Ask someone for their beliefs on diet and health and hopefully they’ll be able to come up with a somewhat cogent answer. But ask them how they came to adopt those beliefs and for most the answer won’t be quite as easy to come by. The truth is our perception of health, like much else, is the product of many years’ worth of experiences, not a singular moment of revelation or discovery; so in this way we can ‘know’ things even though the origin of those beliefs may be lost on us. The problem being that the longer we believe something the more ingrained it becomes, thus making it that much more difficult to expunge should it be necessary. When you consider something as fundamental and topical as diet and health and factor in the nascence of nutrition science and its changing landscape -
especially given the bulk of research produced in the past fifteen or so years – you’re left with a scenario very similar to our own: a society steeped in dietary dogma, most of which is based on decades-old research, and equipped with only a superficial understanding of even the most fundamental issues, if that. So what if it turns out that many of these ‘truths’ are actually false? What do we do then?
I say this because as I began to study health and nutrition glaring contradictions became commonplace. The conventional wisdom (check the link at the end of the section for a nice primer) which has come to dominate our attitudes and approach to health was made to seem suspect, even unfounded. This can be difficult because when we question long-held beliefs we’re forced to acknowledge the possibility that we were wrong – not something most of us particularly enjoy. I had no real basis for my beliefs, but during my ‘enlightenment’ I still clung to them with religious-like fervor, even in the face of compelling evidence. Why? I don’t know, though I’m guessing it’s some sort of intransigence hard-wired in males when faced with the possibility of being wrong about something. If you have similar reactions while reading this blog, I hope you can try to keep an open mind.
To understand how the prevailing conventional wisdom became so conventional, or why we came to believe what we believe in regards to diet and health, we have to go back to the 1950s and the emergence of nutrition science. In the 60 years since, the science has evolved as advances in medicine and technology have come at a brisk pace. As a result, our understanding of human physiology and the pathology of our most pernicious diseases has increased considerably. But obtaining knowledge and widely disseminating that knowledge are two different things, all too often separated by the machinations of those with motives not entirely synonymous with the public interest.
The article below, by scientist and author Gary Taubes, is fitting here for a few reasons. It deals with the history of the so-called diet-heart hypothesis, a theory advanced in the 1960s which implicated dietary fat as the causal agent responsible for heart disease, the first of its kind. What makes it particularly compelling is that much of our current belief system regarding diet and health traces its roots to this very debate and the legislation it prompted. As Taubes illustrates, the path from scientific discovery to public policy is a long, winding, oftentimes unnecessarily circuitous one, in which countless individuals representing various entities and industries with varying, often conflicting interests, wield significant influence over what becomes US policy or law (oftentimes at the expense of the citizens). Most importantly, this goes to show how a set of misguided, ill-informed policy measures made 40 years ago have managed to endure and dominate public opinion and health guidelines to this day, despite the body of evidence in opposition. It puts new perspective on the state of our public health crisis as we deal with epidemics like obesity and heart disease, and calls into question our approach to solving these problems. Furthermore, it raises serious concerns about the degree to which various factions play a role in making or influencing policy. While it is long, I hope you’ll get thru it because its import extends far beyond heart disease and suspect science, and it serves as a good primer for the health debate at large as well as much of what will be discussed on this site.