How AI could help us optimize diet and health

It occurred to me while eating breakfast this morning that today we should have what is required to solve the diet problem and perhaps reshape healthcare as a result.

The human body is complex.  It has evolved to robustly regulate metabolism and growth along a very exact predetermined developmental trajectory using a wide variety of organic materials.  At the high level it needs to build complex organs to narrow tolerances, but it can build them out of a wide variety of low-level lego pieces and it can convert many of the pieces as is needed.

Yet as flexible as this complex machine is, it begins to deregulate and fall apart as you move away from the original operating environment.  Unfortunately that environment existed ten thousand years ago.  The safest diet for health today is thus the paleolithic diet.

But we can do better than our distant ancestors – and we have to because it is hardly practical for everyone to revert back to a pre-agricultural diet.  The paleo-diet is only better in the absence of specific information.  Armed with modern knowledge, we should be able to optimize health directly.

This is a massive data mining problem.  The surprising thing is we have the data already – every card purchase at a restaurant or grocery store has specific information about the types of food people are eating.  If one could collate all that data together you could then link it with health records and gene sequence data.  Gene sequencing is now getting cheap enough that it should be standard medical practice.  It only needs to be done once.  Credit cards and electronic medical records have been around long enough that we should already have a decade or two of data sitting around.

So imagine what we could do with a full indexed database that combines genetics, diet, and health.  Using machine learning to analyze genetic databases has already allowed us to narrow in on many of the key genetic factors underlying disease.  But the common big killers are more complex, and our health results from the interaction between diet and the genome.

Is soy really healthy for you?  Does that matter if you are asian or not?  Could cinnamon be useful for diabetics?  How much alcohol per day is good for heart health – if any?  How much vitamin D should one take?  Are multi-vitamins helpful?  Which ones?

Today it appears that we rely completely on customized studies to answer these questions, when they really should all just be deep learning or database mining tasks on a large public database.

Part of the problem is the fact that there is little money right now in preventative medicine.  This is the flaw in our healthcare system.  Healthcare is our largest national expense, and someone always bears that cost.  Right now those costs are not connected with the information and decisions which consumers could use to optimize the system.  From a market perspective, it is broken.

How could it be fixed?  The variable cost should be distributed in some way amongst consumers and producers.  For consumers this would come in the form of variable health insurance premiums based on food purchase records.  But there is also an argument that we should hold food producers jointly responsible.  If you make foods which manipulate our ancient outdated taste mechanisms, you should be partially responsible for the long term health consequences.  I see a strong argument for holding the junk food industry at least partly responsible, just as we do now for cigarettes.


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