Make me some science I can’t refuse

In case you missed it, in a recent article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine entitled Overstatement of Results in the Nutrition and Obesity Peer-Reviewed Literature (not making this up), the authors found that a lot of papers published in the field of obesity and nutrition have, shall we say, issues.

Well–as they say down South– I never!

The authors looked at over 900 scientific articles on nutrition or obesity published either in 2001 or 2011 in leading journals. They found that about 1 in 11 include “overreaching statements of results.” 

Here’s how the authors described statements that would be coded as “overreaching”:

  • reporting an associative relationship as causal
  • making policy recommendations based on observational data that show associations only (e.g., not cause and effect)
  • inappropriately generalizing to a population not represented by the sample studied

Frankly, I am totally offended. Someone needs to let these folks know that, in nutrition epidemiology, correlation actually does equal causation.

What’s more, nutrition policy recommendations are supposed to be based on observational data. Hello? Dietary Guidelines? (Seriously. You don’t expect public health nutrition people to do actual experiments now, do you? I mean, unless you are talking about our population-wide, no-control-group, 35-year experiment with low-fat diet recommendations, but that’s different.)

And we don’t mind generalizing conclusions to Everyone in the Whole Wide World based on data from a bunch of white health care professionals born before the atom bomb because, honestly, those are the only data we really care about.

Equating correlation and causation, over-generalizing observations, and then using these results as the basis of policy is the bread (whole wheat) and butter (substitute) of nutrition epidemiology of chronic disease (aka NECD – pronounced Southern-style as “nekked”). NECD has a long proud tradition of misinterpreting results this way, and dammit, nobody is going to take that away from us.

Early NECD researchers have in the past tried to tentatively misinterpret results by obliquely implying that observed nutritional patterns might perhaps have resulted in the disease under investigation. Wusses.

In 1990, Walter Willett and JoAnn Manson came along to show us how the pros do it. These mavericks were the ones who made bold inroads into the kind of overreaching conclusions that made NECD great. Their data come from an observational study of female registered nurses from 11 states in the US, born between 1921 and 1946, who were asked to remember and report what they ate 4 whole times between 1976 and 1984, plus remember and report what they weighed when they were 18 years old. From this dataset, which is clearly comprehensive, and this population, which is practically every female in the US, Willett, Manson and company naturally conclude that “obesity is a major cause of excess morbidity and mortality from coronary heart disease among women in the United States” (emphasis mine). None of this wimpy “associated with increased risk of” bullshooey, obesity CAUSES heart disease, they tell us, CAUSES IT!!!! BWHAAAHAAAAA!!!!!!!

It is on this foundation of intrepid willingness to misinterpret data that the science of NECD was built. This is why Walter Willett is the Big Kahuna at the Harvard School of Public Health. He has demonstrated the courage to misinterpret data in innovative and comprehensive ways, publishing articles throughout his career that indicate that even small increases in BMI—including BMI levels that are currently considered “normal”–cause chronic disease.

In 1999, in what is considered a landmark article in overstatement, one with which all NECD acolytes should familiarize themselves, he states unequivocally, in a review of observational data:

“Excess body fat is a cause of cardiovascular diseases, several important cancers, and numerous other medical conditions . . . “ (my emphasis). Hmmmm. Observed associations reported as causal? Ding!

The rest of that sentence reads: ” . . . and is a growing problem in many countries.” His data is once again gathered mostly from American white health care professionals born before the atom bomb. Generalization from specific populations to the rest of the world? Ding ding.

And what should we do with this conclusion, according to Willett? “Preventing weight gain and overweight among persons with healthy weights and avoiding further weight gain among those already overweight are important public health goals.” Using observed associations to make policy recommendations? Ding ding ding. In one fell swoop, Willett dexterously manages to use all three designated methods of overstatement and misinterpretation in the nutrition epidemiology NECD toolbox, demonstrating why he is considered by most researchers to be “the ‘father’ of nutrition epidemiology.” This man overstates and misinterprets in ways that the rest of us can only dream of doing.

Sadly, some epidemiologist have failed to follow in Willett’s footsteps. In January 2013, Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the woman who first noted the remarkably rapid rise in obesity that began in the decade following the release of the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, published results that concluded that being overweight (or even mildly obese) is associated with a lower risk of death. At no point in her article does she suggest that overweight or obesity results in increased lifespan.

The response from Harvard? Walter Willett calls Flegal’s article ” a pile of rubbish” and insists that “no one should waste their time reading it” and rightly so. Why would anyone want to hear about “associations”? What kind of nonsense is that? Obviously Flegal lacks the professionalism it takes to make the leap from observation to causation.

But that’s okay. Willett and the Harvard Family know how to deal with this sort of thing.

“Someday, and that day appears to have come, I will call upon you to ignore the work of other scientists when their results contradict my own.”

Let’s face it, in the world of NECD, you can’t just have people like Flegal refusing to infer causation from observed results, just because they don’t want to. When that sort of thing happens, well, let’s just say, if she won’t do it, the Harvard Family will have to do it for her. And so they did.

In February 2013, Willett and company convened a Harvard Family gathering to, in their words, “elucidate inaccuracies in a recent high-profile JAMA article [i.e. Flegal’s] which claimed that being overweight leads to reduced mortality” (emphasis mine). Which it didn’t–except now, voila, it does. It’s not personal, Dr. Flegal. It’s strictly science.

The Family get-together was held at the Harvard School of Public Health, a “neutral convening space” that is also ground zero for the Nurses’ Health Study I and II, the Physicians Health Study I and II, and the Health Professional Follow Up Study, three datasets that have generated many NECD articles that, unlike Flegal’s article, brilliantly illustrate the powers of misinterpreting observational data. That Flegal herself was invited, but “could not attend” tells us just how ashamed she must be of her inability to make over-reaching conclusions–or perhaps she was temporarily “incapacitated” if you know what I mean.

The webcast from the meeting show us how NECD should be done, with dazzling examples of overstatement and marvelous feats of misinterpretation.

In the world of NECD, PowerPoint arrows are a scientifically-acceptable method of establishing causation.

In her shining moment, Dr. JoAnn Manson, demonstrating that she has learned well from Willett, points to the slide above and asks: “How is it possible that overweight and obesity would cause all of these life-threatening conditions, increase their incidence, and then reduce mortality?” How indeed???

The panelists highlighted the importance of maintaining clear standards of overstatement and expressed concern that Flegal’s research could undermine future attempts of more credible researchers to misinterpret data as needed to protect the health of the public.

Because that’s what it’s all about folks: protection. Someone needs to protect the science from renegades like Flegal, and someone needs to protect the public from science.

We should be thankful that we have Willett and the Harvard Family there. They know that data like Flegal’s can only confuse the poor widdle brains of Americans. Allowing us to be exposed to such “rubbish” might lead us to the risky conclusion that perhaps overweight and mild obesity won’t cause all of us to die badly, or to the even more dangerous notion that observational data should remark only upon association, not causation. And we sure don’t want that to happen.

As Don Dr. Willett says, “It is important for people to have correct information about the relationship between health and body weight.” And when he wants us to have the correct information about the relationship between health and body weight, he’ll misinterpret it for us.

Take the science, leave the cannoli.

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

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

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

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

Personally responsible or helplessly victimized?

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

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

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

Just like it was in 1952.

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

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

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

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

Then, somewhat inexplicably, obesity took off.”

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

And what is Government going to do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

Been there, done that, failed miserably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing it until it broke

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

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

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

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.

Why Race Doesn’t Matter in Nutrition Policy

This is the first of a series looking at what does and doesn’t matter when it comes to nutrition policy. When I started out on this adventure, I thought that science would give me the answers to the questions I had about why public health and clinical recommendations for nutrition were so limited. Silly me. The science part is easy. But policy, politics, economics, industry, media framing, the scientific bureaucracy, cultural bias—now that stuff is crazy complicated. It’s like an onion: when you start peeling back the layers, you just want to cry. I am also honored to say that this post is part of the Diversity in Science Carnival on Latino / Hispanic Health: Science and Advocacy

When we began investigating relationships between diet and chronic disease, we didn’t pay much attention to race. The longest-running study of the relationship between dietary factors and chronic disease is the Framingham Heart Study, a study made up entirely of white, middle-class participants. Since 1951, the Framingham study has generated over 2 thousand journal articles and retains a central place in the creation of public health nutrition policy recommendations for all Americans.

More recent datasets—especially the large ones—are nearly as demographically skewed.

The Nurses’ Health Study is 97% Caucasian and consists of 122,000 married registered nurses who were between the ages of 30 and 55 when the study began in 1976. An additional 116,686 nurses ages 25 – 42 were added in 1989, but the racial demographics remained unchanged.

The Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study began in 1986, as a complementary dataset to the Nurses’ Health Study. It is 97% Caucasian and consists, as the name suggests, of 51, 529 men who were health professionals, aged 40-75, when the study began.

The Physicians’ Health Study began in 1982, with 29, 071 men between the ages of 40-84. The second phase started in 1997, adding men who were then over 50. Of participants whose race is indicated, 91% are Caucasian, 4.5% are Asian/Pacific Islander, 2% are Hispanic, and less than 1% are African-American or American Indian. I have detailed information about the racial subgroups of this dataset because I had to write the folks at Harvard and ask for them. Race was of such little interest that the racial composition of the participants is never mentioned in the articles generated from this dataset.

Over the years, these three mostly-white datasets have generated more journal articles than five of the more diverse datasets all put together.* These three datasets, all administered by Harvard, have been used to generate some of the more sensationalist nutrition headlines of the past few years–red meat kills, for instance–with virtually no discussion about the fact that the findings apply to a population–mostly white, middle to upper middle class, well-educated, health professionals, most of whom who were born before the atomic bomb–to which most of us do not belong.

Shift in demographics in past 50 years;
predicted shift in next 50 years

Although we did begin to realize that race and other characteristics might actually matter with regard to health (hence the existence of datasets with more diversity), we can’t really fault those early researchers for creating such lopsided datasets. At that point, not only was the US more white than it is now, scientific advances that would reveal more about how our genetic background might affect health had not yet been developed. We had not yet mapped the human genome; epigenetics (the study of the interaction between environmental inputs and the expression of genetic traits) was in its infancy, and biochemical individuality was little more than a glimmer in Roger Williams’ eye.

Socially, culturally, and I think, scientifically, we were all inclined to want to think that everyone was created equal, and this “equality” extended to how our health would be affected by food. Stephen Jay Gould’s 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, critiqued the notion that “the social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology.” In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, with its embarrassingly racist behavior on the part of some representatives of the majority race and the heartbreaking violence over differences in something as superficial as skin color, it was patently unhip to suggest that racial differences were anything more than just skin deep.

But does that position still serve us now?

In the past 35 years, our population has become more diverse and nutrition science has become more nuanced—but our national nutrition recommendations have stayed exactly the same. The first government-endorsed dietary recommendations to prevent chronic disease were given to the US public in 1977. These Dietary Goals for Americans told us to reduce our intake of dietary saturated fat and cholesterol and increase our intake of dietary carbohydrates, especially grains and cereals in order to prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Since 1980, the decreases in hypertension and serum cholesterol—health biomarkers—have been linked to Guidelines-directed dietary changes in the US population [1, 2, 3, 4].

“Age-adjusted mean Heart Disease Prevention Eating Index scores increased in both sexes during the past 2 decades, particularly driven by improvements in total grain, whole grain, total fat, saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, and cholesterol intake.” [1]

However, with regard to the actual chronic diseases that the Dietary Guidelines were specifically created to prevent, the Dietary Guidelines have been a resounding failure. If public health officials are going to attribute victory on some fronts to Americans adopting dietary changes in line with the Guidelines, I’m not sure how to avoid the conclusion that they also played a part in the dramatic increases in obesity, diabetes, stroke, and congestive heart failure.

If the Dietary Guidelines are a failure, why have policy makers failed to change them?

It is not as if there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting the recommendations in the Guidelines. Their weak scientific underpinnings made the 1977 Dietary Goals controversial from the start. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition issued a report in 1979 that found little conclusive evidence for linking the consumption of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol to heart disease and found potential risks in recommending a diet high in polyunsaturated fats [5]. Other experts warned of the possibility of far-reaching and unanticipated consequences that might arise from basing a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription on such preliminary and inconclusive data: “The evidence for assuming that benefits to be derived from the adoption of such universal dietary goals . . . is not conclusive and there is potential for harmful effects from a radical long-term dietary change as would occur through adoption of the proposed national goals” [6]. Are the alarming increases in obesity and diabetes examples of the “harmful effects” that were predicted? It does look that way. But at this point, at least one thing is clear: in the face of the deteriorating health of Americans and significant scientific evidence to the contrary, the USDA and HHS have continued to doggedly pursue a course of dietary recommendations that no reasonable assessment would determine to be effective.

But what does this have to do with race?

Maintaining the myth that a one-size diet approach works for everyone is fine if that one-size works for you—socially, financially, and in terms of health outcomes. The single positive health outcome associated with the Dietary Guidelines has been a decrease in heart attacks—but only for white people.

And if that one-size diet doesn’t fit in terms of health, if you end up with one of the other numerous adverse health effects that has increased in the past 35 years, if you’re a member of the mostly-white, well-educated, middle/upper-middle class demographic—you know, the one represented in the datasets that we continue to use as the backbone for our nutrition policy—you are likely to have the financial and social resources to eat differently from the Guideline recommendations should you choose to do so, to exercise as much as you need to, and to demand excellent healthcare if you get sick anyway. Even if you accept that these foods are Guidelines-recommended “healthy” foods, you are not stuck with the commodity crop-based processed foods for which our nutrition programs have become a convenient dumping ground.

In the meantime, low-income women, children, and minorities and older adults with limited incomes—you know, the exact population not represented in those datasets—remain the primary recipients of federal nutrition programs. Black, Hispanic, and American Indian kids are more likely to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches; non-white participants make up 68% of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children enrollment. These groups have many fewer social, financial, and dietary options. If the food they’re given doesn’t lead to good health—and there is evidence that it does not—what other choices do they have?

When it comes to health outcomes in minorities and low-income populations, the “healthier” you eat, the less likely you are to actually be healthy. Among low-income children, “healthy eaters” were more likely to be obese than “less-healthy eaters,” despite similar amounts of sedentary screen time. Among low-income adults, “healthy eaters” were more likely to have health insurance, watch less television, and to not smoke. Yet the “healthy eaters” had the same rates of obesity as the “less-healthy heaters” and increased rates of diabetes, even after adjustment for age.

These associations don’t necessarily indicate a cause-effect relationship between healthy eating and health problems. But there are other indications that being a “healthy eater” according to US Dietary Guidelines does not result in good health. Despite adherence to “healthy eating patterns” as determined by the USDA Food Pyramid, African American children remain at higher risk for development of diabetes and prediabetic conditions, and African American adults gain weight at a faster pace than their Caucasian counterparts [7,8].

Adjusted 20-year mean weight change according to low or high Diet Quality Index (DQI) scores [8]

In this landmark study by Zamora et al, “healthy eaters” (with a high DQI) were compared to “less-healthy eaters” (with a low DQI). Everyone (age 18-30 at baseline) gained weight over time; the slowest gainers—white participants who were “healthy eaters”—still gained a pound a year. More importantly however, for blacks, being a “healthy eater” according to our current high-carbohydrate, low-fat recommendations actually resulted in more weight gain over time than being a “less healthy eater,” an outcome predicted by known differences in carbohydrate metabolism between blacks and whites [9].

Clearly, we need to expand our knowledge of how food and nutrients interact with different genetic backgrounds by specifically studying particular racial and ethnic subpopulations. Social equality does not negate small but significant differences in biology. But it won’t matter how much diversity we build into our study populations if the conclusions arrived at through science are discarded in favor of maintaining public health nutrition messages created when most human beings studied were of the adult, mostly white, mostly male variety.

Right now the racial demographics of the participants in an experimental trial or an observational study dataset doesn’t matter, and the reason it doesn’t is because the science doesn’t matter. What really matters? Maintaining a consistent public health nutrition message—regardless of its affect on the health of the population—that means never having to say you’re sorry for 35 years of failed nutritional guidance.

*ARIC – Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities (1987), 73% white; MESA – Multi Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (2000), 38% white, 28% African American, 12% Chinese, 22% Hispanic; CARDIA – Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (1985), 50% black, 50% white; SHS – Strong Heart Study (1988), 100% Native American; BWHS – Black Women’s Health Study(1995), 100% black women.

References:

1. Lee S, Harnack L, Jacobs DR Jr, Steffen LM, Luepker RV, Arnett DK. Trends in diet quality for coronary heart disease prevention between 1980-1982 and 2000-2002: The Minnesota Heart Survey. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Feb;107(2):213-22.

2. Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Grodstein F, Colditz GA, Speizer FE, Willett WC. Trends in the incidence of coronary heart disease and changes in diet and lifestyle in women. N Engl J Med. 2000 Aug 24;343(8):530-7.

3. Fung TT, Chiuve SE, McCullough ML, Rexrode KM, Logroscino G, Hu FB. Adherence to a DASH-style diet and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke in women. Arch Intern Med. 2008 Apr 14;168(7):713-20. Erratum in: Arch Intern Med. 2008 Jun 23;168(12):1276.

4. Briefel RR, Johnson CL. Annu Rev Nutr. 2004;24:401-31. Secular trends in dietary intake in the United States.

5. Broad, WJ. NIH Deals Gingerly with Diet-Disease Link. Science, New Series, Vol. 204, No. 4398 (Jun. 15, 1979), pp. 1175-1178.

6. American Medical Association. Dietary goals for the United States: statement of The American Medical Association to the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, United States Senate. R I Med J. 1977 Dec;60(12):576-81.

7. Lindquist CH, Gower BA, Goran MI Role of dietary factors in ethnic differences in early risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Mar; 71(3):725-32.

8. 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.

9. Hite AH, Berkowitz VG, Berkowitz K. Low-carbohydrate diet review: shifting the paradigm. Nutr Clin Pract. 2011 Jun;26(3):300-8. Review.

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.

The REAL Paleo Challenge: How NOT to be Just Another Elitist Fad for Skinny White People Wearing Goofy Shoes

The blogsphere is beginning to rattle with commentary on the recent Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 events. Some folks who don’t necessarily “look the paleo part” have voiced concern about feeling excluded or marginalized as 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

You can read my take on why that might be the case here: AHS 2012 and the BIG BUTT: Lessons in Nutritional Literacy.

I understand that an NPR reporter was at the event, interviewing some of the movers and shakers. There was some concern that the reporter seemed to think that the paleo movement is a bit of an elitist fad. I understand this perspective, and on many levels, I agree.

As a “fad,” the paleo movement is a bunch of highly enthusiastic people with a lot of disposable income and time who are deeply committed to a particular way of being fit and healthy. It has its leaders, it controversies, its “passwords” (can you say “coconut oil” or “adrenal burnout”?), and its stereotypical paleo dude or dudette. As a fad, it would be destined to go the way of all of other diet and health fads—including Ornish and Atkins, Pritikin and Scarsdale, extending all the way back to the “Physical Culture” movement of the earlier part of this century (Hamilton Stapell spoke about this at AHS2012).

The original paleo chick – no high heels on this lady

Is it elitist? Well, there are some ways that it is possible that the paleo movement may marginalize the very folks who might benefit most from its efforts. Maybe an African-American guy still sensitive to the fact that his grandfather was consider “primitive” might not want to get his full cavemen on. Maybe a Mexican-American woman who remembers her abuela telling her stories about being too poor to have shoes doesn’t really want to go back to being barefoot just yet. Maybe an older, heavier person simply feels intimidated by all the young healthy fit people swarming to the front of the food line.

But the paleo movement does not have to be an elitist fad unless insists on limiting itself to its current form, and I believe the people at the Ancestral Health Society  are working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is why I really love these folks. I don’t mean the paleo leaders like Mark Sisson or Robb Wolf, although I’m sure they’re good people; I’ve just only met them briefly. I mean those somewhat geeky-looking-in-an-adorable-sort-of-way folks in the brown T-shirts who hung in the background and made it all happen for us last week. Notice that they don’t call themselves the Paleo Health Society, right? I love them because they ask good questions, they question themselves, they think long-term, and they’ve created a community that allows these conversations to take place.

So, what do we do to transform this paleo-led, AHS-supported community into the public health, human rights revolution it could be?

According to Doug Imig at the University of Memphis, a protest becomes a movement when:

1) It defines and proclaims widely shared cultural norms.

2) It creates dense social networks.

3) It gives everybody something to do.

Each of these deserves its own blog post, so let’s look at the first—and most important—item: widely shared cultural norms. This is where the “elitist fad” part of paleo falls short, but not really. Because in all my encounters with paleo folks and people from AHS, I find norms and values that the culture as a whole can embrace. Here’s the weird thing, I’ve spend the past couple of years also talking to mainstream scientists, from one end of the diet spectrum to another, including Joanne Slavin, a down-to-earth, warm, wonderful lady who was on the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and Henry Blackburn, who is a delightful gentleman and a protégé of Ancel Keys. Guess what? We all have some values in common.

Here are some concepts that I think may unite us all, from vegan to primal, from slow food to open government, from “mainstream” scientist to “fringe scientists” like Gary Taubes (yes, one of my UNC instructors referred to GT as a “fringe scientist,” although another found his views “very convincing”—go figure):

We must create an open, transparent, and sustainable food-health system.

The RD that inspired me to take an internship at the American Dietetic Association for a semester, Mary Pat Raimondi, said: “We need a food system to match our health system.” And whatever shape either of those systems may take, she is absolutely right. Conversations about food must encompass health; conversations about health must encompass food.

Right now our food-health system is closed. Directives come from the top down, public participation is limited to commentary. The people who are most affected by our nutrition policies are the farthest removed from their creation. We need to change that.

Right now our food-health system lacks transparency. USDA and HHS create nutrition policy behind doors that only seem to be transparent. Healthy Nation Coalition spent a year filing Freedom of Information Acts in order to get the USDA to reveal the name of a previously-anonymous “Independent Scientific Panel” whose task, at least as it was recognized in the Acknowledgments of the Dietary Guidelines, was to peer-review “the recommendations of the document to ensure they were based on a preponderance of scientific evidence.” You can read more about this here, but the reality is that this panel appears to not be a number of the things it is said to be. This is not their fault (i.e. the members of the panel), but an artifact of a system that has no checks and balances, no system of evaluation, and answers to no outside standards of process or product. This must change.

Our food-health system must be sustainable. And Pete Ballerstedt would say, yes, Adele, but what do you mean by “sustainable”? And to that I say—I mean it all:

Environmental sustainability – Nobody wants dead zones in the Gulf or hog lagoons poisoning the air. But environmental sustainability can’t be approached from the perspective of just one nutritional paradigm, because a food-health system must also have:

Cultural sustainability – We are not all going to become vegans or paleo eaters. Our food-health system must support a diversity of dietary approaches in ways that meet other criteria of sustainability.

Economic sustainability – Our food-health system must recognize the realities of both producers and consumers and address the economic engines that make our food-health system go around.

Political and scientific sustainability – Our food-health system must become a policy dialogue and a scientific dialogue. Think of how civil rights evolved: an equal rights law was passed, then overturned, a Jim Crow law was passed, then overturned, an equal right law was passed, then upheld, etc. etc. This dialogue reflected changing social norms and resistance to those changes. But we have no way to have a similar sort dialogue in our food-health system.

What would the world look like if, in 1980, an imaginary Department of Technology was given oversight of the development of all knowledge and production associated with technology? Production of food and knowledge about food (i.e. nutrition) became centralized within the USDA/HHS in 1977-1980 and there have been no policy levers built into the system to continue the conversation, as it were, since then. The Dietary Guidelines have remained virtually unchanged since 1977; our underlying assumptions about nutrition science have remained virtually unchanged since 1977. That’s like being stuck in the age of microwaves the size of Volkswagens, mainframe computers with punchcards, and “Pong.” We need a way for our food-health system to reflect changing social and scientific norms.

One of the primary shifts in understanding that has taken hold since 1977 is that:

There is no one-size-fits-all diet that works for everyone.

In 1979, Dr. William Weil Jr at the Department of Human Development at Michigan State University, voiced concern about “the frequent use of cross-national and cross-ethnic inferences” [Weil WB Jr. National dietary goals. Are they justified at this time? Am J Dis Child. 1979 Apr;133(4):368-70.]  He went on to day that we cannot assume that “because ‘a’ and ‘b’ are correlated in one population group that they will also be correlated in another group” yet our one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations make just that assumption.

There were more scientific articles generated from the Nurses’ Health Study–composed of 97% white women–in 2009 alone, than in the entire 10+ year history of the Black Women’s Health Study. Those large epidemiological studies done with a mostly white dataset are what drive our policy making, even though evidence also points to fact that we should not be making the assumptions to which Dr. Weil referred. 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 [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].

.

DQI stands for Diet Quality Index. Blacks with a higher DQI had more weight gain over time than blacks with a lower DQI. From Zamora et al.

Even with a more homogenous population, this issue applies. Remember all those discussions about “safe starches” you heard at AHS2012?

This concept also captures the emerging knowledge of how genetic variability affects nutrition needs and health, i.e. individualized nutrition, a very useful buzzword. I have lots to say about n of 1 nutrition coming up soon. But, most of all, not trying to cram everyone into the same nutritional paradigm captures reality of our own lives and choices about food. Which brings me to:

Food is not just about nutrition, and nutrition is not just about science.*

When we all begin to question our own assumptions about food and nutrition, we will be better able to reach across communities, create common ground, and be humble about our way forward.

We need to understand and help others understand that all nutrition messages are constructed and contain embedded values and points of view.

We need to learn to ask and teach others to ask: Who made the message and why? Who may benefit or be harmed? How might people interpret this message differently?

We need to think and help others to think about income and funding models, industry, and the framing of dietary problems by scientist, bloggers, and the media (and I don’t just mean “the other guys”—apply these critical thinking skills to your own nutrition/food community).

Nothing about our food and nutrition thinking was born in a vacuum. Food is a part of our cultural and social fabric. It allows us to belong; it allows us to define ourselves. Even as we strive to find better science and to shift our current diet-nutrition paradigm, we must approach this with the understanding that there is no truly objective science. How science gets used, especially in the policy arena moves us even farther from that non-existent ideal. Even as we strive to improve public health, we must understand that we don’t always know what “health” and “healthy food” means to the people we think we are trying to serve.

If these points sound remarkably like the mission statement for Healthy Nation Coalition, my non-profit, then you’ve been paying attention. But it is not my plan for HNC to “lead” any nutrition reform movement as much as it is for us to get behind everyone else and shove them in the same direction. There is very much a herding kittens aspect to this (as Jorge of VidaPaleo.com pointed out), but as a former high school teacher and mother of three, this is not new territory to me.

So, yes, I have an agenda. Everyone has an agenda. I’ll spell mine out for you:

Somewhere out there in America, today, there is a young African-American girl being born into a country where many—if not most—of the forces in her world will propel her towards a future where she will gain weight, get sick, have both of her legs amputated, get dialysis three times a week, be unemployed and unemployable, on disability and welfare, and—this is what gets me out of bed in the morning and drags my weary ass to one more round of getting punched in the face by those very forces arrayed against her—she will, somewhere underneath it all, blame herself for her situation. I’m an old white lady, in a position of relative power and knowledge. I don’t know this young lady, and she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t owe me anything because she’s not asking for my help. But it is my job in this life to begin—at the very least—to shift those forces so that she has a better opportunity to choose a different life if she wants to. That’s all I care about. I don’t care who gets credit or who gets the cushy book deal.  I just want it to happen.  I would want the world to do the same for my children if they had not had the privilege of birthright that they do. That child is my child as sure as the three that live here and drive me crazy are. All I ask of the paleo community is that she be your child too. And if, as a community, you decide to adopt this child, well then, don’t worry about becoming an elitist fad made up of goofy-shoe wearing white people destined to fade into obscurity. Instead, you all will change the world.

Next Up: What makes a movement? (and I mean a social change one, not the bowel-y kind)

*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.

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

or

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.