Gary Taubes Answers Questions

Michael Eades has posted Gary Taubes’s answers to questions sent in by readers. The first one, curiously enough, concerns China: “How do Asians and others living a seemingly high-carb existence manage to escape the consequences?” Taubes’s answer:

There are several variables we have to consider with any diet/health interaction. Not just the fat content and carb content, but the refinement of the carbs, the fructose content (in HFCS and sucrose primarily) and how long they’ve had to adapt to the refined carbs and sugars in the diet. In the case of Japan, for instance, the bulk of the population consumed brown rice rather than white until only recently, say the last 50 years. White rice is labor intensive and if you’re poor, you’re eating the unrefined rice, at least until machine refining became widely available. The more important issue, though, is the fructose. China, Japan, Korea, until very recently consumed exceedingly little sugar (sucrose). In the 1960s, when Keys was doing the Seven Countries Study and blaming the absence of heart disease in the Japanese on low-fat diets, their sugar consumption, on average, was around 40 pounds a year, or what the Americans and British were eating a century earlier. In the China Study, which is often evoked as refutation of the carb/insulin hypothesis, the Chinese ate virtually no sugar. In fact, sugar consumption wasn’t even measured in the study because it was so low. The full report of the study runs to 800 pages and there are only a couple of mentions of sugar. If I remember correctly (I don’t have my files with me at the moment) it was a few pounds per year. The point is that when researchers look at traditional populations eating their traditional diets — whether in rural China, Japan, the Kitava study in the South Pacific, Africa, etc — and find relatively low levels of heart disease, obesity and diabetes compared to urban/westernized societies, they’re inevitably looking at populations that eat relatively little or no refined carbs and sugar compared to populations that eat a lot. Some of these traditional populations ate high-fat diets (the Inuit, plains Indians, pastoralists like the Masai, the Tokelauans); some ate relatively low-fat diets (agriculturalists like the Hunza, the Japanese, etc.), but the common denominator was the relative absence of sugar and/or refined carbs. So the simplest possible hypothesis to explain the health of these populations is that they don’t eat these particularly poor quality carbohydrates, not that they did or did not eat high fat diets. Now the fact that some of these populations do have relatively high carb diets suggests that it’s the sugar that is the fundamental problem.

Tsinghua students are almost all thin, although they eat a lot of white rice (a refined carb). My explanation is that they eat a diet with great variation in flavor. Almost everything they eat is made by hand from scratch — including noodles! — and the choice is staggering (hundreds of dishes easily available at lunch and dinner). They don’t eat a lot of sweets, as Taubes says, but because you can lose weight by drinking sugar water, sugar alone cannot cause obesity.

The Filipino graduate student I mentioned in a recent post told me she lost a lot of weight (too much!) when she came here; I attribute it to the novelty and variety of the food. This may be the only time a young woman has told me she lost too much weight without trying. Because Beijing is the capital of China it has lots and lots of Chinese regional food (and the Tsinghua cafeterias do as well). The variety of cheap food available here may be unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Thanks to Dave Lull.

Assorted Links (China edition)

  1.  Podcasts for learning Chinese.
  2. Popup Chinese. More podcasts
  3. “Most of what most people think they know about Chinese — especially when it comes to Chinese characters — is wrong.”
  4. Laowai Chinese. “I’ve been busy not losing my job (teaching) and not ignoring my publisher.  What I mean is: I’ve been working on the editing and layout of my book Chinese 24/7. I’m glad to announce there are now over ten people outside my family who have expressed interest in my book.”
  5. Sinosplice. “There are some seriously rank odors out there on the street. Rotting organic matter, urine, feces, stinky tofu…. But don’t worry, soon you’ll be gleefully playing “name that odor” with your Chinese friends!”
  6. Imagethief. “Chinese netizens were outraged when Gong Li played a Japanese woman in “Memoirs of Geisha”, alongside fellow crypto-Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi.”
  7. Beijing Sounds. A linguist blogs. “The final indignity comes when you utter a phrase that incites peals of laughter. Ignoring your request for explication, your [Chinese] spouse goes over to tell the in-laws (did I mention you’re living with them?) and the lesson comes to an ignominious close with the stern father-in-law, who rarely chuckles, doubled up on the couch, tears rolling down his cheeks.”
  8. Danwei “Today’s New Culture View reports that the People’s Supreme Court approved the death sentence of Yang Jia, the man who murdered six policemen and wounded three others and a security guard on July 1 this year.”
  9. Scientific and academic fraud in China. One popular post printed a letter from a Yale professor teaching at Beijing University upset about plagiarism among his Chinese students: “When plagiarism is detected in America, it can end the career of the person doing it,” he writes. Such as Harvard professors Laurence Tribe, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Charles Ogletree, and Alan Dershowitz?

Happy Thanksgiving! A Chinese friend texted me this. I replied I was surprised she was aware of it. “The majority of Chinese know this day,” she replied, “and say thanks to their friends and families.”

Reciprocity in China

A few years ago, I asked a woman I know why she decided to go to graduate school to study cultural psychology. She told me she had been in the Peace Corps in Africa, I forget where. Maybe Kenya. Early in her stay a native had been a big help to her. To thank him, she baked him a cake. This angered him. “You think you can pay me back with a cake?” he said. To pay me back, give me something I want, he told her.

A more subtle version of the same thing happens in China. About a month ago, the friend of mine who had invited me to come here told me I had been invited to visit a university near Shanghai by a professor of psychology there who was a dean at the university. I wrote to the person who invited me:

I look forward to visiting you in —-. I don’t have a lot of plans; I could come almost any weekend. When would be a good time for me to visit?

Her assistant replied:

Professor —- will not be free on 6-9 Nov 2008.  And she will not be free on 15 Nov 2008.  For other days, that’s OK.  I will come back when I get more message from Professor —-.

I replied:

Thanks. A weekend later than those will be fine.

Her assistant replied:

This evening, I talked with Professor —- about your visit to —-.  Professor —- is expecting to explore any possibility of research collaboration with you. Professor —- mentioned the best time will be the last several days of November or early December for your visit to —-.

I replied:

Late November or early December is fine with me. I do not have any other plans.

Then I got this:

Professor —- is wondering whether you are interested in some collaboration, such as psychology research design guidance, psychology paper modification (the papers is written in English, but may not as good as expected), and some other research project collaboration.

I was surprised — just the Peace Corp volunteer was surprised. I replied:

I would be happy to talk about research design guidance with Professor —-. I cannot say more than that because I don’t know anything about her research. So I don’t know if our research interests overlap. About paper modification — improving the English — I am less sure. I am busy helping students and colleagues here at Tsinghua with their English.

The reply:

Professor —- will only ask you to improve the English for only one paper, which she expect to have that paper be published in USA.

I was puzzled what to say to this. Before I could reply, I got another email:

Professor —- talked with me this afternoon.  She mentioned that the paper is related to ERP.  She needs your help with the English language improvement with the paper, after her graduates’ [students’] translation from Chinese to English.

I replied:

I just finished spending many hours fixing the English of a paper written by a non-Tsinghua researcher whom I will never meet. I am not eager to repeat the experience. However, I am happy to help Professor —- with the English of her paper if she will help me with my Chinese.

The reply:

Professor —- said that that’s OK.

But it wasn’t okay. I heard nothing for a week and wrote again:

When should we figure out the details of my visit?

The reply:

This afternoon, we discussed how we can benefit to each other, when you are here. Would you please list out what you can offer us, and what you expect us offer you, when you are in Suzhou?

I replied:

During my trip to —-, I hoped to learn about —-, the university, and the research being done there. I haven’t traveled much in China so I thought the trip would be fun.

As for what I might offer you, I wrote The Shangri-La Diet, a New York Times bestseller that describes an entirely new approach to weight control; I am a statistics expert; and I have done innovative work in experimental design as well. Thousands of people read my blog because they think I have interesting views about the world. You can learn more about my work at My blog is at

Why did you invite me to visit?

The reply:

We discussed your response.  And we need to mention the following two points: We need someone to improve our paper in English.  But the paper has not finished yet. This is not a good season for sightseeing in —- because of the cold whether. For above the two points, we cannot fix the time when you come to —-.  We may arrange your visit later. Keep posted.

My reply:

Do I understand you correctly? You invited me to —- “to improve [your] paper in English”?

No reply. In other words, the answer was yes.

Yesterday I met a graduate student from the Philippines. She’s studying architecture here on a scholarship from the Chinese government. How do you like it here? I asked. When she got here, she said, she was positive. “I was all ‘ ‘It’s an amazing place.’ ” Now, after more than a year, she isn’t positive. Whenever someone does something for you it turns out they want something in return, she said, but you don’t find out right away. She didn’t want to give details. “I should stop talking,” she said. I told her I’d had the same experience — the invitation I just described.

The whole thing reminded me of something I wrote about Robert Gallo, the AIDS researcher:

A researcher in Gallo’s lab once told the boss that Einstein was his favorite scientist; he especially admired Einstein’s magnanimity. Gallo replied, “You are naive. Einstein could afford to be magnanimous because he was a genius.” The other scientist asked, “You mean magnanimity is good only if you’re a genius?” Gallo said, “Yeah, because then you don’t have to worry about the competition.”

And the reciprocity norms of rich countries take the form they do because the countries are rich.

English-Speaking Contest

    Last night on Chinese TV I watched the first day of an English-speaking contest. Contestants gave a short prepared speech, then gave an impromptu speech based on a randomly-chosen debate topic (e.g., should TV advertising aimed at children be banned?). After the impromptu speech they defended their position for a few minutes. It was a test of both English and public speaking. The contestants were college students.

    I really liked it. It’s a statement of, and promotion of, certain values; it says that society — at least the owners of the TV station and viewers — value something outside of themselves (English) and intellectual (learning a foreign language). China has been called a “nation of bookworms” (by James McGregor in One Billion Customers) so a show glorifying learning isn’t entirely surprising but it is a big improvement over American TV game shows, which glorify office politics (Survivor), strange tasks in foreign countries (The Amazing Race), and singing (American Idol). I supposed the closest thing in America is the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which glorifies a useless skill (spelling obscure words).
    What might American TV do like this? I can’t think of a contest revolving around learning from other cultures but I can think of some contests that would promote useful intellectual pursuits:

    • Green engineering contest. Give teams of high school students home-engineering tasks involving energy use: Insulate a window, boil water, light a room.
    • Joke-telling contest. Tests the ability to use jokes in everyday life — for example to defuse difficult situations. Americans have lost this ability so completely I suspect some of them don’t even realize it exists. I’m an example — I’m terrible at joke-telling.
    • Editing contest. Contestants take an everyday piece of writing and improve it.
    • Literature appreciation contest. Shown a passage from a famous novel, short story, or poem, contestants explain what is good about it. Bonus points for identifying the source.

Lohao City

Today I visited the flagship store of the Lohao City chain here in Beijing. (Lohao stands for Lifestyle Of Healthy And Organic.) I needed more flaxseed oil. It was a straight line from the subway stop but I needed to call the store twice to convey this to the taxi driver. The store was a lot smaller than I expected for a chain with six locations. It was a little bigger than a 7-11. It had a baking area, a wine area, a produce area, and a wheatgrass growing area where you could get wheatgrass juice and other healthy juices. They were sampling some delicious organic wine made from a fruit the English-speaking clerk didn’t know the word for. I was a little surprised it only cost $6/bottle.

The chain is just a few years old. It specializes in organic food. The chain owns its own 22,000-acre farm where they grow the food they sell — a new type of farmer’s market. By growing the food they sell they can guarantee how it is grown. This really is an innovation in food selling. I hope the six stores (one in Shanghai) mean the concept is successful rather than they started with a lot of money.

I wanted to buy six bottles of flaxseed oil but the store only had one. The clerk went to another store to get five more but came back with only one more. One bottle (250 ml) might last me a week so I need to search for other sources.

I told the clerk the flaxseed oil was for my research. “Can you really tell the flaxseed oil improves your brain?” he asked. Yes, I said. He was studying English at a private school in Beijing. He’s in his second year of college, majoring in “commercial diplomacy” which means business diplomacy (e.g., negotiations). He predicted that even though Obama quit smoking for the campaign, he will start smoking again now that he’s President.
The chain puts out a biannual magazine now on its third issue. The magazine said something very true:”As people earn more money, they start caring whether they are healthy enough to enjoy their fortune.”

More about healthy food in China.

My Theory of Human Evolution (Chinese birthday gift)

In 1952, following the Soviet model, Tsinghua University was stripped of its humanities and social science departments and became an MIT-like university entirely devoted to engineering and science. Eventually it became clear this was a mistake. Fifteen years ago a School of Humanities and Social Sciences was established to begin to restore things. Two weeks ago, because I am a faculty member in that School, I got a fancy tea set to mark the 15th anniversary of its founding. Here is what the tea set looks like:

I asked a Chinese friend of mine to explain it to me. She pointed to the tools in the box with the cups. “They’re useless,” she said. She pointed to the slatted bamboo box. “I think it’s useless,” she said.

To pour the tea you put the cups on the slats. The box is slatted so that if you spill some tea while pouring the surface will continue to look good. It’s not the total uselessness my friend saw but she is right that the added value of the slats and the tools, in practical terms, is very low.

My theory of human evolution says that the reason for gifts, ceremonies, and special days (such as Christmas) is to provide a demand for hard-to-make stuff. This allows artisans on the cutting edge to make a living and further develop their skills, advancing the start of the art. This is why gifts and ceremonial things are typically hard to make and, were it not for their value as gifts, not worth making. My friend’s reaction illustrates this. My theory predicts that this feature of gifts, ceremonies, and special days has a genetic basis and should be found in all cultures. This example shows it is found in a culture quite different from American culture.

Happiness in China: Who Wants to Be a Construction Worker?

A recent survey of happiness/life satisfaction among various groups of people in China found that Shanghai construction workers were quite satisfied with their lives. (The details are only in Chinese, as far as I know.) They were happier than middle-class Chinese, in spite of earning much less. This has nothing to do with low Chinese prices, since the construction workers paid the same prices as middle-class Chinese. The researcher who discovered this attributed it to two things: 1. They got paid every month. The construction workers came from agricultural areas where payment is less frequent: only after a harvest. The construction workers sent money home to their villages. The steadiness of their income was a source of respect. 2. Because they live far from home, they can break all the rules, including sexual rules. A middle-class Chinese man, living with his family, is more constrained.

The massive rural-to-urban migration happening all over the world, especially in China, is one of the most important events in human history. The Chinese part of this story has usually been told through the eyes of a young woman who leaves her village and finds factory work — for example, a series in the Wall Street Journal, the documentary China Blue, or the new book Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. These results suggest that the male side of the story is much different.

These findings also suggest a big problem with conventional academic economics, which revolves around measurements of money (e.g., prices, salaries, savings, GDP, the ultimatum game). If desire for respect and personal freedom motivate major economic changes, measurements of money will miss a lot.

Special Days in China

On Monday, by virtue of being a Tsinghua professor, I got a big box of apples (about 40). I haven’t figured out why. On Tuesday I got a lovely tea set that I will blog about later; it was the 15th birthday of the founding of the School of the Humanities at Tsinghua. My department is within that school. Today is Boys Day at Tsinghua University (a school-specific special day). November 1st is a nationwide day for people without boyfriends or girlfriends. It is Only One Day; in 11-1 there are only ones.

Speaking of only one, did you know that China’s One Child policy (if you have two children both parents will lose their jobs and pay a fine) applies only to cities?  In rural China you can have two children. Some families have three. The central government has little control over rural areas; it would be too hard to enforce a one-child policy there.

Natural versus Unnatural Learning

My criticisms of undergraduate education (e.g., here) have three bases:

  • my experiences at UC Berkeley. Both sides — faculty and students — disliked the situation. I accidentally found a way that worked much better.
  • my theory of human evolution. My theory explained what I saw at Berkeley, and a lot of other stuff. It says that learning specialized job skills is a basic part of being human. Our brains have been shaped by evolution to make this happen.
  • the everyday observation that people successfully learn specialized job skills all the time and did so long before colleges. Or any schools.

Set up by people who didn’t understand how learning works — the crucial ingredients — colleges teach poorly, just as malnutrition is common.

At Berkeley I was a teacher. In Beijing I’m on the other side — a student — in a different but similar learning situation: learning Chinese. We learn languages naturally, without any special structure, just as people learned job skills. There is the same broad dichotomy: between language learning via official channels, involving classes and textbooks, and natural language learning that happens without any classes and textbooks. So there should be a better way to learn Chinese than via a textbook or a class or even a tutor.

What that is, I’m trying to figure out. For reading, flash cards may work. I’m starting with food words — I see hundreds of them every time I eat a meal (in the student dining halls) — and sign words and the preset messages on my cell phone. Listening and speaking is harder. When I get better maybe I can watch TV but now I can’t understand any of it.  I always enjoy my Chinese lessons but they happen without context. During the day I may want to say “Where is ______?” but my lesson happens much later, when the motivation has gone. Maybe I will get a tape recorder show I can record what people say to me and then play it for my teachers to translate.

My Chinese Cell Phone

my chinese cell phone

…looks a lot like this one. The China/America comparisons are all in one direction:

1. The Chinese plan is prepaid; the American plan is not. The slight inconvenience of having to recharge one’s phone every now and then is far outweighed by a much lower price. The plans can’t be directly compared but I pay about $50/month in America and about $10/month in China. I pay $15/month to keep my American number while I’m in China!
2. No voice mailbox in China. I don’t miss it. You send a text message instead. I got about one text message/month in America (at 15 cents each); I get about 6/day in China (at 1.5 cents each).

3. My Chinese phone cost about $40. My American phone came as a Free New Phone Every 2 Years thing but retailed for about $200.

4. My American phone had so many features I never used, including a camera, I had great trouble finding a feature I now use all the time on my Chinese phone: a day planner.

5. Verizon, my American service provider, had/has excellent customer service but the girl who sold me my China Mobile phone plan gives me free weekly Chinese lessons. During working hours.

A Few Things America Can Learn From China

From this discussion. The speaker is Noriel Roubini, the NYU economics professor:

In U.S. the total consumption’s about $9.5 trillion. Take the entire consumption of 1 billion Chinese, it’s about $1 trillion.

The average American thinks: We’re rich, they’re poor. It’s more complicated than that. The Chinese, in hundreds of ways, do more with less. They pay less for the same quality of life. Here are some examples:

1. The lights on the stairs to my Beijing apartment are sound-activated. Works well, saves electricity. In Berkeley I pay $4/month to light the stairs to my apartment and why should my landlady install sound- or motion-activated lighting?

2. The water-heating system in my apartment is flash heating, that is, just-in-time heating. It works just as well as an American-style water heaters and there’s no heat loss when you aren’t using it.

3. My washing machine doesn’t use heated water. Incoming water is heated to room temperature by a set of baffles.

4. The doors to campus cafeterias are a set of hanging plastic strips. It gets cold in Beijing in the winter. When someone enters there is much less heat loss than when a door is opened.

5. Bicycles are everywhere (in my part of town, the university district, at least) and are easy and safe. They are also very cheap. I could have bought a used one for $15 but instead a friend gave me hers — she takes the bus to work. While bicycles are basically transportation for people who live close to work, as students do, electric bicycles — in which China leads the world — are far more powerful and could probably replace a lot of cars if downtowns were safer for them.

6. The better you cook, the cheaper ingredients you can use and achieve the same result. The Chinese, who are great cooks, use lots of vegetables, which are cheaper than meat and of course easier on the environment.

Chinese Transportation Economics (continued)

In China, when a journalist comes to cover your event, you are expected to give them 200 yuan ($30) in an envelope to cover the transportation cost. To put this in context, the 30-minute cab ride from the airport to my apartment cost 85 yuan.

In Beijing, a subway ride from anywhere to anywhere costs 2 yuan. The minimum price for a cab ride is 10 yuan ($1.50), which will get you about a mile.

Chinese Cell Phone Economics

In China, you get a cell phone number by buying a SIM card (a small plastic chip) that you put in your phone. Yesterday I bought one. I was shown a page of 12 possible numbers. At the top of the page it said 168 yuan ($25). But one of the numbers was cheaper: only 120 yuan ($18). Why the difference? I asked. The cheap number was “hard to remember,” I was told. I studied the 12 numbers; they looked equally hard to remember. So I got the cheap one.

Hard to remember was a euphemism, I learned later. Some digits (8, 6) are considered lucky, others (4, 7) unlucky. My number: 1170784.

This is related to self-experimentation. I suppose few scientists believe in lucky and unlucky phone numbers but many believe in “good” and “bad” ways of doing science. One example is a belief that self-experimentation is bad, another is a belief that Bayesian tools are “irrelevant to the business of science“; a third is the blue-ribbon panel that would only use data from double-blind experiments when deciding nutritional requirements. Scientists (and the rest of us) pay more than 48 yuan ($7) for such beliefs, which pervade science. Their effect is that scientists fail to use tools that would help them with their research; the rest of us suffer from the lack of progress that could have been made (e.g., discovery of better ways to treat depression). At the end of a paper about my self-experimentation I made this point:

Belief that something is bad makes it hard to learn what it is good for.