Deeply worried about our dietary doom

The prevailing sentiment in pop-culture nutrition — propagated in books, blogs, and blather; documentaries and diatribes — is that everything we thought we knew about diet and health until yesterday is wrong.

Actually, we have a much bigger problem than that. To one degree or another, everything we thought we knew about nutrition is right — and we are obligated to do something about it, or stay fat and sick.

That’s a bigger problem for all concerned. For most of us, it means it’s time to stop rolling our eyes at non-existent conspiracies, and actually attempt to eat well and be active. It means there is no scapegoat to blame for all our ills, and no silver bullet to save us. Clearly, that just sucks.

The news is far worse for authors, publishers, and the media. What wonderfully iconoclastic view of diet has any chance of becoming the next best seller once we acknowledge we actually know enough already to eliminate almost all obesity and chronic disease?

None, and that’s clearly unacceptable. If you don’t think Madison Avenue loves our confusion, you must be even more confused than the rest of us.

Some portion of you doubtless agree with me that in fact, we are not confused; that we already do indeed know enough about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens for truly stunning public and personal health advances. So now, I am reaching out to the rest of you. I am reaching out to those who think I’m deluded, benighted, arrogant, misguided, or simply wrong.

Try this experiment. If you believe that, for instance, eating more meat is good for us — pretend you wanted to refute that, and search the Internet accordingly. Or, conversely, if you believe that evidence clearly establishes a vegan diet as the “best” for human health, search the Internet diligently pretending to be someone wanting to disprove that. Do your best to read what you find as you would read the material that best conforms to your established worldview. Be sure to look here, by the way, where the peer-reviewed evidence resides.

This same experiment can be applied to any dietary contention you like. If you think saturated fat is harmful, search the literature for evidence it isn’t. If you think it’s beneficial, search the literature for its harms. If you think all of our ills are the fault of omega-6 fat, search the literature for evidence to the contrary. If you think Ancel Keys was a messiah, search the literature for the flaws in his research. If you think Keys was a misguided ideologue, search the literature for the evidence supporting his views. If you think the benefits of low-fat eating are debunked dietary history, search the literature for those purported benefits. If you think animal protein is bad for us, search the literature for benefits of the Paleo diet.

Folks, this is what homework really looks like. This is where genuine scholarship merely begins. The easiest thing in the world is to search selectively for the opinions you already own. You will find them, and find them gratifying. But this is the intellectual analogue to masturbation — self-gratification, signifying nothing.

As far as I can tell, it is on the basis of just such vapid nonsense that we lob convictions and castigations at one another. We are a lazy lot of opinionated buffoons. We are more often than not arrogant enough to think that some number of minutes searching the Web for what we already believed anyway is the equivalent of years of dedicated training and a diligent attempt at unbiased interpretation. We are the malleable pawns of big food, big pharma, big media, and big business — who help propagate our pseudo-confusion, and profit from it.

If we ate better food, we would need fewer drugs. If we knew what to eat, there wouldn’t be a new diet book and diet story to peddle every day. Are you actually naïve enough to believe that our collective confusion isn’t aided and abetted by those banking on it? Well then, maybe you’d like to buy a bridge along with your diet soda and fries.

And we barely need any help to play the part of dolts anyway, because it’s a wonderful way to procrastinate. We would rather renounce yesterday’s diet and try today’s, then deal with the time-tested fundamentals of losing weight and finding health. That doesn’t involve a scapegoat or silver bullet, so it can’t possibly be a good idea.

And just to be clear, absolutely nothing currently capturing the public imagination about diet and health is new. Absolutely nothing. I have a copy of The Carbohydrate Addict’s Lifespan Program on my bookshelf with a 1997 copyright. My copy of Sugar Busters dates from 1998. And yet, we are so resistant to the notion that we already know enough to do something that we believe it when we are told — nearly 20 years later — that excess sugar in our diets is the scandal “no one” is telling us about. The only scandal no one is telling us about is the exploitation of our stunningly truncated memories to sell us yesterday’s diet as if it were the product of today’s epiphany.

Gee, this is a pretty snarky column. But I confess, I at times catch myself thinking just this way. If we are this gullible, this biased, this myopic, and this shortsighted maybe we all just deserve to be obese and diabetic as well.

But I can’t accept that. If nothing else, I came upon a study this week indicating that cynicism increases the risk of dementia. So along with your health, I’ve got my own brain to worry about. I am attempting to avoid cynicism.

But I am indeed skeptical, and deeply worried, about our dietary doom. I worry that we are forever doomed to repeat the follies of dietary history. I worry that we will forever foreswear putting what we know to any good use, while frittering away years of life and life in years on the fruitless pursuit of nonexistent pixie dust. I worry that we are doomed to welcome back yesterday’s conspiracy theory tomorrow when we have forgotten that it isn’t new, and didn’t help us much last time. I worry we are doomed to seek out only the information that supports the view we like best, and lob insults at others doing the same with views we like less.

But I am just not willing to accept a personal doom of cynicism compounded by dementia. So I am doomed to keep trying.

David L. Katz is the founding director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. He is the author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.

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  • Super Lung

    So, shaming someone about their physical appearance – in your opinion – equates to positive outcomes (in this case, weight loss)? Therefore, as a concerned citizen for my fellow man, I should feel free to publicly ridicule another human being on their weight without prior knowledge about possible medical/psychological causation of obesity? After all, it is my civic duty as a concerned citizen of the planet to humiliate another – isn’t that right? Despite that eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, are just as much of an issue as obesity – if not more so? You know, because ridicule is a proven, positive motivating factor….

    How about we address the fact that junk foods are cheaper than wholesome/healthy foods? Not everyone has the resources to purchase healthy foods – nor the time/space to maintain a vegetable garden, for that matter. So, it’s either eat that, or starve. How about we address that increasing childhood obesity correlates to what is modeled at home. So to ensure parental compliance, we need to engage upon an already broken/over burdened Child Services to take those children away and place them into foster care until the issue is resolved? Would that fix things? If you believe so, then you had better figure out a way to have mental health funded the way it should, because there is going to be a surge of families with PTSD from the ordeal of CPS involvement (and let’s hope that the foster parents are angels to these kids)… especially among the children.

    How about levying huge penalty taxes on companies that manufacture/serve unhealthy food, because they obviously play a part in obesity…. Oh yeah, then that means jobs are lost. You thought the auto industry took a huge hit? – Watch what happens if the same happened in the food industry. And it wouldn’t be just the restaurants and manufacturers, it would bleed into agriculture too.

    You know what would truly be effective? Addressing the primary cause of obesity that isn’t due to Prader-Willi syndrome, certain medications, etc.? Causes like depression, anxiety, stress, socioeconomic standing, etc.?

    What do you say to the person who prefers to be obese (those individuals do exist)? Do you still treat them as less than a human-being?

    It is doubtful that the 18% decrease in smoking is due to a large scale enforcement of smoke-free zones in combination with public ridicule. You’re giving way too much credit to where it isn’t merited. Those who want to smoke, will continue to smoke – and those who want to quit, will go through necessary steps to do so. Undoing what has become a habit, isn’t simple – no matter how strong one’s desire is. It takes time, and a hell of a lot of internal battles to not revert back. Oh yeah, and SUPPORT and ENCOURAGEMENT.

    It is one thing, to be honest – but at the expense of being an ass? No. Holding others accountable is not the same as being that douche bag who humiliates another in front of friends AND strangers. That is counterproductive .

    If you are going to “talk the talk”, then you had better “walk the walk”. In other words, don’t be the hypocrite who preaches healthy eating/lifestyle while at Burger King. I don’t care how physically fit you are, fast food is harmful to all – and unless you can burn all the calories you just consumed in one setting (including the calories you will add if Burger King isn’t your last meal of the day), then you have no business being there for any reason.

    We aren’t born hating ourselves/others, that is a learned behavior. Let’s not add to it.

    • Coder

      I don’t advocate public ridicule. I was simply likening the disparaging that smokers received from society and the cause and effect. Was ridicule the only reason? No. But societal shunning has an effect on people and that was my point. What people think about us is important. Society has great power to effect change. To the author’s point, I don’t remember a flood of quick fix books aimed at smokers trying to quit.

      But, point to point:

      I agree that anorexia and bulemia are serious problems, but last I checked that group did not make up 36% of the population even when added together. But I like how you tried to tie obesity into an eating disorder and/or a psych problem. Well played.

      Addressing the way people eat was my whole point. It’s not easy. Eating healthy is hard. Throwing the income card in is invalid because there are more people on food stamps now than ever known in the history of history. If I can manage a good diet NOT on food stamps then others can as well. Don’t play the income card. You will lose given the benefits and entitlements available today. On average, a family of three in the USA receives $497 a month on food stamps. Not bad. I spend the same amount on a family of four and we are fine.

      Child protective services can not even manage to remove a child from an abusive, drug fueled home. If you think that CPS can manage to remove a child from a home due to the obesity of the child you have far more faith in CPS than I. Nice try. There will be no need for mental health services related to PTSD. The child will be allowed to remain. According to CPS, if all that is wrong with the family is that the child is obese then that is the least worry.

      I think levying taxes and fines on junk food companies is fine. I agree with Bloomberg. Given a choice, people will not make the smart decision. So limit the decisions. Look at the monies and fines paid from tobacco companies for negligence in the production of that product. I am sorry, I must have been distracted, but I did not hear in your response your lament over those jobs lost in the tobacco industry as a result.

      I’d have to look up the stats, but I am willing to wager on merit alone that the majority of obese cases do not arise from medications or underlying conditions. That is a cop-out. Most medications that an obese person consumes is a result of the obesity and the co-morbidities, not a causal factor. The primary cause of obesity is the old rules of calorie in, calorie out. That is the truth in the majority.

      And I did not say there was an 18% decrease in smoking. I said the entire smoking population was down to 18%. Big difference. I also don’t remember the outpouring of support and encouragement from society for the smokers. I remember ridicule and shame being used to force a behavioral change. Undoing a habit is not easy. I agree with that.

      You are right, holding people accountable does not mean being a douche bag. But we aren’t doing either and obesity is rampant. So how do we hold the obese accountable WITHOUT society being a bunch of douche bags? I task you with the answer :)

      Finally, we are not born to hate ourselves or each other. Those are learned behaviors. We turn to hate when our lives are impacted by others through the behaviors of others and we our powerless to stop it. Obesity is such a thing. Obesity costs us all through higher healthcare costs. Sorry, but I get pretty irritable when my premiums go up and I don’t smoke, am not obese, have no chronic disease (thank God), and don’t access healthcare on a regular basis. I know who I am paying for and I don’t like it.

      I enjoyed your response, Super Lung! Discussion is what brings about change. You offered up quite a lot for me and other people to think on.

  • http://intellectualfollies.blogspot.com/ Vamsi Aribindi

    Trying the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. The fact is, we need a silver bullet.

    A lot of people (like the first comment-er and the author of this piece) compare the food crisis to smoking. Here’s the problem: no amount of smoking is good for you, while there is a healthy and appropriate amount of eating that is different for every person.

    Thus, a much better analogy than smoking is sex. There was a time when sex meant the propagation of both disease and pregnancies- and it still means that in far too much of Africa, Asia, and socioeconomically poorer countries. But, there exists a healthy and good amount of sex. What changed the game was contraception and protection- technological inventions. All of a sudden, women and men could control their reproductive potential and enjoy sex without fear of pregnancies or disease. The number of children the average women had dropped to 2, dramatically removing fears of over-population. Technological inventions worked where centuries of “abstinence until marriage” and other social teachings failed.

    The only hope to solve this obesity problem is a device of somekind that causes malnutrition- scaled to the amount eaten. Gastric by-pass is still too radical an option to implement on a wide scale. We need something that will filer out the bad things we eat and take away the negative consequences of eating- as condoms and contraception have taken away the negative consequences of sex.

    • Arby

      I don’t know if we need a malnutrition device as much as we need to get off the corporate food chain. I eat clean/paleo not as a fad but as a defense against feeling like garbage and gaining weight.

  • Arby

    There already is vast prejudice against “fat” people; it didn’t help.
    And, you can see it really helped with all of the anorexic girls getting younger and younger trying for bodies that are not healthy. /sarc.

    • Coder

      There may be a prejudice against ‘fat’ people, Arby. I’m not totally convinced, yet.

      What I see is when the airlines tried to charge an obese person for two seats because he or she could not fit into one seat there was an outcry in favor of the ‘fat’ people.

      Prejudice you call it. Enabling, I call it.

  • Karen Ronk

    Billions of dollars are made by making a very simple thing very complicated. Pretty much sums up most of life today as we know it.

  • Alene Nitzky

    Right ON!

  • Dorothygreen

    I have done all that you suggest to prove and disprove diets. And in the process, I stumbled upon Dr. Terry Wahls TED x u-tube prior to its warning message from TED that it doesn’t meet their specifications (curious how that happened after over 1 million hits) Nevertheless, the number of hits continues to increase – now at about 2 million. She has a very comprehensive book since April – The Wahls Protocol. I am not reading it , I am studying it as it is packed full of information on how to achieve optimal nutrition whether you are vegan or Paleo, She has done the research, she has determined the nutritional needs necessary for optimal mitrochondrial function. And most importantly she reversed her secondary, progressive multiple sclerosis.

    This is an optimal diet. Why should one look any further. With the Wahls protocol as a guide, anyone can do what it takes to reverse obesity. slow or reverse chronic diseases or just maximize nutrition. It is not cheap to do, it takes effort and no one food is magic. It is an elimination diet, a feed your flora diet, it can vegan but this is very difficult to obtain optimal nutrients, so it is Paleo. Meat is not any meat here – it is pasture raised meat or wild fish. There is plenty of fat – from the animals eating what they are supposed to eat, from whole foods like avocados and coconut oil/milk. Mostly it is vegetables.

    Through this journey learning to cook and eat an optimal diet , I understand why the confusion still exists. It is largely greed. Big Ag, Big Food, even the AHA have something to lose if we were to purge our diets of processed sugar, most grains, eat real meat but less/average and 9 cups of 3 categories of vegetables each day and then so would all those, like yourself, who write about the confusion and those who come up with yet another variation on a diet theme The USDA would have to start subsidizing vegetables instead of wheat and sugar, vegetables instead of corn for animal feed. What a different world we would have. Health care needs would be cut at least in half.

    So,