Over the past few weeks, I have awakened to hear snippets of stories such as this one on NPR about “the obesity epidemic.” The stories are all part of a series reporting on a recent poll undertaken by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. The poll looked at the attitudes and the self-reported actions of parents towards the ways their children ate and about their children’s activity levels.
Among the key findings of the survey highlighted in the NPR reports have been these two points:
- “Recent public opinion polls show that most American adults think obesity is a serious problem for society, but most parents in the poll here are not concerned their own children will become overweight as adults.”
- “In most cases, parents don’t seem to believe that the way their child ate on a given day is likely to make them gain unhealthy weight.”
The NPR story linked above blames a psychological factor known as “optimism bias,” and says that parents may think they are doing the right things, but really they are just poorly informed and/or deluding themselves.
Since this is an ongoing series on NPR, one can expect it to culminate with an interview with Michelle Obama or someone behind her “Let’s Move” campaign, or with a series of suggestions for more government action, or calls for more spending on government nutrition programs, or possibly with all of the above.
What hasn’t occurred to the geniuses at NPR, though, is that perhaps the parents really have been listening to the advice coming from the government and the media for the past twenty five years and they really do think they are doing the right things, but the advice is flawed.
Ronald Reagan famously remarked that “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” In recent years, Gary Taubes has become the best-known of those who have challenged the nutritional and dietary orthodoxy which has been promoting a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. Writing in Newsweek last spring, he explained that: “The problem is, the solutions this multi-level campaign promotes are the same ones that have been used to fight obesity for a century—and they just haven’t worked.”
Taubes makes the same point in varying levels of detail in many of his books. As he explains in the Newsweek article, “The authority figures in obesity and nutrition are so fixed on the simplistic calorie-balance idea that they’re willing to ignore virtually any science to hold on to it.” The Newsweek article cited above is just one of the most concise explanations of his theory.
And what he recommends runs counter to most of what the nutrition establishment has been saying for many years:
So what should we eat? The latest clinical trials suggest that all of us would benefit from fewer (if any) sugars and fewer refined grains (bread, pasta) and starchy vegetables (potatoes). This was the conventional wisdom through the mid-1960s, and then we turned the grains and starches into heart-healthy diet foods and the USDA enshrined them in the base of its famous Food Guide Pyramid as the staples of our diet. That this shift coincides with the obesity epidemic is probably not a coincidence. As for those of us who are overweight, experimental trials, the gold standard of medical evidence, suggest that diets that are severely restricted in fattening carbohydrates and rich in animal products—meat, eggs, cheese—and green leafy vegetables are arguably the best approach, if not the healthiest diet to eat. Not only does weight go down when people eat like this, but heart disease and diabetes risk factors are reduced. Ethical arguments against meat-eating are always valid; health arguments against it can no longer be defended.
The media and government establishments, however, have committed themselves so fully to a different message that while the lamestream press might publish a Taubes article now and then, mostly they view him as a dangerous heretic and keep reporting the same kinds of things they have been reporting since the late 1980s.
One needn’t take Taubes’ word as authoritative to recognize the validity in his obsevations. A number of other authors and scientists have been making the same or similar points. One of my favorite sites for reading about nutrition and health is the blog Whole Health Source, which is maintained by Stephan Guyenet, a researcher at the University of Washington.
Guyenet’s site is noteworthy as a nexus for a number of strands in what might be called the alternative and “ancestral” nutrition movement, one that encompasses the views of devotees of Taubes, as well as those who are concerned about diabetes, those who have embraced the paleo or primal diets, and those who are interested in the teachings of Weston Price, an American dentist who traveled the world documenting the connections between nutrition and physical health in many different cultures. There are key differences between all of these groups, but they are similar in that they all challenge, question, or reject the messages about diet put forward by the lamestream press, government agencies, and the nutrition establishment.
I might add that, even in the era of Obama, I see reason for hope in the fact that the alternative nutrition movement is made up of people of various political persuasions (from libertarians and conservative, Christian home-schoolers to enviro-hippies and Occupy-types who distrust the links between government agencies and “corporate” food). As usual, though, we can expect that our agenda-driven press and our would-be government overlords will be the last to get the message.