Changing the Dietary Guidelines

If you have been following any of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s meetings (who does that anyway? I mean, unless you are a total geek like I am), then you might have noticed that the next Guidelines seem very likely to continue to promote the same nutritional advice that has proven largely ineffective for more than 35 years.

In my other, not-quite-so-snarky, life, I am not Wonder Woman (but oh, what I wouldn’t give for a pair of bracelets of submission). However, I am director of the Healthy Nation Coalition, a loose affiliation of healthcare and public health professionals, scientists, and concerned citizens who think it is time we did nutrition a little differently. Right now, we are creating a coalition of supporters to speak out against the direction the current 2015 Dietary Guidelines are taking and to offer an alternative approach.

This letter will be delivered to the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, selected policymakers, and interested media outlets. We hope to add to the momentum that has been building in the national media calling for a change in our national dietary guidance (see Nina Teicholz’ book, Big Fat Surprise, and her recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal).

The letter is copied below (or you can use this link to the pdf–the pdf is where all the citations are, because I know how you love citations).

If you wish to sign on, you can use this quick form to add your information to the letter. If you’re interested, but don’t want to read the whole boring letter, check out Mark Sisson’s blog post about it.  It’s lots more fun.

In a nutshell, we are asking for Dietary Guidelines that are geared toward the general public and focused on adequate essential nutrition.

This is not a call for low-carb, high-fat dietary recommendations, or paleo ones, and it takes no stance on the whole “calories in, calories out” versus hormonal regulation etc. etc. issue.  So if you want to criticize this approach, don’t start bitching about low-carb diets or CICO, or I’ll know that you haven’t bothered to actually read this and I won’t feel guilty about deleting your comments.  Beyond that, if you have genuine objections to this approach, suggest a better one–or go away.   What we are doing now isn’t working.  What we need is productive conversation about what to do differently.

Healthy Nation Coalition Letter – 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Dear Secretary Burwell and Secretary Vilsack,

At the conclusion of the sixth meeting of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), we write to express concern about the state of federal nutrition policy and its long history of failure in preventing the increase of chronic disease in America. The tone, tenor, and content of the DGAC’s public meetings to date suggest that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) will perpetuate the same ineffective federal nutrition guidance that has persisted for nearly four decades but has not achieved positive health outcomes for the American public.

We urge you to adhere to the initial Congressional mandate that the DGA act as “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public” and are “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.”

Below we lay out specific objections to the DGA:
· they have contributed to the increase of chronic diseases;
· they have not provided guidance compatible with adequate essential nutrition;
· they represent a narrow approach to food and nutrition inconsistent with the nation’s diverse cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes;
· they are based on weak and inconclusive scientific data;
· and they have expanded their purpose to issues outside their original mandate.

As you prepare to consider the 2015 DGAC’s recommendations next year, we urge you to fulfill your duty to create the dietary foundation for good health for all Americans by focusing on adequate essential nutrition from whole, nourishing foods, rather than replicating guidance that is clearly failing.

The DGA have contributed to the rapid rise of chronic disease in America.

In 1977, dietary recommendations (called Dietary Goals) created by George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee advised that, in order to reduce risk of chronic disease, Americans should decrease their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products and increase their consumption of grains, cereal products, and vegetable oils. These Goals were institutionalized as the DGA in 1980, and all DGA since then have asserted this same guidance. During this time period, the prevalence of heart failure and stroke has increased dramatically. Rates of new cases of all cancers have risen. Most notably, rates of diabetes have tripled. In addition, although body weight is not itself a measure of health, rates of overweight and obesity have increased dramatically. In all cases, the health divide between black and white Americans has persisted or worsened.

While some argue that Americans have not followed the DGA, all available data show Americans have shifted their diets in the direction of the recommendations: consuming more grains, cereals, and vegetable oils, while consuming less saturated fat and cholesterol from whole foods such as meat, butter, eggs, and full-fat milk. Whether or not the public has followed all aspects of DGA guidance does not absolve the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (DHHS) from ensuring that the dietary guidance provided to Americans first and foremost does no harm.

The DGA fail to provide guidance compatible with essential nutrition needs.

The 1977 Dietary Goals marked a radical shift in federal dietary guidance. Before then, federal dietary recommendations focused on foods Americans were encouraged to eat in order to acquire adequate nutrition; the DGA focus on specific food components to limit or avoid in order to prevent chronic disease. The DGA have not only failed to prevent chronic disease, in some cases, they have failed to provide basic guidance consistent with nutritionally adequate diets.
· Maillot, Monsivais, and Drewnowski (2013) showed that the 2010 DGA for sodium were incompatible with potassium guidelines and with nutritionally adequate diets in general.
· Choline was recognized as an essential nutrient in 1998, after the DGA were first created. It is crucial for healthy prenatal brain development. Current choline intakes are far below adequate levels, and choline deficiency is thought to contribute to liver disease, atherosclerosis and neurological disorders. Eggs and meat, two foods restricted by current DGA recommendations, are important sources of choline. Guidance that limits their consumption thus restricts intake of adequate choline.
· In young children, the reduced fat diet recommend by the DGA has also been linked to lower intakes of a number of important essential nutrients, including calcium, zinc, and iron.

Following USDA and DHHS guidance should not put the most vulnerable members of the population at risk for nutritional inadequacy. DGA recommendations should be emphasizing whole foods that provide essential nutrition, rather than employing a reductionist approach based on single food components to exclude these foods from the diet.

The DGA’s narrow approach to food and health is inappropriate for a diverse population.

McGovern’s 1977 recommendations were based on research and food patterns from middle class Caucasian American populations. Since then, diversity in America has increased, while the DGA have remained unchanged. DGA recommendations based on majority-white, high socioeconomic status datasets have been especially inappropriate for minority and low-income populations. When following DGA recommendations, African American adults gain more weight than their Caucasian counterparts, and low-income individuals have increased rates of diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Long-standing differences in environmental, genetic and metabolic characteristics may mean recommendations that are merely ineffective in preventing chronic disease in white, middle class Americans are downright detrimental to the long-term health of black and low-income Americans.

The DGA plant-based diet not only ignores human biological diversity, it ignores the diversity of American foodways. DGA guidance rejects foods that are part of the cultural heritage of many Americans and indicates that traditional foods long considered to be important to a nourishing diet should be modified, restricted, or eliminated altogether: ghee (clarified butter) for Indian Americans; chorizo and eggs for Latino Americans; greens with fatback for Southern and African Americans; liver pâtés for Jewish and Eastern European Americans.

Furthermore, recommendations to prevent chronic disease that focus solely on plant-based diets is a blatant misuse of public health authority that has stymied efforts of researchers, academics, healthcare professionals, and insurance companies to pursue other dietary approaches adapted to specific individuals and diverse populations, specifically, the treatment of diabetes with reduced-carbohydrate diets that do not restrict saturated fat. In contradiction of federal law, the DGA have had the effect of limiting the scope of medical nutrition research sponsored by the federal government to protocols in line with DGA guidance.

The DGA are not based on the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge.

The science behind the current DGA recommendations is untested and inconsistent. Scientific disagreements over the weakness of the evidence used to create the 1977 Dietary Goals have never been settled. Recent published accounts have raised questions about whether the scientific process has been undermined by politics, bias, institutional inertia, and the influence of interested industries.

Significant scientific controversy continues to surround specific recommendations that:
1. Dietary saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease: Two recent meta-analyses concluded there is no strong scientific support for dietary recommendations that restrict saturated fat. Studies cited by the 2010 DGAC Report demonstrate that in some populations, lowering dietary saturated fat actually worsens some biomarkers related to heart disease.
2. Dietary cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease: Due to a lack of evidence, nearly all other Western nations have dropped their limits on dietary cholesterol. In 2013, a joint panel of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology did the same.
3. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils reduce the risk of heart disease and should be consumed as the primary source of dietary fat: Recent research renews concerns raised in response to the 1977 Dietary Goals that diets high in the omega-6 fatty acids present in vegetable oils may actually increase risk of chronic disease or death.
4. A diet high in carbohydrate, including whole grains, reduces risk of chronic disease: Clinical trials have demonstrated that diets with lower carbohydrate content improve risk factors related to heart disease and diabetes. Janet King, Chair of the 2005 DGAC, has stated that “evidence has begun to accumulate suggesting that a lower intake of carbohydrate may be better for cardiovascular health.”
5. A low-sodium diet reduces risk of chronic disease: A 2013 Institute of Medicine report concludes there is insufficient evidence to recommend reducing sodium intake to the very low levels set by the DGA for African-Americans of any age and adults over 50.

In all of these cases, contradictory evidence has been ignored in favor of maintaining outdated recommendations that have failed to prevent chronic disease.

More generally, “intervention studies, where diets following the Dietary Guidelines are fed long-term to human volunteers, do not exist,” and food patterns recommended by the DGA “have not been specifically tested for health benefits.” The observational research being used for much of the current DGAC activities may suggest possible associations between diet and disease, but such hypotheses must then be evaluated through rigorous testing. Applying premature findings to public health policy without adequate testing may have resulted in unintended negative health consequences for many Americans.

The DGA have overstepped their original purpose.

The DGA were created to provide nutrition information to all Americans. However, the current 112-page DGA, with 29 recommendations, are considered too complex for the general public and are directed instead at policymakers and healthcare professionals, contradicting their Congressional mandate.

Federal dietary guidance now goes far beyond nutrition information. It tells Americans how much they should weigh and how to lose weight, even recommending that each American write down everything that is eaten on a daily basis. This focus on obesity and weight loss has contributed to extensive and unrecognized “collateral damage”: fat-shaming, eating disorders, discrimination, and poor health from restrictive food habits. At the same time, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control have shown that overweight and obese people are often as healthy as their “normal” weight counterparts. Guidance related to body weight should meet individual health requirements and be given by a trained healthcare practitioner, not be dictated by federal policy.

The DGA began as an unmandated consumer information booklet. They are now a powerful political document that regulates a vast array of federal programs and services, dictates nationwide nutrition standards, influences agricultural policies and health-related research, and directs how food manufacturers target consumer demand. Despite their broad scope, the DGA are subject to no evaluation or accountability process based on health outcomes. Such an evaluation would demonstrate that they have failed to fulfill their original goal: to decrease rates of chronic disease in America.

Despite this failure, current DGAC proceedings point to an expansion of their mission into sustainable agriculture and environmental concerns. While these are important issues, they demonstrate continued “mission creep” of the DGA. The current narrow DGA focus on plant-based nutrition suggests a similarly biased approach will be taken to environmental issues, disregarding centuries of traditional farming practices in which livestock play a central role in maintaining soil quality and ecological balance. Instead of warning Americans not to eat eggs and meat due to concerns about saturated fat, cholesterol, and obesity, it is foreseeable that similar warnings will be given, but for “environmental” reasons. This calls for an immediate refocusing of the purpose of the DGA and a return to nutritional basics.

Solution: A return to essential nutrition guidance

As our nation confronts soaring medical costs and declining health, we can no longer afford to perpetuate guidelines that have failed to fulfill their purpose. Until and unless better scientific support is secured for recommendations regarding the prevention of chronic disease, the DGA should focus on food-based guidance that assists Americans in acquiring adequate essential nutrition.

Shifting the focus to food-based guidance for adequate essential nutrition will create DGA that:
· are based on universally accepted and scientifically sound nutritional principles: Although more knowledge is needed, the science of essential nutrient requirements is firmly grounded in clinical trials and healthcare practice, as well as observational studies.
· apply to all Americans: Essential nutrition requirements are appropriate for everyone. Lack of essential nutrients will lead without exception to diseases of deficiency.
· include traditionally nourishing foods: A wide variety of eating patterns can provide adequate essential nutrition; no nourishing dietary approaches or cultural food traditions would be excluded or discouraged.
· expand opportunities for research: With dietary guidance focused on adequate essential nutrition, researchers, healthcare providers, and insurance companies may pursue dietary programs and practices tailored to individual risk factors and diverse communities without running afoul of the DGA and while ensuring that basic nutrition needs are always met.
· direct attention towards health and well-being: Focus will be directed away from intermediate markers, such as weight, which may be beyond individual control, do not consistently predict health outcomes, and are best dealt with in a healthcare setting.
· are clear, concise, and useful to the public: Americans will be able to understand and apply such guidance to their own dietary patterns, minimizing the current widespread confusion and resentment resulting from federal dietary guidance that is poorly grounded in science.

It is the duty of USDA and DHHS leadership to end the use of controversial, unsuccessful and discriminatory dietary recommendations. USDA and DHHS leadership must refuse to accept any DGA that fail to establish federal nutrition policy based on the foundation of good health: adequate essential nutrition from wholesome, nourishing foods. It is time to create DGA that work for all Americans.


RD does NOT stand for “Really Dumb”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dietary advice often has unintended consequences.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N of 1 Part 5: A Different Question

The magic formula

My friend, Andrew Abrahams, puts the current “diet wars” situation this way:

1.  the n of 1 view:  what works for you is what works, this is all that matters, end of story.

2.  the Platonic view: this is how your body/metabolism works, and so this is what you should do and if it isn’t working you probably are not doing right.

I think many of us start off being interested in nutrition because we like to know stuff, and knowing stuff about how to be healthy and fit is really cool because then you get to look better in your bathing suit than most or you can solve health problems that others can’t or any number of other minor acts of smug superiority masquerading as an objective search for knowledge. When we start out, we usually are completely immersed in perspective #2, that there is a “right” way to eat and exercise. We figure out what the “right” way is through various forms of scientific investigation/reporting brought to us by experts and/or the media; we apply that magic formula to ourselves, and we wait for the magic results to happen. If we are young and unencumbered by reality, they usually do—no matter what formula for fitness and health we’ve chosen from the ones offered by the experts—and we congratulate ourselves for our hard work and strength of character.

Enter reality. Crying babies. Crazy work hours. Demoralizing paychecks. Chronic injuries. Insane parents. Needy friends. Crying, crazy, demoralizing, chronically insane, needy life partners (No, my dear sweet rockstar hubby, I certainly couldn’t have had you in mind when I wrote this.)

A little reality can drop-kick your magic fitness formula into outer space.

For many of us, somewhere along the line, the magic formula stops working, or we stop working at the magic formula, or a little (or a lot) of both.

Some of us respond to this by looking for the next—better, easier, quicker, more doable—magic formula. Some of us respond by working even harder at the magic formula we haven’t given up on—yet. Some of us give up looking and trying because life is hard enough already.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up on the idea that there is a “right” way to go about being healthy. I was a low-fat vegetarian eater for 16 years because I thought it was the “right” way to eat. I’ve been a (mostly) low-carb, animal eater for 13 years, during most of which I thought I’d—finally—found the really “right” way to eat.

What I’d really found was a new and different way to be wrong.

I wasn’t wrong about the diet plan–for me. It helped me lose 60 pounds that I’ve kept off for 13 years without hunger, without a calculator, and without having to exercise more than I want to. What I was wrong about was being right. I was wrong about the magic formula—any magic formula.

[In blog posts yet to come, I’ll tell you all the story of the woman who changed my perspective on everything.]

I hate being wrong (although goodness knows I’m really good at it, from years of practice). I really want there to be a formula, magic or otherwise. I like order, routine, facts, and answers. Gray areas make me woozy. That’s why I love biochemistry. It’s a game with nothing but rules that, literally, every body has to follow.

But, to quote Andrew Abrahams again, a detailed understanding of the minutiae of biochemical mechanisms doesn’t really help us in the big messy world of real people. Although everyone is subject to the same biochemical rules, how those rules play out in any given individual is difficult—perhaps impossible—to predict.

I salute the work that Gary Taubes and Peter Attia are doing with NuSI, which will focus on providing randomized controlled experimental evidence regarding nutritional interventions. The idea is to have both highly controlled experiments and more “real world” ones. Hooray for both. These experiments may help us understand how well certain nutrition interventions work—in experimental situations with a selected group of individuals. As awesome as this might be for a scientific pursuit, this science still may not be of much help for you personally, depending on how closely matched you feel your life and your self are to the experimental conditions—and it won’t provide any easy answers for the hardest issue of all, public health policy.

One big long experiment

Is there a way to round up our messy, individual realities into comprehensible information that will eventually translate into meaningful policy? Maybe. Andrew Abrahams and others in the ancestral health community have been tossing around the idea of “n of 1” nutrition for a while. The basis for this approach is the idea that we all experiment. In fact, life is one big long experiment.

But how do we conduct these “n of 1” experiments in a manner that

  • helps the person doing the experiment learn the right lessons (rather than be distracted by coincidences or random events)?
  • helps the clinician give better nutrition guidance, not of the “one size fits all” variety?
  • helps the field of nutrition science develop more meaningful methods of investigation, especially with regard to long-term health and prevention of chronic disease?
  • helps us renegotiate the top-down, one-size-fits-all framework of current public health nutrition policy?

Andrew Abrahams had the brainchild of setting up a community for n of 1 nutritional experimentation to do exactly this.

As Andrew says, and I agree, individual characteristics, circumstances, and history are tremendously important as far as choosing food and activity that works for you. His idea is to create a way to help people with this n of 1 experimentation so they can evaluate how their body will respond to changes and find what’s right for them.

The purpose of this community would be to capture the wide variety of attributes that may contribute to the outcomes for any individual, and provide modeling tools that can help people make the right decisions about what changes to make.

From a participant’s perspective, it would:

  • provide a way for you to observe and analyze personal health in an organized and (more or less) objective fashion
  • give direction, support, and structure to your own n of 1 experimentation
  • create a community of fellow experimenters with whom you could compare/contrast results

From a health professional’s perspective, it would:

  • provide a way to assist clients/patients in find what works best for them without a superimposing “it’s supposed to work this way for everyone” bias
  • create a set of algorithms for adapting common patterns to individualized recommendations and further experimentation
    • For example: A postmenopausal female who wants to lose weight may start one way and experiment in a series of steps that is different from, say, a 30-year old marathoner who wants to have a healthy pregnancy.

From a researcher’s perspective, it would:

  • create a way to structure and conduct experiments across a variety of nutritional (and other) factors
  • allow sharing and analysis of both pooled results and case studies/series of relevant community members or subpopulations with common characteristics
  • develop tools allowing one to interpret the community results in an individual context, make predictions and suggest “next steps”
  • contribute to the development of modeling systems for complex and interrelated inputs and outputs

A different question means a different approach to public health

I see the value of n=1 as a scientific pursuit because it will teach us to ask a very different question than the one we’ve been asking.  We’ve been asking, “What way of eating will prevent chronic disease in most/all Americans?” Typically, nutrition epidemiology is recruited to try to answer that question with the idea that there is some factor or factors (like smoking and lung cancer) that can be included/eliminated to reach this goal.  We’ve been so phenomenally unsuccessful at chronic disease prevention with our current population-wide model that I think a new framework of investigation is needed. Thus, n of 1 investigation changes the question to something more like: “What way of eating will bring improved health to you now?”

As people make incremental changes toward shorter-term personal health goals, modeling tools can be used to map out “nearest neighbor” communities. These communities may be similar in terms of personal characteristics and health history, but also attributes relating to culture, region, lifestyle, ethnic and family background, education, income, etc. Over time, this information will reflect long-term health outcomes built on a background of complex human traits interacting with complex human environments.

The complexity of n of 1 nutrition seems to be the very opposite of public health nutrition. And it would be naïve to think that the concept of n of 1 will not be at least partially co-opted by the food, drug, and research industries (“Try new Methylation Carbonation –for PEMT polymorphisms!”).  But by its very nature, n of 1 nutrition resists being turned into yet another “magic formula.”  More importantly, it reframes our current approach to public health nutrition along two very important lines:

First, it weakens the current public health message that a one-size-fits-all dietary recommendation is appropriate. This is especially important because it has been assumed for 30+ years that dietary recommendations that are normed on one population are equally applicable to other populations. A landmark study published in 2010 shows that African-Americans who consumed a “healthier” diet according to Dietary Guidelines standards actually gained more weight over time than African-Americans who ate a “less healthy” diet [1].

DQI stands for Diet Quality Index. Blacks with a higher DQI had more weight gain over time than blacks with a lower DQI. From [1]

Second, n of 1 nutrition emphasizes the need to return to a focus on the provision of basic nutritional needs rather than prevention of chronic disease.  Balancing the complexity of the n of 1 concept (i.e. each human is radically different from another) with the simplicity of promoting/understanding essential nutrition (i.e. but each human shares these same basic needs provided by food) moves us away from the prevention model to the provision model. And the literature is pretty straightforward about what our basic nutritional needs are:

  • essential amino acids
  • essential fatty acids
  • vitamins and minerals
  • sufficient energy

Notice anything missing on that list of essentials? As the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board says: The lower limit of dietary carbohydrate compatible with life is apparently zero” (DRI, Ch. 6, 275) [2]. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t eat carbohydrate foods, or that some carbohydrate foods aren’t beneficial for some people or even many people. Indeed, some of my best friends are carbs. But dietary carbohydrate is not an essential component of our nutritional needs and never has been (although it is a fine source of energy if energy is what is you need and you aren’t wearing a 6-month supply on your backside like I am). Rather, carbohydrate has been recommended as the source of the majority of our calories as a means of replacing the fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol that we’ve been told cause chronic disease.* This recommendation seems to have conveniently upsized the market for the industrialized and heavily marketed foods—made mostly from corn, wheat, and soy—that take up most of the space on our grocery store shelves.

But I think the most significant ramification of the history of our Dietary Guidelines is not its effect on diet so much as the acceptance of the notion that something as intimately and intricately related to our health, culture, personality, lifestyle, family, and history as food can and should be directed—in a most comprehensive manner—from a place exceedingly remote from the places where we actually get fed.

Focus on community

While the ostensible focus of n of 1 nutrition is the individual, the real focus is the community. Advances in both biological and social sciences are increasingly focused on what are now considered to be the primary determinants of health status for an individual: that person’s genetic community and that person’s present community. What health behaviors you as an individual think you “choose” have already been largely determined by social factors: culture, socioeconomic status, education, etc. Those behaviors interact with genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that you didn’t have much choice about either. Although every individual has some control over his/her health behaviors, many of the health outcomes that we think of as being a result of “individual choice” are already largely predetermined.

One of the enduring myths of healthcare in the US is that there are some folks out there who “choose” poor health. Maybe there are, but I’ve met a lot of people in poor health, and I’ve never met anyone who deliberately chose it.

As we find virtual “nearest neighbor” communities in our n of 1 nutrition database, we may be able to use this information to assist real communities to develop their own appropriate food-health systems. Despite our increasing diversity, much of America still clusters itself in communities that reflect shared characteristics which play leading roles in health and health behavior. Culturally-influenced food preferences and nutrition beliefs may be part of that community formation and/or may reinforce those communities. With scientific tools that embrace complexity and diversity, we can honor those characteristics that make one community (real or virtual) different from the next, rather than ignore them.

N of 1 nutritional approaches will give us a new way to think about public health nutrition and the individuals and communities most affected by nutrition policy. I’m proud to say that Healthy Nation Coalition will be supporting the project.

Up next:  My take on why nutrition is a feminist issue, or “I am Woman, hear my stomach growl.”

*While on a field trip to Washington, DC in January of 2010, I met Linda Meyers, one of the authors of reference #2 below. I asked her why carbohydrates were recommended as such a large part of our diet if there is no essential requirement for them. Her response was that the recommendation was based on prevention of chronic disease. I’m still not sure I get that.


1. Zamora D, Gordon-Larsen P, Jacobs DR Jr, Popkin BM. Diet quality and weight gain among black and white young adults: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study (1985-2005). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010 Oct;92(4):784-93.

2. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients) (2005)

N of 1 Nutrition Part 4: The Elephant in the Room

“Nutrition is for real people. Statistical humans are of little interest.”
Roger J. Williams, PhD

Nutritional epidemiology has many shortcomings when it comes to acting as a basis for public health nutrition policy.   But you don’t have to take Walter Willett’s word for it.  Apart from the weaknesses in the methodology, there is one great big elephant in the nutrition epidemiology room that no one really wants to talk about:  our current culture-wide “health prescription.”

(Thanks to Utopia Theory!)

You don’t have to care about or read about nutrition to know that “fat is bad” and “whole grains are good” [1,2]. Whether or not you follow the nutrition part of the current  “health prescription” is likely to depend on a host of other factors related to general “health prescription” adherence, which in turn may have a much larger impact on your health than your actual nutritional choices. This is especially true because variation in intake and/or variation in risk related to intake are frequently quite small.

For example, in a study relating French fry consumption to type 2 diabetes, the women who ate the least amount of French fries ate 0 servings per day while the women who ate the most ate 0.14 servings per day or about 5 French fries per day (i.e. not a big difference in intake) [3]. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes among 5-fries a day piggies was observed to be .21 times greater than the risk among the no-fry zone ladies (i.e. not a big variation in risk).

Okay, everyone knows that French fries are “bad for you.” But these ladies ate them anyway. Were there other factors related to general “health prescription” adherence which may have had an impact on their risk of diabetes?

The French fry eaters also “tended to have a higher dietary glycemic load and higher intakes of red meat, refined grain, and total calories. They were more likely to smoke but were less likely to take multivitamins and postmenopausal hormone therapy.” (They also exercised less.) In other words, the French fry eaters, within a context of a known “health prescription” had chosen to ignore a number of healthy lifestyle recommendations, not just the ones related to French fries.

“As a general rule, noncompliant patients will usually have worse outcomes than compliant patients. In fact, there is solid evidence that patients who fail to comply with a placebo have worse outcomes than patients who comply with a placebo [4, 5] . . . . Patients who comply poorly with a placebo probably have other poor self-care habits.”

[Also, see Gary Taubes’ characteristically exhaustive discussion of the compliance effect. Pack a lunch.]

If you think of our current default diet recommendation as the “placebo” (although its effects may not be exactly benign), it is clear that people who fail to comply with dietary prohibitions against red meat, saturated fats, and “junk” food like French fries may also be more likely to have other poor self-care habits, like smoking and not exercising. That poor health care habits are related to poor health is of no surprise to anyone.

Statistical people

In their statistical manipulation of a dataset, nutritional epidemiologists attempt to “control” for confounding variables (confounders), such as differences in health behavior. A confounder is something that may be related to both the hypothesized cause under investigation (i.e. French fry eating) and the outcome (i.e. type 2 diabetes).  As such, it muddies the water when you are trying to figure out exactly what causes what.

When statisticians “control” or “adjust” for these confounders in a data set, they essentially “pretend” (that’s the exact word my biostats professor used) that the other qualities that any given individual brings to a data set are now equalized and that the specific factor under investigation—diet—has been isolated. Well, it has and it hasn’t. The “statistical humans” created by computer programs that now have equalized risk factors are a mirage; these people do not exist. The people who contributed the data that ostensibly demonstrates that “French fries increase risk of type 2 diabetes” are the exact same people who had other behaviors that may also contribute to increased risk of diabetes. (Please note: I chose this example, rather than “red meat causes heart disease” because there are many plausible explanations for French fries causing type 2 diabetes, it is just that you aren’t going to find evidence for them using this approach.)

If nutrition epidemiologists were clinicians.

(Thanks and apologies to

Most nutritional epidemiology articles contain some version the following statement in their conclusions:

“We cannot rule out the possibility of unknown or residual confounding.”

Meaning: We can not rule out the possibility that our results can be explained by factors that we failed to fully take into account. Like the elephant in the room.

That this is actually the case becomes apparent when hypotheses that seem iron-clad in observational studies are put to the test in experimental conditions.

Lack of experimental confirmation

If ever there was a field about which you could say “for every study there is an equal and opposite study,” it is nutritional epidemiology–although experimental results are generally considered “more equal” than observational data. Associations that link specific nutrients to the prevention of specific diseases can be (relatively) strong and consistent in the context of nutritional epidemiology observational data, but absent in experimental situations. Epidemiological studies suggested that beta carotene could prevent cancer; experimental evidence suggested just the opposite and in fact, smokers given beta carotene supplements had increased risk of cancer [6]. Epidemiological studies suggest that low-fat, high-carb diets are related to a healthy weight. This may be the case, but experimental evidence shows that reducing carbs and increasing fat is more effective for weight loss [7, 8]. In one study, when experiment participants added carbs back into their diet (the increase in calories from 2 months to 12 months is entirely accounted for–and then some–by carbohydrate), they regained the weight they had lost.*

Data from [7]

Kenneth Rothman, in his book Epidemiology: An Introduction, emphasizes the importance of applying Karl Popper’s philosophy of refutationism to epidemiology:

“The refutationist philosophy postulates that all scientific knowledge is tentative in that it may one day need to be refined or even discarded. Under this philosophy, what we call scientific knowledge is a body of as yet unrefuted hypotheses that appear to explain existing observations.” [9]

Rothman makes the point that there is an asymmetry when it comes to refuting hypotheses based on observations: a single contrary observation carries more weight in judging whether or not a hypothesis is false than a hundred observations that suggest that it is true.

In the case of the current “low fat, whole grain diets will prevent chronic disease” hypothesis, there is not just one contrary observation, but scores of them, including the results of applying this hypothesis in a 30-year, population-wide experiment in the US.

If the current nutrition paradigm needs to be “refined or even discarded,” how will we acquire the knowledge we need to create a better system? How can we move away from “statistical people” towards a perspective that encompasses the individual variations in genetics, culture, and lifestyle that have such a tremendous impact on health?

Tune in next time for the final episode of N of 1 nutrition when I ask the all-important question: What the heck does n of 1 nutrition have to do with public health?

*This doesn’t mean that carbs are evil–some of my best friends are carbs–but that the conditions in a population that are associated with a healthy weight and the conditions in an experiment to that lead to increased weight loss are very different.


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

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

3. Halton TL, Willett WC, Liu S, et al. Potato and french fry consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):284-90.

4. Coronary Drug Project Research Group. Influence of adherence to treatment and response of cholesterol on mortality in the coronary drug project. N Engl J Med. 1980 Oct 30;303(18):1038-41.

5. Horwitz RI, Viscoli CM, Berkman L et al. Treatment adherence and risk of death after a myocardial infarction. Lancet. 1990 Sep 1;336(8714):542-5.

6. Willett, W. Nutrition Epidemiology, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

7. Gardner C, Kiazand A, Alhassan, et al. Weight Loss Study: A Randomized Trial Among Overweight Premenopausal Women: The A TO Z Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors .Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;297(9):969-977

8. Shai I, Schwarzfuchs D, Henkin Y, Shahar DR, et al; Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial (DIRECT) Group. Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or low-fat diet. N Engl J Med. 2008 Jul 17;359(3):229-41.

9. Rothman, K. Epidemiology: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

N of 1 Nutrition Part 3: The Love Song of Walter C. Willett

I didn’t want you all to have to wait all weekend for the truth:  Walter Willet didn’t really say, “I’ve never met a statistical person I didn’t like,” but he is sort of the Will Rogers of nutrition.

The Will Rogers of nutrition?

Everybody likes him, me included. Like Will Rogers was about politics, Willett is a staunch nutrition middle-of-the-roader who thinks fat it not so bad after all, but hey now, let’s not go any kind of crazy here, because saturated fat will still kill you in a New York minute probably maybe. 

I spent a lot of time with him earlier this year—okay, really just his book, but his book is so sweet and personal that I felt just like I was sitting at the master’s feet—which were clad in my imagination in the most sensible of shoes—as he unfolded for me the saga of nutritional epidemiology.

What I’m about to say is said with all due respect to the man himself (he’s basically created a whole freekin’ discipline for goodness sake). This is simply my reading of a particular text located within a particular context, i.e. this is what happens when they let English majors into science programs.

There are many reasons why nutritional epidemiology may not be up to the task of giving us a sound basis for nutrition policy. But why take my word for it? If you want to understand the heart of nutritional epidemiology—the driving force behind our bold 40-year march in the misguided direction of one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations—you must read Walter Willett’s Nutritional Epidemiology. It is a book I love more every time I read it, and I say this in all sincerity.

The exciting cover graphics merely hint at the fabulousness that awaits inside!

While I suppose it was written as a sort of textbook, and it is certainly used as one, it doesn’t really read like a textbook. It is part apology and part defense, and is much more about “why” than “how.” And the “why?” that it tries to answer to is “Why apply the techniques of epidemiology to nutrition and chronic disease?”

In this regard, it is a touching masterpiece. Walter Willett, MD, DrPH is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and at Harvard Medical School. He is considered by many to be the father of nutritional epidemiology. To stretch the analogy, you can think of nutritional epidemiology as his child. Reading the book this way, it almost moves me to tears (again, not joking*), for I find this book to be a father’s sweet and sad paean to a beautiful prince full of promise, who has grown into a spoiled, churlish, and lazy adult, unfit to rule the kingdom, but with too much of the dreams of many poured into him to banish altogether. And the dreams of the father are the most poignant of all.

Apparently, to Willett’s eternal dismay, the whole field got started off on the wrong foot by focusing on dietary cholesterol (as a cause) and serum cholesterol (as an outcome), associations—as we now know—that turned out to be weak, inconsistent, nonexistent, or even the inverse of what was expected (pp. 5-6, 417-418) . We now know that sub-fractions of serum cholesterol affect heart disease risk differently (LDL-C vs HDL-C, for instance) and that different foods affect different aspects of serum cholesterol differently, making the relationship to overall heart disease risk even more obscure, which seems to be par for the course in this field, as Willett readily admits.

Here, according to Willett, is what we don’t know and can’t do in nutritional epidemiology:

  • We don’t know any given individual’s true intake. It can only be estimated with greater or lesser degrees of error. (p. 65)
  • We don’t know any given individual’s true status for a nutrient. Ditto above. (p. 174)
  • We don’t know the true nutrient content of any given food that a person might eat. Double ditto. (pp. 23-24)
  • We don’t know what factors/nutrients in a food may operate together to prevent/cause disease. Similarly, we don’t how foods commonly found together in dietary patterns may operate together to prevent/cause disease. (pp. 15, 21-22, 327-328)
  • We have a really hard time separating calorie intake from nutrient intake (Ch. 11). Ditto nutrients and food patterns, food patterns and lifestyle patterns, etc. (pp. 10, 15, 22)
  • We can’t separate metabolic consequences of food intake patterns from the food itself, i.e. what we are looking at in any given data set is really metabolism of food, not food. (p. 15)
  • We don’t know what really causes the chronic diseases we study in nutrition epidemiology (p. 12); age, genetics, education, income, and lifestyle factors may influence, modify, or be more important than any dietary factor in the origins of these diseases (pp. 10, 15).
  • We can’t distinguish between causal and coincidental associations. Furthermore, weak associations could be causal; strong associations can be coincidental (p. 12).
  • Associations we do find are likely to be weak; we will often find no associations at all. Even if we do find statistically significant associations between nutrients and disease, they may be clinically or practically irrelevant and should not necessarily be used to make public health recommendations. (pp. 12-14, 21).

But wait! Willett cries. Don’t give up! This book is also a defense of those shortcomings—although one blinkered by what I must assume is Willett’s love for the field. I am always a little touched and frustrated by the section on why we find so many instances of lack of association between an ostensible nutritional cause and a disease outcome in nutrition epidemiology. Willett meticulously lists the possible reasons one by one as to why we may not be able to “observe a statistically significant association when such an association truly exists” (pp. 12-14). At no time does he venture to offer up the possibility that perhaps—and how would we know one way or the other?—no such association does truly exist.

A new edition of the book is coming out; this should make the old edition cheap in comparison. I won’t read the new edition because I’m afraid it would ruin my romance with the old edition, which is the one I recommend to you.

If you think Gary Taubes is “a poisonous pea in an ideological pod” (as I’ve heard him called), read this book (especially Ch 17 on “Diet and Coronary Heart Disease”). On the other hand, if you think population studies investigating nutrition and chronic disease are basically a gigantic undifferentiated crock of malarkey, read this book. Why? Because there are no clear answers and no real heroes. If you want to know the strengths and weakness of nutritional epidemiology, best to hear them outlined in excruciating and loving detail by Willett himself.

You don’t have to read it cover to cover. Skip around. You’ll learn in passing some methodology behind the folly of trying to forge links between specific nutrients in food to long-term chronic diseases that have multiple and complex origins (just the sections on how we collect information about what we think people are eating are eye-opening in that regard—Ch. 4-8). But I think (I hope) you’ll also hear the voice of a father wise enough to know that children are—must be—brought into this world on grand faith, one that hopes that they will make the world a better place than before, and that his child—nutritional epidemiology—is no different. Willett believes in this child and the book is a statement of that faith.

Please draw your own conclusions, here’s mine: Faith is not science.

Any parent out there knows this: you seem at first to have a child of your own, but you end up sending an adult out into the world who is no longer yours and never really was. The mistakes, limitations, failures, shortcomings belong only to that grown child, not to the parent. But still. It may be hard to acknowledge the fact that your precious one is no better than the other kids and probably won’t save the world. Sometimes, when I’m reading this book—when I’m supposedly studying for an exam—I am caught unawares by the sighs of disappointment, the rally of excuses, and finally the prickly justifications: The prince must be allowed to rule; the king knows he’s a weak little louse, but he’s all we’ve got.

I know—and any of us who are students of literature know—that this is the king’s tragic flaw. The prince can’t save the kingdom; the empire must crumble. But here is the king, holding brick and mortar together through sheer force of will, somehow acknowledging and somehow—at the same time—unaware, that this particular castle was built on sand in the first place. In this book, I hear Willett’s love for a hopelessly flawed field, a touching declaration of blind optimism, and I love this book, and I deeply respect the man himself, for showing that to me.

Note: I don’t expect anybody but dweeby English majors to get the title of this post, but for dweeby wanna-bees, see T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”   It just makes my heart sing with joy that Willett refers to his diet of preference as the “prudent” diet.

Stay tuned for N of 1 Nutrition: Part 4, when you’ll hear Dr. Roger J. Williams say:

“Nutrition is for real people. Statistical humans are of little interest.”

*Admittedly, it could be eye strain.  I am OLD.


Page numbers and chapters refer to the following edition:

Willett, W. Nutrition Epidemiology, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

AHS 2012 and the BIG BUTT: Lessons in Nutritional Literacy

An anonymous butt of a close friend who gave me permission to use her rump to make a point.

The comments are starting to come in:  Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 was fun BUT (and it’s a really BIG BUT), the conversation/social activities/celebrity parade seemed dominated by:

  • white people
  • young people
  • thin/athletic/fit people
  • men
  • well-educated, upper-middle class socioeconomic status people
  • people wearing goofy-looking shoes

Some folks who did not fit into these categories very well are expressing that they felt excluded and marginalized. All I can say is, well, yup. It shouldn’t really surprise us, but it should give us an opportunity to look closely at why this is the case.

Buckle your seat belt—ask for an extension if you need one—it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Right now, “looking the paleo part” is important in the paleo community. Think: gorgeous Laura Schoenfeld  or any of the adorable white guys at AHS 2012—so ubiquitous and uniformly handsome as to be practically interchangeable (with my apologies to them all, as the individuals I did meet were charming and intelligent—yes, Dan Pardi, Colin Champ, and Ben Greenfield, I mean you). It is easier for you to become a valued member of a community if you look the part. Why? Because health, especially dietary health, is—for us middle class white people—a stand-in for character.*

“Looking the part” demonstrates to the world that you are, indeed, a “responsible good eater.” If you are overweight, if you have obvious health deficits, if you are not white, if you are old—you stray from the community’s ideal of a “responsible good eater”—no matter what your diet actually is. Not “looking the part” tars you, however subtly, with the brush of “unhealthy other.”

How did the concept of “unhealthy other” come to be?  The mainstreaming of nutrition science and the middle class’s current obsession with it emerged at the same time. The 60’s and 70’s brought us race riots, civil rights and equal rights marches, economic instability, political turmoil, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and really long lines for gas. It seemed for a while that the stature of the white middle class that was so securely ensconced in the Leave it to Beaver suburbs in the 50s was being flooded with “others,” on the verge of disappearing altogether into the muddy waters of social change.

Meat, veggies, tubers, maybe some dairy. Could this be retro-neo-primal eating?

Thus, when the Dietary Goals for Americans emerged at the end of the 70’s, the middle class seized this opportunity to create a place for itself in opposition to “the unhealthy other”—we know them in our heart of hearts as “icky fat people.” And who are these icky fat people?

Mostly they are women, mostly they are black, and mostly they are poor. For women, the non-Hispanic black population has the highest prevalence of overweight (78 percent) and obesity (50.8 percent) of any subpopulation in America.

  • At age 8, 48% of African-American girls (compared to 15% of white girls) have begun sexual development. Females that go through puberty earlier have a higher prevalence of being overweight, and in fact, these two factors seem to be related.
  • Adolescence is a critical period for the development of overweight/obesity, and it is also when major racial/ethnic differences in overweight/obesity become apparent.
  • Overweight/obesity at adolescence strongly tracks into adulthood.
  • Obese female adolescents become adults who on average earn lower wages and are at increased risk of living in poverty.**

Black women are twice as likely as white women to develop diabetes, heart disease, and many other chronic “lifestyle-related illnesses.” “Lifestyle-related illnesses” are considered to be ones that you bring upon yourself because of your lifestyle choices, or, in the newer world of nutrition policy groupthink, are inflicted upon you because of the obesogenic environment. (A recent NEMJ article discusses how, although policymakers see obesity as a socioecological issue, fat people see it as their own damn fault, viewpoints that are not mutually exclusive nor entirely invalid, but both are built on a faulty science base that I don’t need to preach to the choir about.)

Either way, we—the white middle-class “responsible good eaters”—can place ourselves in a position of distributing, shall we say, the noblesse oblige of nutrition and health. For the middle class, nutrition and health are a way of visibly demonstrating to the world that we care. [Note:  This isn’t to say that white people are bad for caring or that the people they care about are “victims” of ignorance or genetics or social institutions.  This is simply a way to a examine a particular social dynamic that may be at play. I have seen one group of white folks after another–from veg*n to paleo– wringing their hands over the issue of obesity in underserved populations. They all mean well. But they talk about these populations from such a distance that I don’t even recognize my friends and neighbors from here in Durham, NC. ]

This lady cares.

Middle class, educated, fit white person:

“I care about my health so I eat right and exercise right. Not only do I eat right, but I make sure my family eats right too, so that my family can be healthy and not be a burden on the health care system or society. By eating right, I also demonstrate how much I care about my world, as my way of eating right is also what is right for the environment, the economy, small farmers, and poor, fat, dark-skinned people. Lucky for me, as the world seems to be well-supplied with poor, fat, dark-skinned people, I can enter a health care/fitness/nutrition/public health/natural-paleo-farmfresh-local-food real or virtual career and be assured of many more years of professional activity and income because, well, to be honest, those poor, fat, dark-skinned people simply don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to really care about their health, so I’m here to help them eat right and get healthy [and stop being so poor and fat and dark-skinned].”

To me, one of the most interesting and ironic things about our current “alternative” foods movement is that this type of sentiment can be applied equally well to the veg*n groups as to the paleo groups. The biggest differences? The veg*ns tend to be white ladies with organic salads and the paleos tend to be white guys with grass-fed steak. Both kinds of foods and both kinds of whiteness are equally unavailable, and perhaps somewhat undesirable, to “the unhealthy other” population. To add insult to irony, many of us in both the veg*n and paleo world were once, at least in our own minds, “the unhealthy other.” But we figured it out, got our act together, applied our intestinal fortitude and good moral character and became—visibly, for all the world to see—reformed “responsible good eaters” of the fine upstanding variety.

What are the implications of this notion of “the unhealthy other” and the middle class white folks who care so much about helping them?

“The unhealthy other” is what allows us to believe, when we see an icky fat person, “if only that person would/could eat like I do, they wouldn’t be fat.” Which means we are inclined to either:

1) Stuff “the unhealthy other” full of the nutrition knowledge that we love and cherish and if it doesn’t work for them, obviously they are just not doing it right and it’s their own damn fault


2) Work to make “the healthy choice” (whatever that means) “the easy choice” (whatever that means) for “the unhealthy other” and once we succeed, if they are still unhealthy, they don’t deserve our compassion and humanity because, after all, it’s their own damn fault

Hate to break it to you all, these are the exact same methods the current mainstream nutrition paradigm uses, and if  we limit ourselves to this way of thinking, we can expect the exact same results.  In other words, the paleo movement—as Hamilton Stapell alluded to in his AHS 2012—is destined to become just another elitist fad.

Can we change that?  Yes.  How?  Yeah, I got a few suggestions.

Stay tuned for:  Paleo:  Just Another Elitist Fad for Skinny White People Wearing Goofy Shoes–or NOT?

*Much of what follows borrows liberally from the work of Charlotte Biltekoff at UC-Davis, a wonderfully warm and intelligent woman who has been working on and thinking about this issue for—believe it or not—longer than Gary Taubes. She has a book coming out next summer which, IMHO, will be the social/cultural partner to Good Calories, Bad Calories.

**This comes straight from a lecture in my Nutrition of Children and Mothers class, fall 2009, by Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen.

The Mobius Strip of Policy Change

I love working with individuals, but it takes policy-level change to really make an impact on public health. Policy, however, is a double-edged sword. Decades-long cascades of unintended consequences can arise from well-intentioned policy. The Dietary Guidelines started out in 1980 as an unmandated humble little 40-page booklet offering nutrition guidance to the public, while freely admitting that “we don’t know enough about nutrition to identify an “ideal” diet for each individual” and that “in those chronic conditions where diet may be important . . . the roles of specific nutrients have not been defined.”

Since then, I’m still not sure how, the Dietary Guidelines have become the center of all information and decision-making surrounding food and nutrition in America—in policy, healthcare, industry, media, and science (where researchers should know better than to use a policy document as the basis for scientific research). And—for better or worse—Americans have actually shifted their eating habits to fall in line with Guidelines recommendations (see: Americans don’t follow the Guidelines—or do they?)

The Guidelines were created to prevent chronic disease.  They have changed very little in 30 years, while rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic disease have rapidly increased (see: Public Health Nutrition’s Epic Fail). Currently, there is no “policy lever” for changing the way the Guidelines are created or administered. The Guidelines have no system of checks and balances, no outcome evaluation process, and no way to counter the influence of entrenched special interests (including both the food and science industries).

Right now, it seems that no amount of public outcry, accumulation of scientific evidence otherwise, or increase in diseases the Guidelines were meant to prevent can shift them from their current staked position that a high-carbohydrate, high-fiber, low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-saturated fat, low-sodium diet is right for all Americans. Under the USDA/HHS “calories in, calories out” paradigm, it’s Americans that need to change (“eat less and move more”), not nutrition policy. Policy changes are urged only to “make the healthy choice the easy choice”  for fat stupid Americans (especially low-income ones) who apparently otherwise don’t care and can’t think.

I would expect such policy reform to have, as Jon Stewart put it, “the draconian government overreach we all love with the probable lack of results we expect.”

So what kind of policy reform should we be working towards? One of the Big Questions I ponder is whether we need to replace the current USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines with “better” ones, or find a different way to create nutrition policy, or just ditch all government-sanctioned nutritional recommendations altogether. (Other Big Questions: What’s for dinner? and How can I further embarrass my children?)

I don’t fundamentally oppose or support government-funded nutrition programs. If they were administered differently, I might like them a lot more. If we are going to use government funds to feed people, we will need some way of guiding that process. Right now, our federally-funded nutrition programs have a tendency to serve as outlets for cheap industrialized food, and I’m afraid that our nutrition guidance has not only allowed, but encouraged that role. On the other hand, scrapping that guidance altogether may leave government programs that are struggling for funds vulnerable to choosing food from the lowest bidder, which would only serve to reinforce the current situation.

I also have problems with replacing one-size-fits-all Guidelines with different one-size-fits-all Guidelines because that process denies the very real variability in nutritional needs and preferences of individuals and diverse sub-populations. Worse yet, it teaches people that answers about nutrition come from packages and experts rather than the body’s response to food.

As a transition, or middle ground, I currently favor the idea of locally-determined nutritional policies and programs. Sounds good, right? Nutrition programs could be tailored to meet the needs of the community they serve.

But this is where the confluence of things needed to make this type of policy shift happen turns into a Dilbert cartoon. Everything that needs to happen requires something else to happen first until it all loops back on itself like a Mobius strip.

Let’s take school lunches.  

Ideally, the type of school lunches served should be determined by the members of the community eating them, i.e. the kids, parents, teachers, etc.  This allows for appropriate community-level health, ethnic, cultural, regional, seasonal, and economic adjustments and prevent fiascos like the Los Angeles lunchroom garbage cans filled with “healthy” lunches (like “brown rice cutlets”).

Ideally, a trained professional at the local level, for instance an RD, would be able to guide this process, balancing the nutritional needs of that specific community with other social and cultural factors, creating an affordable menu, and modifying the program based on outcomes.  But this would mean that the RD would have to have training across the spectrum of nutrition science, rather just following USDA/HHS policy statements which are based on research done on white (frequently male) adults circa 1970-1980 and which may not be applicable to other populations.

This in turn would require the nutrition curriculum for health professionals to not be skewed by entrenched interests in academics, politics, and industry (and would probably require almost a complete re-thinking of 30 years of nutrition epidemiology).

This would require the USDA/HHS and other institutions to support–through funding, publication, and use—nutrition research that may possibly undermine or even contradict 30 years of previous nutritional guidance. This research would not only provide a knowledge base for health professionals, but would provide an unbiased source of information for consumers which would help to create informed stakeholders in the nutrition-food system.

At the same time, industry, producers, and growers would have to work with the community to make foods available that meet the demands of the local program at a reasonable cost.  And right now—due to agricultural practices and USDA policies—foods that are widely and cheaply available to federal nutrition programs are the ones that the USDA/HHS Guidelines have determined are “healthy” even though this definition of “healthy” seems to be based, at least in part, on whether or not those foods are widely and cheaply available for federal nutrition programs.

See what I mean?  I have a hard time figuring out where we need to insert the monkey-wrench that will stop the endless cogs from turning out the same policies, practices, and programs that have been radically unsuccessful for the past 30 years.

Which won’t, of course, stop me from trying.

As I’ve been working with Healthy Nation Coalition and tossing ideas around with people who are also working on this issue, I’ve found some that I believe are fundamental to fixing our food-health system. These concepts originated with people much smarter than me, but I am hoping that in my academic work and in our non-profit work at Healthy Nation Coalition, I will have the opportunity to be a part of developing them further:

1) N of 1 Nutrition – a movement towards more individualized nutrition, although the “1” can also be a family, community, or other subpopulation

2) Nutritional Literacy – a movement to foster an understanding of the cultural forces that shape our nutritional beliefs and our relationships to food and food communities

3) Open Nutrition – a movement to raise awareness regarding the laws, policies, institutions, and other social, economic and cultural forces that may impact access to nutrition information and development of sustainable systems that produce foods that support health

It takes about 30 years for any given scientific paradigm to shift. It is time. But how will we do it differently? I think these concepts are the “next steps” that will help us steer the next 30 years of nutrition in a direction that may help us avoid another cascade of unintended consequences down the road. More on each soon.