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.

The Mobius Strip of Policy Change


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let’s take school lunches.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Big Fat Liars

Since 1980, Americans have gotten progressively more lazy and gluttonous. As if this were not bad enough, apparently about 2/3 of the population—the fat 2/3 of the population—have also become unrepentant liars. Although we have no way to explain this precipitous decline in the moral fiber of Americans, we know it must be happening because Americans seem to be getting fatter and fatter even though many of these fat Americans report that they are not eating more calories than their normal-weight, honest, hard-working counterparts.

It seems that when we gave the USDA and HHS the responsibility for determining what food was healthy for each of as individuals, Government Approved Nutrition Experts also developed a magical ability (in Nutrition, we love magic!) to tell the difference between what was Truly True and what was a Big Fat Lie. Here’s a response I got to a food record assignment during an introductory Nutrition course:

Question: What are your barriers to meeting the MyPyramid recommendations? (In other words, what might prevent you from consuming the recommended amount of each food group?)
My answer (after describing the low-carb diet that I used to lose weight and improve my migraines):I have a history of glucose intolerance and overweight/obesity.  Past a certain point of consumption, carbohydrates make me gain weight, raise my blood     pressure, reduce my energy levels, give me migraines, make my blood sugar wonky, and leave me hungry and cranky.  I stick to fiber-rich, nutrient-dense, non-starchy vegetables for my carbohydrates, although I do eat fruit when it is in season locally.
Instructor’s response (I am not making this up):  It is actually the total calories that make you gain weight, not the carbohydrates.  The high fat intake would be more detrimental than the whole grains and fiber rich vegetables.  Refined carbohydrates would cause the symptoms you describe but using whole grains and high fiber fruits and vegetables should not do so.  You need carbohydrate for your brain to function.  It does not function on fat and protein calories.  In fact eating a low carbohydrate diet such as you describe would make you tired, give you migraines, make you hungry and cranky.

Silly me! Of course the Nutrition Expert knows what REALLY caused my weight gain and migraines. Obviously the lack of carbohydrate to my brain prevented me from realizing her innate superiority at understanding and interpreting my own personal experiences. Either that or I’m just a Big Fat Liar.

Let me introduce you to another Nutrition Expert with the magical ability to tell Truth from Fat People Fiction–Michael Pollan:

Consider: When the study began, the average participant weighed in at 170 pounds and claimed to be eating 1,800 calories a day. It would take an unusual metabolism to maintain that weight on so little food. And it would take an even freakier metabolism to drop only one or two pounds after getting down to a diet of 1,400 to 1,500 calories a day — as the women on the “low-fat” regimen claimed to have done. Sorry, ladies, but I just don’t buy it. (Pollan M. Unhappy Meals)

The women in the Women’s Health Initiative (to which Pollan refers) are: Female. Post-menopausal. Overweight. From my experience at the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic (director, Dr. Eric Westman), just about any woman who met those three criteria exhibited this sort of “freaky metabolism.” Not only is it possible for a woman in that hormonal situation to maintain her weight on 1800 kcals/day, it may be absolutely impossible for her to lose weight on 1400-1500 kcals/day—if she’s eating foods that enhance fat storage and prevent fat utilization (carbs, I’m lookin’ at you). In fact, not only did I see many other women like this in clinic, I stopped losing weight myself (at 185 pounds) eating 1200-1500 calories a day—and I wasn’t even postmenopausal. But then, at that point, I wasn’t a Nutrition Expert either. Not like Michael Pollan.

I always wonder why Mr. Investigative Journalist/Nutrition Expert Pollan didn’t go out find a few real live overweight, post-menopausal women and ask them what their personal experiences were with weight loss instead of simply discounting the experiences—and calling into question the humanity and integrity—of the “ladies” in the study. Oh wait, if the ladies he interviews are overweight, they’d all just LIE to him!

Anyway, why ask a real person, when you have Science on your side? Here’s a nutrition textbook explaination just how it is that we KNOW fat people lie:

Another approach to check for underreporting is to compare reported usual energy intake with resting energy expenditure calculated using various equations . . . If a subject’s reported usual energy intake is <1.2 times his or her calculated REE, underreporting of energy, and therefore nutrient, intake is highly likely. (Lee & Nieman, 2007).

In other words, if fat people don’t eat as much as we think they should be eating according to calculations that are known to be notoriously inaccurate, they must be “underreporting” (this is a complicated Scientific Term that means “lying about”) how much they eat. In my current Obesity class at UNC, Dr. Andrew Swick has confirmed—through evaluations done in a metabolic chamber—that some overweight/obese women have energy requirements as low as 1200-1300 calories (hmm, “freaky metabolism” maybe?),  requirements that would be far below “calculated requirements” referred to above. Dr. Swick pointed out to us that some fat people don’t, in fact, eat that much food.

But we should never let reality stand in the way of Government Approved Nutrition Information (code name: GAIN). Our good buddies at the USDA and HHS prepared this helpful chart for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report to show how many calories Americans are consuming compared to the recommended ranges:

The vertical lines are recommended calorie ranges; the pink triangles are the average calorie intake in each group. Caloric intake appears to be within the recommended range for all age levels; adult women in general seem to be consuming at the very low end of their caloric range, about as many calories as a preschool male. That’s right, women over the age of 50 eat, on average, about as much food as 2-5 year old boys.

This must be more of that “freaky metabolism” thing to which Mr. Pollan refers. Or—wait—maybe they are all just LYING (the old ladies, not the little boys): the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans go on to say, “While these estimates do not appear to be excessive, the numbers are difficult to interpret because survey respondents, especially individuals who are overweight or obese, often underreport dietary intake.” And we know what “underreport” means, right?

According the USDA and HHS, Americans aren’t fat because they are told to eat foods they don’t need to eat, Americans are fat because they eat too much–and then lie about it.

So, let me sum this up for the folks at home:

Fat people say that they don’t eat more calories than their normal weight (and apparently morally superior) counterparts.  But we know they are lying because Nutrition Experts—like Michael Pollan—KNOW how much fat people eat should be eating (i.e. A LOT of food—otherwise, golly, they wouldn’t be so darn fat).  ).  He KNOWS this because he’s a Nutrition Expert and because we have scientists who have calculations that tell us how much fat people are supposed to eat (i.e. A LOT) so when fat people say they don’t each as much as scientists think they eat (i.e. A LOT), well then, the only possible explanation for that is that the fat people are LYING!  And if that’s not enough evidence for you (and really, it should be), you can absolutely believe that that fat people LIE about how much they eat because the Government says they do.

And the government never lies.

References:

Lee RD and Nieman DC. Nutritional Assessment, 4th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007.

Pollan M. Unhappy Meals. The New York Times Magazine, January 28, 2007

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. June 15, 2010.

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.

If Nutrition Experts Built Bridges–

If you are an engineer, your plan—bottom line, no fudging about—has to WORK. All. The. Time. It’s what we expect from engineers.

On the other hand, if you are a Government-Approved Nutrition Expert, your plan doesn’t have to work AT ALL.

Which may be why we don’t let Nutrition Experts build bridges.

To ensure a more impressive rate of success, engineers tend to build their bridges and elevators based on a few mysterious but fundamental concepts like physics (or as we say around here, fweezix). Now, to paraphrase Barbie, I understand that physics is TOUGH. But it is also, well, insurmountably the real deal, and anything that defies the laws of physics is generally—for lack of a better word—considered to be magic.

Now, from my biochemistry classes, it looks like the principles of nutrition are built on chemistry, and the principles of chemistry are built on—you guessed it!—politics physics But when I step across the hall to my public health classes, then the principles of nutrition are based on the Dietary Guidelines, which—as they tend to be in defiance of the laws of physics—I guess must be magic!

Despite the rockin’ groove, I’m not sure that I believe in magic.

But Calories In = Calories out is not magic, it’s physics, right? It seems indisputable—a veritable law of thermodynamics—that if you consume fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight. Conversely, if you consume more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. Duh.

Sometimes when things aren’t working (i.e. major bridge oopie ), we get a glimpse of the realities of the physics behind the system. Let’s take a look at a category of individuals that do lose weight easily—too easily: Type 1 diabetics. A type 1 diabetic could eat 5000 calories a day, never move a muscle, and still lose weight (for the record: this is not a good thing). What happens to those calories? Why don’t they get stored as fat (hello? calories IN?) A type 1 diabetic can’t store them as fat. Why not? No insulin. Without insulin, the body cannot store energy at all. Type I diabetics must be given insulin or they literally waste away. It’s not because they try harder; it’s because of physics.

What this means is that it can’t just be the amount of calories that we are consuming, but also the source. And in the case of unnecessary carbohydrates in the diet, it’s likely to be both. The increase in caloric intake we’ve seen in the past 30 years has come almost entirely from industrialized carbohydrate food products—subsidized and endorsed by the USDA.

Would obesity rates have skyrocketed without the Guidelines prompting Americans to eat fewer animal products—especially meat and eggs which contain Very Scary saturated fat and cholesterol—and more whole grain cereal products? We’ll never know. But physics does tell us that carbohydrate foods have particular qualities that affect fat storage and metabolism, specifically: “A high carbohydrate meal stimulates the production of insulin. Insulin inhibits the body’s ability to use fat for energy and stimulates the uptake of fat and its storage as triacylglycerol” (Campbell & Farrell, 2009). That’s straight from my biochemistry textbook.

Now I don’t care if you eat carbs or not. Some of my best friends are carbs. But can we stop pretending that somehow—magically—there’s no relationship between the two figures above?

Apparently we can’t. According to many Nutrition Experts, including Marion Nestle, our low-fat Dietary Guidelines can be blamed only in that they do not do more to “address caloric intake, portion size, inactivity, and other contributors to obesity” (Woolf & Nestle, 2008). Notice that “caloric intake,” “portion size” and “inactivity” are all things that are our fault—in contrast to a diet recommendation of mostly carbohydrates, something the USDA and HHS are responsible for. In other words, if chubby little Americans can’t “achieve energy balance” by eating less and exercising more, it’s not because the Guidelines aren’t helping us, it’s because we are simply not trying hard enough.

(True Confession: I mostly just wanted to draw that cartoon.)

Should we reduce our calories? Maybe not a bad idea for some folks.

What kind of calories should we reduce? Ask an engineer. Unless you believe in magic . . .

References:

Campbell MK, Farrell SO. Biochemistry, 6th ed. United States: Thomson, 2009. p. 730.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Trends in intake of energy and macronutrients–United States, 1971-2000. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2004 Feb 6;53(4):80-2.

Woolf SH, Nestle M. Do dietary guidelines explain the obesity epidemic? American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2008 Mar;34(3):263-5.

Fat? Blame Mom

“Adverse factors encountered during fetal life have the dual effect of perturbing prenatal growth patterns and establishing a pre-susceptibility to major disease states in adult life”

Langley Evans: Proc Nutr Soc. 2001;60(4):505-13.

Jimmy Moore of Livin’ La Vida Low Carb wrote a great post recently entitled “When Does Being Fat Become Your Fault?”  In it he states that his weight is 295 pounds. I would guess that’s accurate.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Jimmy many times & he’s a big guy. From what I understand, so was Dr. Atkins of the Atkins Diet fame. So is my 18-year old son.

In the past, when people meet some of the vocal and active members of the low-carb community who don’t necessarily match expectations of what a socially-acceptable “healthy” weight would be, I’ve been asked if the whole low-carb thing is a farce. Maybe people feel comfortable posing this question to me because I’m not heavy (anymore). And I think I can say that my weight loss journey was probably a little easier for me than for others, but not because I have more willpower or I just don’t eat that much (I love food!!). It may be because my mother insisted that I eat an egg for breakfast every morning as a child. I wasn’t there to check this out, but I assume that’s how she ate when she was pregnant with me. We were a meat-at-every-meal family. Why am I telling you this? Because it matters.

Epigenetics is a new term that gets used a lot without people know just exactly what it means. Simply put, epigenetics is the study of how the environment (especially the prenatal environment) can effect gene expression, as opposed to changing the genetic material itself. This means that certain metabolic features that are controlled by our genetic material—for instance, hormones, enzymes, appetite regulation signaling factors—may be upregulated or downregulated due to influences from our environment.

The effect of prenatal environment—including diet—on how genes are expressed can then in turn effect how we end up interacting with our current environment. Some folks get a “triple whammy”—genes that code for obesity, a prenatal environment that affects the expression of those and other genes, and an obesogenic environment. Can we honestly say that these folks have some character flaw that makes being fat their fault?


There are many things beyond our control, especially intrauterine environment, which have a primary impact on how much we weight as adults–perhaps even more impact than our current dietary habits.  I know this personally because my son, who was born when I was in my most strict vegetarian phase, has had much more trouble with his weight than my son whose pregnancy was one in which the doctor insisted that I eat high quality protein–at every single meal (unheard of for me).  My “vegetarian phase” pregnancy was a difficult one. I was on bed rest or in the hospital most of my last trimester; my son was born 6 weeks early anyway. He was a skinny little kid, but as soon as adolescence kicked in (a hyperinsulinemic phase in general), he began gaining weight.

  • In terms of genetics, he got flat feet and a large build (his father’s side)
  • In terms of epigenetics, he got a vegetarian mother who ate little fat and protein while he was swimming about in utero.
  • In terms of environment, he got a vegetarian mother through his first 6 years of life; now he has a college dining hall to contend with.


His fasting insulin is higher than “normal,” (a likely result of my eating habits, not his), so he has an uphill battle even though he lifts weights, is active, and eats a low-carb diet.  He does pretty well, but imagine if he’d first spent years trying to control his weight with a high-carb, low-fat diet?

That’s just my n=1 perspective. But if what he experienced is a real effect, imagine the population-size effect. It might look a lot like the obesity and diabetes rates we are experiencing now. So what does the science tell us about that possibility? Here’s a brief glance, much of it courtesy of a lecture by Dr. Linda Adair in Fall 2009.

If the mother’s supply of nutrients does not meet the demands of the fetus, there are a few adaptive measures that take place:

  • The fetus will grow less, but maintain head & brain circumference at the expense of skeletal muscle and some other organs.
  • The fetus will become more metabolically efficient as endocrine function is altered to enhance survival.

From animal studies, scientists have seen that, even with normal nutrition after birth, adult offspring of prenatally malnourished mothers have:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Abnormal glucose tolerance
  • Impaired inflammatory response
  • More body fat
  • Eat more
  • Move less

Hmmm. Should we assume that these mice have some sort of lack of willpower or other character flaw?


Vickers, M. H. et al. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 285: R271-R273 2003;

From epidemiology studies, especially the Dutch Hunger Winter, we’ve seen that exposure to famine during pregnancy results in higher rates of markers of insulin resistance and higher rates of obesity in adults. Note the type of nutrients that were most restricted during the “Hunger Winter” were protein and fat.  In fact, the protein-to-carbohydrate ratio has been shown to be the most predictive marker with regards to some of the negative health outcomes in adulthood.


Calories derived from carbohydrate, protein, and fat in the official daily rations provided between April 1941 and April 1947.  

Follow-up studies for the Dutch Hunger Winter and other famine or near-famine situations show that babies conceived during nutrient-restricted periods grow up to have increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, obesity, high blood pressure, and other negative health outcomes in adulthood.

Other population studies have shown a consistent association between low weight for length at birth (a possible sign that the body is selectively nourishing the brain rather than the body, see above) and impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.


In the Nurses’ Health Study, smaller babies grew up to have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Other factors, such as environmental toxins may pre-dispose kids to obesity, either as children or later in life.

People who may be affected by these epigenetic mechanisms may be metabolically—not psychologically—inclined to eat more and move less. It’s not a character flaw; it’s a biological imperative. It is what their bodies are telling them to do. At what point do we stop blaming these people (who may now make up a majority of our population) and start trying to figure out how to assist them with their efforts to be healthy?

I don’t want to go all mama grizzly on people, but my blood pressure goes through the roof when I hear my classmates make comments like:

“Well, any diet intervention is going to show an improvement in obese people. They’ve been stuffing their faces with tons of calories before this.”

and

“People are fat because they eat too much. Period.”

I think of all the wonderful people I met at the clinic. Of myself. Of Jimmy. And my son. I can count on one hand the number of overweight/obese people I’ve met whom I think actually fit these generalizations.

The thing about the low-carb approach is that it attracts people who have been unsuccessful any other way–for a good reason.  A highly dysregulated system needs a stronger intervention.  It isn’t going to turn someone with a dysregulated system into a model-thin person, but it will often allow them to lower insulin levels to the point where good health is an achievable goal, even if it doesn’t come with a socially-approved weight. Let me emphasize: I do not think low-carb is the only way to do this, but it certainly should be considered as an option.

Until we can move past our “calories-in, calories out,” preconceived notions about what constitutes “healthy” food and what makes people fat, we are doing much of the population a tremendous injustice. Our refusal to entertain any other theories besides the current high carb/low fat dietary regime (which is still, after all, a theory although it is treated as a fact) is possibly the worst failure in public health since the rejection of germ theory in the 19th century. My son is the funniest person I know, and he doesn’t hate me for my very-likely part in mucking up his metabolism. He deserves better.

References:

de Rooij SR, Painter RC, Holleman F, Bossuyt PM, Roseboom TJ. The metabolic syndrome in adults prenatally exposed to the Dutch famine. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Oct;86(4):1219-24.

Heijmans BT, Tobi EW, Stein AD, Putter H, Blauw GJ, Susser ES, Slagboom PE, Lumey LH.Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 4;105(44):17046-9. Epub 2008 Oct 27

Langley-Evans SC. Fetal programming of cardiovascular function through exposure to maternal undernutrition. Proc Nutr Soc. 2001 Nov;60(4):505-13. Review

Painter RC, de Rooij SR, Bossuyt PM, de Groot E, Stok WJ, Osmond C, Barker DJ, Bleker OP, Roseboom TJ. Maternal nutrition during gestation and carotid arterial compliance in the adult offspring: the Dutch famine birth cohort. J Hypertens. 2007 Mar;25(3):533-40.

Rich-Edwards JW, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC, Gillman MW, Hennekens CH, Speizer FE, Manson JE.Birthweight and the risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus in adult women. Ann Intern Med. 1999 Feb 16;130(4 Pt 1):278-84.

Vickers MH, Breier BH, McCarthy D, Gluckman PD. Sedentary behavior during postnatal life is determined by the prenatal environment and exacerbated by postnatal hypercaloric nutrition. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2003 Jul;285(1):R271-3

Just what the world needs – another blog

My blog reflects my own efforts to begin to translate what I learn about science into meaningful information, policy input, and dinner. This is science put into practice, in the kitchen and in my advocacy work.

Here’s the problem as I see it, plain and simple:

Really, though, there’s nothing simple about it. As a student of epidemiology I must claim that this only shows an association, not cause-effect. Whether the Guidelines “caused” the rapid rise in obesity has yet to be determined, but it’s clear that they certainly did not prevent it. To me, what is more interesting is why nutrition epidemiologists aren’t all over this particular—and remarkably obvious– association trying to figure it out. Instead, I read study after study on the arcuate nucleus and the “built” environment and circadian rhythms and the health belief model and how these things contribute to obesity—and virtually no one says “Um, excuse me, but what about the one public policy piece that since 1980 has influenced every single aspect of our food environment from our cultural norms to how nutrition research gets funded and everything in between?  You know, the Dietary Guidelines?”

As Dr. Su from Carbohydrates Can Kill said, it is like there is an invisible electric fence when it comes to questioning our national dietary policy. Scientists just don’t go there.

So of course, I want to go there.

Although I love nothing more than a romantic evening for one at PubMed, don’t expect a lot of article-jousting here. Frequently those arguments (leptin insulin ghrelin, oh my!) boil down to a collection of snapshots from experimental data that may or may not create a physiologically significant or practically useful collage.  I spent a few years at the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic working with patients who were overweight/obese and frequently struggling with diabetes. This experience has focused my interests on the interactions between biology, culture, and the individual and how these influences become manifest in individual differences and population-wide similarities with regards to nutritional needs, food choices, and consumption patterns (a framework borrowed from anthropology and applied to eating, hence the name of the blog).

In addition, my experiences so far in graduate school—including an interning stint at the American Dietetic Association’s Washington, DC office—have made it very clear that when it comes to the science of nutrition, the playing field is far from level. In fact, I’m not sure our current crisis can be solved by science, or certainly not by science alone. Since the advent of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980, all aspects of nutrition research have become warped by industry and politics. And–as any grad student can tell you—the most political industry of all is the scientific/academic one.

At the same time, I’m not here to wring my hands in anguish. I’m actively trying to figure out what to do about this mess we’re in. I’d love all the feedback and help and ideas I can get from anyone with enough time on their hands to wade through my musings. Let’s save the world & have fun doing it.