The Real Paleo Challenge Redux

The original title of my presentation for the Ancestral Health Symposium 2013 was:

But now I feel like it should be more like:

What’s going on in Paleoland? Well, you can see Melissa McEwan’s take on it here, or itsthewoo’s take on it here. My concerns about paleo are wrapped up in the presentation below, and going into AHS 2013 I was more than a little nervous about saying what it is I wanted to say. See, I don’t consider myself “paleo” (or “low carb” or “insert whatever diet therapy you think I adhere to here”); I consider myself a nutritionist, a public health professional, and work in progress. I do recognize the fact that a lot of people who do consider themselves “paleo” attend AHS–and I consider a lot of them my friends and colleagues. While I see promising things in the group of people who have chosen a paleo path, I also agree with a great deal of what both Melissa McEwan and itsthewoo have to say. (I admit to some sadness over the demise of Paleodrama. Other people binge-watch House of Cards. Me, after a long week of rhetorical theory and critical studies, I would grab a tumbler of sangria and binge-read Paleodrama. To each her own.) The presentation would, I hoped, put some of the “issues” that I see happening in Paleoland on the table, without throwing out the potential for paleo to grow into something more than itself. Well.

Without further ado, here’s the presentation as it was in August. Updates and commentary that did not appear in the original are in [brackets].

It is an honor to be here at AHS and I am delighted to be in such esteemed company. I hope that I can bring to our conversations this weekend a little something to offend everyone.

The primary misconception that I deal with in public health nutrition is that our current policy is the same thing as science. Conversely, a primary misconception regarding reforming this policy is the idea that “If only we could get the right information to the public and to policymakers, things would be different.” Having the evidence to support a movement’s agenda is important, but public perceptions and national policies are shaped as much by social, political, and cultural forces as by science.

As we have seen in other movements, cultural change drives policy change, which in turn drives cultural change. The current mainstream definition of what constitutes a “healthy” diet is an excellent example of this. At one point in the not-too-distant past, a low-fat, low-calorie, plant-based diet was considered a “fad” – just as the stereotypical paleo diet is today. But it was not science alone—or even primarily—that shifted the public’s perceptions.

In fact, the science supporting this dietary guidance has been and remains weak, but that didn’t stop it from becoming policy. George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee, a group of young white liberal men full of well-meaning social concern, wanted to create a plan to reduce chronic disease (a reasonable public health goal), as well as lengthen the lifespan of their committee. They did their work against a backdrop of post-World War 2 wealth, comfort, and suburban complacency that was rapidly crumbling in the face of social movements that would polarize the population: civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-war protests. Television brought bombings, riots, assassinations, and Watergate, into middle class living rooms and shook middle class faith in government and social order. Middle class complacency was quickly turning into anxiety and cynicism.

Some of this anxiety took shape specifically around matters related to food and health. Ancel Keys taught the public his theories about heart disease–a “disease of success” brought on by too much animal fat. Rachel Carson raised awareness of environmental toxins. Ralph Nader and the Center for Science in the Public Interest raised the alarm about chemicals in our food supply put there by corporate greed—a force which also was accused of contributing to hunger in America. Many groups, from feminists to Beatles fans, picked up on these issues—along with ethical concerns about animal welfare—by turning towards vegetarian diets. McGovern’s committee—as they said back then—was hip to all of this.

This is clear in their choice of reference material for the Dietary Goals, which included—of all things—a cookbook called Diet for a Small Planet. As much vegetarian manifesto as a source for recipes, it proposed that a plant-based diet was the best way to feed the hungry, save the Earth, protect our health, and usher in the Age of Aquarius. [It still does.] This cookbook assured middle-class America that what was good for us was also good for the world. Its influence is felt throughout the 1977 Goals, which counseled Americans to reduce consumption of meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat dairy, and increase intake of grains, cereals and vegetables oils, recommendations that have changed very little in nearly 40 years.

McGovern’s committee wanted to return America to a more “natural” way of eating—and what could be wrong with that? This “back to nature” stance earned the Committee the nickname “the barefoot boys of nutrition.” This “back to nature” idea not only recalled the “physical culture movement” that had long been a part of American life, it resonated with Puritan ethics that suggested that self-discipline and a little suffering—which Americans were going to need for such a radical change in diet—were a mark of moral goodness. Barefoot and back to nature, fresh air, sunshine and a little suffering—does any of this sound familiar?

Those initial Dietary Goals did not embed themselves in American culture based on the strength of their science—to say the least. They grabbed the attention of the media and the middle class because they played on the existential anxieties that cultural turmoil creates. They substantiated a notion that by changing their diets, Americans could control some of the frightening things in the world—hunger, pollution, disease. We could demonstrate just how much we cared about these issues, and we could do it from the comfort and safety of our own dinner table. We are still trying to do that even now.

Our current calls for reform in the areas of food, nutrition, and health reflect the same set of complex social problems, the same inescapable environmental problems, the same threats to our food supply that the creators of the 1977 Goals faced—only compounded by time, technological advances, and a distinct turn for the worse in the country’s (and the world’s) health.

The paleo community emerged as a protest against dietary guidance that seems to many to be scientifically shoddy, shallow, limited, and ineffective. The attention to calorie balance as the only way to maintain health seems to be especially—and unnecessarily—restrictive and unhelpful. But “paleo” in its stereotyped form takes a shape that is little different from the one to which it stands in opposition.

Both of approaches to nutrition are stuck in the past in two primary aspects:

Both suggest a linear and mechanistic approach to the food-health relationship. “Eat this/don’t eat that and all will be well.”

Second, and more subtly, both approaches reflect the cultural values and social power of those doing the reforming, but may not reflect the realities of the most vulnerable in our population, the ones who might benefit most genuine changes to the system.

People have been burnt once already by a “nutrition revolution” – they are confused, skeptical, and wary. They don’t want to get fooled again. Right now, paleo is not offering much that is truly revolutionary in terms of a new way to approach to food and health. Unless and until we are ready to give up some of the same concepts that we criticize the mainstream approach for using–it’s really just “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

We can’t generate the outrage we need to change the public’s world view, because we have not decided what our own priorities are: Do we care only about our own food and health, or do we care about everyone’s food and health?

With regard to food, current nutrition policies are a barrier to the growth of local food systems.

Farmers have difficulty expanding the market for locally-produced animal products because of dietary guidance that limits saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Meanwhile the paleo community is in upheaval for days—weeks, months?—debating the worthiness of butter from cows that are only 90% and not 100% grass-fed. How can we support long-term sustainable growth in local systems when our own standards are incoherent and possibly unreasonable?

We want our meat, eggs, and butter to come from happy, healthy cows and chickens. But what attention are we willing to spare for the health and happiness of farm workers—or the workers up and down the food supply chain?

With regard to health, nutrition is a civil rights issue.

We don’t want our wellness determined by an arbitrary marker like LDL, but are we willing to go to bat for someone else whose wellness is determined by an arbitrary marker like BMI?

The paleo community spends its energy debating how various sugars and starches may or may not be paleo. This is fascinating, but will it help people with diabetes who are never offered an alternative to a low-fat diet—despite the science that demonstrates the benefits of a carbohydrate-reduction in treating this disease?

The current nutrition paradigm use moldy datasets normed on white female healthcare professionals born during the first half of the last century to inform the dietary health of dark-skinned young males all over America. But is suggesting they return to their caveman roots any more appropriate?

These are huge issues—wicked problems—and we can’t fix them by replacing the old rules with some new ones. In order to be a leading force in the kind of social movement that might create authentic change in the system, paleo is going to have to move beyond the limited perspective that perpetuates many of the mistakes of the current nutrition paradigm.

I propose that we consider the idea of ancestral health—as distinct from “paleo”–as a way of framing food and nutrition reform to address both the cultural and the scientific limitations of previous approaches.

In terms of science, anthropology and evolutionary biology have shown us that diet is idiosyncratic and variable within and between populations, but not chaotic; there are certain nutritional requirements, but there are many ways to meet them.

Research into the human microbiome has shown us that we are not alone; and that the health of the microbial communities within and around us is a critical aspect of our own health.

Epigenetics, genomics, and other aspects of systems biology have begun to reveal the complexity of interactions between our genetic material and our environment, with food being a primary, but by no means the only, environmental exposure.

All of these concepts can and should be part of the ancestral health framework.

But as I said at the beginning, science is not enough. There are three critical components that turn a protest into a movement.

1) Development of widely-shared cultural norms, the violation of which is perceived as injustice. In order to develop those norms, we’re going to have to do some GROWING UP.

2) Development of a repertoire of actions that demonstrate that conditions can be altered. In order to create the sense of agency and change that we want, we are going to have to start DIGGING IN.

3) Development of a dense social networks that can work collectively against a common target. In order to create these alliances, we are going to have to begin REACHING OUT.

Growing up for paleo—as for many things—will to need to start with a little makeover. Like all good makeovers, this doesn’t mean abandoning the paleo identity completely, but it means looking—and moving—beyond it. There are precedents for this from other nutrition reform arenas.

For many people, hearing the term “vegan” bring a knee-jerk—and negative—reaction; but the term “vegetarian” does not. People who promote a vegan diet know this and can frequently be found using the term “vegetarian” instead. So that’s a marketing strategy, and a fairly wise one.

Now, take the phrase “Atkins diet” which can also elicit a negative, knee-jerk reaction. But scientists who study such diets have learned to use the phrase “reduced-carbohydrate” not only for PR purposes, but because the phrase “Atkins diet” does not encompass the different approaches to carbohydrate reduction that scientists are interested in.

How about paleo? It also elicits a negative, knee-jerk reaction from many and calls up stereotypes of privileged white males eating big hunks of meat on a stick—even though, as Hamilton Stapell showed us, those stereotypes may be somewhat inaccurate. As such, the term “paleo” limits what we can expect to accomplish as a framing device for conversations about food, health, and lifestyle. From this point forward I will use the term “paleo” to refer to the stereotyped and limited perspective and “ancestral health” to refer to an expanded and comprehensive approach to food-health reform.

By shifting the shared norms of our community towards an ancestral health framework—rather than being limited to paleo—we can move beyond the outdated concepts that we share with the current approach to nutrition and the problems that they create. We can—if we choose to—use an ancestral health framework to challenge those assumptions in a truly radical way.

[What follows is what I call the Top Ten Reasons Paleo Pisses Me Off, but my hubby, ever the diplomat, said not to say that.]

[Reason 10:]  So let’s just get this out there: The first assumption we need to challenge is the one that equates body size with health, which is interesting since according to Dr. Stapell, both of these are primary reasons to become part of the paleo community.

Mainstream approaches indicate that overweight and obese Americans need to eat less and move more to achieve a healthy weight according to an arbitrary cut-off on a simplistic measuring tool.

The paleo approach suggests that maybe strong is the new skinny. Or maybe “strong” is just another superficial way of assessing another’s worth.

The problem is that attention to body size rather than health and functionality can lead to a moralizing and pathologizing perspective that doesn’t reflect reality. Not only can this approach foster disordered eating behaviors and judgment calls about food, character, and lifestyle choices, it tells us little about overall health. We have no way of knowing, looking at these two women (Brittany on the left and Jennifer on the right—no headless women here), who eats what kind of food, who is healthy now, or who is going to live a long and functional life.

Our challenge is to use the ancestral health framework to recognize that a multiplicity of body shapes can be healthy and functional, and to acknowledge that much of body shape and size is determined genetically and can be influenced by factors other than diet and exercise. De-emphasizing body shape/size brings our focus to health, and especially for women, inter-generational health.

Women can—and do—have bellies, butts, and bingo flaps. Sisters who rock the paleo hardbody look—more power to you. Sisters who are more the Venus of Willendorf type—more power to you too. We can all meet at the pool and compare muscles & bra sizes & bingo flaps—and just get over ourselves and any fear of somebody tweeting about our butts.

[Reason 9:] Growing up also means moving beyond the idea that food and nutrition are the same thing.

Typical nutrition guidance discusses food as if all food choices are based only on nutrition.

Yeah, we tend to do the exact same thing.

The Problem: People are concerned about a lot of other things besides nutrition. Usually cost, convenience, and taste come first–

–followed by a host of other considerations, only one of which is nutrition.

An ancestral approach to food can embrace all of the factors that impact our food choices because it can look at food in its cultural—as well as biological—context. It can highlight the role of environmental stressors in overall health–including economic and time pressures that also impact food choices. Acknowledgement of food communities allows us to explore the role food beliefs and preferences play in food choices; these too are part of an anthropological and evolutionary perspective on food-health relationships.

[Reason 8:]  We need to move past the idea that food is medicine.

Mainstream nutrition has promised that a low-saturated fat ,low-cholesterol, low-calorie, low-sodium, whole grain diet will prevent chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Us: Same promise, different food.

Now, I’m not going to say that the paleo paradigm doesn’t have some better biochemistry behind it; in many [but not all] respects, it does. The problem is that food is still not medicine.

A nutritionally-appropriate diet should be the foundation of good health, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Both groups are making promises they can’t keep & this leads to skepticism, cynicism, and disillusionment. Most importantly, this framework take a complex social construct and a biological necessity—food—and reduces it to a mechanistic and simplistic intervention–medicine.

Medicine is for sick people and food is for everyone. We may use food as part of a therapy to “heal” a particular condition at a particular point in time, but that is not the same thing as a public health paradigm. We put casts on broken legs, but we don’t recommend that everyone wear casts in order to prevent legs from breaking.

An ancestral health approach offers an opportunity to move away from the view of the human condition as one of potential “illness” to be “avoided” to one of wellness to be maintained.  By focusing first and foremost on essential nutrition—and the many appropriate ways that it can be acquired–the emphasis is on having health, not preventing chronic disease. The recognition of the complexities of what we know and don’t know about the relationships between food and health brings into the public health forum other important aspects of lifestyle—sleep, stress, play, activity—that can contribute to health and well being.

[Reason 7:] There is no small irony in the fact that both plant-based and paleo ideology emphasize a return to “a more natural way of eating.” How does that happen? Because the notion of “a more natural way of eating” is not something that is easy to define. [More generally, the emphasis on a more “natural” way of doing things is a rhetorical device that implies “goodness” and fails to evaluate the issue at hand on its own terms.]

Mainstream nutrition suggests that returning to a “more natural” diet means eating a lot foods that our ancestors DIDN’T eat—either in the near or distant past—like vegetable oils, and avoiding a lot of foods they DID eat, like butter, eggs, meat, and lard.

Paleo suggests that returning to a “more natural” diet means NOT eating a lot of foods that our ancestors DID eat—at least in the not too distant past—like bread, legumes, and dairy, [and eating a lot of foods they DIDN’T eat i.e. coconut milk, unless your ancestors were Thai].

The problem is that “natural” is term useful for marketing, but not much else. It isn’t a scientific concept, or even one that makes a lot of sense culturally. We don’t really have a lot of solid information about what was “natural” for our distant ancestors—and the gene/environment interactions that may have occurred since then may make that information less relevant than how our more-recent ancestors lived, ate, and worked.

Here’s our challenge: Ancestral health principles got their start by focusing on paleolithic times—and that perspective is a valuable one—but we don’t have to be limited to that. An ancestral health framework can also allow us to look to the near-past for clues about our health now, should we choose to. Here’s the beauty of this approach: It’s already been sanctioned by mainstream nutrition, and by two of the leaders in nutrition reform, Michael Pollan and Gary Taubes.

In his landmark 1985 article, Sick Individuals and Sick Populations, epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose called for “The restoration of biological normality by the removal of” among other things “recently-acquired dietary deviations.” Gary Taubes indicates that Weston A. Price’s work about the health impacts of introducing new foods into native diets as the “most influential” thing he read in researching Good Calories, Bad Calories. Michael Pollan suggestion that we eat the way our great-grandparents ate has become a rallying cry for many people interested in food reform.

[The pie chart above] is a pretty reasonable picture of an “ancestral diet” from 1955 America: we got about half of our calories from plant-based starches and sugars—only 10% of those as fruits and vegetables—and about half from mostly animal-based proteins and fats. I’m not saying this is a perfect diet, but it does seem to be the one we were eating before the rapid rise in obesity and diabetes.

An ancestral framework can help us analyze the differences between how this food environment may be similar to or different from our current one, without having to invoke a past that didn’t exist, as the plant-based folks must in light of this information—or a past that is so distant that it’s hard to say what we really know about it [as the paleo folks must]. On the other hand, the 1955 –style 50/50 diet looks remarkably familiar. It’s not that hard. Or is it?

[Reason 6:] Well, we make it hard by invoking food rules that don’t always make a lot of sense. Everyone’s current favorite, on all sides of the nutrition issue, is: Avoid processed foods.

Michael Pollan says avoid processed foods unless you are talking about vegetable oils.

Paleoista says avoid processed foods unless you are talking about hydrolyzed fish protein powder.

Problem: Food rules means splitting hairs, drawing lines in the sand, and creating arbitrary divisions—and they usually end up making the food rule makers look silly at best and hypocritical at worst. Food rules are the easiest things to dismiss, discount, or disprove. We’re already enmeshed in a set of arbitrary, unreasonable, and incoherent standards [called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans]; no one is interested in a new and different one.

Skip the food rules. What we need are guiding principles from an ancestral health perspective that can apply to individuals, industry, and policymaking processes. For instance, if we frame concerns around the “recently acquired dietary deviations” I just mentioned, we have a guiding principle—upon which Geoffrey Rose, Gary Taubes and Michael Pollan all agree—for looking at the current scientific literature and for conducting future investigations. We might go back a few generations or many generations; either way we can remain true to our generational perspective of health without limiting ourselves to a particular set of food rules.

[Reason 5:] The politics of responsibility are a no-win situation for the public.

Mainstream nutrition assures folks that, if the low-fat, low-calorie diet isn’t working for you, you’re not doing it right. Paleo people assure newbies that if the high-fat, no-calorie-counting paleo diet isn’t working for you, you’re not doing it right.

And when that logic doesn’t fly, both groups blame the “obesogenic” environment.

Problem: Both approaches assume that “If only that poor sick, fat person had the “right” food or the “right” information or the “right” environment, they’d stop being so fat and sick.” These approaches call for policy reforms that will force industry to make “the healthy choice the easy choice” for people apparently deemed too irresponsible or stupid to make the healthy choice otherwise. But industry is responsible to the public, not for the public. That’s the job of public health.

Challenge: An ancestral health approach recognizes that poor health may be as much an outcome of environmental impacts and generational health—especially prenatal health–as food choices and activity. This shifts the focus away from the politics of responsibility and puts the attention on food industry and policy reform where it belongs, not on a product—which the consumer may or may not choose—but on the processes over which consumers have little control: federal approval of food additives, food and farm workers rights, food safety and food waste, environmental impacts of our current agricultural practices, and many other food-related practices, program, and polices that have been ignored in favor of telling people what to eat and do and blaming them when it doesn’t work.

[Reason 4:]  This one is a real “I’m rubber, you’re glue” thing. We complain about all those mainstream nutrition articles making sweeping generalizations about how animal fats will kill you—then we turn around and make sweeping generalizations about how vegetable oils will kill you. The vast majority of these claims—on both sides of the table–are unproven and even untested; in many cases they are untestable. [The science for both claims is primarily observational; other science may be experimental, but based on animal models and cell cultures. The few randomized, controlled dietary trials that exist are just that, highly controlled. The populations may or may not be generalizable to larger populations; the methods may or may not translate to the “real world.”]

Problem is, we don’t know what we think we know about the relationships between diet and health. Plus, there’s a really good chance we will never know what we think we need to know about the relationships between diet and health.

Science and medicine as they have been practiced in America for the past half a century (or more) have relied on a mechanistic approach to these relationships that is now rapidly giving way to more complex thinking. The mechanistic approach has served the industries of research, medicine, food and pharmaceuticals–because what is simplified can be controlled–but it hasn’t served the health of humans.

Ancestral health principles can help us think about science differently. Nutrition science as it is practiced now is backwards looking—especially nutrition epidemiology which relies upon ancient datasets gleaned from populations which are hardly representative of our current world. It ignores the complex relationships between ourselves, our environment, and our heredity that science has more recently uncovered. Despite its name, ancestral health represents a forward-looking framework. As an approach to public health, it can herald a shift to a more holistic, yet evidence-based focus that recognizes individual, community, environment, and generational impacts on health. Consider the ancestral health community’s active encouragement of n of 1 experimentation. It is a perspective that can go beyond Joe Paleo fiddling with his macronutrient ratios to a place of leveraging new biomedical technology, new ways of modeling complex relationships, and a new focus on patient-centered outcomes to create a revolution in how we approach the science of diet and health. This is not anti-science, but an embrace of science in all its complexity. Such an approach brings us to our biggest philosophical challenge:

[Reason 3:] Can we acknowledge that one diet will not be right for everybody?

Right now, mainstream nutrition asserts that everyone will benefit from eating a low-fat, low-calorie diet.

At the same time, the paleo community asserts that everyone will benefit from eating a paleo diet.

The problem with a top-down, unilateral imposition of one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations is the same as it was in 1977: Who asked you to come up with a diet for me that might or might not help prevent a condition that I may or may not be concerned about? Remember that a skeptical public doesn’t want to get fooled again. New arrivals to our country, who aren’t yet aware of the abysmal failure of our current nutrition system, are being greeted with admonitions to give up traditional foods like eggs and meat—but then paleo doesn’t have a much different message to offer, except that instead they should give up traditional foods like bread and beans.

Ancestral health principles embrace the notion of change. Ancestral health acknowledges complexity. It only makes sense that an ancestral health approach to public health would recognize diverse paths to acquiring appropriate nutrition, with a focus on foods high in nutrient value, and frame dietary information in terms of the diversity of individual, cultural, environmental, and generational contexts. But will it?

[Reason 2:]  Many of the assumptions I’ve mentioned are deeply embedded in our thinking, and reflect the concerns, values, and social power of the mostly white, well-educated, well-paid, predominantly female thirty-somethings that make up the paleo community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—information from other datasets have shown that white, well-educated women are also the ones that most closely adhere to the Dietary Guidelines food pattern, so the presence of this demographic in paleo may reflect an overall concern not only for weight and appearance, but for family and health. This is a good thing. This particular demographic also has a long history of being the backbone of successful social reform movements—from child labor to drunk driving laws.

But ladies—and gentlemen—we are going to have to do more than vote with our forks or food dollars.

Both paleo and plant-based reform efforts seem to believe that your financial support of the food you’d like to see other people eating is the best way to change the food-health system. You can just munch your way to a better world without ever having to encounter anyone who doesn’t appreciate the change you’re creating for them.

For paleo eaters, increased demand may increase production, making some foods more affordable for some people. It may support some farmers—as long as they keep up with and adhere to all of the “appropriate” [and possibly contradictory, unrealistic, and/or absurd] paleo food rules—but it isn’t necessarily going to change the status quo for the most vulnerable in our population, the ones most subject to the effects of dietary policy as it stands now. Me buying my eggs locally doesn’t help the low-income mothers who would like to spend their federal assistance farmers market vouchers on local eggs too, which they are not allowed to do. Face it, in the “vote with your food dollar” approach, some folks have a lot more votes than others. Changing your diet is not enough to change the world. We are going to have to put down our forks and dig in.

One of the things any successful social change effort has is a story, where the victims of injustice can be rescued from evil by the heroes. A successful social change effort also has a way for everyone—from individuals to the government—to be a hero. This takes the form of a repertoire of actions for changing conditions. These concrete actions give a sense of agency and urgency to the cause; they say to the world: come join us, we are being the change we want to see.

Being a hero and acting from a place of our own food-health values, however, does not mean going out into the world and trying to impose those values on someone who hasn’t asked for our help. Instead, it means sharing the privilege of health we have in a useful way [and this is a privilege based much more on social class than diet], so that others may have the food and the health that they want—just as we wish to have the food and health that we want. How can we do that?

For example: An ancestral health framework recognizes the importance of protein as essential to a nutritionally-adequate diet. But protein is also the single most expensive food source to provide to the less fortunate. Because it is so expensive, it also means that protein is the food source most lacking in diets of those who are in most need.

The state of Illinois has established a program to encourage hunters and anglers to donate deer and Asian carp—which is an invasive species in the Great Lakes–for processing into healthy, ready-to-serve meals. I don’t know what their standards for that are, but if you work to build a similar program in your area—or maybe you’ll head up a protein food drive for a local shelter–you get to help set the standards, remembering that the goal is not necessarily following all the “right” food rules, but feeding the hungry essential nutrition.

[A number of states have programs–with various names, but often called “Hunters for the Hungry”–that bring hunters, processors, state inspectors, and hunger relief organizations together to help supply sources of all-important high-quality protein to those in need.]

Community level programs can ripple outward and upward – and if they are organized with an ancestral framework in mind, those ideas ripple outward and upward as well.

Farm to Family initiatives bring food from local farmers to local, low-income families at prices they can afford—an effort that supports local farmers as well as community members at risk for hunger and poor nutrition. These initiatives typically focus on fresh produce, but some include meat and eggs—and wouldn’t the world be a better place if even more of them did? College students with mad social networking skills can mobilize volunteers and connect resources to get the program off the ground. Local public health agencies and faith-based organizations can raise awareness so that families at highest risk can be reached—and so their wants and needs can be heard and honored. Individuals and families can donate time and money, while businesses can facilitate logistics with donations of materials or space. Feedback from the community can support policy change at local, state, and federal levels.

The ancestral health community has the sort of talent to pull an effort like this off, but it involves not just getting out of the house, but getting out of our comfort zones.

[Reason 1:] The lack of diversity that often comes with being part of a community of like-minded people presents both an epistemic challenge and a logistical one. It can lead not only to closed minds, but to closed doors. Being able to act from a place of ancestral health principles—rather than paleo rules—can make it easier to reach out to others–the final thing needed to build a social movement.

Confirmation bias has been a pervasive aspect of mainstream nutrition, and in opposition to it, paleo culture often seems to have adopted a similarly insular stance. It can be reinforced by influence and funding, but most often it is simply a way of not being challenged in our own beliefs.

In mainstream nutrition, the USDA and HHS write the Dietary Guidelines. They also finance the research and the experts that they later choose for their “evidence-based analysis” of these guidelines, so it’s no surprise that both the research and the experts support the status quo.

Paleo leaders also have a vested financial interest in being paleo leaders—books, speaking engagements, products, and other various funding streams—just as paleo followers have an interest in remaining comfortable in their chosen ideology. We support our leaders; they tell us what we want to hear.

This problem, also known as epistemic closure, echo chambers, or a circle jerk, is that these positive feedback loops end up welcoming only people that think exactly like the people already in the group. Sadly, the smarter you are, the better you are at confirming your own beliefs about things—and we have a lot of wicked smart people in the paleo community. Unfortunately, circle jerks quickly turn into cluster, let’s call them “efforts” – where the circle of closed thinking causes the very problems that the circle of closed thinking is unable to address exactly because of its closed nature. Which is sort of where we are now—both in mainstream nutrition and in paleo.

Much of mainstream nutrition has built-in alliances with academia, industry, advocacy groups, and policymakers. In order to make our voices heard, we will need to establish connections with other communities who will work with us on common issues. The general rule in building networks of alliances is that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies; everyone is a future ally. You work together on issues and projects as long as your goals align.

This may make for strange bedfellows at times, but if we want to be more than a passing fad, we are going to have to reach out of our comfort zone and connect with other communities with whom we may not feel an immediate kinship but with whom we share some core values.

For example, the Health at Every Size community. This community has a strong presence in academic circles that look at feminist and diversity issues. While an alliance based on paleo thinking might not make sense, the ancestral health framework would have much in common with these Health at Every Size principles.

The Invest in Healthy Food Project being promoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists uses MyPlate as its nutrition reference point. Icky, right? But a closer look shows a focus on policy change that is fully compatible with ancestral health principles. Specifically citing the need for changes to commodity crop policies and crop insurance that would benefit the local farmers that we support.

Other communities with whom we are likely to have some common objectives are: other alternative food movements–yes, including vegans; sustainable agriculture and permaculture communities; government accountability groups; and hunger groups. We don’t have to agree on everything, just our shared goals. We can learn from them and they can learn from us.

We can reach out to foundations, the media, professional organizations, and faith-based communities. And it doesn’t have to be on a national level. We can find influential allies in these groups in our own local communities.

And in fact, that’s where I would urge us to start. As a community, we exist both nowhere and everywhere—which can make us feel more at home at places like AHS than we do in our own towns. But, to quote Rick Ingrasci, if you want to create a new culture—throw a better party. One of the wonderful traditional things we do as humans is celebrate and build community with food—but it’s hard to celebrate if you are busy agonizing, analyzing, and criticizing your—or your neighbor’s—food. We have the opportunity to NOT be those nutrition reform people.

I’m going to end with a story about last year’s Food Day in Durham, NC. This is sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which operates from a plants-are-better, saturated-fat-kills perspective. At an organizational meeting last year, a room full of young white women—and one white male—were busy wringing their hands over the lack of diversity at last year’s Food Day events. Now Durham is a very diverse little city. In Durham, we talk more about race than NASCAR fans talk about racing. But Food Day tends to be an almost all-white event involving mostly college kids from Duke rather than people from the community. Why oh why is that? these ladies (and one gentleman) wanted to know. I suggested that maybe it’s because no Food Day events serve meat—and there are lots of local meat, egg, and cheese producers that we could support by promoting their foods. These women looked at me as if I had just created a loud, legume-based bodily emission—and the topic was never mentioned again.

Well, we can throw a better party. We can appeal to a wider, more diverse, and inclusive community. It will mean growing up, digging in, and reaching out. But there are plenty of people out there who are hungry for a sense of identity, for connection, and for change. Ancestral health as a social movement can serve that purpose, as well as serve our communities—and we can serve it with a side of bacon.

The “thank you” slide is my shout-out to those who have helped me think about the issues I’ve raised.

Laura Schoenfeld @ Ancestralize Me!

Beth Mazur @ Weight Maven

Melissa McEwan @ Hunt Gather Love

Robert Patterson @ Michael Rose’s 55

Chris Masterjohn @ The Daily Lipid

Doug Imig – The Urban Child Institute

Andrew Abrahams – Long Dream Farm

Michael Ostrolenk – The Transpartisan Center

Postscript: At some point during the AHS 2013 weekend, I pulled Aaron Blaisdell aside and asked him what the deal was with paleo and AHS. Here’s his response as I remember it (and I hope he will correct me if I misrepresent him). He said something to effect of: AHS is about bringing an evolutionary perspective to health, including but not limited to matters relating to diet and nutrition. Darwin’s evolutionary perspective has been an incredibly powerful tool in other areas of biology for understanding why things are the way they are and for formulating hypotheses and testing them out, but it is often neglected when it comes to health particularly in matters of food and diet. AHS is about promoting that perspective, not about promoting a particular diet. [See Aaron’s comments below for an expansion on this.  Note to self:  Drink that glass of wine after you ask Aaron Blaisell questions like that.]

I heaved a big sigh of relief. “Paleo” I can do without–just as I can do without all of those other conveniently-labeled approaches to diet and health with massive cognitive bias blind spots: vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, low-fat, “eating the food,” whatever, whatever (although I’m happy for the people who find that being part of those communities gets them on a path to health that works for them). So I guess this is my massive cognitive bias blind spot. I still love those AHS folks.

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A beautifully-written summary by Emily Contois regarding the recent Critical Nutrition Symposium held at UC-Santa Cruz. Organized by Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In, this symposium brought together food scholars from around the country (plus me) and invited us and the audience to participate in a thought-provoking and nuanced conversation about food, nutrition, culture, and ways of knowing.

Emily Contois

On March 8, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending the Critical Nutrition Symposium at UC Santa Cruz, organized by Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In. The event was spawned from a roundtable discussion at last year’s Association for the Study of Food and Society conference. The symposium brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to critically examine what is missing from conventional nutrition science research and practice, discuss why it matters, and brainstorm how to move forward in an informed and balanced way. What follows are a few of my favorite key ideas from the day’s discussions.

Adele Hite, a registered dietitian and public health advocate who is not afraid to ask big and delightfully confrontational questions regarding nutrition science, began the day by dissecting Michael Pollan’s now famous aphorism—Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Step by step, she revealed the decades of revisionist myth…

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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.

Not Just Science: How nutrition got stuck in the past

Nostalgia for a misremembered past is no basis for governing a diverse and advancing nation.

David Frum

The truth is that I get most of my political insight from Mad Magazine; they offer the most balanced commentary by far. However, I’ve been very interested in the fallout from the recent election, much more so than I was in the election itself; it’s like watching a Britney Spears meltdown, only with power ties. I kept hearing the phrase “epistemic closure” and finally had to look it up. Now, whether or not the Republican party suffers from it, I don’t care (and won’t bother arguing about), but it undeniably describes the current state of nutrition. “Epistemic closure” refers to a type of close-mindedness that precludes any questioning of the prevailing dogma to the extent that the experts, leaders, and pundits of a particular paradigm:

“become worryingly untethered from reality”

“develop a distorted sense of priorities”

and are “voluntarily putting themselves in the same cocoon”

Forget about the Republicans. Does this not perfectly describe the public health leaders that are still clinging blindly to the past 35 years of nutritional policy?  The folks at USDA/HHS live in their own little bubble, listening only to their own experts, pretending that the world they live in now can be returned to an imaginary 1970s America, where children frolicked outside after downing a hearty breakfast of sugarless oat cereal and grown-ups walked to their physically-demanding jobs toting homemade lunches of hearty rye bread and shiny red apples.

Remember when all the families in America got their exercise playing outside together—including mom, dad, and the maid? Yeah, me neither.

So let me rephrase David Frum’s quote above for my own purposes: Nostalgia for a misremembered past is no basis for feeding a diverse and advancing nation.

If you listen to USDA/HHS, our current dietary recommendations are a culmination of science built over the past 35 years on the solid foundation of scientific certainty translated into public health policy. But this misremembered scientific certainty wasn’t there then and it isn’t here now; the early supporters of the Guidelines were very aware that they had not convinced the scientific community that they had a preponderance of evidence behind them [1]. Enter the first bit of mommy-state* government overreach. When George McGovern’s (D) Senate Select Committee came up with the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, it was a well-meaning approach to not only reduce chronic disease, a clear public health concern, but to return us all to a more “natural” way of eating. This last bit of ideology reflected a secular trend manifested in the form of the Dean Ornish-friendly Diet for a Small Planet, a vegetarian cookbook that smushed the humanitarian and environmental concerns of meat-eating in with some flimsy nutritional considerations, promising that a plant-based diet was the best way to feed the hungry, save the planet, safeguard your health, and usher in the Age of Aquarius.  This was a pop culture warm-fuzzy with which the “traditional emphasis on the biochemistry of disease” could not compete [2].

If you listen to some folks, the goofy low-fat, high-carb, calories in-calories out approach can be blamed entirely on this attempt of the Democrats to institutionalize food morality. But, let’s not forget that the stage for the Dietary Guidelines fiasco was set earlier by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, an economist with many ties to large agricultural corporations who was appointed by a Republican president. He initiated the “fencerow to fencerow” policies that would start the shift of farm animals from pastureland to feed lots, increasing the efficiency of food production because what corn didn’t go into cows could go into humans, including the oils that were a by-product of turning crops into animal feed.

When Giant Agribusiness—they’re not stupid, y’know—figured out that industrialized agriculture had just gotten fairydusted with tree-hugging liberalism in the form of the USDA Guidelines, they must have been wetting their collective panties. The oil-refining process became an end in itself for the food industry, supported by the notion that polyunsaturated fats from plants were better for you than saturated fats from animals, even though evidence for this began to appear only after the Guidelines were already created and only through the status quo-confirming channels of nutrition epidemiology, a field anchored solidly in the crimson halls of Harvard by Walter Willett himself.

Between Earl Butz and McGovern’s “barefoot boys of nutrition,” somehow corn oil from refineries like this became more “natural” than the fat that comes, well, naturally, from animals.

And here we are, 35 years later, trying to untie a Gordian knot of weak science and powerful industry cemented together by the mutual embarrassment of both political orientations. The entrenched liberal ivory-tower interests don’t want look stupid by having to admit that the 3 decades of public health policy they created and have tried to enforce have failed miserably. The entrenched big-business-supporting conservative interests don’t want to look stupid by having to admit that Giant Agribusiness, whose welfare they protect, is now driving up government spending on healthcare by acting like the cigarette industry did in the past and for much the same reasons.

These overlapping/competing agendas have created the schizophrenic, conjoined twins of a food industry-vegatarian coalition, draped together in the authority of government policy. Here the vegans (who generally seem to be politically liberal rather than conservative, although I’m sure there are exceptions) play the part of a vocal minority of food fundamentalists whose ideology brooks no compromise. (I will defend eternally the right for a vegan–or any fundamentalist–to choose his/her own way of life; I draw the line at having it imposed on anyone else–and I squirm a great deal if someone asks me if that includes children.)  The extent to which vegan ideology and USDA/HHS ideology overlap has got to be a strange bedfellow moment for each, but there’s no doubt that the USDA/HHS’s endorsement of vegan diets is a coup for both. USDA/HHS earns a politically-correct gold star for their true constituents in the academic-scientific-industrial complex, and vegans get the nutritional stamp of approval for a way of eating that, until recently, was considered by nutritionists to be inadequate, especially for children.

Like this chicken, the USDA/HHS loves vegans—at least enough to endorse vegan diets as a “healthy eating pattern.”

But if the current alternative nutrition movement is allegedly representing the disenfranchised eaters all over America who have been left out of this bizarre coalition, let us remember that, in many ways, the “alternative” is really just more of the same. If the McGovern hippies gave us “eat more grains and cereals, less meat and fat,” now the Republican/Libertarian-leaning low-carb/primaleo folks have the same idea only the other way around—and with the same justification.  “Eat more meat and fat, fewer grains and cereals;” it’s a more “natural” way to eat.

As counterparts to the fundamentalist vegans, we have the Occupy Wall street folks of the alternative nutrition community—raw meaters who sleep on the floor of their caves and squat over their compost toilets after chi running in their Vibrams. They’re adorably sincere, if a little grubby, and they have no clue how badly all the notions they cherish would get beaten in a fight with the reality of middle-Americans trying to make it to a PTA meeting.

How paleo might look from the outside.

To paraphrase David Frum again, the way forward in food-health reform is collaborative work, and although we all have our own dietary beliefs, food preferences, and lifestyle idiosyncrasies, the immediate need is for a plan with just this one goal: we must emancipate ourselves from prior mistakes and adapt to contemporary realities.

Because the world in which we live is not the Brady Bunch world that the many of us in nutrition seem to think it is.

Frum makes the point that in 1980, when the Dietary Guidelines were first officially issued from the USDA, this was still an overwhelmingly white country. “Today, a majority of the population under age 18 traces its origins to Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Back then, America remained a relatively young country, with a median age of exactly 30 years. Today, over-80 is the fastest-growing age cohort, and the median age has surpassed 37.” Yet our nutrition recommendations have not changed from those originally created on a weak science base of studies done on middle-aged white people. To this day, we continue to make nutrition policy decisions on outcomes found in databases that are 97% white. The food-health needs of our country are far more diverse now, culturally and biologically. And another top-down, one-size-fits-all approach from the alternative nutrition community won’t address that issue any more adequately than the current USDA/HHS one.

For those who think the answer is to “just eat real food,” here’s another reality check: “In 1980, young women had only just recently entered the workforce in large numbers. Today, our leading labor-market worry is the number of young men who are exiting.” That means that unless these guys are exiting the workforce to go home and cook dinner, the idea that the solution to our obesity crisis lies in someone in each American household willingly taking up the mind-numbingly repetitive and eternally thankless chore of putting “real food” on the table for the folks at home 1 or more times a day for years on end—well, it’s as much a fantasy as Karl Rove’s Ohio outcome.

David Frum points out that “In 1980, our top environmental concerns involved risks to the health of individual human beings. Today, after 30 years of progress toward cleaner air and water, we must now worry about the health of the whole planetary climate system.” Today, our people and our environment are both sicker than ever. We can point our fingers at meat-eaters, but saying we now grow industrialized crops in order to feed them to livestock is like saying we drill for oil to make Vaseline. The fact that we can use the byproducts of oil extraction to make other things—like Vaseline or livestock feed—is a happy value-added efficiency in the system, no longer its raison d’etre. Concentrated vertical integration has undermined the once-proud tradition of land stewardship in farming. Giving this power back to farmers means taking some power away from Giant Agribusiness, and neither party has the political will to do that, especially when together they can demonize  livestock-eating while promoting corn oil refineries.

If we all just stopped eating meat, then we wouldn’t have to plant so much corn, right? Right?

And it’s not just our food system that has changed: “In 1980, 79 percent of Americans under age 65 were covered by employer-provided health-insurance plans, a level that had held constant since the mid-1960s. Back then, health-care costs accounted for only about one 10th of the federal budget. Since 1980, private health coverage has shriveled, leaving some 45 million people uninsured. Health care now consumes one quarter of all federal dollars, rapidly rising toward one third—and that’s without considering the costs of Obamacare.”  That the plant-based diet that was institutionalized by liberal forces and industrialized by conservative ones is a primary part of this enormous rise in healthcare costs is something no one on either side of the table wants to examine. Diabetes—the symptoms of which are fairly easily reversed by a diet that excludes most industrialized food products and focuses on meat, eggs, and veggies—is the nightmare in the closet of both political ideologies.

David Frum quotes the warning from  British conservative, the Marquess of Salisbury, “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”

Right now, it is in the best interest of both parties to stick to our dead nutrition policies and dump the ultimate blame on the individuals (we gave you sidewalks and vegetable stands–and you’re still fat! cry the Democrats; we let the food industry have free reign so you could make your own food choices–and you’re still fat! cry the Republicans). It’s a powerful coalition, resistant to change no matter who is in control of the White House or Congress.

What can be done about it, if anything? To paraphrase Frum once again, a 21st century food-health system must be economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern, and intellectually credible.

We can start the process by stopping with the finger-pointing and blame game, shedding our collective delusions about the past and the present, and recognizing the multiplicity of concerns that must be addressed in our current reality. Let’s begin by acknowledging that—for the most part—the people in the spotlight on either side of the nutrition debate don’t represent the folks most affected by federal food-health policies. It is our job as leaders, in any party and for any nutritional paradigm, to represent those folks first, before our own interests, funding streams, pet theories, or personal ideologies. If we don’t, each group—from the vegatarians to folks at Harvard to the primaleos—runs the risk of suffering from its own embarrassing form of epistemic closure.

Let’s quit bickering and get to work.

**********************************************************

*This was too brilliant to leave buried in the comments section:

“Don’t you remember the phrase “wait til your father gets home”? You want to know what the state is? It’s Big Daddy. Doesn’t give a damn about the day to day scut, just swoops in to rescue when things get out of hand and then takes all the credit when the kids turn out well, whether it’s deserved or not. Equates spending money with parenting, too.”–from Dana

So from henceforth, all my “mommy-state” notions are hereby replaced with “Big Daddy,” a more accurate and appropriate metaphor.  And I never metaphor I didn’t like.

References:

1. See Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs of the United States Senate. Dietary Goals for the United States. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1977b. Dr. Mark Hegsted, Professor of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and an early supporter of the 1977 Goals, acknowledged their lack of scientific support at the press conference announcing their release: “There will undoubtedly be many people who will say we have not proven our point; we have not demonstrated that the dietary modifications we recommend will yield the dividends expected . . . ”

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. In a series of articles in Science in 1979, William Broad details the political drama that allowed the “barefoot boys of nutrition” from McGovern’s committee to put nutrition in the hands of the USDA.

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.

Why Fat is Still a Feminist Issue

Sing along when the chorus rolls around (with apologies to Helen Reddy):

Yes I ate brown rice
And anything whole grain
Yes I’ve exercised
And look how much I’ve gained
If I have to, I won’t eat anything
I am fat
I am invisible
I am WOMAAAAAAAN!

The United Nations declared 1975 to be International Woman’s Year. Unfortunately, we haven’t really come a long way, baby, since then. Right now, I’m going to sidestep the whole media-generated body image issue, the glass labyrinth, the mommy wars, the “strong is the new sexy” idea (which somehow won out over my own personal favorite “smart is the new sexy” with campaign ads of slightly-unwashed-looking ladies without pedicures huddled over lab benches) and all the other complexities of contemporary feminist theory, and just focus on one little segment of how our national nutrition recommendations might have sucked the life out of women in general for the past 30 plus years.

We’ve been acting like the whole low-fat/low-glycemic/low-carb/paleo/whatever nutrition argument is a PubMed duel between scientists, and the fact that we are surrounded by lousy, nutrient-poor, cheap food is the fault of the Big Evil Food Industry. Let’s focus our attention regarding the current health crisis in America where it really belongs: on short-sighted, premature, poorly-designed (albeit well-intentioned) public health recommendations that were legitimized with the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans and institutionalized as US policy beginning with the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Yes, fat is still a feminist issue.  But I’m not talking about body fat.

The scientific underpinnings for these recommendations came primarily from studies done with white men. And although the science conducted on these white guys was generally inconclusive, the white guys in Washington—in an attempt to prevent what they saw as a looming health crisis in America—recommended that Americans consume a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fat. And although these premature recommendations have certainly not prevented any health crises in America (the appearance seems to be just the opposite, see: Public Health Nutrition’s Epic Fail), they’ve also had serious repercussions in other respects for the rest of us, i.e. the ones of us who are not white men. [Please don’t take this as a “I hate white guys” thing; I love white guys. I gave birth to two of them.] I’m going to get into the “not white” part of the equation in another post (perhaps unimaginatively titled, Why Nutrition a Racial Issue), but let me focus just on the “not men” part.

For those of us who are not men (and mostly not poor and not part of a minority group), the 1970’s brought us Charlie’s Angels and the Bionic Woman. Women were given the message that we should be able to do and have “it all” (whatever “it all” was). The expectation was that you could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan” and be thin, gorgeous, and sexy (and white) while you did it.

[circa 1980]

Only now bacon (and eggs for that matter) was forbidden, and as the eighties evolved into the nineties, breakfast became granola bars or rice cakes, nibbled virtuously while we drove the kids to school on our way to the job where we got paid less than the men with whom we worked. All the while, we were convinced that we could continue to fit into our tailored power suits by eating a diet that wasn’t designed with our health in mind.

[bacon eggs frowny face, circa 1984]

As with nearly every other aspect in the fight for equal opportunities and treatment, our health as women was based on a single shiny little myth: success would come to those who were willing to work hard, sacrifice, and follow the rules. Airbrushed media images of buns of steel and boobies of plastic sold a diet-exercise message based on an absurdly crude formula—”calories in, calories out”— with one simple rule that would guarantee success: “eat less and move more.”

So we did. We ate less and exercised more and got tired and hungry and cranky—and when all that work didn’t really work in terms of giving us the bodies we were told we should have, we bought treadmills and diet pills, Lean Cuisines and leg warmers. We got our health advice from Jane (“feel the burn”) Fonda and Marie (“I’m a little bit country”) Osmond. We flailed through three decades of frustration, culminating— unsurprisingly enough—in the self-flagellation of Spanx® and the aptly-named Insanity®.

[Jane Fonda circa 1982]

Some of us “failed” by eating more (low-fat, high-carb) food and getting fat, and some of us “succeeded” by developing full-blown eating disorders, and some of us fought the battle and won sometimes and lost other times and ended up with closets full of size 6 (“lingering illness”) to size 26 (“post pregnancy number 3”) clothes. Most of us—no matter what the result—ended up spending a great deal of time, money, and energy trying to follow the rules to good health with the deck stacked against us. If we got fat, we blamed ourselves, and if we didn’t get fat it was because we turned our lives into micromanaged, most-virtuous eater/exerciser contests. Either way, our lives were reduced, distracted, and endlessly unsatisfying.  We were hungry for more in so many ways and aching for rest in so many others, but our self-imposed denial and exhaustion allowed us to control, at least for a bit, the one thing we felt like we could control, that we’d fought to be able to control:  our bodies.

We stopped cooking and started counting. We stopped resting and playing and started exercising. We stopped seeing food as love and started seeing it as the enemy. We didn’t embrace these bodies that were finally, tenuously, ours; we fought them too.

Access to high quality nutrition has always been divided along gender lines [1].  There was a time–not that long ago–in our world when men, by virtue of their size, stature, place as breadwinner (i.e. because of their “man-ness”) were entitled to a larger piece of meatloaf than their sisters (a practice that persists in many cultures still).  How many of us (of a certain age) have heard, “Let you brother have the last piece of chicken, he’s a growing boy”?  Now–conveniently–women would do their own restricting.  Gloria Steinem, with a fair amount of prescience that seems to predict the epigenetic contributions of diet to obesity, noted in her 1980 essay The Politics of Food:*

“Millions of women on welfare eat a poor and starchy diet that can permanently damage the children they bear, yet their heavy bodies are supposed to signify indulgence.  Even well-to-do women buy the notion that males need more protein and more strength.  They grow heavy on sugar and weak on diets . . . Perhaps food is still the first sign of respect–or the lack of it–that we pay to each other and to our bodies.”

Dieting and exercising not only provided a massive distraction and timesuck for women, it helped maintain a social order that the feminist movement otherwise threatened to undermine, one where women were undernourished and overworked, in a word: weak.

And when the scientists finally got around to testing the whole low-fat thing on (80% white) women? The verdict, published in  2006, looked like this:

The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed no benefits for a low-fat diet. Women assigned to this eating strategy did not appear to gain protection against breast cancer [2], colorectal cancer [3], or cardiovascular disease [4]. And after eight years, their weights were generally the same as those of women following their usual diets [5].

But it was too late. We’d raised a generation of daughters who look at us and don’t want to be us, but they don’t know how to cook and they don’t know what to believe about nutrition and they too are afraid of food. Some end up drinking the same Kool-Aid we did, except that—in the hubris of a youth that doesn’t contain hallucination-inducing sleep deprivation from babies and/or stress and/or a career on life-support, where diet and exercise and rest are, like Peter Frampton’s hair, a dim memory—they think they will succeed where we failed. Or maybe they’ve found the vegan-flavored or paleo-flavored Kool-Aid. But they are still counting and exercising and battling.

White women have been [irony alert] scientifically proven to be more likely to closely follow the high-carb, low-fat dietary ideal set forth by the Dietary Guidelines than any other demographic [6]. (Black guys—who may not be all that convinced that rules created by the US government are in their best interests, given some history lessons—are likely to have the lowest adherence.) White women apparently are really good at following rules that were not written with them in mind and which have not been shown to offer them any health benefits whatsoever (but which have proven immensely beneficial for the food and fitness—not to mention pharmaceutical—industries). The best little rule-followers of all are the dietitians of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (87% white women), who heartily endorsed the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which reinforced and reiterated 30 years of low-fat, high-carb dogma despite the Harvard-based science that demonstrated that it offered no benefits to women. (Interesting tidbit: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has elected two male presidents in the past decade despite the fact that men make up only 5% of the membership. My husband thinks the organization has “daddy issues.”)

In 2010, the American Medical Association recommended that women of normal weight (that’s less than 40% of us, by the way) who wanted to stay that way “while consuming their usual diet” (i.e. low-fat, high carb) would have to exercise for an hour a day

[Other reassuring conclusions from that study: There was an overall weight gain over the 13-year time frame. Exercising for anything less than 7 hours per week was associated with weight gain over time. If a woman was already fat, increased exercise was more likely to be related to increased weight than weight loss.  If these messages don’t scream to women all over America, “GIVE UP NOW!!!” I don’t know what would. By the way, those of us who go out and skip and jump and run because we like to and it makes our hearts truly happy are not exercising. We’re playing. I love to wave at those women from my couch.**]

But let’s get back to that hour a day for just a second.

Take a look at a recent study by Dr. David Ludwig, out of Harvard. It demonstrated that people who had recently been dieting (something that would apply to almost every woman in America), and were eating a low-fat diet, had to add an hour a day of exercise in order to keep their “calories in, calories out” balanced, while those on a reduced-carbohydrate diet expended that same amount of energy just going about their business.

What is all the women in the world who have been unsuccessfully battling their bulge woke up tomorrow morning and said:

I want my hour a day back?

For those of us who do not want to exercise for an hour just to maintain our weights or for those of us for whom exercise isn’t doing a damn thing except making us hungry and cranky and tired while we gain weight, we don’t have to. Instead, we can eat fewer of those USDA/HHS/dietitian-pushed, nutritionally-pathetic, low-fat whole-grain carbohydrate foods and more truly nourishing food and do whatever we please with that extra hour.

Who knows what changes we can make to a world that desperately needs our help?  In America alone, this would mean giving around–ooh let’s just say–50 million adult women an extra hour a day. That’s an extra 365 hours a year per woman, an extra 18 billion hours of womanpower a year total.

We could stop exercising and start playing. Stop counting calories and start enjoying feeling nourished. Start putting the love back into our food and embracing the bodies we have and the bodies of the men, women, and children all around us. I know that some of us would find that hour well spent just napping. Others of us might use that hour to figure out how to dismantle the system that stole it from us in the first place.

I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And eat it.

******************************************************************************

In my own personal celebration of Asskicking Women of Food, I think (I hope) my next post will be:  The Grande Dames (Goddesses? Queens?) of Nutrition

*Thanks to Gingerzingi for bringing this to my attention.  What a great essay–look for it in a collection entitled Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

**I have absolutely nothing against activities that bring inner/outer strength and happiness.  But exercise in the 80s and 90s was not about being happy or strong–it was about punishing ourselves (feel the burn? seriously?) in order to win at a game–being in total control of everything in our lives from babies to bodies to boardrooms–whose rules were created within the very social construct we were trying to defeat.

References:

1.  Bentley, Amy (1996) Islands of Serenity: Gender, Race, and Ordered Meals during World War II. Food and Foodways 6(2):131-156.

2. Prentice RL, Caan B, Chlebowski RT, et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of invasive breast cancer: the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006; 295:629-42.

3. Beresford SA, Johnson KC, Ritenbaugh C, et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of colorectal cancer: the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006; 295:643-54.

4. Howard BV, Van Horn L, Hsia J, et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of cardiovascular disease: the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006; 295:655-66.

5. Howard BV, Manson JE, Stefanick ML, et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and weight change over 7 years: the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006; 295:39-49.

6.  Sijtsma FP, Meyer KA, Steffen LM et al.  Longitudinal trends in diet and effects of sex, race, and education on dietary quality score change: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar;95(3):580-6. Epub 2012 Feb 1.

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.