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

Emily Contois

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

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

View original post 701 more words

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

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

Why New Science May Not Be Enough – James Woodward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the works of Eric Berne and Stephen Karpman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who is to blame? Hmm. Good question.


Policymakers doing what policymakers do: making policy.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


The only really bad scientists I know.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Mottern, N. Correspondence.

From Paleo to Paradigm-Shift: Building a Nutrition Reform Network

Brief recap: What can we do to transform this paleo-led, Ancestral Health Society-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.

The first part of this process can seem daunting. What “shared cultural norms” do we have with other movements and organizations? I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to find common ground, including a semester in Washington, DC where I met people from many different organizations interested in policy, food, and nutrition reform. I’ve also quizzed lots of folks within the nutrition science establishment about basic principles with which we can all (mostly) agree. What I’ve found has led me to propose the following “shared cultural norms”:

  • Open, transparent and sustainable food-health systems will benefit all Americans.
  • There is no single dietary approach that will result in good health for everyone.
  • Nutrition messages are constructed and have embedded values and points of view.

[For an expanded discussion of these principles, see The REAL Paleo Challenge.]

“Shared cultural norms” become shared goals, and with shared goals, we can move together in one direction. Leading—and following—with humility and generosity will go a long way towards the next step: creating a large, dense social network of people willing to work together toward these common goals.

So let’s first take a look at the humility and generosity thing:

For paleo leaders, this begins at home. If you don’t write your own blog posts or research all your own material, be up front about the fact. Give credit to those who do the work for you. Believe it or not, there are people out there—your readers—who think that you do ALL of that work. Letting them know you don’t—and giving a name and a face to the people who help you out—takes you off a pedestal and lifts up the folks in the background. Don’t worry; there’s room enough for everyone. If inspiring people to get fit and healthy is your thing, inspire them to look at the bigger picture too. Insist on scientific integrity from yourself and others. Everybody makes mistakes, overstates the facts, fails to fact-check a source thoroughly or read the original materials carefully and critically; sometime new evidence or a new perspective changes our minds. Be humble in your claims about what food/nutrition can do and avoid nutritional scare tactics and absolutism. No one has all the answers.

For paleo followers, refuse to be captured and captivated by labels, leaders, controversy, and coolness. If thinking for yourself is what brought you to the paleo community in the first place, don’t check your brain at the door when you start listening to the folks you consider to be the experts. Don’t let the folks that you admire slide just because you agree with them or because you’re on the same side of the issue. If getting fit and healthy by following one of those inspiring leaders is what brought you, take it upon yourself to challenge them—and yourself—to look beyond personal health to the health of your community. Allow your paleo heroes to be human; no one has all the answers.

A sense of strength and unity within the paleo community will allow us to turn our sights and energies outward, rather than inward. I’m pleased to say that I think this has already begun. There has been a lot of reaching out to the other “alternative” nutrition communities, and I think we can give a great deal of credit to the folks at Ancestral Health Society for creating a space for this to happen. AHS and the paleo community is where the other alternative nutrition communities, Weston A Price Foundation and the low-carb folks, seem to intersect. At AHS2012, primalebrities Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson signed on as WAPF members and low-carb leaders Richard Feinman, Andreas Eenfeldt and Jimmy Moore were welcomed as respected members of the paleo community.

Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson truly leading the way to a paradigm-shifting network of nutrition reform. Photo courtesy of Ancestralize Me’s Laura Schoenfeld.

We can strengthen these connections by getting to know each other better, attending each other’s conferences, sharing information across groups and blogs, and by remembering that we are all working towards the same goals, even if our particular dietary approaches differ. We can all continue to support and promote AHS even if we don’t match the paleo template exactly. WAPF has a strong grassroots community; there is likely to be a chapter near you where you will find kindred spirits. I hope I don’t have to sell anyone on promoting Peter Attia’s and Gary Taubes’ NuSI once it is launched. For that matter, publicize the work of Healthy Nation Coalition (this would be my own agenda of course) and join us in trying to figure out ways to make this a long-term, self-sustaining social movement for everyone.

Cohesiveness within the movement will allow us to expand our diplomacy to other food and nutrition reform arenas. Remember, we don’t have to agree with everything another community may say or do, but if we have some common ground, we should build on it. Here are a few examples of organizations with which we may share common values (I’m sure you all can think of more):

Common ground? Probably, unless you think Twinkies are paleo.

Paleo leaders, you can open your doors a bit more. Find out what you can do to reach across nutrition reform community boundaries. It will broaden your audience base and the reach of your nutrition message, as well as help create a network of like-minded groups. Put as much effort into finding common ground with those whose general perspective you are not sure you quite align with as you do into ripping up the science you don’t agree with. Although there is no reason not to call out poorly-designed and -reported science when it shows up, be humane, humble and transparent when you do. Frequently it is underlying policies and paradigms at fault (perpetuated by media coverage), not the science or the scientists per se. Paleo leaders, not only can you get a low-carb or WAPF leader to do a guest post or interview, you could invite a vegan to help you find common ground within your two communities. See what those folks in the permaculture groups are up to and publicize it. There is some ridiculously awesome stuff going on that just happens to be, by default, mighty paleo-like. We should be supporting projects like The Food Web because, although not everyone is going to want to raise chickens, if we are going to talk sustainability, animal welfare, and support for small farmers—and I hope we are—the folks in the permaculture community are where the rubber meets the road.

Abe Connally and family explain permaculture at work. Result? A sustainable—and paleo—food system. Click on the picture to find out more.

For paleo followers: Reach across boundaries yourself—we have much to learn from each other and more similarity that we want to think we do. Next time you attend a paleo event and you see a person who doesn’t “look the paleo part,” go up to them and introduce yourself. Tell your story and listen to his/hers.  It actually might be more informative than standing in line to ask Mark Sisson if he thinks shirataki noodles are “primal.” Volunteer with AHS; join WAPF; check out Healthy Nation Coalition. We’re not cool or hip and frankly, our mission is more to get behind everybody else and push than get out front and lead, but we do good work.

And paleo followers, you can do something the paleo leaders can’t do (and isn’t that fun to know?). You can take this message out into your professional or academic world and treat it as a serious subject for closer examination in fields like: American studies, education, sociology, human development, maternal and child health, communication, ecology, political science, economics, psychology, health policy, etc. Doing this legitimizes the paradigm shift that is already underway. If you are concerned about sounding like a nutcase (because many outside of alternative nutrition communities have only been exposed to our default “healthy diet” definition), refer to the “shared cultural norms” above–they travel well. If we begin to look at the past 30 years of national nutrition policy as the cultural phenomenon that it is, we can begin to entertain the notion that perhaps it is time to move on.

Scientific measurements of skull sizes use to “prove” racial superiority? Science is shaped by culture; nutrition science is no different.

Consider Prohibition or the civil rights movement. Both were cultural events or paradigms where science was invoked to either defend or to undermine specific cultural norms. Our science has not magically become more “objective” since then; it is only in retrospect that we can see how cultural forces shaped the prevailing paradigms. Paleo followers can have that conversation in any arena that may be applicable, and use our dietary guidelines as an example.

Changing attitudes will change the institutions that shape those attitudes. But the biggest roadblock to shifting the paradigm remains.

A paradigm shift in—in science and in culture—must preserve, not trash, much of what has come before and recognize the advances made by those who have preceded us, even if (and maybe in this case, especially if) they are on the other side of the paradigm shift. Honestly, we have a really hard time with this, and I think this remains our primary challenge.

Next up: A place for everyone—including nutrition epidemiologists?