For the Last Time, What Should We Eat?
With $5 million in seed money from billionaire philanthropists, a new nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI, pronounced new-see) has found its footing and will begin the work of figuring out, “once and for all,” what makes a healthy diet and what we can do to reverse the obesity epidemic. Co-founder and science journalist Gary Taubes has been arguing for some time that today’s dietary guidelines and theories about the causes of obesity are based on bad science. NuSI, therefore, will focus on “improving the quality of science in nutrition and obesity research” as it searches for answers.
On its website, NuSI lays out what it believes is the problem with the science behind current dietary guidelines:
1. Authority and consensus of opinion are treated as scientific fact even in the absence of rigorous experimentation.
2. Observational studies, which only determine correlation, have been used erroneously to assign cause and effect between associations.
3. Negative evidence (e.g., evidence not supporting current hypotheses) is ignored.
4. Poorly controlled experiments and observational studies form the basis of dietary recommendations.
In response, NuSI proposes to design studies that are far more rigorous and scientifically sound — including controlled experiments and large-scale, long-term studies — and, as stated in a press release, it will call on “independent researchers from varying backgrounds and divergent beliefs. The combination of skeptical experts holding opposing theories, coupled with the shared belief that nutrition science in its current state is inadequate, demands that the findings will be based on rigorous science rather than popular opinion.”
Yet, however divergent the researchers’ backgrounds and beliefs may be, it’s worth taking note of the founders’ own biases and experiences. As John Horgan of Scientific American reminds us, there’s no such thing as objective science.
On his Scientific American blog, Horgan tells us that years ago NuSI co-founder Gary Taubes “struggled with his weight. Exercise didn’t help him slim down, he said, but the Atkins diet did.” Based on this experience, it appears, Taubes went on to write two influential books citing evidence of the benefits of a low-carb, Atkins-type diet. Today, he continues to eat “lots of meat, cheese, eggs, butter, oil and nuts and avoids bread, pasta, rice, cookies, soft drinks and even fruit and vegetables.”
Likewise for Peter Attia, the other NuSI co-founder. He, too, follows a low-carb diet and encourages his young daughter to have bacon and eggs for breakfast. In one blog post, he discredits the work of T. Colin Campbell, “the most influential current example of observational epidemiology” from one of the country’s leading proponents of veganism. Against Dr. Campbell’s claims that “the science is clear” and “the results are unmistakable,” Attia, who “wholeheartedly” believes Campbell is wrong, argues “he has not done any real science to advance the discussion and hypotheses he espouses.” In short, Attia disagrees that meat causes cancer and heart disease and that a whole foods, plant-based diet is best for health.
This is not to say that NuSI’s researchers will ultimately find in favor of its founders’ own meat-based diets, and it will be interesting to see what they discover. Whatever they do discover, however, won’t change my mind about what I believe constitutes a healthy diet. To my mind, there is no one-size-fits-all diet. In a review of Taubes’s “Why We Get Fat” in The New York Times, Abigail Zuger, a physician, notes that “in virtually all head-to-head comparisons of various diet plans, the average long-term results have invariably been quite similar — mediocre all around.” Given the “remarkable diversity of the human organism,” she adds, perhaps “it is foolish to expect a single diet to serve all comers.”
What I often look to for insight into what to eat — over rigorous science, clinical studies and dietary guidelines — is evidence about what has worked for people throughout the world and history before the industrialization of food. Did flourishing societies o’er the world all follow an Atkins-type diet? Are the USDA’s five food groups, said to be the building blocks of a healthy diet, relevant for people in every corner of the world? On the African continent alone, dietary researcher Weston A. Price observed tribes whose traditional diets showed wide variation — from the carnivorous Masai to the largely vegetarian, insect-scavenging Bantu to the pescetarian, grains-focused Dinkas — and each one of them had rare incidence of any degenerative disease.
What kind of diet do you follow? What’s your philosophy on healthy eating?
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