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.

RD does NOT stand for “Really Dumb”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dietary advice often has unintended consequences.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Women Are, Nutrition Edition

I really try not to pout too much when I see lists like the one below from Jimmy Moore’s 2012 survey on “most trusted resources for the information you received about health”:

After pouring through a couple hundred names that people shared, here were the top 10 who made the list in 2012:

1. Mark Sisson (30%)
2. Robb Wolf (23%)
3. Gary Taubes (21%)
4. Chris Kresser (15%)
5. Sean Croxton (10%)
6. Dr. Mike Eades (9%)
7. Dr. Robert Atkins/Atkins.com (8%%)
8. Dr. William Davis (7%)
9. Tom Naughton (7%)
10. Diane Sanfilippo (6%)

But seriously?  ONE woman?  ONE?  That’s it?????? Good grief.

The reasons for this imbalance are another blog post.  Instead, I chose to channel my energies into introducing some women who are leading the way—in their own way—in the world of nutrition.  If there appears to be a  “bias” in that most of these women–in one way or another–suggest that the current “grains are great” approach to nutrition is an unsound approach to good health, you might ask yourself how much that has to do with the prevailing bias within our current, and highly unsuccessful, nutrition paradigm.  These women are leaders, not followers.

To me, they are the Chers, Madonnas  and Dolly Partons of the nutrition world, although with a few exceptions, you may not recognize their names (which I know is part of the problem). Most have them have been around the block a time or two, and they know how the game is played—and rigged. They’ve succeed by being entirely who they are—tough-minded broads, compassionate caretakers, and reluctant warriors in the cause for good health for all.

Some of these women I’ve met, some I know well, some I’ve only admired from a safe distance afar. I wouldn’t expect all of these women to agree with—or even like—each other, or me, for that matter. Some of them may be appalled to find themselves on this list at all. Oh well. I don’t agree with all that each of them has to say, but I embrace the diversity and the chance to recognize some women I think have shown us how to have the huevos we need for the work ahead of us.

So—without further ado, and in alphabetical order (why not?)—here they are.

Judy Barnes Baker brought us this useful meme.

Judy Barnes Baker came this close to getting the American Diabetes Association to publish and endorse her reduced-carb cookbook. When that arrangement fell through, she got her cookbook published anyway and went on to publish another. Like Dana Carpender (see below), she’s been making life easier for those folks who want a low-carb approach to life.

Dana Carpender is a force of nature. She’s been holding the toast since 1996, and with her technogeek husband, Eric, has been able to bring us that message over the web since the dawn of the internet. Her book and cookbooks have been a lifeline for many trying to figure out exactly how to put into practice a way of eating that makes them feel healthy and happy. And boy, does she ever have a mouth on her. Sometimes I think it would be fun to lock her in a padded room with Frank Sacks and see who makes it out intact. I know where my money would be.

Laurie Cagnassola

Laurie Cagnassola, dog-lover extrodinaire, was, until recently, the Director of Nutrition and Metabolism Society, a leading low-carb oriented organization. She managed to gracefully meld the work she did with NMS with her own stance as a vegetarian. While Richard Feinman lambasted the entrenched interests in science and government out front, she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to build the fledgling reduced-carbohydrate nutrition community into a full-grown movement.  I expect we’ll hear more from her in the future.

Laura Dolson’s beautiful Low-Carb Pyramid

Laura Dolson has been writing about the food, science, and politics of low-carb nutrition for over a decade.  As a person who “walks the walk,” her posts on about.com are an informative and realistic guide to carbohydrate reduction.

Mary Dan Eades MD is the beautiful half (okay, the beautiful half on the right, for all you women out there drooling over her husband) of the royal (protein) power-couple of the carb-reduction world, Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades. They are the authors of multiple diet and lifestyle books beginning with Protein Power, which helped me navigate my own personal path to health many years ago. She may prefer to focus on singing, traveling, and grandkids now, but her voice is what gave the brilliant biochem wonkiness of Protein Power its warmth, humanity, and accessibility.

Jackie Eberstein RN was Dr. Robert Atkins right-hand RN for many years. She’s soft-spoken, with a backbone of steel and a heart of gold. She thought Atkins was “a quack” when she interviewed for the job. Thirty years later, she was still marveling at the improvement people could make in their health following his diet. But she’s no extremist. She taught me the importance of making sure calorie levels on a low-carb diet were appropriate. She’s got her hands full with her husband, Conrad, a charmer who can seriously rock a bow tie.

Mary G. Enig PhD is co-founder with Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A. Price foundation. Her work on fats led her to be one of the first voices raised in warning about the dangers of trans fats—and she’s been battling the seed oil industries attempts to silence and marginalize her work ever since.

Mary Gannon PhD, has—along with her research partner, Frank Nuttall—been working quietly on the low-biologically-available-glucose (inelegantly known as the LoBAG) diet for a decade now, although her work stretches back into the 70s. She is persistent in her efforts to understand the benefits of reduced carbohydrate and increased protein in helping to reverse the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

Zoe Harcombe has been researching obesity for a couple of decades now. A UK writer, researcher, and nutritionist, her book, The Obesity Epidemic, is giving readers on the other side of the pond a different perspective on nutrition.

hartke is online podcast

Kimberly Hartke puts the “life” in lifestyle changes as the publicist for the Weston A Price Foundation. She’s collected enough stories from being on the front lines of the nutrition revolution to write a book, which I am truly hoping she will do one day soon.

Weigh loss success story

Misty Humphrey’s warmth and humor permeate her writing and advice on diet and health.   If there was ever a way to screw up getting healthy Misty’s done it and she’s honest and funny as she tells her story and helps her readers avoid the same pitfalls.

Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth is not just another story of someone who found that their favored way of eating didn’t work and—prestochango—transformed themselves and their health by discovering The Truth About Food. The power of her book lies in her examination of the beautiful myth that underlies vegetarian thinking—that we can somehow peacefully eat our way to personal and global health without any regard for ourselves as critters who—just like all other critters—must function within an ecosystem that is nothing but one expression of eat/be eaten after another. I like to put her book on the shelf next to Jonathan Safran Foer’s goofball Eating Animals, which amounts to little more than a literary snuggie for vegans (JSF considers the American Dietetic Association the very last word in science-based nutrition information <guffaw>). I expect The Vegetarian Myth to simply drain the ink off the pages of Eating Animals out of sheer proximity.

CarbSane’s Evelyn Kocur, shows us–and the rest of the world–what the focused energy of one cranky woman who thinks we’ve been fed a load of crap looks like. Although I’m not a fan of her style—after years of listening to my mother scream, even reading someone else’s raging makes me want to hide under the bed—I can nevertheless admire the no-holds-barred way she skips the warm fuzzies and goes straight for the jugular. I really wish–every now and then–that I could pull that off.  Even when she’s missed the target by a mile, I have to give her credit for sheer firepower.

Sally Fallon Morrell is the director and co-founder (along with Dr. Mary Enig) of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Sally Fallon Morrell is a mother of four and a force of nature who doesn’t mince words. She’s ticked off at least one person in the paleo movement with regard to her stance on saturated fat, but—as far as I can tell—he’s ended up changing his position on the subject; she hasn’t changed hers.

Patty Siri-Tarino, PhD, is lead author of the meta-analysis on the lack of association between saturated fat and heart disease that changed the nature of conversation about nutrition and prevention of chronic disease.

No pink fluffy weights for Krista Scott-Dixon

Krista Scott-Dixon is the first person I found on the internet who said lifting big heavy things is for women too. She taught me—and countless numbers of other women–how to squat and that feminist theory and nutrition do so go together. And she makes fart jokes. You could really just not bother reading anything else I write and just read her stuff. Case in point: a free e-book entitled, Fuck Calories. (As Krista says: Yes, this book has cuss words. Many of them. Deal with it. Hey, it’s free. You get what the fuck you pay for.) Could she get any cooler? She’s married to a rocket scientist.

Mary Vernon MD has been at the forefront of reduced-carbohydrate nutrition for many years as a leader at the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. This group has partnered with the Nutrition and Metabolism Society to encourage conversation within the scientific/academic/clinical setting about reduced-carbohydrate nutrition: its pros and cons; the science behind it; and its clinical application. When national nutrition policy eventually catches on, it will be due in no small part to the fact that Mary Vernon and ASBP have already been offering this nutrition option to patients for years.

Regina Wilshire is the inspiration for a folder on my desktop entitled, Regina Brilliance. She is full of common sense and uncommon smarts. Wife, mother, and tireless blogger, her Weight of the Evidence (now on facebook too) has been a resource for intelligent and insightful commentary on nutrition since 2005. In the midst of the PubMed duels we so often find ourselves wrapped up in, her posts on eating well on a food stamp budget bring a welcome reality check.

Daisy Zamora PhD fought battle after battle (a story she’s agreed to let me tell one day) to publish her groundbreaking research on why our one-size-fits-all diet may be especially devastating to the health of minorities. It is not difficult to imagine why the powers-that-be would not want this indictment of the failure of our dietary recommendations to be made public. But beyond being a quiet crusader for rethinking our current dietary paradigm, she recognizes the importance and centrality of food in our lives and health. You have no idea how rare it is in the world of academic nutrition experts to find someone who eats and cooks and talks about food—as opposed to nutrients in food—and, get this, appears to actually like the stuff!

Let me know who’s on your list, or who I should add.

Plus, if that’s not enough, I found that, in putting together this list, many of the women I admire in the field of nutrition are–gasp–Registered Dietitians. Since RDs catch so much crap from the rest of the alternative nutrition community about being mindless-Academy-of-Nutrition-and-Dietetics-robots, I thought I’d put together a list of RDs who have inspired me to continue to work towards better health for all, despite our own professional organization’s insistence on using USDA/HHS policy as if it is science and its wince-inducing reliance on both food and pharma funding.

Next up: Where the Women Are, RD edition.

N of 1 Nutrition Part 2: Biochemistry and Nutrition Policy – The Great Divorce

Full disclosure: I happen to love biochemistry. I have a favorite transcription factor (ChREBP) and a favorite neurotrophic factor (BDNF). I think proteins are beautiful. If I were a biochemist who had discovered a novel protein, I would carry a picture of it around with me in my wallet.

An absolutely fabulous (looking) protein.

The animal and cells models used in biochemistry are great for looking at genetics, epigenetics, at biological mechanisms, and how these things interact. We can manipulate these models in ways that we can’t with humans, and this has given us some crucial insights into mechanisms, especially neural and epigenetic ones—critical to understanding the effects of nutrition—that would be virtually impossible to study in humans.

Nutritional biochemistry can also wear the mantle of “objective-er than thou” when it comes to science. As one of the biochem profs at UNC noted: If you have to use statistics to discuss the results of your experiment, you need to redesign your experiment. Sure, the questions asked, the interpretation of results, and what gets published in biochem are influenced by funding sources, social/scientific contexts and dominant paradigms. But unless you are a truly bad scientist, you can’t make the experimental results come out in a way that supports your hypothesis.

(This is in marked contrast to observational studies in nutrition epidemiology where the whole point of the data analysis “experiment” is to find results that support your hypothesis. Sometimes you don’t find them, and those findings should be reported, although they may not be because who’s to know?  Just you and your SAS files. My point is that you are actively seeking results that confirm a particular idea, and this just might influence what “results” are found. More on this in another post.)

But beyond the utility and elegance of nutritional biochemistry, the problems with regard to health policy are two-fold.

The first problem: In many ways, nutrition policy has become almost completely divorced from the basic science investigations done in biochemistry. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)—the committee of scientists that, at least theoretically, reviews the science upon which the US Dietary Guidelines are based—started in 1985 as mostly MDs and biochemistry professors. As time went on, the DGAC became more heavily populated with epidemiologists. This would be fine if epidemiology was meant to generate conclusive (or even semi-conclusive) results. It isn’t. Epidemiology gives us associations and relationships that are meant to be understood through a reasonably plausible, preferably known, biological mechanism. Note these interesting conclusions from the 2010 DGAC Report and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines policy document with regard to dietary cholesterol:

Here’s our mechanism: Exogenous, or dietary, cholesterol down-regulates cholesterol synthesis in the liver to maintain cholesterol balance.”
[D3-1, Reference 1, emphasis mine]

Here’s our epidemiology: Traditionally, because dietary cholesterol has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and high intakes induce atherosclerosis in observational studies, the prevailing recommendation has been to restrict dietary cholesterol intake, including otherwise healthy foods such as eggs.”
[D3-2, Reference 1, emphasis mine, “induce”? really? how does one “observe” that cholesterol “induces” atherosclerosis? I’m assuming committee fatigue had set in at this point because that word should have been “are associated with”]

Here’s our policy recommendation: Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.”
[Ch. 3, p. 21, Reference 2]

See, wasn’t that easy?

This brings me to the second problem, which is sort of the flip-side of the first: Biochemical processes that are understood primarily through mouse or cell models only work as the basis for dietary recommendations for chronic disease if you’re making them for cells or mice.

As one of my favorite professors in the Nutrition department likes to quip, “We know how to cure obesity—in mice. We know how to cure diabetes—in mice. We have all the knowledge we need to keep our rodent population quite healthy.” Obviously this knowledge has not been translatable to humans. In some ways, basic nutrition biochemistry should be divorced from public health policy.

The reason for this is that the equivalency of animal models to humans is limited in ways that go beyond simple biological comparisons—although the biological differences are significant.

Mouse large intestinal tract, courtesy of Comparative Anatomy and Histology: A Mouse and Human Atlas, edited by Piper M. Treuting, Suzanne M. Dintzis

My knowledge of comparative physiology is limited at best, but my understanding is that most rodents used in nutrition biochemistry work (rats included) have a cecum (an intestinal pouch that facilitates the breakdown of cellulose), an adaptation that would be necessary in a diet composed of hard-to-digest plant material such as seeds and grains. Because this process is not terribly efficient, many rodents also recycle nutrients by eating their feces. Humans don’t have a functional cecum for fermentation; we don’t tend to reingest our own poops (or anyone else’s poop, unless you’re starring in a John Waters film) in order to extract further nutrition from them as our bodies are already very efficient at this during the first go-round.

Furthermore, due to inherent difference in physiology, animals may not accurately model the physiological conditions that produce disease in humans. For example, in some species of rodents, a high fat diet will induce insulin resistance, but there is no definitive evidence that higher fat intake per se impairs insulin sensitivity in humans [3]. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but likely has something to do with the diet each species has consumed throughout its evolution. In a natural setting, rodents may do well on a diet of mostly grains. On the other hand, humans in a natural setting would do okay on a diet of mostly rodents.

What is more critical is that animal and cell life can’t imitate the complex environmental inputs that humans encounter throughout their lives and during each day. Animals and cells only get to consume what they are given. If you’ve ever been at a conference where the breakfast is low-fat muffins, whole grain bagels, fat-free yogurt, orange juice, and fruit, you know what that feels like. But typically our food choices are influenced by a multitude of factors. Mice, unlike humans, cannot be adversely affected by labeling information on a box of Lucky Charms.

Mice don’t know that whole grains are supposed to be good for you.
Bad on them.

Does that matter? You bet it does.

Where do most Americans get their nutrition information these days? From media sources including the internet, from their grocery stores, from the packages holding the food they buy. People who have never read a nutrition book, much less the actual Dietary Guidelines, still “know” fat is bad and whole grain is good [4, 5]. These environmental exposures affect food choices. Whether or not the person still decides to consume food with a high fat content depends on another set of cultural factors that might include socioeconomic status, education, race or ethnicity, age, gender—in other words, things we can’t even begin to replicate in animal or cell models.

Human biochemistry is unique and complex, as are our social and cultural conditions, making it very difficult to study how these primary contributors to health and food choices are related to each other.

Can we do a better job with nutritional epidemiology? I know you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the next episode in the unfolding drama, N of 1 Nutrition, when we get to hear Walter Willett say:

“I never met a statistical man I didn’t like.”

Stay tuned.

References:

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Accessed July 15, 2010. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-DGACReport.htm

2. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-PolicyDocument.htm Accessed January 31, 2010

3. Report of the Panel on Macronutrients, Subcommittees on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients and Interpretation and Uses of Dietary Reference Intakes, and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference 4. Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2005.

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

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

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

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

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

From the works of Eric Berne and Stephen Karpman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who is to blame? Hmm. Good question.

Government?

Policymakers doing what policymakers do: making policy.

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

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

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

Industry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science?

The only really bad scientists I know.

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

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

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

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

Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Mottern, N. Correspondence.

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?

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].

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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.