As the Calories Churn (Episode 3): The Blame Game

In the previous episode of As the Calories Churn, we explored the differences in food supply/consumption between America in 1970 and America in 2010.

We learned that there were some significant changes in those 40 years. We saw dramatic increases in vegetable oils, grain products, and poultry—the things that the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1980 Dietary Guidelines told us to increase. We saw decreases in red meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat milk—things that our national dietary recommendations told us to decrease. Mysteriously, what didn’t seem to increase much—or at all—were SoFAS (meaning “Solid Fats and Added Sugars”) which, as far as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are concerned, are the primary culprits behind our current health crisis. (“Solid Fats” are a linguistic sleight-of-hand that lumps saturated fat from natural animal sources in with processed partially-hydrogenated vegetables oils and margarines that contain transfats; SoFAS takes the trick a step further, by being not only a dreadful acronym in terms of implying that poor health is caused by sitting on our “sofas,” but by creating an umbrella term for foods that have little in common in terms of structure, biological function or nutrition.)

Around the late 70s or early 80s, there were sudden and rapid changes in America’s food supply and food choices and similar sudden and rapid changes in our health. How these two phenomena are related remains a matter of debate. It doesn’t matter if you’re Marion Nestle and you think the problem is calories or if you’re Gary Taubes and you think the problem is carbohydrate—both of those things increased in our food supply. (Whether or not the problem is fat is an open debate; food availability data points to an increase in added fats and oil, the majority of which are, ironically enough, the “healthy” monounsaturated kind; consumption data points to a leveling off of overall fat intake and a decrease in saturated fat—not a discrepancy I can solve here.) What seems to continue to mystify people is why this changed occurred so rapidly at this specific point in our food and health history.

Personally responsible or helplessly victimized?

At one time, it was commonly thought that obesity was a matter of personal responsibility and that our collective sense of willpower took a nosedive in the 80s, but nobody could ever explain quite why. (Perhaps a giant funk swept over the nation after The Muppet Show got cancelled, and we all collectively decided to console ourselves with Little Debbie Snack Cakes and Nickelodeon?) But because this approach is essentially industry-friendly (Hey, says Big Food, we just make the stuff!) and because no one has any explanation for why nearly three-quarters of our population decided to become fat lazy gluttons all at once (my Muppet Show theory notwithstanding) or for the increase of obesity among preschool children (clearly not affected by the Muppet Show’s cancellation), public health pundits and media-appointed experts have decided that obesity is no longer a matter of personal responsibility. Instead the problem is our “obesogenic environment,” created by the Big Bad Fast Processed Fatty Salty Sugary Food Industry.

Even though it is usually understood that a balance between supply and demand creates what happens in the marketplace, Michael Pollan has argued that it is the food industry’s creation of cheap, highly-processed, nutritionally-bogus food that has caused the rapid rise in obesity. If you are a fan of Pollanomics, it seems obvious that food industry—on a whim?—made a bunch of cheap tasty food, laden with fatsugarsalt, hoping that Americans would come along and eat it. And whaddaya know? They did! Sort of like a Field of Dreams only with Taco-flavored Doritos.

As a result, obesity has become a major public health problem.

Just like it was in 1952.

Helen Lee in thought-provoking article, The Making of the Obesity Epidemic (it is even longer than one of my blog posts, but well worth the time) describes how our obesity problem looked then:

“It is clear that weight control is a major public health problem,” Dr. Lester Breslow, a leading researcher, warned at the annual meeting of the western branch of the American Public Health Association (APHA).
 At the national meeting of the APHA later that year, experts called obesity “America’s No. 1 health problem.”

The year was 1952. There was exactly one McDonald’s in all of America, an entire six-pack of Coca-Cola contained fewer ounces of soda than a single Super Big Gulp today, and less than 10 percent of the population was obese.

In the three decades that followed, the number of McDonald’s restaurants would rise to nearly 8,000 in 32 countries around the world,
sales of soda pop and junk food would explode — and yet, against the fears and predictions of public health experts, obesity in the United States hardly budged. The adult obesity rate was 13.4 percent in 1960. In 1980, it was 15 percent. If fast food was making us fatter, it wasn’t by very much.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, obesity took off.”

It is this “somewhat inexplicably” that has me awake at night gnashing my teeth.

And what is Government going to do about it?

I wonder how “inexplicable” it would be to Ms. Lee had she put these two things together:

(In case certain peoples have trouble with this concept, I’ll type this very slowly and loudly: I’m not implying that the Dietary Guidelines “caused” the rise in obesity; I am merely illustrating a temporal relationship of interest to me, and perhaps to a few billion other folks. I am also not implying that a particular change in diet “caused” the rise in obesity. My focus is on the widespread and encompassing effects that may have resulted from creating one official definition of “healthy food choices to prevent chronic disease” for the entire population.)

Right now we are hearing calls from every corner for the government to create or reform policies that will reign in industry and “slim down the nation.” Because we’d never tried that before, right?

When smoking was seen as a threat to the health of Americans, the government issued a definitive report outlining the science that found a connection between smoking and risk of chronic disease. Although there are still conspiracy theorists that believe that this has all been a Big Plot to foil the poor widdle tobacco companies, in general, the science was fairly straightforward. Cigarette smoking—amount and duration—is relatively easy to measure, and the associations between smoking and both disease and increased mortality were compelling and large enough that it was difficult to attribute them to methodological flaws.

Notice that Americans didn’t wait around for the tobacco industry to get slapped upside the head by the FDA’s David Kessler in the 1990s. Tobacco use plateaued in the 1950s as scientists began to publicize reports linking smoking and cancer. The decline in smoking in America began in earnest with the release of Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General in 1964. A public health campaign followed that shifted social norms away from considering smoking as an acceptable behavior, and smoking saw its biggest declines before litigation and sanctions against Big Tobacco  happened in the 1990s.

Been there, done that, failed miserably.

In a similar fashion, the 1977 Dietary Goals were the culmination of concerns about obesity that had begun decades before, joined by concerns about heart disease voiced by a vocal minority of scientists led by Ancel Keys. Declines in red meat, butter, whole milk and egg consumption had already begun in response to fears about cholesterol and saturated fat that originated with Keys and the American Heart Association—which used fear of fat and the heart attacks they supposedly caused as a fundraising tactic, especially among businessmen and health professionals, whom they portrayed as especially susceptible to this disease of “successful civilization and high living.”  The escalation of these fears—and declines in intake of animal foods portrayed as especially dangerous—picked up momentum when Senator George McGovern and his Select Senate Committee created the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans. It was thought that, just as we had “tackled” smoking, we could create a document advising Americans on healthy food choices and compliance would follow. But issue was a lot less straightforward.

To begin with, when smoking was at its peak, only around 40% of the population smoked. On the other hand, we expect that approximately 100% of the population eats.

In addition, the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s built on a long tradition of public health messages—originating with the Temperance movement—that associated smoking with dirty habits, loose living, and moral decay. It was going to be much harder to fully convince Americans that traditional foods typically associated with robust good health, foods that the US government thought were so nutritionally important that in the recent past they had been “saved” for the troops, were now suspect and to be avoided.

Where the American public had once been told to save “wheat, meat, and fats” for the soldiers, they now had to be convinced to separate the “wheat” from the “meat and fats” and believe that one was okay and the others were not.

To do this, public health leaders and policy makers turned to science, hoping to use it just as it had been used in anti-smoking arguments. Frankly, however, nutrition science just wasn’t up to the task. Linking nutrition to chronic disease was a field of study that would be in its infancy after it grew up a bit; in 1977, it was barely embryonic. There was little definitive data to support the notion that saturated fat from whole animal foods was actually a health risk; even experts who thought that the theory that saturated fat might be linked to heart disease had merit didn’t think there was enough evidence to call for dramatic changes in American’s eating habits.

The scientists who were intent on waving the “fear of fat” flag had to rely on observational studies of populations (considered then and now to be the weakest form of evidence), in order to attempt to prove that heart disease was related to intake of saturated fat (upon closer examination, these studies did not even do that).

Nutrition epidemiology is a soft science, so soft that it is not difficult to shape it into whatever conclusions the Consistent Public Health Message requires. In large-scale observational studies, dietary habits are difficult to measure and the results of Food Frequency Questionnaires are often more a product of wishful thinking than of reality. Furthermore, the size of associations in nutrition epidemiological studies is typically small—an order of magnitude smaller than those found for smoking and risk of chronic disease.

But nutrition epidemiology had proved its utility in convincing the public of the benefits of dietary change in the 70s and since then has become the primary tool—and the biggest funding stream (this is hardly coincidental)—for cementing in place the Consistent Public Health Message to reduce saturated fat and increase grains and cereals.

There is no doubt that the dramatic dietary change that the federal government was recommending was going to require some changes from the food industry, and they appear to have responded to the increased demands for low-fat,whole grain products with enthusiasm. Public health recommendations and the food fears they engendered are (as my friend James Woodward puts it) “a mechanism for encouraging consumers to make healthy eating decisions, with the ultimate goal of improving health outcomes.” Experts like Kelly Brownell and Marion Nestle decry the tactics used by the food industry of taking food components thought to be “bad” out of products while adding in components thought to be “good,” but it was federal dietary recommendations focusing above all else on avoiding saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt that led the way for such products to be marketed as “healthy” and to become acceptable to a confused, busy, and anxious public. The result was a decrease in demand for red meat, butter, whole milk and egg, and an increase in demand for low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol, and “whole” grain products. Minimally-processed animal-based products were replaced by cheaply-made, highly-processed plant-based products, which food manufacturers could market as healthy because, according to our USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines, they were healthy.

The problem lies in the fact that—although these products contained less of the “unhealthy” stuff Americans were supposed to avoid—they also contained less of our most important nutrients, especially protein and fat-soluble vitamins. We were less likely to feel full and satisfied eating these products, and we were more likely to snack or binge—behaviors that were also fully endorsed by the food industry.

Between food industry marketing and the steady drumbeat of media messages explaining just how deadly red meat and eggs are (courtesy of population studies from Harvard, see above), Americans got the message. About 36% of the population believe that UFOs are real; only 25% believe that there’s no link between saturated fat and heart disease. We are more willing to believe that we’ve been visited by creatures from outer space than we are to believe that foods that humans have been eating ever since they became human have no harmful effects on health. But while industry has certainly taken advantage of our gullibility, they weren’t the ones who started those rumors, and they should not be shouldering all of the blame for the consequences.

Fixing it until it broke

Back in 1977, we were given a cure that didn’t work for diseases that we didn’t have. Then we spent billions in research dollars trying to get the glass slipper to fit the ugly stepsister’s foot. In the meantime, the food industry has done just what we would expect it to do, provide us with the foods that we think we should eat to be healthy and—when we feel deprived (because we are deprived)—with the foods we are hungry for.

We can blame industry, but as long as food manufacturers can take any mixture of vegetable oils and grain/cereals and tweak it with added fiber, vitamins, minerals, a little soy protein or maybe some chicken parts, some artificial sweeteners and salt substitutes, plus whatever other colors/preservatives/stabilizers/flavorizers they can get away with and still be able to get the right profile on the nutrition facts panel (which people do read), consumers–confused, busy, hungry–are going to be duped into believing what they are purchasing is “healthy” because–in fact–the government has deemed it so. And when these consumers are hungry later—which they are very likely to be—and they exercise their rights as consumers rather than their willpower, who should we blame then?

There is no way around it. Our dietary recommendations are at the heart of the problem they were created to try to reverse. Unlike the public health approach to smoking, we “fixed” obesity until it broke for real.

As the Calories Churn (Episode 1): Nooooo, not the carbs!!!

Oh the drama!  Some of the current hyperventilating in the alternative nutrition community–sugar is toxic, insulin is evil, vegetable oils give you cancer, and running will kill you–has, much to my dismay, made the alternative nutrition community sound as shrill and crazed as the mainstream nutrition one.

When you have self-appointed nutrition experts food writers like Mark Bittman agreeing feverishly with a pediatric endocrinologist with years of clinical experience like Robert Lustig, we’ve crossed over into some weird nutrition Twilight Zone where fact, fantasy, and hype all swirl together in one giant twitter feed of incoherence meant, I think, to send us into a dark corner where we can do nothing but nibble on organic kale, mumble incoherently about inflammation and phytates, and await the zombie apocalypse.

No, carbohydrates are not evil—that’s right, not even sugar. If sugar were rat poison, one trip to the county fair in 4th grade would have killed me with a cotton candy overdose. Neither is insulin, now characterized as the serial killer of hormones (try explaining that to a person with type 1 diabetes).

But that doesn’t mean that 35 years of dietary advice to increase our grain and cereal consumption, while decreasing our fat and saturated fat consumption has been a good idea.

I have gotten rather tired of seeing this graph used as a central rationale for arguing that the changes in total carbohydrate intake over the past 30 years have not contributed to the rising rates of obesity.


The argument takes shapes on 2 fronts:

1) We ate 500 grams of carbohydrate per day in 1909 and 500 grams in 1997 and WE WEREN’T FAT IN 1909!

2) The other part of the argument is that the TYPE of carbohydrate has shifted over time. In 1909, we ate healthy, fiber-filled unrefined and unprocessed types of carbohydrates. Not like now.

Okay, let’s take closer look at that paper, shall we?  And then let’s look at what really matters:  the context.

The data used to make this graph are not consumption data, but food availability data. This is problematic in that it tells us how much of a nutrient was available in the food supply in any given year, but does not account for food waste, spoilage, and other losses. And in America, we currently waste a lot of food. 

According to the USDA, we currently lose over 1000 calories in our food supply–calories that don’t make it into our mouths.  Did we waste the same percentage of our food supply across the entire century? Truth is, we don’t know and we are not likely to find out—but I seriously doubt it. My mother and both my grandmothers—with memories of war and rationing fresh in their minds—would be no more likely to throw out anything remotely edible as they would be to do the Macarena. My mother has been known to put random bits of leftover food in soups, sloppy joes, and—famously—pancake batter. To this day, should your hand begin to move toward the compost bucket with a tablespoon of mashed potatoes scraped from the plate of a grandchild shedding cold virus like it was last week’s fashion, she will throw herself in front of the bucket and shriek, “NOOOOOO! Don’t throw that OUT! I’ll have that for lunch tomorrow.”

You know what this means folks: in 1909, we were likely eating MORE carbohydrate than we are today. (Or maybe in 1909, all those steelworkers pulling 12 hour days 7 days a week, just tossed out their sandwich crusts rather than eat them. It could happen.)

BUT–as with butts all over America including mine, it’s a really Big BUT: How do I explain the fact that Americans were eating GIANT STEAMING HEAPS OF CARBOHYDRATES back in 1909—and yet, and yet—they were NOT FAT!!??!!

Okay. Y’know. I’m up for this one. Not only is problematic to the point of absurdity to compare food availability data from the early 1900s to our current food system, life in general was a little different back then. At the turn of the century,

  • average life expectancy was around 50
  • the nation had 8,000 cars
  • and about 10 miles of paved roads.

In 1909, neither assembly lines nor the Titanic had happened yet.

The labor force looked a little different too:Labor force 1900 - 2000

Primary occupations made up the largest percentage of male workers (42%)—farmers, fisherman, miners, etc.—what we would now call manual laborers. Another 21% were “blue collar” jobs, craftsmen, machine operators, and laborers whose activities in those early days of the Industrial Revolution, before many things became mechanized, must have required a considerable amount of energy. And not only was the work hard, there was a lot of it. At the turn of the century, the average workweek was 59 hours, or close to 6 10-hour days. And it wasn’t just men working. As our country shifted from a rural agrarian economy to a more urban industrialized one, women and children worked both on the farms and in the factories.

This is what is called “context.”

In the past, nutrition epidemiologists have always considered caloric intake to be a surrogate marker for activity level. To quote Walter Willett himself:

“Indeed, in most instances total energy intake can be interpreted as a crude measure of physical activity . . . ” (in: Willett, Walter. Nutritional Epidemiology. Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 276).

It makes perfect sense that Americans would have a lot of carbohydrate and calories in their food supply in 1909. Carbohydrates have been—and still are—a cheap source of energy to fuel the working masses. But it makes little sense to compare the carbohydrate intake of the labor force of 1909 to the labor force of 1997, as in the graph at the beginning of this post (remember the beginning of this post?).

After decades of decline, carbohydrate availability experienced a little upturn from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s, when it began to climb rapidly. But generally speaking, carbohydrate intake was lower during that time than at any point previously.

I’m not crazy about food availability data, but to be consistent with the graph at the top of the page, here it is.

Data based on per capita quantities of food available for consumption:

1909 1975 Change
Total calories 3500 3100 -400
Carbohydrate calories 2008 1592 -416
Protein calories 404 372 -32
Total fat calories 1098 1260 +162
Saturated fat (grams) 52 47 -5
Mono- and polyunsaturated fat (grams) 540 738 +198
Fiber (grams) 29 20 -9

To me, it looks pretty much like it should with regard to context.  As our country went from pre- and early industrialized conditions to a fully-industrialized country of suburbs and station wagons, we were less active in 1970 than we were in 1909, so we consumed fewer calories. The calories we gave up were ones from the cheap sources of energy—carbohydrates—that would have been most readily available in the economy of a still-developing nation. Instead, we ate more fat.

We can’t separate out “added fats” from “naturally-present fats” from this data, but if we use saturated fat vs. mono- and polyunsaturated fats as proxies for animal fats vs. vegetable oils (yes, I know that animal fats have lots of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, but alas, such are the limitations of the dataset), then it looks like Americans were making use of the soybean oil that was beginning to be manufactured in abundance during the 1950s and 1960s and was making its way into our food supply.  (During this time, heart disease mortality was decreasing, an effect likely due more to warnings about the hazards of smoking, which began in earnest in 1964, than to dietary changes; although availability of unsaturated fats went up, that of saturated fats did not really go down.)

As for all those “healthy” carbohydrates that we were eating before we started getting fat? Using fiber as a proxy for level of “refinement” (as in the graph at the beginning of this post—remember the beginning of this post?), we seemed to be eating more refined carbohydrates in 1975 than in 1909—and yet, the obesity crisis was still yet a gleam in Walter Willett’s eyes.

While our lives in 1909 differed greatly from our current environment, our lives in the 1970s were not all that much different than they are now. I remember. As much as it pains me to confess this, I was there. I wore bell bottoms. I had a bike with a banana seat (used primarily for trips to the candy store to buy Pixie Straws). I did macramé. My parents had desk jobs, as did most adults I knew. No adult I knew “exercised” until we got new neighbors next door. I remember the first time our new next-door neighbor jogged around the block. My brothers and sister and I plastered our faces to the picture window in the living room to scream with excitement every time she ran by; it was no less bizarre than watching a bear ride a unicycle.

In 1970, more men had white-collar than blue-collar jobs; jobs that primarily consisted of manual labor had reached their nadir. Children were largely excluded from the labor force, and women, like men, had moved from farm and factory jobs to more white (or pink) collar work. The data on this is not great (in the 1970s, we hadn’t gotten that excited about exercise yet) but our best approximation is that about 35% of adults–one of whom was my neighbor–exercised regularly, with “regularly” defined as “20 minutes at least 3 days a week” of moderately intense exercise.  (Compare this definition, a total of 60 minutes a week, to the current recommendation, more than double that amount, of 150 minutes a week.)

Not too long ago, the 2000 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recognized that environmental context—such as the difference between America in 1909 and America in 1970—might lead to or warrant dietary differences:

“There has been a long-standing belief among experts in nutrition that low-fat diets are most conducive to overall health. This belief is based on epidemiological evidence that countries in which very low fat diets are consumed have a relatively low prevalence of coronary heart disease, obesity, and some forms of cancer. For example, low rates of coronary heart disease have been observed in parts of the Far East where intakes of fat traditionally have been very low. However, populations in these countries tend to be rural, consume a limited variety of food, and have a high energy expenditure from manual labor. Therefore, the specific contribution of low-fat diets to low rates of chronic disease remains uncertain. Particularly germane is the question of whether a low-fat diet would benefit the American population, which is largely urban and sedentary and has a wide choice of foods.” [emphasis mine – although whether our population in 2000 was largely "sedentary" is arguable]

The 2000 DGAC goes on to say:

“The metabolic changes that accompany a marked reduction in fat intake could predispose to coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus. For example, reducing the percentage of dietary fat to 20 percent of calories can induce a serum lipoprotein pattern called atherogenic dyslipidemia, which is characterized by elevated triglycerides, small-dense LDL, and low high-density lipoproteins (HDL). This lipoprotein pattern apparently predisposes to coronary heart disease. This blood lipid response to a high-carbohydrate diet was observed earlier and has been confirmed repeatedly. Consumption of high-carbohydrate diets also can produce an enhanced post-prandial response in glucose and insulin concentrations. In persons with insulin resistance, this response could predispose to type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The committee further held the concern that the previous priority given to a “low-fat intake” may lead people to believe that, as long as fat intake is low, the diet will be entirely healthful. This belief could engender an overconsumption of total calories in the form of carbohydrate, resulting in the adverse metabolic consequences of high carbohydrate diets. Further, the possibility that overconsumption of carbohydrate may contribute to obesity cannot be ignored. The committee noted reports that an increasing prevalence of obesity in the United States has corresponded roughly with an absolute increase in carbohydrate consumption.” [emphasis mine]

Hmmmm. Okay, folks, that was in 2000—THIRTEEN years ago. If the DGAC was concerned about increases in carbohydrate intake—absolute carbohydrate intake, not just sugars, but sugars and starches—13 years ago, how come nothing has changed in our federal nutrition policy since then?

I’m not going to blame you if your eyes glaze over during this next part, as I get down and geeky on you with some Dietary Guidelines backstory:

As with all versions of the Dietary Guidelines after 1980, the 2000 edition was based on a report submitted by the DGAC which indicated what changes should be made from the previous version of the Guidelines. And, as will all previous versions after 1980, the changes in the 2000 Dietary Guidelines were taken almost word-for-word from the suggestions given by the scientists on the DGAC, with few changes made by USDA or HHS staff. Although HHS and USDA took turns administrating the creation of the Guidelines, in 2000, no staff members from either agency were indicated as contributing to the writing of the final Guidelines.

But after those comments in 2000 about carbohydrates, things changed.

Beginning with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, HHS and USDA staff members are in charge of writing the Guidelines, which are no longer considered to be a scientific document whose audience is the American public, but a policy document whose audience is nutrition educators, health professionals, and policymakers. Why and under whose direction this change took place is unknown.

The Dietary Guidelines process doesn’t have a lot of law holding it up. Most of what happens in regard to the Guidelines is a matter of bureaucracy, decision-making that takes place within USDA and HHS that is not handled by elected representatives but by government employees.

However, there is one mandate of importance: the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, Public Law 445, 101st Cong., 2nd sess. (October 22, 1990), section 301. (P.L. 101-445) requires that “The information and guidelines contained in each report required under paragraph shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.”

The 2000 Dietary Guidelines were (at least theoretically) scientifically accurate because scientists were writing them. But beginning in 2005, the Dietary Guidelines document recognizes the contributions of an “Independent Scientific Review Panel who peer reviewed the recommendations of the document to ensure they were based on a preponderance of scientific evidence.” [To read the whole sordid story of the "Independent Scientific Review Panel," which appears to neither be "independent" nor to "peer-review" the Guidelines, check out Healthy Nation Coalition's Freedom of Information Act results.]  Long story short:  we don’t know who–if anyone–is making sure the Guidelines are based on a complete and current review of the science.

Did HHS and USDA not like the direction that it looked like the Guidelines were going to take–with all that crazy talk about too many carbohydrates – and therefore made sure the scientists on the DGAC were farther removed from the process of creating them?

Hmmmmm again.

Dr. Janet King, chairwoman of the 2005 DGAC had this to say, after her tenure creating the Guidelines was over: “Evidence has begun to accumulate suggesting that a lower intake of carbohydrate may be better for cardiovascular health.”

Dr. Joanne Slavin, a member of the 2010 DGAC had this to say, after her tenure creating the Guidelines was over: “I believe fat needs to go higher and carbs need to go down,” and “It is overall carbohydrate, not just sugar. Just to take sugar out is not going to have any impact on public health.”

It looks like, at least in 2005 and 2010, some well-respected scientists (respected well enough to make it onto the DGAC) thought that—in the context of our current environment—maybe our continuing advice to Americans to eat more carbohydrate and less fat wasn’t such a good idea.

I think it is at about this point that I begin to hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those who don’t think Americans ever followed this advice to begin with, because—goodness knows—if we had, we wouldn’t be so darn FAT!

So did Americans follow the advice handed out in those early dietary recommendations? Or did Solid Fats and Added Sugars (SoFAS—as the USDA/HHS like to call them—as in “get up offa yur SoFAS and work your fatty acids off”) made us the giant tubs of lard that we are just as the USDA/HHS says they did?

Stay tuned for the next episode of As the Calories Churn, when I attempt to settle those questions once and for all.  And you’ll hear a big yellow blob with stick legs named Timer say, “I hanker for a hunk of–a slab or slice or chunk of–I hanker for a hunk of cheese!”

The NaCl Debacle Part 2: We don’t need no stinkin’ science!

Sodium-Slashing Superheroes Low-Sodium Larry and his bodacious side-kick Linda “The Less Salt the Better” Van Horn team up to protect Americans from the evils lurking in a teaspoon of salt!
(Drawings courtesy of Butcher Billy)

Yesterday, we found our Sodium-Slashing Superheroes Larry and Linda determined to make sure that no American endangered his/her health by ingesting more than ¾ of a teaspoon of salt a day. But recently, an Institute of Medicine report determined that recommendations to reduce sodium intake to such low levels provided no health benefits and could be detrimental to the health of some people. [In case you missed it and your job is really boring, you can read Part 1 of the NaCl Debacle here.]

Our story picks up as the 2010 USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, fearlessly led by Linda and Larry, arrives at the foregone conclusion that most, if not all, US adults would (somehow) benefit from reducing their sodium intake to 1500 mg/day.  The American Heart Association, in a report written by—surprise!—Larry and Linda, goes on to state that “The health benefits [of reducing sodium intake to 1500 mg/day] apply to Americans in all groups, and there is no compelling evidence to exempt special populations from this public health recommendation.”

Does that mean there is “compelling evidence” to include special populations, or for that matter ordinary populations, in this 1500 mg/day recommendation? No, but who cares?

Does that mean there is science to prove that “excess” sodium intake (i.e. more than ¾ of a teaspoon of salt a day) leads to high blood pressure and thus cardiovascular disease, or that salt makes you fat, or that sodium consumption will eventually lead to the zombie apocalypse? No, no, and no—but who cares?

Larry and Linda KNOW that salt is BAD. Science? They don’t need no stinkin’ science.

Because the one thing everyone seems to be able to agree on is that the science on salt does indeed stink. The IOM report has had to use many of the same methodologically-flawed studies available to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, full of the same confounding, measurement error, reverse causation and lame-ass dietary assessment that we know and love about all nutrition epidemiology studies.  But the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee didn’t actually bother to look at these studies.

Why not?  (And let me remind you that the Dietary Guidelines folks usually <heart> methodologically-flawed study designs, full of confounding, measurement error, reverse causation and lame-ass dietary assessment.)

First, a little lesson in how the USDA/HHS folks create dietary guidance meant to improve the health and well-being of the American people:

  1. Take a clinical marker, whose health implications are unclear, but whose levels we can measure cheaply and easily (like blood pressure, cholesterol, weight).
  2. Suggest that this marker—like Karnac the Magnificent—can somehow predict risk of a chronic disease whose origins are multiple and murky (like obesity, heart disease, cancer).
  3. Use this suggestion to establish some arbitrary clinical cut offs for when this marker is “good” and “bad.” (Note to public health advocacy organizations: Be sure to frequently move those goalposts in whichever direction requires more pharmaceuticals to be purchased from the companies that sponsor you.)
  4. Find some dietary factor that can easily and profitably be removed from our food supply, but whose intake is difficult to track (like saturated fat, sodium, calories).
  5. Implicate the chosen food factor in the regulation of the arbitrary marker, the details of which we don’t quite understand. (How? Use observational data—see methodological flaws above—but hunches and wild guesses will also work.)
  6. Create policy that insists that the entire population—including people who, by the way, are not (at least at this point) fat, sick or dead—attempt to prevent this chronic disease by avoiding this particular dietary factor. (Note to public health advocacy organizations: Be sure to offer food manufacturers the opportunity to have the food products from which they have removed the offensive component labeled with a special logo from your organization—for a “small administrative fee,” of course.)
  7. Commence collecting weak, inconclusive, and inconsistent data to prove that yes indeedy this dietary factor we can’t accurately measure does in fact have some relationship to this arbitrary clinical marker, whose regulation and health implications we don’t fully understand.
  8. Finally—here’s the kicker—measure the success of your intervention by whether or not people are willing to eat expensive, tasteless, chemical-filled food devoid of the chosen food factor in order to attempt to regulate the arbitrary clinical marker.
  9. Whatever you do, DO NOT EVER measure the success of your intervention by looking at whether or not attempts to follow your intervention has made people fat, sick, or dead in the process.
  10. Ooops. I think I just described the entire history of nutrition epidemiology of chronic disease.

Blood pressure is easy to measure, but we don’t always know what causes it to go up (or down). There is no real physiological difference between having a blood pressure reading of 120/80, which will get you a diagnosis of “pre-hypertension” and a fistful of prescriptions, and a reading of 119/79, which won’t.  Blood pressure is not considered to be a “distinct underlying cause of death,” which means that, technically, no one ever dies of blood pressure (high or low). We certainly don’t know how to disentangle the effects of lowering dietary sodium on blood pressure from other effects (like weight loss) that may be related to dietary changes that are a part of an attempt to lower sodium (and we have an embarrassingly hard time collecting accurate dietary intake information from Food Fantasy Questionnaires anyway). We also know that individual response to sodium varies widely.

So doesn’t it make perfect sense that the folks at the USDA/HHS should ignore science that investigates the relationship between sodium intake and whether or not a person stayed out of the hospital, had a heart attack, or up and died? Well, it doesn’t to me, but nevertheless the USDA/HHS has remained obsessively fixated on one thing and one thing only, what effects reducing sodium has on blood pressure,  and they pay not one whit of attention to what effects reducing sodium has on, say, aliveness.

So let’s just get this out there and agree to agree: reducing sodium in most cases will reduce blood pressure.  But then, just to be clear, so will dismemberment, dysentery, and death.  We can’t just assume that lowering sodium will only affect blood pressure or will only positively affect health (I mean, we can’t unless we are Larry or Linda). Recent research, which prompted the IOM review, indicates that reducing sodium will also increase triglyceride levels, insulin resistance, and sympathetic nervous system activity. For the record, clinicians generally don’t consider these to be good things.

This may sound radical but in their review of the evidence, the IOM committee decided to do a few things differently.

First, they gave more weight to studies that determined sodium intake levels through multiple high-quality 24-hour urine collections. Remember, this is Low-Sodium Larry’s favorite way of estimating intake.

Also, they did not approach the data with a predetermined “healthy” range already established in their brains. Because of the extreme variability in intake levels among population groups, they decided to—this is crazy, I know—let the outcomes speak for themselves.

Finally, and most importantly, in the new IOM report, the authors, unlike Larry and Linda, focused on—hold on to your hats, folks!—actual health outcomes, something the Dietary Guidelines Have. Never. Done. Ever.

The IOM committee found, in a nutshell:

“that evidence from studies on direct health outcomes is inconsistent and insufficient to conclude that lowering sodium intakes below 2,300 mg per day either increases or decreases risk of CVD outcomes (including stroke and CVD mortality) or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population.”

In other words, there is no science to indicate that we all need to be consuming less than ¾ of a teaspoon of salt a day. Furthermore, while there may be some subpopulations that may benefit from sodium reduction, reducing sodium intake to 1500 mg/day may increase risk of adverse health outcomes for people with congestive heart failure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or heart disease. (If you’d like to wallow in some of the studies reviewed by the IOM, I’ve provided the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version at the bottom of the page.)

Of course, the American Heart Association, eager to provide the public with the most up-to-date recommendations about heart health as long as they don’t contradict outdated recommendations of which the AHA is fond, responded to the IOM report by saying, “The American Heart Association is not changing its position. The association rejects the Institute of Medicine’s conclusions because the studies on which they were based had methodological flaws.”

Um, hello AHA? Exactly what completely non-existent, massive, highly-controlled and yet highly-generalizable randomized controlled trials about sodium intake and health effects were you planning on using to make your case? I believe it was the AHA that mentioned that “It is well-known, however, that such trials are not feasible because of logistic, financial, and often ethical considerations.” Besides, I don’t know what the AHA is whining about. The quality of the science hardly matters if you are not going to pay any attention to it in the first place.

No, folks that giant smacking sound you hear is not my head on my keyboard. That was the sound of science crashing into a giant wall of Consistent Public Health Message. Apparently, those public health advocates at the AHA seem to think that changing public health messages—even when they are wrong—confuses widdle ol’ Americans. The AHA—and the USDA/HHS team—doesn’t want us to have to worry our pretty little heads about all that crazy scientifical stuff with big scary words and no funny pictures or halftime shows.

Frankly, I appreciate that. I hate to have my pretty little head worried. But there’s one other problem with this particular Consistent Public Health Message. Not only is there no science to back it up; not only is it likely to be downright detrimental to the health of certain groups of people; not only is it likely to introduce an arsenal of synthetic chemical salt-replacements that will be consumed at unprecedented levels without testing for negative interactions or toxicities (remember how well that worked out when we replaced saturated fat with partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils?)—it is, apparently, incompatible with eating food.

Researchers set out to find what would really happen if Americans were muddle-headed and sheep-like enough to actually try to reduce their sodium intake to 1500 mg/day. They discovered that, “the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for sodium were incompatible with potassium guidelines and with nutritionally adequate diets, even after reducing the sodium content of all US foods by 10%.”  Way to go, Guidelines

While these researchers suggested that a feasibility study (this is a scientifical term for “reality check”) should precede the issuing of dietary guidelines to the public, I have a different suggestion.

How about we just stop with the whole 30-year-long dietary experiment to prevent chronic disease by telling Americans what not to eat? I hate to be the one to point this out, but it doesn’t seem to be working out all that well.  It’s hard to keep assuming that the AHA and the USDA/HHS mean well when, if you look at it for what it is, they are willing to continue to jeopardize the health of Americans just so they don’t have to admit that they might have been wrong about a few things.  I suppose if a Consistent Public Health Message means anything, it means never having to say you’re sorry for 30 years-worth of lousy dietary advice.

Marion Nestle has noted that, up until now, “every single committee that has dealt with this question [of sodium-reduction] says, ‘We really need to lower the sodium in the food supply.’ Now either every single committee that has ever dealt with this issue is delusional, which I find hard to believe—I mean they can’t all be making this up—[or] there must be a clinical or rational basis for the unanimity of these decisions.”

Weeeell, I got some bad news for you, Marion. Believe it. They have been delusional. They are making this up. And no, apparently there is no clinical or rational basis for the unanimity of these decisions.

But, thanks to the IOM report, perhaps we can no longer consider these decisions to be unanimous.

Praise the lard and pass the salt.

Read ‘em and weep:  The Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the science from the IOM report.  Studies marked with an asterix (*) are studies that were available to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  

Studies that looked at Cardiovascular Disease, Stroke, and Mortality

*Cohen et al. (2006)

When intakes of sodium less than 2300 mg per day were compared to intakes greater than 2300 mg per day, the “lower sodium intake was statistically significantly associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality.”

*Cohen et al. (2008)

When a fully-adjusted (for confounders) model was used, “there was a statistically significant higher risk of CVD mortality with the lowest vs. the highest quartile of sodium intake.”

Gardener et al. (2012)

Risk of stroke was positively related to sodium intake when comparing the highest levels of intake to the lowest levels of intake. There was no statistically significant increase in risk for those consuming between 1500 and 4000 mg of sodium per day.

*Larsson et al. (2008)

“The analyses found no significant association between dietary sodium intake and risk of any stroke subtype.”

*Nagata et al. (2004)

“Among men, a 2.3-fold increased risk of stroke mortality was associated with the highest tertile of sodium intake.” That sounds bad, but the average sodium intake in the high-risk group was 6613 mg per day. The lowest risk group had an average intake of 4070 mg per day. “Thus, the average sodium intake in the US would be within the lowest tertile of this study.”

Stolarz-Skrzypek at al. (2011)

“Overall, the authors found that lower sodium intake was associated with higher CVD mortality.”

Takachi et al. (2010)

The authors found “a significant positive association between sodium consumption at the highest compared to the lowest quintile and risk of stroke.” As with the Nagata (2004) study, this sounds bad, but the average sodium intake in the high-risk group was 6844 mg per day. The lowest risk group had an average intake of 3084 mg per day. “Thus, the average sodium intake in the US would be close to the lowest quintile of this study.”

*Umesawa et al. (2008)

“The authors found an association between greater dietary sodium intake and greater mortality from total stroke, ischemic stroke, and total CVD.” However, as with the Nagata and the Takchi studies (above), lower quintiles—in this case, quintiles one and two—would be comparable to average US intake.

Yang et al. (2011)

Higher usual sodium intake was found to be associated with all-cause mortality, but not cardiovascular disease mortality or ischemic heart disease mortality. “However, the finding that correction for regression dilution increased the effect on all-cause mortality, but not on CVD mortality, is inconsistent with the theoretical causal pathway.”  In other words, high sodium intake might be bad for health, but not because it raises blood pressure and leads to heart disease.

Studies in Populations 51 Years of Age or Older

*Geleijnse et al. (2007)

“This study found no significant difference between urinary sodium level and risk of CVD mortality or all-cause mortality.” Relative risk was lowest in the medium intake group, with an average estimated intake of 2, 415 mg/day.

Other

“Five of the nine reported studies in the general population listed above also analyzed the data on health outcomes by age and found no interaction (Cohen et al., 2006, 2008; Cook et al., 2007; Gardener et al., 2012; Yang et al., 2011).”

Studies in Populations with Chronic Kidney Disease

Dong et al. (2010)

“The authors found that the lowest sodium intake was associated with increased mortality risk.”

Heerspink et al. (2012)

“Results from this study suggest that ARBs were more effective at decreasing CKD progression and CVD when sodium intake was in the lowest tertile” which had an estimated average sodium intake of about 2783 mg/day.

Studies on Populations with Cardiovascular Disease

Costa et al. (2012)

“Dietary sodium intake was estimated from a 62-itemvalidated FFQ. . . . Significant correlations were found between sodium intake and percentage of fat and calories in daily intake. . . . Overall, for the first 30 days and up to 4 years afterward, total mortality was significantly associated with high sodium intake.”

Kono et al. (2011)

“Cumulative risk analysis found that a salt intake of greater than the median of 4,000 mg of sodium) was associated with higher stroke recurrence rate. Univariate analysis of lifestyle management also found that poor lifestyle, defined by both high salt intake and low physical activity, was significantly associated with stroke recurrence.

O’Donnell et al. (2011)

“For the composite outcome, multivariate analysis found a U-shaped relationship between 24-hour urine sodium and the composite outcome of CVD death, MI, stroke, and hospitalization for CHF.” In other words, both higher (>7,000 mg per day estimated intake) and lower (<2,990 mg per day estimated intake) intakes of sodium were associated with increased risk of heart disease and mortality.

Studies on Populations with Prehypertension

*Cook et al. (2007)

In a randomized trial comparing a low sodium intervention with usual intake, lower sodium intake did not significantly decrease risk of mortality or heart disease events.

*Cook et al. (2009)

No significant increase in risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes was associated with increased sodium excretions levels.

Other

“Several other studies discussed in this chapter analyzed data on health outcomes by blood pressure and found no statistical interactions (Cohen et al., 2006, 2008; Gardener et al., 2012; O’Donnell et al., 2011; Yang et al., 2011).”

Studies on Populations with Diabetes

Ekinci et al. (2011)

Higher sodium intakes were associated with decreased risk of all-cause mortality and heart disease mortality.

Tikellis et al. (2013)

“Adjusted multivariate regression analysis found urinary sodium excretion was associated with incident CVD, with increased risk at both the highest [> 4,401 mg/day] and lowest [<2,346 mg/day] urine sodium excretion levels. When analyzed as independent outcomes, no significant associations were found between urinary sodium excretion and new CVD or stroke after adjustment for other risk factors.”

Other

“Two other studies discussed in this chapter analyzed the data on health outcomes by diabetes prevalence and found no interaction (Cohen et al., 2006; O’Donnell et al., 2011).”

Studies in Populations with Congestive Heart Failure

Arcand et al. (2011)

High sodium intake levels (≥2,800 mg per day) were significantly associated with acute decompensated heart failure, all-cause hospitalization, and mortality.

Lennie et al. (2011)

“Results for event-free survival at a urinary sodium of ≥3,000 mg per day varied by the severity of patient symptoms.” In people with less severe symptoms, sodium intake greater than 3,000 mg per day was correlated with a lower disease incidence compared to those with a sodium intake less than 3,000 mg per day. Conversely, people with more severe symptoms who had a sodium intake greater than 3,000 mg per day had a higher disease incidence than those with sodium intakes less than 3,000 mg per day.

Parrinello et al. (2009)

“During the 12 months of follow-up, participants receiving the restricted sodium diet [1840 mg/day] had a greater number of hospital readmissions and higher mortality compared to those on the modestly restricted diet [2760 mg/day].”

*Paterna et al. (2008)

The lower sodium intake group [1840 mg/day] experienced a significantly higher number of hospital readmissions compared to the normal sodium intake group [2760 mg/day].

*Paterna et al. (2009)

A significant association was found between the low sodium intake [1,840 mg per day]) and hospital readmissions. The group with normal sodium diet [2760 mg/day] also had fewer deaths compared to all groups receiving a low-sodium diet combined.

TMAO? LMAO.

Move over saturated fat and cholesterol. There’s a new kid on the heart disease block: TMAO.

TMAO is not, as I first suspected, a new internet acronym that I was going to have to get my kids to decipher for me, while they snickered under their collective breaths. Rather, TMAO stands for Trimethylamine N-oxide, and it is set to become the reigning king of the “why meat is bad for you” argument. Former contenders, cholesterol and saturated fat, have apparently lost their mojo. After years of dominating the heart disease-diet debate, it turns out they were mere poseurs, only pretending to cause heart disease, the whole time distracting us from the true evils of TMAO.

The news is, the cholesterol and saturated fat in red meat can no longer be held responsible for clogging up your arteries. TMAO, which is produced by gut bacteria that digest the carnitine found in meat, is going to gum them up instead. This may be difficult to believe, especially in light of the fact that, while red meat intake has declined precipitously in the past 40 years, prevalence of heart disease has continued to climb. However, this is easily accounted for by the increase in consumption of Red Bull—which also contains carnitine—even though it is not, as some may suspect, made from real bulls (thank you, BW).

Here to explain once again why we should all be afraid of eating a food our ancestors ignorantly consumed in scandalous quantities (see what happened to them?  they are mostly dead!) is the Medical Media Circus! Ringleader for today is the New York Times’ Gina Kolata, who never met a half-baked nutrition theory she didn’t like (apparently Gary Taubes’ theory regarding carbohydrates was not half-baked enough for her).

Step right up folks and meet TMAO, the star of “a surprising new explanation of why red meat may contribute to heart disease” (because, frankly, the old explanations aren’t looking too good these days).

We know that red meat maybe almost probably for sure contributes to heart disease, because that wild bunch at Harvard just keeps cranking out studies like this one, Eat Red Meat and You Will Die Soon.

This study and others just like it definitely prove that if you are a white, well-educated, middle/upper-middle class health professional born between 1920 and 1946 and you smoke and drink, but you don’t exercise, watch your weight, or take a multivitamin, then eating red meat will maybe almost probably for sure increase your risk of heart disease. With evidence like that, who needs evidence?

Flying like the Wallenda family in the face of decades of concrete and well-proven assumptions that the reason we should avoid red meat is because of its saturated fat and cholesterol content, the daring young scientists who discovered the relationship between TMAO and heart disease “suspected that saturated fat and cholesterol made only a minor contribution to the increased amount of heart disease seen in red-meat eaters” [meaning that is, the red-meat eaters that are white, well-educated, middle/upper-middle class health professionals, who smoke and drink and don't exercise, watch their weight, or take a multivitamin; emphasis mine].

Perhaps their suspicions were alerted by studies such as this one, that found that, in randomized, controlled trials, with over 65 thousand participants, people who reduced or changed their dietary fat intake didn’t actually live any longer than the people who just kept eating and enjoying the same artery-clogging, saturated fat- and cholesterol-laden foods that they always had. (However, this research was able to determine that a steady diet of broiled chicken breasts does in fact make the years crawl by more slowly.)

You can almost ALWAYS catch something on a fishing expedition.

Our brave scientists knew they couldn’t just throw up their hands and say “Let them eat meat!” That would undermine decades of consistent public health nutrition messaging and those poor stupid Americans might get CONFUSED—and we wouldn’t want that! So, instead the scientists went on a “scientific fishing expedition” (Ms. Kolata’s words, not mine) and hauled in a “little-studied chemical called TMAO that gets into the blood and increases the risk of heart disease.” Luckily, TMAO has something to do with meat. [As Chris Masterjohn points out, it also has something to do with fish, peas, and cauliflower, but--as I'm sure these scientists noticed immediately--those things do not contain meat.] Ta-da! Problemo solved.

Exactly how TMAO increases the risk of heart disease, nobody knows. But, good scientists that they are, the scientists have a theory. (Just to clarify, in some situations the word theory means: a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct. This is not one of those situations.) The researcher’s think that TMAO enables cholesterol to “get into” artery walls and prevents the body from excreting “excess” cholesterol. At least that’s how it works in mice. Although mice don’t normally eat red meat, it should be noted that mice are exactly like people except they don’t have Twitter accounts. We know this because earlier mouse studies allowed scientists to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat cause heart disease mice definitely do not have Twitter accounts.

Look, just because the scientists can’t explain how TMAO does all the bad stuff it does, doesn’t mean it’s not in there doing, you know, bad stuff. Remember, we are talking about molecules that are VERY VERY small and really small things can be hard to find–unless of course you are on a scientific fishing expedition.

What will happen to the American Heart Association’s seal of approval now that saturated fat and cholesterol are no longer to be feared?

Frankly, I’m relieved that we FINALLY know exactly what has been causing all this heart disease. Okay, so it’s not the saturated fat and cholesterol that we’ve been avoiding for 35 years. Heck, everybody makes mistakes. Even though Frank Sacks and Robert Eckel, two scientists from the American Heart Association, told us for decades that eating saturated fat and cholesterol was just greasing the rails on the fast track to death-by-clogged-arteries, they have no reason to doubt this new theory. And even though they apparently had no reason to doubt the now-doubtful old theory, at least not until just now—as a nation, we can rest assured that THIS time, they got it right.

Now that saturated fat and cholesterol are no longer Public Enemies Number One and Two, whole milk, cheese, eggs, and butter—which do not contain red meat—MUST BE OKAY! I guess there’s no more need for the AHA’s dietary limits on saturated fat, or for the USDA Guidelines restrictions on cholesterol intake, or for those new Front of Package labels identifying foods with too much saturated fat. Schools can start serving whole milk again, butter will once again be legal in California, and fat-free cheese can go back to being the substance that mouse pads are made out of. Halla-freaking- looyah! A new day has dawned.

But—amidst the rejoicing–don’t forget: Whether we blame saturated fat or cholesterol or TMAO, meat is exactly as bad for you now as it was 50 years ago.

“Broccoli has more protein than steak”—and other crap

Of all the asinine things that I read about nutrition—and let me tell you, I read a lot of them—this one has got to be the asininniest: Broccoli has more protein than steak.

I’ve seen this idiotic meme repeated many times, but the primary source of this stupid—see also: delusional, ludicrous, and absurd—notion seems to be Dr. Joel Furhman. My mom—bless her little osteoporotic soul—keeps his books down at the beach cottage. I don’t think she does it to taunt me, but you never know. I was a bad kid, and payback may be in order. My family has forbidden me to read Dr. Furhman’s books, to pick them up, or to even glance at the covers because the resulting full-on nutrition-rant kills everybody’s beach buzz.

However, as of last week, I have officially maxed out my tolerance for just ignoring this nonsense. So, note to my family: Read no further, it will kill your beach buzz.

According the Dr. Furhman’s book, Eat to Live, a 100-calorie portion of sirloin steak has 5.4 grams of protein, and a 100-calorie portion of broccoli has 11.2 grams of protein. This is rubbish. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s Nutrient Data Laboratory database, 100 calories of broiled beef, top sirloin steak has exactly 11.08 grams of protein and 100 calories of chopped, raw broccoli has exactly 8.29. I’m not sure what universe Dr. Furhman lives in, but in my universe, 8.29 is less than 11.08.

I can explain the discrepancy in numbers by the simple fact that Dr. Furhman and I used different sources for our information. Dr. Furham wrote his book—the one that contains the piece of drivel under consideration—in 2005, but he chose to reference a nutrition book written in 1986 (Adams, C. 1986. Handbook of the Nutritional Value of Foods in Common Units, New York: Dover Publications). Just to put things in perspective, in 1986, the internet and DVDs had not yet been invented, no one knew who Bart Simpson was, and it would be another couple of years before Taylor Swift even draws her first ex-boyfriend-bashing breath.

Here’s what I can’t explain: Why, oh why did he dig up a reference nearly two decades old and not just use the USDA internet database, which is—and has been since the 1990s—available to anyone with a library card and a half a brain? While I do not wish to speculate on exactly which of these tools Dr. Furhman might be lacking, suffice it to say that it would take less than 10 minutes for any blogger interested in the truth of the matter to find a more recent source of information—assuming of course that bloggers who perpetuate this particular fiction are interested in the truth.

But wait—before you foam at the mouth too much, Adele—8.29 grams of protein is fair bit of protein.  There is only a difference of a couple of grams of protein between broccoli and steak.  Yes, I would agree, those numbers are a lot closer than you might expect, and this might actually be nutritionally important, if—Big If—all protein were created equal. Which it isn’t.

While I am a big fan of coming at nutrition from an individualized perspective, and I am aware that nutrition scientists don’t have any monopoly on truth, we have managed to nail down a few essential things that human must acquire from the food that they eat. In terms of essentiality, after calories and fluid comes protein—or more specifically, essential amino acids (there are more essentials, but they are not the topic of this particular rant). Because these amino acid requirements are so important (a particular form of starvation, kwashiorkor, involves not overall calorie deprivation, but protein deficit in the context of adequate or near-adequate calories), the World Health Organization has established specific daily requirements of the essential amino acids that are necessary for health.

Let’s see how similar caloric intakes of steak and broccoli stack up when comparing how these two foods provide for essential amino acid requirements. A 275-calorie portion of steak (4 ounces) has 30.5 grams of protein and comes very close to meeting all the daily essential amino acid requirements for a 70 kg adult. A 277-calorie portion of broccoli is not only way more food—you’ll be chewing for a long time as you try to make it through 9 ¼ cups of broccoli—exactly NONE of the daily essential amino acid requirements for an adult are met:

EssentialAmino acids (g) Daily requirement 70 kg adult (g) Essential amino acids (g) in 275 calories of steak (4 oz or 113.33 g) Essential amino acids (g) in 277 calories of chopped, raw broccoli (9.25 cups)
histidine 0.70 0.975 ( +0.275) 0.48 (-0.22)
isoleucine 1.400 1.391 (-0.009) 0.643 (-0.757)
leucine 2.730 2.431 (-0.299) 1.05 (-1.68)
lysine 2.100 2.583 (+0.483) 1.099 (-1.001)
methionine 0.70 0.796 (+0.096) 0.309 (-0.391)
cysteine 0.28 0.394 (+ 0.114) 0.228 (-0.052)
threonine 1.050 1.221 (+0.171) 0.716 (-0.334)
tryptophan 0.280 0.201 (-0.079) 0.269 (-0.011)
valine 1.82 1.516 (-0.304) 1.018 (-0.802)

In reality, it takes twice that much broccoli, or over 18 cups, containing nearly twice as many calories, in order to get anywhere near meeting all essential amino acid requirements.  While I’m willing to concede that individual amino acid requirements may vary considerably, I am not willing to concede that similar caloric amounts of steak and broccoli provide a similar supply of those requirements.  I’m no broccoli basher (it’s sooo yummy baked with cheese & a little bacon on top), but as a protein source, even a lot leaves a lot to be desired.

Oh yeah? Well then, “how on earth do animals like elephants, gorillas and oxen get so big and strong eating only plants? A diverse plant-based diet can obviously support a big, powerful body.” Sure it can. If you’re an elephant or a gorilla or an ox.

In general, human bodies don’t work very efficiently without a regular dietary supply of all essential amino acids: “It would be difficult to find a protein that did not have at least one residue of each of the common 20 amino acids. Half of these amino acids are essential, and if the diet is lacking or low in even one of these essential amino acids, then protein synthesis is not possible” [Emphasis mine; reference: Campbell & Farrell's Biochemistry, 6th edition]. Protein synthesis allows us to grow, heal, reproduce, and function in general. One of the specific outcomes of protein deficiency in humans is stunting, i.e. where humans who would otherwise grow bigger, don’t.

Dr. Furhman seems to think that those of us who “believe” that food from animals provides a more biologically complete source of protein than food from plants “never thought too much about how a rhinoceros, hippopotamus, gorilla, giraffe, or elephant became so big eating only vegetables.” Hmmm. I have to say, I’m thinking the same thing about Dr. Furhman. Maybe he is unaware that humans aren’t really all that much like rhinoceroses, hippos, gorillas, giraffes, or elephants. But then maybe he just hangs out with a different crowd than I do.

Once again, armed with a library card and half a brain, it is not too difficult to figure out—assuming you did think about how those animals got so big eating only plants and didn’t just mindlessly parrot Dr. Furham’s poorly-researched blather—that, as Gomer Pyle would say, surprise! surprise! Humans and other large mammals ARE different.

While non-ruminants (like humans) must get their essential amino acids from their diet, ruminants (like giraffes) “may also acquire substantial amounts of these amino acids through the digestion of microbial protein synthesized in the rumen” (see: Amino Acids in Animal Nutrition, edited by J.P. Felix D’Mello). This may come as a bit of a shock to Dr. Furhman and his readership, but humans don’t actually have rumens and utilizing this particular approach to the acquisition of essential amino acids from plant matter ain’t gonna work for us.

You can get plenty of protein from a plants-only diet by eating like a hippo.

Other non-ruminant grazers—see elephants, rhinos, and hippos—have a different eating strategy. They “eat for volume and low extraction.” In other words, the relatively low availability of protein in the food is overcome by the high volume consumed. In that regard—assuming you aspire to an elephant-like, rhino-like, or hippo-like bod—it may be possible to get sufficient protein from a strictly plant-based diet. If you don’t mind eating all the time. And pooping. Less than half of what is consumed by the high-volume grazers is utilized by the body; the rest—like a handsome stranger—is just passin’ through (see: Nutritional Ecology of the Ruminant, by Peter J. van Soest). If the idea of literally flushing over half of what you eat down the toilet doesn’t bother you, then this strategy actually might work.

ooooh! Can we? Please?

So what about gorillas? This particular primate-to-primate comparison has been tossed all around the internet. Why can’t we just eat plants like gorillas do? Gorillas, although not so good at Jeopardy, are big and strong and they’re vegans, so we should all be vegans too, right? Aside from the fact that we don’t really know exactly what gorillas are eating much of the time, it does seem that they eat a lot of bugs along with their plants. So unless you have a particularly fastidious gorilla, some dietary protein won’t be vegan. Compared to humans, gorillas also have a much larger proportion of the gut devoted to fermentation—again, another source for microbes to contribute to the nutritional completeness of a plants-only diet. And, again, a high volume of food is consumed to compensate for the low nutritional value of it. You won’t have to worry about half your food going down the toilet, though. Those who want to live like gorillas can just eat that poop instead of flushing it. This provides the body with another opportunity to extract nutrition from the substance formerly known as food and may also help explain the willingness of Dr. Furhman’s readers to swallow what he’s shoveling.

I have nothing against a plants-only diet—in whatever form it takes—if that’s what a person want to do and it makes him/her happy. I have no more interest in converting a vegan to omnivory than I do in having a vegan attempt to convert me to swearing off bacon. I am also aware that there is more—much more—to food choices than the nutritional content of the food chosen.

But I’m afraid this is just one of those situations where ideology has been sent to do the work of science. Ideology has its place, and science has its flaws. Truth, facts, and beliefs can be hard to define and harder still to separate. I get all that. But – to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson – “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Unfortunately, for all those gorilla-wannabees out there, the reverse also applies: Believing in something doesn’t make it true. You can believe all you want that broccoli is a better source of protein than steak, but your ribosomes don’t have access to a keyboard and they might vote differently.

Now, dear readers, if you ever run across some library-card-challenged blogger out there perpetuating Dr. Furhman’s little myth, you have a link to help spill some sunshine on the matter.

Guest Post: James Woodward on Why Science May Not Be Enough

I’d like to introduce readers to a friend and fellow grad student, James Woodward. His undergraduate work was in economics at Ohio University, and he has a Master’s in public policy from the University of Kentucky. He is continuing at UK as a PhD student in public policy and administration. He and I have had some of the most thought-provoking email threads in any of my correspondence & I give him a lot of credit for helping me think through the economics and policy parts of food-health system reform puzzle. His post will serve as a bridge to my next series on “Eatanomics” which will explore how food, health, and the economy are intertwined. James would like everyone to know that all the disclaimers that appear on this page apply equally to what appears in this post. His views are his own, and as with the best of minds, he anticipates that most are subject to change. But he raises some very interesting questions—he’s nearly as long-winded as I am, but it is worth a read.

Why New Science May Not Be Enough – James Woodward

Before going into my social science background, I thought I would mention my professional background as it relates to food. It’s nearly as extensive as my academic background. I worked in fast food for about two years, a pizza place for about two years, a dining hall for a quarter, and, finally, a pseudo-Mexican restaurant for about two years. As a result, my feelings toward actual food and, especially, its preparation are fairly ambivalent at this point. The fact that I spent large amounts of time working with flour (I made tens of thousands of tortillas over the course of my tenure at the Mexican place) is rather ironic given my recent decision to avoid the stuff as much as possible.

Nutrition Science Initiative founders Gary Taubes and Peter Attia are hoping to give the public some solid science on food-health relationships.

My schooling in economics was concurrent with much of this work and my reasons for working these jobs had much more to do with my own economic situation than with any particular desire to work with food. But my background in economics and, now, public policy, leads to me to view the issue of food and nutrition policy a bit differently than many others writing on this topic. Many approach problems relating to nutrition and health in terms of their public health consequences. Others stress the fact that nutrition policy is the product of bad and/or misinterpreted science. Gary Taubes and Peter Attia just launched their organization, NuSI, to address, and hopefully settle, that particular aspect of this issue. Both lines of research clearly have their merits. Ultimately, though, I think what everyone is most interested in is influencing the behavior of individuals.

Contrary, perhaps, to Peter Attia’s quote from Richard Feynman in a recent blog post, I think there is a role for social scientists to play in understanding the many issues and controversies surrounding diet, health and public policy. Some of us in the social sciences are, in fact, sensitive to the difficulty of establishing real truths from the data available to us. Further, I do not think that social phenomena like behaviors and decision-making are reducible to physical and chemical relationships quite yet. How fitting that nutrition, and especially nutritional epidemiology, often bears more resemblance to bad social science than it does to any sort of ‘hard’ science.

Ignoring the controversy surrounding what it is that makes people fat and what constitutes an ideal diet, it would be hard to argue that people are making “good” decisions about what they are eating, given the high prevalence of (ostensibly) diet-related health problems in the United States, the most visible of which is obesity. Since most people buy their own food rather than growing or raising it themselves, food buying decisions tend to be highly correlated with food eating decisions. So, to me, the ultimate question is: “What influences food buying decisions?” Again, Gary and Peter have, with good reason, chosen to stress the importance of food consumption decisions being driven by good science. But there are clearly more factors that influence food purchasing decisions than a careful weighing of the scientific evidence. I would argue that such an approach to most decisions is, in fact, fairly rare. To the extent that Gary and Peter are ultimately trying to influence public policy, I think it is self-evident based on a reading of the history that policymakers are not that likely to employ such an approach either.

One of the many things besides science that may influence food purchasing and consumption.

This is why I tend to conceptualize the problem in the area of food and nutrition policy as one of bad information rather than attributing it purely to bad science. If one takes the time to dig, there is plenty of science which refutes the conventional wisdom regarding the relationship between diet and health. So, while no rigorous, carefully controlled studies have been performed to refute the conventional wisdom and/or confirm the “insulin hypothesis”, to use Gary’s term, there is already a lot of evidence to suggest that it is valid and plenty of evidence which refutes the conventional wisdom. Performing such a rigorous test of these competing theories is obviously warranted, given the importance of the implications for settling this debate, but there is no guarantee that the results will be convincing to skeptics, policymakers, stakeholders or the public at large.

Thirty-odd years ago policymakers perceived an obvious threat to public health (saturated fat) and saw a clear remedy (tell people not to eat so much saturated fat) which made it more or less a no-brainer to act on that information and tell people to avoid eating saturated fat containing foods. Since then, those original beliefs about diet and health have had time to percolate and become more or less embedded in how most people think about what they eat. Adele and I have talked a little bit about overcoming our own biases when we decided to eat differently, biases that we were not necessarily aware we had in the first place.

How you spend your food dollar may depend on how many food dollars you have to spend.

There are more factors that influence food purchasing decisions than just beliefs about how that food will affect one’s health. Taste, culture, geography, morality, ethics, politics, and socioeconomic status are just a few observable characteristics of an individual that might affect what he or she decides to eat. In many people’s minds, there is very little conflict between these concerns and health-related ones. For example, there is a perception that following a vegetarian lifestyle is good for one’s body, one’s soul, and the environment compared to a diet based around animal products. Upon closer inspection, however, there is a great deal of ambiguity to this belief in all three spheres. Similarly, many athletes seem to be operating under the impression that carbohydrates are required to perform at a high level. Peter’s well-documented experience calls that belief into question. Breakfast is often lauded as the most important meal of the day in the United States yet I frequently snub it to no ill-effect. And so on.

I think it is important to keep these biases in mind when thinking about we’d like to go about changing behavior. It is tempting to think “if only the science were better” people’s behavior would change. This is clearly not enough, in my mind anyway. It is just as important to be convincing as it is to be right. If/when NuSi successfully settles this debate and has the biggest names in the field to back up its research; there is still the matter of convincing everyone else. NuSi does acknowledge this aspect of the issue, though I am interested to see how it is addressed in practice. There are the cognitive biases of all the other scientists to contend with. There are also the material and non-material incentives that seem to be ingrained in many of the stakeholders involved in this particular area of policy. For example, it has been noted elsewhere that stressing the importance of calories is convenient for those involved in the production of food since doing so means no particular foods (e.g., wheat and sugar) are likely to be admonished against because of their unique effects on the body per se but, rather, because of their caloric content. I have to imagine that such firms will do their very best to refute any evidence that says otherwise and may hire their own experts to do so.

In a “calories in, calories out” world, there’s room for all foods in a “healthy” diet.

Beyond the obvious material costs to stakeholders of changing the current nutritional paradigm are the much more difficult to quantify costs of changing people’s beliefs about such things. Despite taking a nutrition course years ago (for an easy science credit, I will admit), I did not have particularly strong thoughts about nutrition prior to about a year and a half ago. I knew I made less than optimal choices about what I ate (according to conventional wisdom that is) but I mostly ignored those concerns since my health seemed fine (more or less). It was therefore fairly costless for me to change my mind about how I approach my diet after the conventional wisdom failed for me. Physicians and dietitians are not like me, however. Many of them have devoted years of their lives to dispensing information and advice that they believe to be correct and helpful. Faced with an opposing and incongruent view, it is perfectly understandable that they would be very resistant to the implication that they have been misleading their patients. In a less extreme form, I am sometimes asked by friends and acquaintances for my thoughts relating to diet and health and then, after giving them, met with resistance and facts or beliefs that supposedly refute my position(s). Most of these people are not experts on this topic but, like most people, they need some justification for what they believe.

So what is my point in all this? It is probably not breaking news that people’s eating decisions are not purely based on a careful reading of the scientific evidence. Better science is probably a necessary part of making the case but I do not think it will be sufficient to affect the type of change that many people in the ‘Paleo’ or ‘Ancestral Health’ communities (or whatever other term you prefer) would like to see. As mentioned, most people are averse to the notion that their beliefs are wrong and, in my experience, will try to come up with some reason for why that is not the case, sometimes resorting to questionable sources for support. This is human nature, I think– cognitive dissonance perhaps, to borrow a term from the psychologists. Based on what I can see, most people are not even willing to entertain the idea that there is a controversy or room for debate about these competing paradigms. Especially skinny people.

I think this state of affairs needs to change if further research is to bear any fruit in the form of affecting individual behavior and/or public policy. Fortunately, there are many bloggers writing on this topic, all bringing their own perspectives to the table. The challenge will be finding enough common ground to get this message to a larger audience so that we get an actual public debate going. I read the New York Times ‘Health’ section fairly regularly (as a barometer for this type of thing, not necessarily for good information) and I am not seeing it so far. It would be a real shame if all that came of this renewed interest in an old paradigm was a relatively minor reduction in the prevalence of obesity.

RD does NOT stand for “Really Dumb”

All you need to do is google “dietitians are stupid.” (Go ahead, I’ll wait here.) “Dumbshit nutritionists” [Free the Animal] all over America are apparently giving out “misleading, scientifically vapid, and possibly harmful information” [Postpartum Punk]. Sadly, it is sometimes hard to argue with that.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a professional “Code of Ethics” that states that all Registered Dietitians should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“The dietetics practitioner does not invite, accept, or offer gifts, monetary incentives, or other considerations that affect or reasonably give an appearance of affecting his/her professional judgment.” *

At the same time, because the organization officially has exactly zero written standards for ensuring that its sponsors actually share the AND’s ostensible vision for “optimizing the nation’s health through food and nutrition,” the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics accepts money from both food manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies and provides continuing education credits for attending workshops sponsored by Kellogg’s, Kraft and ConAgra.

So what might the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics be doing with all of this funding? Right now, the AND is fighting a (mostly losing, thankfully) battle to create a complete monopoly on nutrition information and guidance—despite the fact that there is little evidence that this guidance contributes to positive health outcomes.

One the one hand, dietitians are encouraged to turn in anyone who does not rigidly adhere to both licensing standards and/or “professional” standards (some states have turned this into a professional development activity).  Anyone who gives out nutrition information without having the appropriate state-required licensing can be a target (Steve Cooksey’s story has been a newsworthy example of this). But—here’s the scary part—even dietitians with the right credentials can come under attack if they follow their professional judgement rather than the party line (see Annette Presley, below).

On the other hand, the “party line” approaches for weight loss are so ineffective, the federal government (and many states) won’t cover  many dietitian services to help people lose weight.    According to Dr. Wendy Long, chief medical officer of TennCare:

There’s really no evidence to support the fact that providing those services [from dietitians] would result in a decrease in medical cost, certainly not immediately, and even in the longer term.” 

This lack of evidence may be due in part to the (sadly) limited scope of dietetic education and practice. The AND treats the USDA as if it is a scientific authority and not a government agency whose first mandate is to “strengthen the American agricultural economy.” It limits the training of RDs to USDA/HHS-approved diet recommendations despite the fact that even mainstream nutrition establishment scientists feel that the current US dietary recommendations are misguided and inappropriate.

Despite these snugly-fitted, professional handcuffs, there are plenty of RDs out there who not only think for themselves, but who are working to change the system—each in her own way. What they have in common is an unwavering belief in the importance of food in creating healthier individuals and communities. Truly, these women are amazing:

Valerie Berkowitz MS RD CDN CDE worked with Dr. Robert Atkins for a number of years, but has gone one to create her own approach to healthy eating. Valerie is the author of The Stubborn Fat Fix: The Essential Guide to High Fiber, Low Carbohydrate, Whole Food Diets. The book is the basis for a learning module for continuing education credits for RDs—yup, you read that right. Thanks to Valerie’s commitment to making carbohydrate-reduction a mainstream option for health professionals, RDs can get continuing education credits for learning more about low-carb diets. More evidence of her commitment? I got to know Valerie well when I worked with her on a review paper on low-carbohydrate diets —while she had a newborn in tow. (All I did when my children were infants was pray for the opportunity to take a shower.)  Valerie works with her husband, Dr. Keith Berkowitz, as the Director of Nutrition at the Center for Balanced Health, while blogging, writing, and mothering four active children. I know, I know—it makes me want to take a nap just reading about her. But I promise she is fully human and a lovely person. Go visit her at Valerie’s Voice: For the Health of It.

Abby Bloch PhD RD is the Executive Director for Programs and Research at the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Foundation. Like Jackie Eberstein, she also has a story about being interviewed by Dr. Atkins and telling him that if she found out that he was a fraud, she would shout it from the rooftops. Well, he wasn’t and she didn’t, and she’s been working with the Atkins Foundation ever since. She is an RD who, quite literally, wrote the book on feeding cancer patients. When she began her career, doctors didn’t think trying to meet the nutritional requirements of cancer patients was all that important: if they lived, they’d eat again eventually; if they didn’t, oh well. Abby’s book paved the way to the now commonplace understanding that appropriate nutrition could make the difference between the first outcome and the second.

Allison Boomer MPH RD is a food writer who brings her nutrition expertise and love for food together in her work for The Boston Globe and other media outlets. I met Allison when she was working on a piece in about fat and the Dietary Guidelines. It hasn’t always been easy for her to educate the public about the complex realities of how science and policy don’t always match up—she makes her editors rather nervous—but she understands the importance of conveying this information in a readable and entertaining manner. As we see the low-fat tide turning, it is due, at least in part, to efforts like hers.

Cassandra Forsythe PhD RD has worked with low-carb researcher Dr. Jeff Volek, but that doesn’t even begin to describe the breadth of her expertise. She combines a background in dietetics, nutrition, and exercise science with a particular interest in women’s health—especially mommy health. If you happen to be a reader with more of a passion for working out than I have (which is likely to be every reader) or if you are not interested in joining the “fat mother’s club” (as my brother so charmingly described the tendency of bearing children to leave women looking permanently 5 months pregnant), check out her fun/exhausting combination of “cute baby and badass mommy” blog.

Suzanne Hobbs PhD RD comes from a different nutrition perspective than many of the women on my list, but she is—quite literally—the only person in America whose area of expertise encompasses both nutrition care and nutrition policy and politics. She is a lifelong vegetarian who writes a newspaper column highlighting the nutrition benefits of a plant-based diet. But she is no more of a vegetarian hard-liner than I am a low-carb one. Instead, she understands that the food choices that people make are complicated, the environment in which those choices are made is confusing, and the real target of concern—for any nutritional paradigm—should be how to take this big messy picture and frame it in a way that will allow us to improve public health nutrition for everyone, rather than to promote any one nutrition agenda. She helped put vegetarian nutrition on the map in the world of dietitians as well as the world of policy. I’m hoping I can learn from her how to stretch the old “top-down” model of nutrition guidance into a new shape that allows us to start thinking differently about how to accommodate individualized nutrition to a public health framework.

Amanda Holliday MS RD LDN is a mother, wife, daughter, and granddaughter—who never relinquishes the importance of those roles as she juggles multiple professional demands as the Director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Registered Dietitian/Masters of Public Health Program, clinician, instructor, public health leader, and blogger. Her family relationships inspired her specialization in nutrition for older adults, another booming subpopulation of Americans for whom standard one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations are inappropriate. Both fearless and humble, she has more integrity in her pinkie toe than most public health advocates could hope to accumulate in their lives. I think she simply lacks the ability to tolerate hypocrisy. She has a deep appreciation for the power of science to improve patient care; she always insisted that her RD students hold themselves to much higher standards of scientific knowledge and expertise than is actually required for dietitians. She also has a healthy respect for the flaws and limitations of science in addressing the complicated needs of real individuals. She never lets her students forget that they are treating people, not symptoms.

Karen Holtmeier MPH RD LN is the RD counterpart to Mary Vernon’s MD leadership at the American Society for Bariatric Physicians as well as director of her own weight loss clinic. She has been educating dietitians and nurses that work with bariatric physicians about the positive health effects of carbohydrate reduction for over a decade, while remaining active within the RD professional community. Not an easy feat to pull off, but Karen is not only warm, funny, and politically savvy, she’s one of the most intrepid women I know. (Traveling by myself still is a little nerve-wracking–with a husband and three kids, I’m used to traveling in a mangy but secure pack loaded down with coolers, pillows, and a bookmobile’s worth of reading material; Karen thinks nothing of hopping in the car for an extended road trip, by herself, up the US west coast and into Canada—tralala. I love that.)

Kris Johnson RD (retired) is one of those “mystery women” I’d run into all over the internets. Like Carmen Sandiego, everywhere I’d go, she seems to have gotten there first. Outraged and intelligent commentary on the attempts of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to create a monopoly on nutrition guidance?

As a retired and reformed dietitian, I can say flat out, dietitians do not understand all there is to know about nutrition. In fact conventional RD’s persist in promulgating some very bad science, such as the misguided advice to avoid saturated fat and cholesterol and aim for a low fat diet. Much of the really useful nutrition information I learned after I retired.

A science-based view of saturated fat in response to outdated precautionary warnings?

Those who have looked carefully at the research have found no evidence that natural saturated fats or cholesterol actually cause heart disease or any other health problem. . . . Excessive amounts of polyunsaturated fats and the trans fats derived from them are the real problem. The best way to improve important cardiac risk factors, that is increase HDL and lower triglycerides, is to limit carbs and most vegetable oils, while getting adequate natural saturated fats in the diet.

I think one of the coolest things about Kris is that she worked as an RD for 15 years, retired, and—instead of spending all day playing Suduko—then she went on to read and learn enough about the shifting paradigm in nutrition to become a vocal and articulate advocate for change. Amazing. Check her out at www.MercyViewMedow.org.

Amy Kubal MS RD LN is another dietitian who combines her expertise in nutrition with a love for athletics. As part of Robb Wolf’s team, she gives the “mainstream” RD designation a paleo twist. Her ability to bridge both worlds is a welcome sign of the times.

Stacia Nordin RD combines her nutrition expertise with permaculture knowledge and the desire to end hunger in Malawi, Africa in a socially, environmentally, and nutritionally sustainable way. Never Ending Food is a family endeavor she shares with her husband and her daughter (who was born in Malawi). I met her after getting a post about the AND’s campaign to create a monopoly on nutrition guidance yanked from an RD discussion board. Her response was sympathetic and encouraging, and she introduced me to a number of other RDs whose agreed with my position, but who had much better diplomacy skills than I do! (One day, we would like to create a network of nutrition professionals with an array of credentials—RD, CNS, CCN, CNC, health coach—to work together to create an environment where all of us can practice our profession with mutual respect.) In the meantime, Stacia and her family’s work continues to inspire me to think about how to make sure that our food reform efforts begin with the communities that they are intended to serve.

Annette Hunsberger Presley RD, co-author of The Liberation Diet, was censured by the (then) American Dietetic Association for recommending that her clients use butter instead of margarine. When told to review the ADA’s Evidence Analysis Library (whose idea of “evidence” is so limited and biased that I have a hard time typing the phrase with straight face) to get the “facts” straight and renounce this position, she did. Plus, she reviewed the rest of the science on the subject and reached a conclusion—as you may have guessed—with which the ADA was not at all happy. You can read her Hyperlipidemia Report here; it’s a pretty amazing piece of work.

Pam Schoenfeld RD is not only a wife, mother, clinician, and public health advocate, she is also the person I blame for getting me into this mess! Together we started Healthy Nation Coalition, and it’s been quite an adventure.I still have the email she sent Dr. Eric Westman (the MD I worked with at the Duke Lifestyle Clinic), and which he passed on to me, describing some of her experiences as an RD intern. Her passion, concern, and professional assessment of nutrition science were inspiring and contagious. She convinced me that I wasn’t too old to go back to school and that I’d come through the dietetic groupthink hazing intact. She was—more or less—right. She remains my hero, mentor, and dear friend.

Picture Franziska Spritzler RD CDE is applying her nutrition expertise to specifically help patients with diabetes (CDE stands for Certified Diabetes Educator).  As Type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in this country and across the globe, we seem to have forgotten that it is designated in the prominent physician’s handbook, The Merck Manual, as a “disorder of carbohydrate metabolism,” and that, prior to the widespread use of insulin, Type 2 diabetes was effectively treated with a carbohydrate-restricted diet.   As The Low-Carb Dietitian, Franziska is reviving this wisdom in her own practice and for the benefit of everyone struggling with diabetes.

Joanne Slavin PhD RD was a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. I started following her through the transcripts of those meetings. What caught my attention was her commitment to 3 things: science, food, and people.  She’s been slagged on in the paleo community for being—gasp—a realist about both food prices and the fact that grains can be a perfectly reasonable source of calories for some people—like the teenage male who lives at my house—who actually need calories and can tolerate-grains-just-fine-thank-you. [Labeling her a "dumbshit nutritionist" is—imho—part of why paleo has good reason to be worried about its own future as a fringe-y food and fitness fad. In the brave new world of nutrition, we have to feed everybody, not just the people who agree with that ideology.]

Here’s our “dumbshit nutritionist” speaking to the Registered Dietitians assembled at the North Carolina Dietetics Association conference in April 2012.  Fangirl that I am, I literally tried to write down everything she said:

“The 1977 Dietary Goals were based on politics, not science.”

“Humans can adapt to a wide variety of diets—from 80% carbs to 80% fat.”

“Increasing intake of plant foods, which are low sources of protein, is a bad idea for growing children.”

“People who eat more carbohydrates weigh less, so eat more carbohydrates. Um, it doesn’t work like that.”

“A lot of people don’t get enough protein because of what they are choosing.”

“Dietary advice often has unintended consequences.”

“Micromanaging the diet by imposing strict dietary rules is difficult to support with evidence-based nutrition science.”

“Pink slime was created to come up with a low-fat, high-protein thing to put into processed food.”

“I believe fat needs to go higher and carbs need to go down.”

“It is overall carbohydrate, not just sugar. Just to take sugar out is not going to have any impact on public health.”

Dr. Slavin is NOT a low-carb or paleo diet advocate; she is simply reporting on the realities of nutrition science and policy. But if you have any lingering concerns about her being a “lackey” for the USDA and food industry, here she neatly and sweetly skewers the whole paradigm:

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans supports less consumption of sodium, solid fats, and added sugars. Make half your grains whole and half your plate fruits and vegetables. Seems simple for the food industry—keep slashing salt (but make sure my food is safe), get rid of added sugar (but add fruit and fruit extracts to everything), and make chips, pizza crust, cookies, and all other grains “whole” so they are healthy. Probably a good idea to tax soda, outlaw French fries, ban chocolate milk in schools (added sugar is bad, right?), and over-regulate school lunch, restaurants, and food manufacturers. Let’s blame the victim too—we know fat people are lazy, uneducated, and low income—too bad they live in food deserts and don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Hope my BMI is under 25 today!

Dr. Slavin is a mainstream nutrition expert and RD.  She is also an independent thinker and a true scientist.  The paleo community’s stance in making nutritionists like Dr. Slavin out to be the “enemy” is not only short-sighted and counterproductive, it’s inaccurate.   People like her will pave the way for better public health nutrition for everyone–including those who choose paleo diets.

This list would not be complete without a shout-out to all the dietitians I’ve met at the newly-formed PaleoRD group started by Aglaee Jacob MS RD—who deserves her own hooray (Aglaee, Your Paleo RD! It rhymes and everything!). I hope that the existence of such a group—you don’t have to be “paleo” to join—will encourage other RDs to stand up for their own professional understanding of the science and not feel afraid of being censured. There is strength in joining our voices together.

I’d love to hear about other RDs who share the belief—to paraphrase Kris Johnson—that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics doesn’t know all there is to know about nutrition and the conviction that as dietitians and nutritionists, we can and should exercise our professional expertise and judgment to help heal the world through food.

* From:
American Dietetic Association. American Dietetic Association/Commission on Dietetic Registration code of ethics for the profession of dietetics and process for consideration of ethics issues. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Aug;109(8):1461-7.

Where the Women Are, Nutrition Edition

I really try not to pout too much when I see lists like the one below from Jimmy Moore’s 2012 survey on “most trusted resources for the information you received about health”:

After pouring through a couple hundred names that people shared, here were the top 10 who made the list in 2012:

1. Mark Sisson (30%)
2. Robb Wolf (23%)
3. Gary Taubes (21%)
4. Chris Kresser (15%)
5. Sean Croxton (10%)
6. Dr. Mike Eades (9%)
7. Dr. Robert Atkins/Atkins.com (8%%)
8. Dr. William Davis (7%)
9. Tom Naughton (7%)
10. Diane Sanfilippo (6%)

But seriously?  ONE woman?  ONE?  That’s it?????? Good grief.

The reasons for this imbalance are another blog post.  Instead, I chose to channel my energies into introducing some women who are leading the way—in their own way—in the world of nutrition.  If there appears to be a  “bias” in that most of these women–in one way or another–suggest that the current “grains are great” approach to nutrition is an unsound approach to good health, you might ask yourself how much that has to do with the prevailing bias within our current, and highly unsuccessful, nutrition paradigm.  These women are leaders, not followers.

To me, they are the Chers, Madonnas  and Dolly Partons of the nutrition world, although with a few exceptions, you may not recognize their names (which I know is part of the problem). Most have them have been around the block a time or two, and they know how the game is played—and rigged. They’ve succeed by being entirely who they are—tough-minded broads, compassionate caretakers, and reluctant warriors in the cause for good health for all.

Some of these women I’ve met, some I know well, some I’ve only admired from a safe distance afar. I wouldn’t expect all of these women to agree with—or even like—each other, or me, for that matter. Some of them may be appalled to find themselves on this list at all. Oh well. I don’t agree with all that each of them has to say, but I embrace the diversity and the chance to recognize some women I think have shown us how to have the huevos we need for the work ahead of us.

So—without further ado, and in alphabetical order (why not?)—here they are.

Judy Barnes Baker brought us this useful meme.

Judy Barnes Baker came this close to getting the American Diabetes Association to publish and endorse her reduced-carb cookbook. When that arrangement fell through, she got her cookbook published anyway and went on to publish another. Like Dana Carpender (see below), she’s been making life easier for those folks who want a low-carb approach to life.

Dana Carpender is a force of nature. She’s been holding the toast since 1996, and with her technogeek husband, Eric, has been able to bring us that message over the web since the dawn of the internet. Her book and cookbooks have been a lifeline for many trying to figure out exactly how to put into practice a way of eating that makes them feel healthy and happy. And boy, does she ever have a mouth on her. Sometimes I think it would be fun to lock her in a padded room with Frank Sacks and see who makes it out intact. I know where my money would be.

Laurie Cagnassola

Laurie Cagnassola, dog-lover extrodinaire, was, until recently, the Director of Nutrition and Metabolism Society, a leading low-carb oriented organization. She managed to gracefully meld the work she did with NMS with her own stance as a vegetarian. While Richard Feinman lambasted the entrenched interests in science and government out front, she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to build the fledgling reduced-carbohydrate nutrition community into a full-grown movement.  I expect we’ll hear more from her in the future.

Laura Dolson’s beautiful Low-Carb Pyramid

Laura Dolson has been writing about the food, science, and politics of low-carb nutrition for over a decade.  As a person who “walks the walk,” her posts on about.com are an informative and realistic guide to carbohydrate reduction.

Mary Dan Eades MD is the beautiful half (okay, the beautiful half on the right, for all you women out there drooling over her husband) of the royal (protein) power-couple of the carb-reduction world, Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades. They are the authors of multiple diet and lifestyle books beginning with Protein Power, which helped me navigate my own personal path to health many years ago. She may prefer to focus on singing, traveling, and grandkids now, but her voice is what gave the brilliant biochem wonkiness of Protein Power its warmth, humanity, and accessibility.

Jackie Eberstein RN was Dr. Robert Atkins right-hand RN for many years. She’s soft-spoken, with a backbone of steel and a heart of gold. She thought Atkins was “a quack” when she interviewed for the job. Thirty years later, she was still marveling at the improvement people could make in their health following his diet. But she’s no extremist. She taught me the importance of making sure calorie levels on a low-carb diet were appropriate. She’s got her hands full with her husband, Conrad, a charmer who can seriously rock a bow tie.

Mary G. Enig PhD is co-founder with Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A. Price foundation. Her work on fats led her to be one of the first voices raised in warning about the dangers of trans fats—and she’s been battling the seed oil industries attempts to silence and marginalize her work ever since.

Mary Gannon PhD, has—along with her research partner, Frank Nuttall—been working quietly on the low-biologically-available-glucose (inelegantly known as the LoBAG) diet for a decade now, although her work stretches back into the 70s. She is persistent in her efforts to understand the benefits of reduced carbohydrate and increased protein in helping to reverse the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

Zoe Harcombe has been researching obesity for a couple of decades now. A UK writer, researcher, and nutritionist, her book, The Obesity Epidemic, is giving readers on the other side of the pond a different perspective on nutrition.

hartke is online podcast

Kimberly Hartke puts the “life” in lifestyle changes as the publicist for the Weston A Price Foundation. She’s collected enough stories from being on the front lines of the nutrition revolution to write a book, which I am truly hoping she will do one day soon.

Weigh loss success story

Misty Humphrey’s warmth and humor permeate her writing and advice on diet and health.   If there was ever a way to screw up getting healthy Misty’s done it and she’s honest and funny as she tells her story and helps her readers avoid the same pitfalls.

Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth is not just another story of someone who found that their favored way of eating didn’t work and—prestochango—transformed themselves and their health by discovering The Truth About Food. The power of her book lies in her examination of the beautiful myth that underlies vegetarian thinking—that we can somehow peacefully eat our way to personal and global health without any regard for ourselves as critters who—just like all other critters—must function within an ecosystem that is nothing but one expression of eat/be eaten after another. I like to put her book on the shelf next to Jonathan Safran Foer’s goofball Eating Animals, which amounts to little more than a literary snuggie for vegans (JSF considers the American Dietetic Association the very last word in science-based nutrition information <guffaw>). I expect The Vegetarian Myth to simply drain the ink off the pages of Eating Animals out of sheer proximity.

CarbSane’s Evelyn Kocur, shows us–and the rest of the world–what the focused energy of one cranky woman who thinks we’ve been fed a load of crap looks like. Although I’m not a fan of her style—after years of listening to my mother scream, even reading someone else’s raging makes me want to hide under the bed—I can nevertheless admire the no-holds-barred way she skips the warm fuzzies and goes straight for the jugular. I really wish–every now and then–that I could pull that off.  Even when she’s missed the target by a mile, I have to give her credit for sheer firepower.

Sally Fallon Morrell is the director and co-founder (along with Dr. Mary Enig) of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Sally Fallon Morrell is a mother of four and a force of nature who doesn’t mince words. She’s ticked off at least one person in the paleo movement with regard to her stance on saturated fat, but—as far as I can tell—he’s ended up changing his position on the subject; she hasn’t changed hers.

Patty Siri-Tarino, PhD, is lead author of the meta-analysis on the lack of association between saturated fat and heart disease that changed the nature of conversation about nutrition and prevention of chronic disease.

No pink fluffy weights for Krista Scott-Dixon

Krista Scott-Dixon is the first person I found on the internet who said lifting big heavy things is for women too. She taught me—and countless numbers of other women–how to squat and that feminist theory and nutrition do so go together. And she makes fart jokes. You could really just not bother reading anything else I write and just read her stuff. Case in point: a free e-book entitled, Fuck Calories. (As Krista says: Yes, this book has cuss words. Many of them. Deal with it. Hey, it’s free. You get what the fuck you pay for.) Could she get any cooler? She’s married to a rocket scientist.

Mary Vernon MD has been at the forefront of reduced-carbohydrate nutrition for many years as a leader at the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. This group has partnered with the Nutrition and Metabolism Society to encourage conversation within the scientific/academic/clinical setting about reduced-carbohydrate nutrition: its pros and cons; the science behind it; and its clinical application. When national nutrition policy eventually catches on, it will be due in no small part to the fact that Mary Vernon and ASBP have already been offering this nutrition option to patients for years.

Regina Wilshire is the inspiration for a folder on my desktop entitled, Regina Brilliance. She is full of common sense and uncommon smarts. Wife, mother, and tireless blogger, her Weight of the Evidence (now on facebook too) has been a resource for intelligent and insightful commentary on nutrition since 2005. In the midst of the PubMed duels we so often find ourselves wrapped up in, her posts on eating well on a food stamp budget bring a welcome reality check.

Daisy Zamora PhD fought battle after battle (a story she’s agreed to let me tell one day) to publish her groundbreaking research on why our one-size-fits-all diet may be especially devastating to the health of minorities. It is not difficult to imagine why the powers-that-be would not want this indictment of the failure of our dietary recommendations to be made public. But beyond being a quiet crusader for rethinking our current dietary paradigm, she recognizes the importance and centrality of food in our lives and health. You have no idea how rare it is in the world of academic nutrition experts to find someone who eats and cooks and talks about food—as opposed to nutrients in food—and, get this, appears to actually like the stuff!

Let me know who’s on your list, or who I should add.

Plus, if that’s not enough, I found that, in putting together this list, many of the women I admire in the field of nutrition are–gasp–Registered Dietitians. Since RDs catch so much crap from the rest of the alternative nutrition community about being mindless-Academy-of-Nutrition-and-Dietetics-robots, I thought I’d put together a list of RDs who have inspired me to continue to work towards better health for all, despite our own professional organization’s insistence on using USDA/HHS policy as if it is science and its wince-inducing reliance on both food and pharma funding.

Next up: Where the Women Are, RD edition.

N of 1 Nutrition Part 2: Biochemistry and Nutrition Policy – The Great Divorce

Full disclosure: I happen to love biochemistry. I have a favorite transcription factor (ChREBP) and a favorite neurotrophic factor (BDNF). I think proteins are beautiful. If I were a biochemist who had discovered a novel protein, I would carry a picture of it around with me in my wallet.

An absolutely fabulous (looking) protein.

The animal and cells models used in biochemistry are great for looking at genetics, epigenetics, at biological mechanisms, and how these things interact. We can manipulate these models in ways that we can’t with humans, and this has given us some crucial insights into mechanisms, especially neural and epigenetic ones—critical to understanding the effects of nutrition—that would be virtually impossible to study in humans.

Nutritional biochemistry can also wear the mantle of “objective-er than thou” when it comes to science. As one of the biochem profs at UNC noted: If you have to use statistics to discuss the results of your experiment, you need to redesign your experiment. Sure, the questions asked, the interpretation of results, and what gets published in biochem are influenced by funding sources, social/scientific contexts and dominant paradigms. But unless you are a truly bad scientist, you can’t make the experimental results come out in a way that supports your hypothesis.

(This is in marked contrast to observational studies in nutrition epidemiology where the whole point of the data analysis “experiment” is to find results that support your hypothesis. Sometimes you don’t find them, and those findings should be reported, although they may not be because who’s to know?  Just you and your SAS files. My point is that you are actively seeking results that confirm a particular idea, and this just might influence what “results” are found. More on this in another post.)

But beyond the utility and elegance of nutritional biochemistry, the problems with regard to health policy are two-fold.

The first problem: In many ways, nutrition policy has become almost completely divorced from the basic science investigations done in biochemistry. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)—the committee of scientists that, at least theoretically, reviews the science upon which the US Dietary Guidelines are based—started in 1985 as mostly MDs and biochemistry professors. As time went on, the DGAC became more heavily populated with epidemiologists. This would be fine if epidemiology was meant to generate conclusive (or even semi-conclusive) results. It isn’t. Epidemiology gives us associations and relationships that are meant to be understood through a reasonably plausible, preferably known, biological mechanism. Note these interesting conclusions from the 2010 DGAC Report and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines policy document with regard to dietary cholesterol:

Here’s our mechanism: Exogenous, or dietary, cholesterol down-regulates cholesterol synthesis in the liver to maintain cholesterol balance.”
[D3-1, Reference 1, emphasis mine]

Here’s our epidemiology: Traditionally, because dietary cholesterol has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and high intakes induce atherosclerosis in observational studies, the prevailing recommendation has been to restrict dietary cholesterol intake, including otherwise healthy foods such as eggs.”
[D3-2, Reference 1, emphasis mine, "induce"? really? how does one "observe" that cholesterol "induces" atherosclerosis? I'm assuming committee fatigue had set in at this point because that word should have been "are associated with"]

Here’s our policy recommendation: Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.”
[Ch. 3, p. 21, Reference 2]

See, wasn’t that easy?

This brings me to the second problem, which is sort of the flip-side of the first: Biochemical processes that are understood primarily through mouse or cell models only work as the basis for dietary recommendations for chronic disease if you’re making them for cells or mice.

As one of my favorite professors in the Nutrition department likes to quip, “We know how to cure obesity—in mice. We know how to cure diabetes—in mice. We have all the knowledge we need to keep our rodent population quite healthy.” Obviously this knowledge has not been translatable to humans. In some ways, basic nutrition biochemistry should be divorced from public health policy.

The reason for this is that the equivalency of animal models to humans is limited in ways that go beyond simple biological comparisons—although the biological differences are significant.

Mouse large intestinal tract, courtesy of Comparative Anatomy and Histology: A Mouse and Human Atlas, edited by Piper M. Treuting, Suzanne M. Dintzis

My knowledge of comparative physiology is limited at best, but my understanding is that most rodents used in nutrition biochemistry work (rats included) have a cecum (an intestinal pouch that facilitates the breakdown of cellulose), an adaptation that would be necessary in a diet composed of hard-to-digest plant material such as seeds and grains. Because this process is not terribly efficient, many rodents also recycle nutrients by eating their feces. Humans don’t have a functional cecum for fermentation; we don’t tend to reingest our own poops (or anyone else’s poop, unless you’re starring in a John Waters film) in order to extract further nutrition from them as our bodies are already very efficient at this during the first go-round.

Furthermore, due to inherent difference in physiology, animals may not accurately model the physiological conditions that produce disease in humans. For example, in some species of rodents, a high fat diet will induce insulin resistance, but there is no definitive evidence that higher fat intake per se impairs insulin sensitivity in humans [3]. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but likely has something to do with the diet each species has consumed throughout its evolution. In a natural setting, rodents may do well on a diet of mostly grains. On the other hand, humans in a natural setting would do okay on a diet of mostly rodents.

What is more critical is that animal and cell life can’t imitate the complex environmental inputs that humans encounter throughout their lives and during each day. Animals and cells only get to consume what they are given. If you’ve ever been at a conference where the breakfast is low-fat muffins, whole grain bagels, fat-free yogurt, orange juice, and fruit, you know what that feels like. But typically our food choices are influenced by a multitude of factors. Mice, unlike humans, cannot be adversely affected by labeling information on a box of Lucky Charms.

Mice don’t know that whole grains are supposed to be good for you.
Bad on them.

Does that matter? You bet it does.

Where do most Americans get their nutrition information these days? From media sources including the internet, from their grocery stores, from the packages holding the food they buy. People who have never read a nutrition book, much less the actual Dietary Guidelines, still “know” fat is bad and whole grain is good [4, 5]. These environmental exposures affect food choices. Whether or not the person still decides to consume food with a high fat content depends on another set of cultural factors that might include socioeconomic status, education, race or ethnicity, age, gender—in other words, things we can’t even begin to replicate in animal or cell models.

Human biochemistry is unique and complex, as are our social and cultural conditions, making it very difficult to study how these primary contributors to health and food choices are related to each other.

Can we do a better job with nutritional epidemiology? I know you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the next episode in the unfolding drama, N of 1 Nutrition, when we get to hear Walter Willett say:

“I never met a statistical man I didn’t like.”

Stay tuned.

References:

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Accessed July 15, 2010. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-DGACReport.htm

2. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-PolicyDocument.htm Accessed January 31, 2010

3. Report of the Panel on Macronutrients, Subcommittees on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients and Interpretation and Uses of Dietary Reference Intakes, and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference 4. Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2005.

4. Eckel RH, Kris-Etherton P, Lichtenstein AH, Wylie-Rosett J, Groom A, Stitzel KF, Yin-Piazza S. Americans’ awareness, knowledge, and behaviors regarding fats: 2006-2007. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Feb;109(2):288-96.

5. Marquart L, Pham AT, Lautenschlager L, Croy M, Sobal J. Beliefs about whole-grain foods by food and nutrition professionals, health club members, and special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children participants/State fair attendees. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006 Nov;106(11):1856-60.

From Paleo to Public Health: We have met the enemy and we are them

Believe it or not, when I started this blog post, I wasn’t even thinking about the current sturm und drang in the paleo community. If you follow the paleo world gossip, you already know about it; if you’re not, this cartoon from xkcd.com says it all:

So—speaking of drama—social change stories are often built around drama triangles—also called triangles of power. In these triangles, there are three roles: victim, perpetrator, and rescuer. These roles can morph and change over time and depending on who is telling the story or who the audience is. In addition, a person or entity can be in more than one role at a time. [Note: This doesn't mean that anyone actually IS a victim, perpetrator, rescuer; this is a construct used to describe a social dynamic, not enforce one.]

From the works of Eric Berne and Stephen Karpman.

We can think about this model in regard to the current commotion in the paleo community, but–more to my point–also in regard to the work we may be able to do as a community should we decide to get our collective act together and worry about something larger than ourselves for a while. (Perhaps we’ll need social media group therapy, culminating in a giant Skype conference call, where everybody joins twitter feeds and sings Kumbaya?)

There is value in the power of story-telling; the drama is part of what makes us want to be involved in cause. We can typically identify with the victim or the rescuer, or both; the perpetrator gives us a bad guy in an undeniably black hat on which to focus our things-we-love-to-hate passion. Policymakers often prefer stories to logical arguments; many of us do. But stories can also create false simplicity and black and white reasoning. They can create artificial walls and boundaries. Most dangerously for the nutrition reform movement, these stories can create a lack of respect for those we are trying to help (“We know what is best for you”) and a lack of humility with regard to our own fallibility (“We have the “right” answers this time”).

As nutrition reformers—from paleo to public health—what story are we going to tell?

We must be sensitive in our choice of who we place in the “victim” role. The “victim” is the one that pulls at our heartstrings, that gives the story its emotional weight. I think the real victims in the nutrition reform story are our next generation, the children who are not yet born but who will bear the burdens of a broken food-health system as much of the American public gets caught in a cycle of being misled, misfed, misdiagnosed, and mistreated. These are children who will grow up in a nation where the dream of good health belongs to a fortunate few and slips from the grasp of everyone else despite all good intentions and efforts otherwise. And because these particular victims don’t exist (yet), it saves us from the awkward position of “rescuing” people who don’t consider themselves to be victims.

Some people who are suffering from obesity and poor health today (some of us even) may see themselves as victims and choose to use the sense of outrage at being put in that position to help change the system. But not everyone will choose that role, and I suggest we not take the stance that “poor fat sick people” out there need our help.

It isn’t as if we have a shortage of casualties from the past 30-40 years of USDA/HHS dietary guidance. How about the environment, small farmers, taxpayers, or maybe the scientific integrity of a whole generation of nutrition scientists? In 1978, Dr. Al Harper, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warned that the Dietary Goals’ promise of better health for all with no risks, only benefits, had ” great potential for undermining both the science of nutrition and nutrition education” [1]. It would seem that to a large extent, he was right. As a nation, we’ve lost a lot in thirty years.

So who is to blame? Hmm. Good question.

Government?

Policymakers doing what policymakers do: making policy.

Well, it is hard to pin this all on a disembodied “government” because the government does what we allow it to do. As long as we the people allowed segregation, it continued. When we decided that segregation was no longer tolerable, laws were created to end it. Changing attitudes will change the institutions that in turn shape attitudes.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to blame “the government,” when the general public has not developed a mature sense of healthy skepticism towards the government’s ability to protect us from ourselves. When the first Dietary Goals were released by the McGovern Committee in 1977 and the first Dietary Guidelines released by the USDA in 1980, the public could have refused to believe the low-fat-jello-pie-in-the-sky promises, but they didn’t—for reasons that may be more cultural than scientific in nature. I’m not convinced we would do so under similar circumstances today. Although we may now be more wary of the government’s ability to solve our problems, we tend to still hold out a childish hope that it will anyway. [Funny, to me anyway, story: It seems that a number of us who showed up for the paleo-libertarian dinner at AHS2012 were there less because of our libertarian ideals and more because we were happy to have someone else choosing our dinner destination and making reservations for us. Just a touch of irony there.]

In 1977 and in 1980, policymakers were applying the information that they had at the time to a well-intentioned goal of improving the health of all American; this is just the type of thing we expect from our policymakers. Did they seem to favor one side of the argument? Sure, but do we really think that—if we were in their position—we could work with complete objectivity? We couldn’t; there is no such thing. As we try to change public opinion and government policy, we will be working under the same constraints of humanness they were, with the only added advantage being that we can learn from the unintended consequences of these good intentions.

Industry?

Low-fat, whole grain, fiber-filled box of food: more nutrition information than actual nutrition.

Should we blame “the food industry”? We could.

Gary Taubes tells the story of one of the staff members of the McGovern Committee being approached by an industry analyst who tells him, “if you think people are going to start eating more broccoli and more kale and spinach because you’ve now put together dietary goals, you’re crazy. What you’ve said is people should eat less fat so the industry is going to jump on this and they’re going to create low fat products and they’re going to label them as heart healthy or whatever and they’re going to be able to carve out a portion of the market for their new products and everyone else is going to have to play catch-up and that’s what they’re going to do and the next thing you know you’re going to have shelf after shelf in the supermarket of junk foods that claim to be low fat and good for your heart.” As Gary Taubes points out, that’s exactly what happened. But is this the fault of industry?

Industry follows laws of supply and demand, using government recommendations as a marketing tool. Americans were happy to consume the products designed to lower our cholesterol and prevent heart disease then, because we thought doing so would contribute to good health. Now we, as a community hoping to expand our influence out to the rest of America, are happy to consume gluten-free snacks, grass-fed beef, and pemmican—for the exact same reason, because we think doing so will contribute to good health. We might have been sold a bill of goods by the food industry in the past 30 years, but by golly, we bought it.

Addressing the economic engines that make our food-health system go around is part of our challenge in shifting the paradigm. Working with the producers, especially the one at the bottom of the industrialized food chain, and the retailers, who must meet changing consumer demands—rather than lumping everyone together and clamping a big black hat on the whole thing—is a lot more likely to lead to success.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, maybe it is that we should be cautious about what health information we allow to be used on packaging and marketing, no matter what the nutrition paradigm. I don’t agree with Marion Nestle on much, but I agree with her that a box of food is no place for a tutorial on nutrition.

Science?

The only really bad scientists I know.

What about “bad science”? Isn’t that what got us into this mess?

I get the impression that a lot of us would like to blame “mainstream” nutrition—whomever or whatever that is—and the “bad science” it produces. I would offer some strong caution against this.

We want a different nutrition paradigm–specifically “our” paradigm, whatever that will be–to be “mainstream” one day, but it is a very tenuous position to say “they got it all wrong, but don’t worry, this timewe got it right.” All scientists are both trying to make a living and trying to improve the health of Americans. No scientist can control how his/her work is used (or misused) for public health policy. The scientists who have contributed to our current nutritional paradigm have been working–as all scientists do–within a framework shaped by personal experiences, cultural forces, financial pressures, political and career concerns, powerful individuals, and media soundbites.  The next generation of scientists will be no different. When scientists are asked to work on committees that create policy, they do, of course, bring to that work a more comprehensive understanding of their own area of study than of an area that offers a competing view.  The practices behind policy-making are responsible for making sure such views are balanced, not the scientists themselves.

In the early years of the Goals and Guidelines, a number of scientists did complain about the prematurity of those recommendations. I think most of us would like to think we’d be among those skeptics, but I’m not sure that we would. For the most part, people who then worked in the field of nutrition— dietitians, clinicians, young scientists—embraced these new dietary recommendations as progressive and much needed. Dr. Joanne Slavin told me the story of how the younger generation in her Department of Nutrition at the University of Minnesota thought Dr. Harper (see the quote above) was “behind the times” because he didn’t think it was such a great idea to tell everyone to reduce their fat intake. When we established policy to give an institutional framework to an ideal that was waiting for the science to catch up with it, we failed to prepare for the possibility that we might be wrong. If there is one lesson to learn from the past 30 years of interaction between nutrition science and public health policy, it is that we should prepare for that possibility.

Us?

To a large extent, the cultural forces that shaped our thinking about nutrition (and which in turn helped carry the scientific, policy, and industrial forces forward) were an extension of the culture wars of the 60s and 70s: suits vs. hippies. The suits (maybe the “lab coats”?) were the stodgy pinhead scientists, fiddling away in their labs, waiting to get the science “right,” while the country went to hell in a hamburger. The “hippies” of the McGovern committee—along with popular figures like Frances Moore Lappé, author of the wildly popular vegetarian cookbook, Diet for a Small Planet –saw changing the diet of Americans as a moral imperative that eclipsed concerns over the weak associations with diet and disease outcomes. This gave the low-fat diet an Age of Aquarius glow that offered a shiny new hope for ending chronic disease, and we swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Labeled the “barefoot boys of nutrition,” the creators of our first national dietary recommendations were a team of young, energetic, long-haired (for DC anyway)—and not coincidentally, white, well-educated, upper/middle class and male—idealists hoping to convince Americans to eat a more “natural” diet, a vision of the lead writer for the group, Nick Mottern, who remains a staunch advocate of minimally-processed foods (and who has never, by the way, been a vegetarian) [2,3]. With the exception of the food from animals vs. food from plants orientation (and I think we have more women in places of influence), how different is the paleo community from these origins?

In other words, in the immortal words of Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. “Us” is (upper) middle class, well-educated, young white people with an idealistic plan to change the world for the better. Now of course I don’t mean you or me personally. We can all find ways to excuse ourselves from this stereotype (I for one can claim that I’m not young—but otherwise, the description pretty much fits me exactly). But there is a lesson here to be learned: in creating an “enemy” to fight in the nutrition revolution, we had better choose very carefully. Let’s choose an “enemy” we actually want to eliminate permanently (i.e. not us).

I suggest that we not make a person, a group, an entity, or an institution either scapegoats or the enemy. Then who or what is to blame? What do we want to get rid of entirely?

Well, how about poorly-designed policy? Maybe one-size-fits-all guidelines (assuming we can agree that this concept should be eliminated)? Maybe a food-health system that lacks transparency, public involvement, and checks and balances? Maybe we could get rid of the framework that excludes the concept of food culture from any discussions about food policy?

If we can do that, it opens up the last piece of the triangle–the “rescuers”–to anyone who cares about the health of Americans: policymakers, health professionals, the public, food producers and manufacturers, scientists (even the nutrition epidemiologists whose science many of us love to hate), or, umm, maybe even each other.   If we can see a place for all of these groups, and all of us already in the “alternative nutrition” community, in shifting the future of America away from policies that have created little hope for the health of our next generation, we may begin to see them as allies (or at least future allies), rather than enemies. As such, we can enlist their help rather than trying to blame them or defeat them.

Right now I’m thinking we may need to try this out in our own little paleo/low-carb/WAPF/etc. communities first.

1. Harper AE. Dietary goals-a skeptical view. Am J Clin Nutr. 1978 Feb;31(2):310-21.

2. Broad, WJ. Jump in Funding Feeds Research on Nutrition. Science, New Series, Vol 204. No. 4397 (June 8, 1979). Pp. 1060-1061 + 1063-1064.

3. Mottern, N. Correspondence.