This issue comes up frequently in nutrition circles, for obvious reasons. And the answer may seem obvious as well: Of course you can judge whether someone's diet is helping them or hurting them by how they look. But I'm not so certain.
There are a couple of arguments on the "yes" side. One is that in addition to morbidity and mortality info (such as is available), we (especially the "we" in the Paleosphere) give some consideration to the issue of how attractive traditional people eating traditional diets look. Even before Weston Price codified some of the markers of health/attractiveness in the groups he studied, explorers and missionaries remarked repeatedly upon the "vigorous" and "handsome" appearance of the so-called primitives they journeyed among.
Another argument relies on insights into sexual selection from evolutionary biology: Attractiveness is a serious proxy for health in this view. It's how members of a species determine who owns the highest-quality genetic material, and whether it's worth it to hit that.
And deteriorations in health are very often accompanied by unmistakable deteriorations in attractiveness, no matter how undiminished the beauty of the sufferer's soul remains.
There may be more arguments for the "yes" column, and that's one of the things I'm looking for in this question, I guess. I'd like to hear what you all think those are.
Here are the arguments I've got in the "no" column. The first and most persuasive to me is that attractiveness as a proxy for biological fitness -- defined as how well-adapted an organism is to its environment -- is about the organism's adaptedness to its entire environment, not just to its current diet. The entire environment includes things like air quality, sleep, sunshine, social well-being, plus a whole raft of things we've not yet identified as having an impact on health.
Making it even more unreliable as a marker for the healthfulness of the subject's current diet is the fact that we now know that what your parents did before you were born will have an impact on your health -- and what their parents did, and so on, and so on. And in the modern industrial world, many of us may be paying for the sins of people we haven't even met. (I could have bundled this with my expansion of the word "environment," but that graf was getting too long.)
While we're on evolutionary biology, Michael Rose explains very clearly the problem of adaptive pressure ceasing once a subject is past the reproductive stage. This very simple but clever insight may be behind the whole process of ageing -- we may get old simply because there's nothing telling our bodies what to do after we spawn. And this may be why middle age often hits women so much harder than men in the attractiveness department (when does the reproductive stage end for men?).
Finally, there's a less abstract argument: We all know people who look great no matter what they shove in their pie-holes. I'm chuckling as I write this, thinking of one slender woman in particular who recently got some notoriety when she was mentioned by name in a recent post by a prominent blogger (who was writing about a recent prominent kerfuffle, lol). I first "met" her as a fellow zero-carber, when she was puting herself out on FB and other places as an example of how fit ZC could make a person. She's now a VLCer and decries her former diet as being unhealthy, and tells people how much healthier she is now that she's including more carbs in her diet. But by her own admission, she looked much the same ten years ago, when she was eating processed junk food; five or so years ago, when she was a vegetarian, and I can vouch that she looks no different on VLC than she did on ZC. I don't doubt her report that she feels better, but my point is you couldn't tell by looking at her.
Okay, I've run my keyboard enough for one question. What do you guys think -- do looks tell the tale of a diet's healthfulness? Is "attractiveness" a fair index?
P.S. Although this question was inspired by it, I don't mean this to be a referendum on the discussion of whether it's socially appropriate to weigh in publically on various individuals' hot/notness, which came up in a different question. I mean this in the much more general sense implied by the title of my question.
I feel like it is a good indicator of health in a population but not on an individual level. Outliers, bell curves and all that jazz.
"ZCers ask the most intelligent questions"
I love this topic.
It helps to break down the aspects of growth that make our bodies beautiful. There are two major organ systems we use for evaluating appearance: skeleton and skin/subQ fat. Diet affects both until our growth plates fuse. After our growth plates fuse, our diets cannot alter skeletal growth (other than to keep the bones strong enough to prevent collapsing into themselves to cause kyphosis, or dowager hump--the old age curves of the spine), so from this time on, diet affects our appearance primarily because it can modify how our skin looks, how much fat we have and where the fat gets distributed.
The funny thing is, most of us talk openly about our skin/fat-related beauty. With a few exceptions, people tend to agree that acne and scars are disfiguring and that boobs belong on women not men. But when it comes to the evaluation of skeletal beauty, things like the shape of a face or the width of the pelvis, suddenly that's cultural?
Skeletal beauty (in humans) is characterized by long limbs, a long waist, a wide face, and wide hips in women and shoulders in men. The shape of a person's skeleton is dependent partly on genetics and partly on spontaneous chemical reactions that are driven by the same forces that shape crystals in caves and ripples in sanddunes. In other words, skeletal growth is a kind of controlled crystalization process. And like all crystallization processes when uninterrupted they obey a certain pattern that has to do with a profoundly interesting mathematic equation called phi.
For more info, check out http://www.beautyanalysis.com/
Do looks tell the tale of a diet's healthfulness? No
Is "attractiveness" a fair index? No
That pretty much sums it up for me ;-)
In my experience, people look better as their health improves. I don't mean that they suddenly become attractive by societal standards necessarily, but that they have a "glow"; clear skin, shiny hair, bright eyes, relaxed...I definitely use my eyes as part of my tool bag when seeing clients. Often they look so much better at a follow up appointment, that their improvement is obvious to anyone who has ever seen them. When I see a client again, and they look grey, tired and dull, I know we need to step it up...even a person who always seems to look good no matter what lifestyle choices they seem to make give physical feedback that is visible to the naked eye, we just need to look more carefully.
Some markers of beauty are cultural, such as these folks which have done things to themselves that our culture does not consider beautiful, but that their culture deems to be very desirable and even a requisite for marriage...despite the fact that they can cause serious health issues!
But some are biological markers selected for because they help us acquire a healthy mate. Some of these are inborn either due to genetics or early development. Others can be altered. They can be affected by diet and lifestyle. I think when these crop up they should be addressed. I actually had my first acne outbreaks after a year of doing paleo. It was quite alarming and was definitely a signal that something was wrong and needed to be questioned.
But other women have written to me telling me they have stubborn backside fat that they want to get rid of. I tell them that they need to examine whether or not this is a marker of poor health or not. Turns out it is a marker of good health and fertility and older women with that sort of fat are healthier than stick skinny folks.
People may be criticized if they write books on how to be thin that proclaim the superiority of their method while attacking other methods... while remaining pudgy themselves. I think the solution is for those people to write more honestly and then no one would even ever dare to mention it. Sorry, I'm not going to write a book about ultimate solutions on how to get rid of acne or stretch marks because it's something I struggle with and I would be a hypocrite. But if someone mentioned my terrible crooked teeth I would say I was born that way and only plastic surgery could alter that. You also can't change certain things from your past. Maybe if I had known better a long time ago I never would have gotten stretch marks in the first place, but they are there and they are not going away, though I'd be happy to hear tips about getting rid of them.
I also think it's quite amusing that people have consistently critiqued the appearances of people like Campbell and Fuhrman and no one has complained. But god forbid you point out someone low-carb/paleo who is promoting their diet for weight loss and tarnishing other diets and telling people what to do is chubby.
Here are just a few things that most humans consider attractive that have been tied to health/andor fertility:
Physical appearance/looks are one way to measure gene expression and health -- which is really what we want to hack, if we are eating Paleo.
Is it a perfect indicator? OF COURSE NOT!
But to claim it has nothing or very little to do with health is remarkably silly. Let me give you an example -- I have a Paleo toddler, his physical appearance is ONE of the many ways I measure whether or not he is healthy AND whether I am being a good parent by meeting his nutritional (and other) needs.
Is his skin smooth or does he have pimples? If the latter, maybe I have exposed him a food to which he is intolerant. Are his teeth growing straight? Is he relatively well-muscled & strong?
Let's get personal: me. Eating Paleo has vastly improved my health & appearance -- facial inflammation from wheat/gluten has disappeared and I have lost weight (I was never obese but carried a few more pounds than I should have).
Where am I now? My appearance is good/decent shape, but not great. Why? Cuz I don't get enough sleep or exercise and have too much stress. Cortisol is through the roof. My appearance is telling me this.
Also, I have also had what some people call "allergic shiners" since I was a child -- they are MUCH less prominent on Paleo -- but I suspect I have some unknown sensitivity that I still need to hack.
Bottom line: physical appearance DOES indicate information about health -- it certainly isn't perfect, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater by letting perfect be the enemy of good.
PS I don't believe the "healthy at any size" BS.
PPS WE ARE BIOLOGICALLY WIRED TO MATE WITH HEALTHY LOOKING PEOPLE.
This is entirely anecdotal of course but it has repeated itself many, many times over the years. Ever since I started the Zone over 15 years ago I began looking at people in grocery store lines and matching them to what I guessed would be going down the conveyor belt. And more often than not, it would be something akin to a plump, pasty-skinned bruisy-legged mother with plump kids and the check-out counter was stacked with refined starches, white bread, biscuits, cookies and sodas and all manner of deleterious nasties and not much even resembling something with a vitamin in it.
That really proves nothing but as another matter of similar interest, here is an excerpt from an email that my sister wrote to Catherine shanahan (Dr Cate), author of Deep Nutrition, which she had read a year earlier -
"Like you I have suffered from plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis and a myriad of other sports injuries off and on for 30 years. I always attributed it to running too much, being active, getting older etc. I too was terrifed of fat, ate 100 calorie packs of kibbles n bits, skinless chicken and the like. It was a mess of a diet and I felt like a hot mess most of the time. Deep Nutrition has given me the generational knowledge all wrapped up in one tidy package. The reason for my writing however is that not only did the the broth heal my ailing joint and tendons but my skin looks amazing! A friend I hadn't seen in a year asked me if I had done botox, and I said "no, I did bone broth!" That coupled with the anti-inflammatory diet has cleared up my adult cystic acne as well and we are well into the dog days of summer in Atlanta. Usually by this time of year my skin is a mess as and I am happy to say it looks and feels great."
Dr Cate wrote back too and said, "Bone-Broth not Botox! I may have to steal that line."
As another point of reference I owned a vegetarian restaurant for a year and as a result knew lots of vegetarians, including my girlfriend who ran it with me. I can tell you that this was, on the whole, not the healthiest looking group of people. It could be said that that many were vegetarians because they were trying to deal with some issues, which is fair. But my own personal experience was that it was a disaster and my health deteriorated, much like Robb Wolf's description in his book. I was told I did not look healthy and I didn't. I was told that I looked much better after I stopped that crap, and I did. My girlfriend soldiered on with it and gained weight - I was so skinny at the time I had to run around in the shower to get wet - but she was not the picture of the healthy looking girlfriend I was going with and this was only a few years later.
I do draw some conclusions from all this, but they are not always foolproof.
Added 9/8/11- Here's a page from the above-mentioned book, Deep Nutrition, that touches upon some aspects of looking healthy -
This is kind of an N=1 study, but the lady I'll soon describe isn't the only person I've ever met that is like this. There is an older woman named Nora at my CF box and she is a beast. This woman in her fifties can lift way more weight than I can, can run for longer (though not faster) than a lot of the girls, and is regularly "hacking" our dietary issues and handing out great advise. She's an awesome lady and an "institution", as it were, at our box. But attractiveness wise she looks like your average grandma. She's got strong legs but she's a little barrel in the middle, she doesn't look especially young for her age, while you can tell she's muscular she's just as likely as any granny to show up in the locker room in a breezy linen pants suit. She's definitely healthy and solid and I'm pretty sure that she and her husband will workout together until the day they die. Hopefully, they will continue to workout with us. But there are so many variables, and honestly our society's markers of attractiveness are unsustainable on any kind of "normal" diet with "reasonable" exercise.
The theory (actually, the actuality!) of assortive mating has been fascinating to me since the early 90's. I worked in a specialty area where I was near constantly convinced of it as a very, very powerful force, and got to see outcomes and clear evidence of it in my daily work with families, through at least 2 to 3 generations, and sometimes more, via gathering family medical, social and psychological history.
Certainly, assortive mating can result in an emphasis on physical characteristics that evolutionarily may signal health. But assortive mating is FAR, FAR more complex than this, and in my opinion, often completely ignores, in the extreme, the characteristics that some think are the main evolutionary drivers of mating.
Take the following article, for example...
"One provocative hypothesis that might account for the rise of spectrum disorders in technically adept communities like Silicon Valley, some geneticists speculate, is an increase in assortive mating. Superficailly, assortive mating is the blond gentleman who prefers blonds; the hyperverbal intellectual who meets her soul mate in the therapist's waiting room. There are additional incentives and pressures for autistic people to find companionship - if they wish to do so- with someone who is also on the spectrum. Grandin writes, "Marriages work out best when two people with autism marry, or when a person marries a handicapped or eccentric spouse...they are attracted because their intellects work on a similar wavelength."
"In another age, these men would have been monks developing new ink for printing presses. Suddenly they're reproducing at a much higher rate."
"At clinics and schools in the valley, the observation that most parents are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either.Last January Microsoft became the first major US corporation to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost for behavioral training for their autistic children. One Bay Area Mother told me that when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son who has Asperger's syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son's needs. "They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the IBMers congregate has a large volume of Asperger's kids," she recalls. "It was recommended that I move to that part of town."
Additionally, consider, as some have already, that characteristics which are drivers of mating in humans may change greatly over time as humans evolve and cultures change.
My point here is that for many, many people, it is at best a gross oversimplfication, and is outright wrong, often, as well, to view physical characteristics as the main drivers of mating behavior. As the future unfolds, I believe that this will be increasingly true.
Additional Non-Random Mating link for info:
Can't judge a book by it's cover.
I would suspect (unless you are a modern hunter/gatherer) attractivness never serves as a marker for health whatsoever...I say that only because I would think epigenetic advantages no longer apply due to modernity.
Environmental factors would now outweigh any selectivity that promulgates good health/attractiveness passed down in populations/individuals.
The individual of selective superior health sets the baseline I guess. Modern deteriorating effects of food choice, stress, environmental toxins and pharma damage reduce health--but I would think we cannot assume the attractive, selected populations health will deteriorate at a slower rate than those who started out with a lower health baseline. The baseline is therefore no longer an effective measurement.
Modernity sets a new baseline that has nothing to do with centuries old selectivity. In other words... thanks to modernity...we're all screwed (attractive and unattractive alike) despite our ancestral advantages.
If the above were true I guess it exposes even more clearly the benefit of eschewing modern foods, beauty products, pharma and and stressful lifestyle. Maybe shirking modernity is the tabula rasa needed to regain the ancient/ancestral ideal health we have lost.