of agriculture 

Much like the past, only more so:  that is, agriculture’s share of human activity has shrunk to occupy about half of world’s total workforce, and that share will keep declining as economies develop.  For those who remain farmers and others involved in agriculture to meet the needs of all those non-farmers, within planetary boundaries, we will need lots of innovations tailored to ever-changing local conditions.  Much of that innovation will be about producing more with less, but higher-income consumers also demand a lot of things other than food from our farmers especially animal welfare and the maintenance of traditional methods, as well as basics of water quality and other ecosystem services.  So agriculture as a whole is a big and diverse thing that meets a lot of human needs, in different ways, and there is room for many seemingly contradictory things at once.

 

— urban farming, LEDs and hydroponics etc.

One key need being met by modern agriculture is a sense of control, as people seek more closed-loop systems, and momentum from novelty and innovation.  Hence urban farming, driving photosynthesis with artificial lights and deliberate dosing of plant nutrients.   Another deep human need is a sense of connectedness to nature, hence organically farmed community and school gardens etc., as well as suburban farm-stands and pick-your-own operations.  But as you might guess, these are all pretty expensive ways of producing food as such, and in places where niche agriculture is cost-effective it often exploits an unusual local opportunity such as using waste disposal to heat greenhouses.  So if one is actually talking about food security for the US or the world as such, almost all peoples’ dietary needs are now and will continue to be met from the vast expanse of natural soil, bathed in sunlight and rainfall and irrigation, with increases in output per acre and per worker coming from innovations such as precision farming and satellite/drone imagery etc. as well as crop genetics, veterinary techniques, disease control etc. that help us grow more on the fixed stock of natural land and water.  That’s not to say that high-tech urban farming with LEDs, alongside organic farms and gardens, are not really important parts of the food system.  It’s just that they should be understood as part of agriculture that gives it richness and diversity, not the main source of sustenance.  They are the appetizer or dessert rather than the main course.  I am glad we have them and they fill real needs but I don’t eat them every day.

 

— insects!

Very fun.  Humanity is still young and it is very important to keep trying new foods, which are often old but neglected ones like crickets and also plants such as amaranth, as well as new food processing tricks like turning peas into egg-like substances.  Regarding insects in particular, it is conceivable that crickets or other species will take off.  The last huge breakthrough in the mix of species that we use for food happened in the mid-late 20th c. with hybrid corn and then soybeans and canola providing the vegetable oils and animal feeds that had earlier been super scarce and are now much cheaper…  Changes in the mix of species tend to happen gradually, e.g. the rise of chicken relative to beef that is going on now, partly as a slow response to the corn-soy-vegetable fats revolution.  And because agriculture is such a geographically patchy, diverse thing, even a niche enterprise can survive and become a pretty big business.  So there will be plenty of interest in new sources of protein and higher-quality fats.  I don’t think that I personally would invest my own time and money in an insect farm, since there is so much room for expansion of fish from aquaculture to meet similar needs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if insect-based dishes show up on more and more restaurant menus.  There are plenty of obstacles to both raising and processing them — which is part of the point whenever one is pursuing something challenging.

 

Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?

Terrible.  Really tragic.  And it looks like things will get worse before they get better:

http://vam.wfp.org/CountryPage_overview.aspx?iso3=ZWE

 

Now back to work for me, but these are really interesting questions so merit much thought than email allows.  Please stay in touch, maybe especially if you’re considering going deeper into all of this with grad school!

 

All the best,

 

Will Masters

 

—————————————————————————–

William A. Masters

Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

and Department of Economics (by courtesy)

Tufts University, 150 Harrison Avenue, Boston MA 02111

http://sites.tufts.edu/willmasters

Office:  Jaharis Building room 140, phone +1.617.636.3751, fax +1.617.636.3781

Mobile: +1.617.575.9050 (forwards to cell/home and converts voicemail to email)

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It’s January 2nd, time to get ready for the year’s firehose of food-related news and data.

Our daily challenge is to make sense of events, without retreating into a comfy filter bubble.  Economics can help with that.  For students registered in NUTR 238 our course website is now up. Class will start on January 15th, and eventually get into news analysis exercises to diagram the economic principles behind current events, and data analysis exercises to visualize comparisons over time and across countries.  Before then, or if you’re just browsing, here are some shout-outs to some numbery news sources for the year ahead:

— My vote for best newspaper innovation of 2014 goes to the New York Times’ Upshot, whose launch was itself newsworthy. Among their great food stories last year were the Fried Calamari Index, and What 2000 Calories Looks Like.

— One media surprise was the rise and rise of podcast journalism. Not just Serial, but also the great Planet Money and NPR econo-news , with fun food stories like Why is Milk in the Back of the Store, and When Do Chefs Buy Generic Foods?

— The dataverse just gets denser and denser, with better and better data visualization. My vote for best quick advice is these great posts about how to clear off the table and remove to improve.  In class we’ll see a ton of numbers, try hard to avoid numbo-jumbo,and do our best to be use data thoughtfully like this great chart on how gluten diverged from celiac.

The food world is full of surprises – so keep an eye on food-related news with sites like the food, nutrition and agriculture sources to your right, and if you’re enrolled in NUTR 238, use this blog to share what you find.

Happy new year!

 

There were three economists who shared the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences this year, and one of them was Robert Shiller, a professor at Yale. He is interviewed by the Washington Post here.

Their topic area is financial markets, so it’s not explicitly food related…but in the interview, Professor Shiller discusses his views on rationality…an important assumption underpinning many economic models, including the ones we use in class. He says, “When I look around, I see a great deal of foolishness, and I can’t believe it’s not important economically.” He’s also skeptical of the idea that everyone will properly manage their retirement savings…people are mired in habit and inertia and you’d need to allocate lots of time and energy to making financial decisions.

These ideas can be related to food economics too…quite clearly on the consumption side, and also on the production side. People do irrational things all the time when it comes to the foods they buy and eat. Habits and psychology are significant drivers of food and health decisions, as any RD or MD can tell you. So…what do you think? Are people rational when it comes to food decisions? Are people each “rational” in their own way, making it hard for economists to model their decisions? Or, are people just not rational at all, and driven mostly by urges and habits when it comes to food? Does it depend on the person? How might the answer affect food policy?

I also appreciate Prof. Shiller’s general skepticism and love of facts.

We’ll get more into this topic area when we talk about market failures later.