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The Dietary Delusion

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.




  1. Thank you for posting this. I lost over 20 pounds two years ago eating low carb/high fat “paleo.” I’ve excluded grains from my diet for two years. Im off blood pressure meds. I never crash in the middle of the afternoon. Such a great way to eat and easy to do once you get the hang of it.

    Comment by PatrickP — March 8, 2013 @ 3:46 am - March 8, 2013

  2. Many people obsess over weight and health. Therefore, the MSM and the statists have a ready audience for their health propaganda.

    There is stuff to sprinkle on your food that will magically trim your weight. There are green coffee beans and some raspberry extract that will work miracles for you. You can lose weight by having your food supply delivered to you door from a diet company.

    Every mall has a vitamin store where teenagers sell you miracle, holistic cures.

    If you don’t know about sugar and salt, it is because you have refused to listen.

    But we are also constantly confused by great reversals in the “research.” First decaf kills, then it saves. Does grilling increase cancer? Do you have a flavonoid regimen for taking on free radicals and metallic ions? Do you even have a clue about what that means? Do you care or would you just be happier taking a mystery pill on the one size fits all chance?

    The point is, you either obsess or you find a simple strategy that works or you just forget it all and if you balloon up, so be it.

    Comment by heliotrope — March 8, 2013 @ 9:04 am - March 8, 2013

  3. Commenting from UK, there just seems to be a lack of interest for so many people in watching what they eat. The paleo that Patrick mentions is about getting back to nature with these things. There is alot in the uk about the 5:2 diet where you restrict calorie intake for two non-consecutive days a week (mimicking a pre-civilisiation diet where again food not always plentiful). Though I’m 29 Uncles in their 50’s who have came off cholesterol and bp medication.

    Comment by Paul — March 8, 2013 @ 9:11 am - March 8, 2013

  4. Most of this has to do with (you guessed it) personal choice. There is no one-size-fits-all method to losing weight.

    I’m happy for Patrick for his “paleo-diet” success, but guess what – Atkins and the other low-carb diets never worked for me. Plus, they made my cholesterol level go above 200.

    Starting in January, I cut out all fats (except olive oil) and red meats and also eliminated dairy (except Greek yogurt). At my annual physical yesterday, I found I’d lost 13 lbs from last year this time.

    So yes, some diets work for some people. Mine happened to be the Mediterranean diet – lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, no dairy, no fats and no sweets. I can still eat pasta and rice and crunchy breads, but my waist has shrunk 2 inches.

    Would it work for Patrick or anyone else? Probably not. You have to experiment with what works best for you.

    Unfortunately, libtards don’t get it. They figure that if it works for someone, it works for everyone. All get “dumbed-down” to the same unhappy denominator.

    In the wake of the death of Hugo Chavez – whom I’m sure is smelling the sulfur as we speak – all I can say is that I hope people wake up and don’t lose their right to individualism.

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — March 8, 2013 @ 9:54 am - March 8, 2013

  5. I find it amusing, weirdly, to think that America has both starving children in need of gov’t lunches, and food stamps, and WIC — and we have an obesity problem among children. So, in a sense, we have fat starving kids. Beats me how this could be — or, 1/2 are starving 1/2 are fat, I guess. Then, too, we are told we have starving Americans requiring all sorts of free food and gov’t help and food banks, and on and on … and we have an obesity problem — so, two opposite problems, with seemingly no one in the middle.

    meanwhile, for those of us with high metabolisms, with a need to take in far more calories than this gov’t says, I find the whole discussion funny — the bookshelves at Borders are filled with dozens if not hundreds of books on how to lose weight, and not a one how to gain it.

    But, on my next trip to NYC I shall buy two 16 oz sugary drinks so that I don’t run afoul of the law which prohibits them to be combined into a 32 oz. I’m just that sort of law flouters.

    Comment by Jim Hlavac — March 8, 2013 @ 11:19 am - March 8, 2013

  6. For the record, I do not exclude all carbs from my diet. Meat, eggs, tons of vegetables, nuts, dairy very sparingly.

    The cholesterol question is one that is evolving. Mine happens to be perfect, but I would not start a statin regimine if it was higher than today’s conventional wisdom.

    Jim, all fat people are starving. Their bodies are storing the fat they should be burning for nutrition and energy so they are constantly hungry. Turn off the ridiculously high carb intake (which burns quickly and easily and leaves you hungry soon after eating) and the body will start to tap into the fat stores.

    Comment by PatrickP — March 8, 2013 @ 1:42 pm - March 8, 2013

  7. Peter H.–Just to clarify, I’m not endorsing Taubes’ approach, but I find him useful as a critic of the government and media-promoted campaign for low-fat, high-carb diets. Stephan Guyenet at Whole Health Source has many differences with Taubes and writes about many different diets, including the Mediterranean one you mention (here, for example is but one of many posts on that sort of diet). I’d definitely suggest checking out his blog, as there’s always a lot to learn there. Despite their differences, I still classify them both as being part of the alternative nutrition movement I write about in my last two paragraphs above.

    As you say, though, the problem is fundamentally with a top-down, single-answer approach dictated by the government and endorsed by the media. Not only is such an approach not right for all people, but it falls prey to special interests and it will perpetuate mistaken ideas and bad science rather than risk credibility by admitting the many errors and flaws in its past advice.

    Comment by Kurt — March 8, 2013 @ 1:50 pm - March 8, 2013

  8. I work in a county school system, and if people really knew how much of this health food is being tossed and wasted, they’d explode. When folks want their grease and carbs, they’ll get it one way or another.

    Comment by Douglas — March 8, 2013 @ 8:49 pm - March 8, 2013

  9. Mediterranean works for us too. And no sugar and no bread. And lots of exercise.

    Comment by David in New Orleans — March 8, 2013 @ 10:00 pm - March 8, 2013

  10. Some of the government regulations regarding “obesity” are so absurd that practically everyone is now considered “obese.” I’ve seen news reports about this, showing pictures of people who were practically stick figures, who were over the recommended weight of whatever idiot government body set the standards.

    I’ve become almost as skinny as Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons, and I am gleefully carnivorous. I also enjoy a good caramel frappucino every darn time I feel like it. As far as I’m concerned, the fat nannies (who probably consider me obese) can go whiz up a rope.

    Comment by Lori Heine — March 9, 2013 @ 3:30 am - March 9, 2013

  11. Lori Heine wrote: “Some of the government regulations regarding ‘obesity’ are so absurd that practically everyone is now considered ‘obese.'”

    Since the NPR story which inspired my initial thoughts for this post dealt with the topic of “childhood obesity,” when I was originally collecting links for this post, I saved the one for this story about a 10-year old wrestler who was sent a “fat letter” by the meddlesome nannies in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. It perfectly illustrates the point that the government “experts” don’t know what they’re talking about much of the time.

    Comment by Kurt — March 9, 2013 @ 10:30 am - March 9, 2013

  12. #11 – It gets worse, Kurt – our First Nanny is now taking the fight to so-called “fat” parents:

    This coming from a woman whose butt is so big she could moon Venezuela.

    Hypocrisy, thy name is liberalism.

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — March 9, 2013 @ 11:29 am - March 9, 2013

  13. Douglas @ #8 makes an important point about “free lunches.” A kid on free lunch can get as much lunch as he wants. That is the law. But he gets the whole lunch. So, if it is a second slice of pizza he wants, he gets the whole second lunch. If it is a third slice of pizza he wants, he get a whole third lunch.

    The kid can not be singled out or “stigmatized” in any way if he is on the free lunch program. So, if you have any intention of making him eat his vegetables, you have another think coming.

    Furthermore, the school gets “free” government surplus food based on the ratio of “free lunch” to paid lunch students. The more “free lunches” it serves, the more “free” government food surplus it gets. Even then, the schools get reimbursed for each “free lunch” at a rate that makes a “profit” for the schools in the cafeteria budget. That “profit” is pushed over into the general operating budget and ……

    So, as in all things, you must first look for the money. “Free lunch” is not at all about nutrition. It is about mo’ guvment money.

    Everyone here knows what school pizza is. What it isn’t is any form of health food.

    Also, prisons and schools serve high carb meals for a reason. It makes the inmates drowsy and the afternoons go by more quietly.

    Comment by heliotrope — March 9, 2013 @ 12:31 pm - March 9, 2013

  14. Everyone here knows what school pizza is. What it isn’t is any form of health food.

    Actually, it is a vegetable.

    Comment by Rattlesnake — March 9, 2013 @ 3:14 pm - March 9, 2013

  15. Wow, Rattlesnake. That reminds me of the controversy over declaring ketchup a vegetable back in 1981.

    It’s rather alarming to contemplate how little things have changed in 32 years. In both cases, the ridiculous designations came about in an attempt to soften burdensome dictates from government know-it-alls. As Heliotrope observed, “It is about mo’ guvment money.”

    Comment by Kurt — March 9, 2013 @ 4:36 pm - March 9, 2013

  16. Part of what has made us “obese” is a bad metric. BMI fails to consider muscle mass or bones structure. At my height, when I trim down to 150 lbs, I am bordering, according to my BMI on overweight, a tad shy of obese. But I at that weight, I am wearing a size six dress, an look gaunt. 165 lbs looks better on me–an eight or ten dress size, a little more muscle… but my BMI puts me in the “obese” category. What utter bulls**t.

    Comment by lee — March 9, 2013 @ 8:37 pm - March 9, 2013

  17. This thread has been a pleasure to sit n read. Good topic, quality comments.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — March 10, 2013 @ 9:48 pm - March 10, 2013

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