I have long believed that you can pinpoint the moment when true knowledge on any topic begins. As you read and learn more on any subject you begin to sense you have a good understanding of it. As you delve deeper, you gain a sense that you have wrapped your head around it and are near a full understanding, or mastery, of this topic. And then all of a sudden it happens: you step outside of the small structure you have been stuck in and notice the huge expanse outside that represents the scope of the topic and you say to yourself “I don’t know a fucking thing about this”.
That is the moment when true knowledge begins.
This is where the science of nutrition is right now.
There are some very good nutritionists out there, some incredible doctors, and brilliant individuals with little or no formal training who can coach you on your food intake. They tend to be the ones who accept that we know very little on the topic and will never accept government or ruling body advice blindly. It takes a certain level of awareness and commitment to look beyond the veil of conventional dietary wisdom, when you do this the results are shocking.
THE CURRENT STRUCTURE OF NUTRITION
Let’s use the United States as an example. The American Dietetic Association is” the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals” according to their website. They are the accrediting agency for educational programs and individuals looking to act as dieticians. They are a huge agency with a lot of pull, with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Their recommendations ultimately form the recommendations that reach the public. They claim to be “your source for trustworthy, science-based food and nutrition information”. So where do they get their funding? Here is one of them: ADA’s list of corporate sponsors (seriously check this link out; it will blow your mind). That’s right; your trustworthy recommendation source of healthy eating is funded by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hershey, Mars, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Cargill among others. There does not appear to be any sponsorship from broccoli growers or grass fed beef producers.
The dieting stance of the ADA is essentially the calories in/out model, which they believe is best treated through moderation. Moderation fits their sponsors well because then you can be advised to continue purchasing their products as long as you use moderation. Or, failing moderation, you can purchase their fat-free products without guilt. If they were to support a high quality, nutrient dense food model, their sponsors would be unable to fill that need. I am not a big fan of Marion Nestle (though she is very intelligent) but she had this to say of the ADA: “one of its basic tenets is that there is no such thing as a good or a bad food”.
So the ADA, with donations from large food processors, forms the opinions that are the mandated form to educate new nutritionists. They fund a significant amount of food studies. Their advice on food, however that may be achieved, will ultimately form the bulk of the advice that the American public receives on healthy eating.
Conflict of interest is arguably the most common theme found in dietary confusion.
THE PROBLEM WITH MEDICAL NUTRITION STUDIES
One thing that truly upsets me is the amount of scientific research that is released to the public. Television news reports, magazines, blogs, and newspapers consistently report the latest findings. The problem is that the average person cannot or will not decipher what they are being told. They do not look into the source of funding, how the research was done, or how the findings were interpreted. I always recommend to people to completely ignore new findings and let the experts sift through the bullshit and come up with recommendations based off of it. If you do not know the meanings or differences between observational, double blind, randomized, or controlled (among many others) do not pay attention to them. The main problem is that it seems many professional researchers do not understand what those words mean.
Think about why these studies are done. One reason is true interest in improving human health. Unfortunately, a major reason for performing studies is profits. Studies are used on a frequent basis to support eating one thing or not eating another. People trust science and scientists. We want to believe that it is unbiased and absolute. We picture these brilliant, morally pure, scientists who find answers that are undeniable and can be seen with the eye. The reality is that scientists are normal people with normal problems. They can be narcissistic, delusional, and greedy. They are not without biases. And more than anything, they need to know where the money comes from. If you perform a study that can help support increased profits from a large food manufacturer or supplement producer, you can probably bank on more funding.
Here is a simplified version of how many of these studies are performed: an experiment is set up and raw data is acquired. Now their job is to interpret that data. Bias can creep in, without awareness, at any stage but it is especially prevalent at the interpretation stage.
Dr. John Ionnidas has made a name for himself just by questioning medical research on a whole. He has published some famous papers calling into question the reliability of the studies we use to determine good health. According to him up to 90% of published medical information is wrong.
And it seems to be particularly flawed when it comes to food studies. Gary Taubes writes that “nutritional epidemiology business is a pseudoscience at best”. In his article “Science, Pseudoscience, Nutritional Epidemiology, and Meat” he explains how most epidemiologists will only pay attention to a 3 or 4 fold increase in risk, but that in food studies they will focus on as little as a 0.2 fold increase in risk.
There is money to be made by using studies, but most of it is in food processing and supplementation. People who stand to gain from this are very aware of its effectiveness and use it all the time. The public is very swayed by science. This is reflected in the beliefs that most Westernized societies hold in regards to food and how to eat.
OPTING OUT OF THE ESTABLISHED ADVICE
“Governmental endorsements are not points in your favour… they are strikes against you” – Mark Sisson
In Bill Bryson’s book “A short history of nearly everything” he covers most significant scientific discoveries made in the last 500 years or so. A recurrent theme becomes apparent and is, in my opinion, the single greatest lesson to be taken from the book: anytime a new discovery is made it is first denied by those in power. Next it is acknowledged but deemed irrelevant. Eventually is it recognized as important and the wrong person is credited. Most significant scientific discoveries go against an established belief. There is an entire industry built around that belief, and with that money and power. When new information comes along that threatens that industry, the people in power will take drastic steps to protect themselves. They will attack the messenger or the message, but often both. A good example is how Dr. Atkins was ridiculed for his findings.
The established advice right now, as is supported by the ADA, is to limit fat intake, eat high amounts of carbohydrates, and control weight through caloric balance. Anyone who questions this modeled is not taken seriously by people holding authority and is met with indignancy.
The more government and industry backs a belief, and the more they question opposing beliefs, the more concerned you need to be about their reasons. Food advice is driven primarily by industry interests.
WHAT LITTLE WE KNOW AND WHAT TO BELIEVE
You are always your own best advocate, so the best thing you can do is research it yourself. All information sources out there are biased, including mine. The biggest names in food are not necessarily the biggest because they are the most intelligent, but because they are very convincing and know how to market themselves. The single greatest, unbiased source I can recommend is “In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto” by Michael Pollan. He does not push towards any style of eating, he only does a great job of explaining food, our place in the food chain, and the flaws of what he calls “nutritionism”.
If you go for advice from a professional, look into their background and ask about their beliefs. If they are certified by a government board, and strictly follow the government and certifying board’s recommendations, run, don’t walk, in the other direction. If they push or sell supplements, run further. Supplements are a great tool, but which ones you need and from which source can only be determined by someone who has a full understanding of it. You are best off dealing with an expert on this topic.
A few basic rules to follow based off of what we DO know:
– Food quality trumps all.
– Source of food comes next. Local and fresh.
– Eat a ton of vegetables.
– Eat real, whole foods. Your foods should be alive and in the process of dying. If your food does not rot it is not alive. Regardless of your stance on grains, breads and pastas are not whole foods, they are processed.
– Dietary fats are essential and nutrient rich. Saturated fats are completely misunderstood in conventional dietary wisdom.
– Fruits are a good source of food, but they are inferior sources of produce compared to vegetables.
– Avoid grains and legumes. If you must have them, make sure they are properly prepared (grains sprouted and legumes soaked)
– Soy is not health food.
– If a package is telling you the food is healthy, it probably isn’t. Plus, it’s in a package.
– Food should not come in a package.
– Never trust the government or any of their regulating bodies (FDA, ADA) with your health. Approval of a food additive does not mean it is safe, it just means it has yet to be proven harmful to your health.
– Learn to decipher scientific studies and sift through the garbage, or ignore them completely.
– When someone you do not know offers you food advice, especially if they are selling supplements, question their motives. (Mine is to get rich, just haven’t figured out the “how to get paid” step yet).