New year, same old talking heads

It may be a new year, but in the world of nutrition, not much has changed–yet. If the amount of press dedicated to who gets to say what in the next edition of a document the previous edition of which insisted no American has ever paid one whit of attention to has taught us anything, it’s that “facts” don’t always do what we want them to do, right, Secretary Vilsack? And so, just like David Byrne, we’re stiiiilll waiting on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, which were due out, like, last year already.

Like the Dietary Guidelines, my life is all about things changing and staying the same.  As both of my readers probably already know, I’m smack dab in the middle of a PhD program in communication, rhetoric, and digital media. Quite a switch from my work in nutrition? Not really. The things I work on in my studies now are the same things I was interested in as a PhD student in nutrition epidemiology: dietary recommendations, politics of food, the health gap, methodological issues in nutrition epidemiology of chronic disease, and the ethics of dietary policy. Only now I have a theoretical toolbox that is actually useful for critically examining those things.

Here’s the thing though. I thought that approaching nutrition from the perspective of rhetorical and communication theory would help me take a big step back and take a couple of deep breaths and have a nice cool, calm, totally “academic” attitude about things. Nope. The more I study this stuff, the more ticked off I get. In fact, the more sensitized I am to the rhetoric of nutrition and the better I can identify and understand the structures of privilege and power at work in the discourse surrounding food and health in America, the angrier it makes me.  Same as it ever was.

To avoid beginning the year with a full-on, foam-at-the-mouth rant, I am instead hosting a wonderful guest post from my good friend Jennifer Calihan over at EAT THE BUTTER.org. She has a smart, perceptive take on the past 35+ years of nutrition recommendations from a unique perspective. Her post, “Low Fat, High Maintenance,” provides some insight as to why the low fat dietary approach really does “work” for some Americans–and really doesn’t work for many more (and she does this without mentioning “insulin” once). If you haven’t already, you should check out her work.

Her post is the stepping stone to a different direction for my own writing. I’m sick of the diet wars, of “good” science vs. “bad” science, but I still think it is important to try to understand why all the talking heads of nutrition feel compelled to insist that everyone in the known universe can (and should) win at the game of “health through food” and in exactly the same way, despite vast differences in metabolic and genetic characteristics, and more importantly, economic and social contexts (I’m looking at you, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Walter Willett, and–the biggest meat puppet of them all–David Katz). Jennifer not only brings a fresh new voice to the discussion, she directs our attention outside of our own bodies, to how all of us must negotiate our “food worlds” on very different terms.

Stay tuned. Jennifer’s post will be up later this week, followed by some commentary by me. As grad school allows, I’ll return to the regularly scheduled, full-on, foam-at-the-mouth rant already in progress.

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don’t stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape

–The Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

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8 thoughts on “New year, same old talking heads

  1. Oh, another problem with journalism and nutrition is that journalist must find exciting salable news every day. Thus, like politicians, they don’t have the luxury of waiting until all of the science is done. Making money or making yourself feel like you’ve done something important is more important than unwittingly killing people.

    1. And there are some important ties between journalists and the talking heads of nutrition. Journalists want a story, but they also have to rely on accepted “expert” opinion and quotes. Typically there’s a set of mainstream go-to nutrition experts who can be relied upon to provide a quote that will not prove too controversial, complicated, or nuanced to run.

  2. Thanks for the post. I would have posted something yesterday, but your reference to the Talking Heads caused me to spent a lot of time watching/listening to youtube videos of them. So thanks for that fun trip down memory lane. Too bad, ‘Burning Down the House’ does not apply to the Dietary Guidelines.

    Anyway in the mean time, I read a post on Diet Doctor that said, “all kinds of media were easily fooled by a recent fake study” that showed that chocolate can help you lose weight. So, another thank you for going to school again to learn about communication. (You are either a very smart saint or masochistic over achiever.)

    Because nutrition is very complicated, it is difficult to do good science to understand it. Add to that that journalists and their readers want simple answers. Also, add that most journalist have no full understanding of what constitutes good science. (Unfortunately, many scientists also have this problem.) And you get a big fat mess. Hope you join Gary, Nina and others soon.

    1. Ha! “You are either a very smart saint or masochistic over achiever.” Most likely, a masochistic under-achiever. As I see it, my mission is quite different from Gary’s and Nina’s in that I hope to encourage scholars in the humanities and social sciences to take their critical/cultural studies tools and use them to pry apart the concept of “healthy food.” What little scholarship has been done in this area tends to bracket off nutrition science from critique–or, like Michael Pollan’s work, to critique nutrition science and then nevertheless adopt its most mainstream conclusions. There are notable exceptions of course (Julie Guthman and Charlotte Biltekoff come to mind), and I hope to add to that scholarship.

      Nutrition science is complicated, but telling people what to eat and what not to eat has never been just about “science.” We want to limit conversations–especially policy ones–to “what the science says.” However, as BobM noted (and Gary Taubes concurs), nutrition science says pretty much everything, which is to say, it really says nothing. So what are the guidelines about if not about nutrition science? That’s the conversation I’m interested in.

      Glad I could stir up some TH nostalgia. I am old enough to have seen live and in person their Stop Making Sense tour. The suit, it was very big 🙂

  3. First, surely you have at least 3 or 4 followers by now. 😉

    Second, you could add my current doctor to your “I’m looking at you” list. He insists that 97% of all doctors and scientists KNOW that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat and will enable you to live the longest with the highest quality of life. There’s no room for argument in his mind. “It’s science,” he says.

    We still have a long way to go to get people to know, deep in their hearts, that saturated fat is not bad, and eating red meat won’t kill you.

    1. Sigh. First of all, to decide for everyone everywhere that you know what “the highest quality of life” means is terribly presumptuous. There are those of us for whom a life with very little cheese or meat would be–by definition, as well as by its metabolic effects–not the “highest quality” life one could lead. But perhaps more importantly, to say “the science says” is to say, “as far as I know, having read the science that I am interested in and that generally agrees with my own inclinations, I can claim something that, under different circumstances, I might just have well claimed the opposite of and with approximately the same amount of certainty.” 🙂

      This isn’t to say that science doesn’t tell us anything, but to say that we need a whole lot more humility about it.

      1. I think that anytime someone is a staunch advocate for something, it concerns me. For instance, I’m doing research on resistant starch and also experimenting with this myself. There is one blogger (freetheanimal) who is so enamored with the idea that resistant starch is good for you, that I think this clouds his review of the evidence. I do think there’s evidence that resistant starch has benefits, but to me the results aren’t really that clear. For those who don’t know, resistant starch is a “prebiotic” used to feed “probiotic” bacteria in the gut. Supposedly, by changing or adding the resistant starch or simply changing the biome via, e.g., eating different foods, one can change the types of bacteria in the human biome, which supposedly has effects including weight loss. The problem: many of the studies are done on animals, which are always difficult to translate to humans; while there are studies done on humans, the numbers of people used are small and, as always, confusing. There are also no long term studies done with many humans where changing the biome was indicating as having a beneficial effect. And most if not all of the studies aren’t designed to solely isolate the effects of the biome (and the ones that are like this are extremely small, using single digits of humans).

        This is particularly true, as causation is always difficult. For instance, I’ve lost about 50 pounds using LCHF (according to your Eat the Butter link, LCHF + Primal) and also intermittent fasting (basically, skipping meals). If my biome changed during this time (sadly, did not get any biome tests done), did changing of my biome cause weight loss or did eating differently cause the weight loss and also happened to cause changing of the biome or both (biome and eating both have some effect on weight loss)?

        And since I’ve been adding resistant starch to my diet, if I lose additional weight, is it the resistant starch or is it merely happenstance (my continued LCHF/Primal diet plus intermittent fasting is the cause)?

        The blogger from freetheanimal could read this and say it’s the changing of the biome that’s caused the weight loss, while I could say it’s the LCHF/Primal diet, and it’s really difficult to know what the real answer is.

        The difficulty is — and this occurs for me too — that one can simply cite studies that uphold one’s beliefs and ignore or explain away the ones that don’t. And, two people can read the same study and reach two different conclusions, and it’s impossible most times to know which conclusion is correct.

        To further complicate matters, there’s reality. I ate a “plant based” diet (not sure what that even means; is pasta “plant based”?) for quite a few years and felt horrible doing so. Brown rice and beans or grapefruit would send my blood sugar through the roof, and I’d be famished a half hour after eating. On the other hand, I know people who eat like that and it seems to be fine. Knowing that high carbohydrates from “plant based” foods causes high blood sugar for me, it’s difficult for me to interpret a study or an argument advocating eating such foods in a positive way.

        1. There’s this terrific line from the abstract of a recent study, where the researchers “found high variability in the response to identical meals, suggesting that universal dietary recommendations may have limited utility.”

          So basically we’ve wasted 35+ years of nutrition science and public health goodwill trying to cram everyone into the same size shoe.

          “The difficulty is — and this occurs for me too — that one can simply cite studies that uphold one’s beliefs and ignore or explain away the ones that don’t.” This comes largely from the fact that nutrition studies that try to link diet to chronic disease must rely on extremely weak methodology, which leads to inconsistent results, which then leaves the door open for selective citing of the studies that “agree” with a preconceived ideology. The Dietary Guidelines folks have been doing it for years.

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