Since around the time I started this blog, I have not been able to allow other people’s wrongness about nutrition to go unchallenged. I do not seek out confrontation, nor do I take pleasure in being told how wrong I am by ignorant but well meaning friends. So, I almost never bring up the subject, but I can’t just say nothing when they do. Unfortunately, the subject comes up a lot.
The exchange usually starts after the other person makes a statement of conventional wisdom. (“You know they’ve cut PE out of the elementary schools and put vending machines in all the cafeterias. That’s why we have an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes.” for example.) They are shocked when I respond with something like: “I have a different opinion.” Then they are curious. They ask for an explanation. And so it begins. I present some relevant facts, then I state the conclusions I believe best fits these facts. That is when it gets ugly.
I would love it if the person on the other end of this conversation would argue my facts or my conclusions, but that just never happens. Instead, the whole discussion gets dismissed. It doesn’t fit with the other person’s narrative and they aren’t interested in entertaining any challenges to that narrative. This is why I call this blog “The Food Heretic.” The reaction I get is very similar to the reaction I got when I once asked an advocate of the doctrine of Bible inerrancy (you can’t throw a dead cat here in Oklahoma without hitting one) how they account for all the differences between the accounts of the crucifixion in John, versus the descriptions in the Synoptic gospels (Mathew, Mark, and Luke) including whether it occurred before or after Passover. The conversation abruptly ended.
Ideally, when two people are discussing truth, the purpose should be enlightenment. If two people disagree in their understanding of the world, then one or both have to be mistaken. The discussion should begin with this premise and a certain humility that comes from knowing that one or both are wrong. Wrongness can be due to a lot of things. You can be missing important facts. You can be wrong about facts. Or you can have the wrong conclusions. So when someone challenges my beliefs, I am intrigued. I enjoy being enlightened. If you think I have something wrong, then please enlighten me. The sooner I get it right the better. I want to know the source of your facts and the logic behind your conclusions. If it turns out that I really was wrong, then I am grateful to you for pointing that out.
Religious dogma is often times a very different matter. Religious beliefs are often sacred. Applying logical scrutiny to them is offensive to the person holding the belief. In their mind, it is being disrespectful to God. So when a challenge is presented, it may be met with curiosity, but a curiosity that is rooted in a desire to convert the challenger, or at the very least affirm the sacred belief by easily dismissing a weak challenge. If the challenge is well thought out, the conclusions logical, the facts verifiable, then it serves no purpose but to offend. It is a heresy, and it is time to end the whole conversation.
If you take a tour of the blogs that I link to here, you will see that there are strong disagreements among them. One notable example is a critique of the conclusions of Gary Taubes written by Stephan Guyenet, wherein Guyenet accuses Taubes of ignoring relevant facts and drawing erroneous conclusions. This is a scientific debate. (By the way, it is very technical, so I am still trying to form an opinion of Guyenet’s critique. But it is so refreshing to see a criticism based on facts and logical conclusions.) On the other end of the spectrum, check out the video of Gary Taubes on Dr. Oz. Oz on-the-one-hand praises Taubes for the fine work he is doing, then he dismisses his thesis for apparently no other reason than because he finds it unappealing. Oz does this with a certain smugness, like it’s all a big joke and the audience is in on it.
Maybe most people really are in on the joke with Dr. Oz. Perhaps the joke is that the majority of Dr. Oz’s audience has notions of religious sanctity deeply attached to their ideas about food, and Gary Taubes’ ideas are so diametrically opposed to these religious views that the only reason to talk to Taubes is to ridicule the man. Let’s examine this a bit.
There are many different religions on this planet that advocate vegetarianism, especially those that originated in ancient India: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Not all of the practitioners of these religions are vegetarian but very many are, roughly 30% of the population of modern India. These religions share a common aversion to killing animals for food, principally out of compassion. And while there are huge differences in these religions about whether or not vegetarianism is mandatory, they all seem to share a deep respect for the practice.
In addition, these Indian religions advocate dietary restraint, or the avoidance of gluttony. Some Buddhists, for example, limit themselves to just one meal per day. This was one of the Buddha’s teachings. Christians don’t advocate vegetarianism but they are in lock step with Eastern religions regarding gluttony. In fact, since the Middle Ages, gluttony has been known as one of the seven deadly sins. In the West and the East, gluttony is viewed as the antithesis of compassion. Eating rich fatty foods and delicacies is seen as a squandered opportunity. By consuming more than you need to survive, you are depriving the less fortunate, and especially those who are starving.
These religious ideas about diet were well established in human culture thousands of years before the Age of Enlightenment. So when posing the scientific question: “What is the optimum diet for human health?” there are deeply ingrained biases, not dissimilar to the biases encountered by Galileo or Darwin. Is it any wonder that nutritionists have no trouble getting a worthless observational study funded so long as it supports the idea that eating plants is good and eating meat is bad? This isn’t about science at all. It is about doing God’s work.
Years ago, I dated a woman who insisted that everything I ever needed to know about diet was in the book “The China Study.” Her fanaticism about this book was stunning, especially since she lacked any personal claim of health benefits from it. I tried to read the book but couldn’t. It was not the least bit compelling. I now understand that the appeal of this book is the way it makes seemingly scientific arguments to confirm ancient food biases. Its dietary recommendations fit perfectly with my friends’ morality. I don’t need to describe to you the dietary recommendations in the China Study. Just imagine what a monk would eat and you’ll be dead on.
The most frustrating thing about the resistance I keep encountering to my personal message about diet is that I think my message is pretty simple and intuitive, and if people could somehow divorce themselves from the cultural biases, they could see this as a straight forward engineering problem. I’ll use robots to illustrate.
Imagine that robots were all built to run on two different fuels which are usually mixed together: grain alcohol or diesel. Imagine also that while robots have very different systems for burning those fuels, each system requires the same fuel additive to work properly, a powder made from ground termites. The termite powder needs to always be present and to stay around 30% of the fuel mixture.
Now imagine that two indisputable observations can be made about robots:
- As a whole and over a period of decades, robots became much more prone to fuel system breakdowns, even when they were fairly new, and this happened in spite of no discernible change in build quality or design.
- Over the same period, the average mix of robot fuel shifted. Generally, people are not as fond of diesel fuel for their robots as they once were, so they burn much more alcohol in them these days.
Now if your robot was having fuel related problems and a friend said, “You know I had a ton of problems with my robot until someone told me that robots run better on diesel fuel than anything else. I have been doing my best to run my robot exclusively on diesel and of course termite powder, and damned if the problems didn’t disappear. Would this be grounds to start a fight? I don’t think it would cause an argument even if everyone under the sun had been bombarded all their lives with the message that diesel was an inferior fuel at the root of many robot breakdowns.
Of course, the message I try to convey to my friends is just an easy rewrite of the last three paragraphs:
People evolved to derive energy from plant sugars (carbohydrates) or fat. Dietary protein can be a source of energy, but I think of it more as the replacement building blocks for your tissue. Protein should always be in your diet and be around 30% of your calories. (According to nutrition researchers, people tend to do that automatically.)
There are two indisputable observations that can be made about human diet:
- Over the past few decades the prevalence of diet related diseases such as diabetes and obesity has sky-rocketed, especially in childhood, and this happened in spite of no discernible change in human genetics.
- Over the same period, the average diet has shifted substantially away from fat. Generally, people are avoiding fat much more than they once were. Hence, they are consuming many more carbohydrates.
You should know that there are a growing number of research scientists, physicians, and lay people that believe that the shift in diet is likely to be the cause of the epidemic. In fact, they say that a lot of research findings prove that fat is greatly misunderstood. People seem to be able to live in perfect health with as much as 70% of their calories coming from fat or more, and they stay lean doing so.
I put it to the test in my life. I made a concerted effort to replace carbohydrates with fat, and several serious health problems of mine disappeared.
Blah. Blah. Blah.
Yes. Well, I do eat lots of meat.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Yes, I make my own sausage and pemmican. Pemmican is sort of like a Slim Jim without the sugar or preservatives. I do try to avoid factory farmed meat as much as I can afford.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Is there any science that backs up that claim? If there is I haven’t seen it, and I’ve looked.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. And I think you should Blah. Blah. Blah.
No. You really don’t understand. I have to work to find ways to get more fat in my diet.
Blah. Blah. Blah?
Blah. Blah. Blah!
Dude, put away the gun. Seriously. I have a wife and kids. Hey, you can’t kill me. You’re a pacifist.