Fatty foods make you fat.
Carbs make you fat.
If you eat 1,200 calories a day, you will lose weight.
Eat whatever you want in moderation.
Low fat and no-fat foods will help you lose weight.
Sugar-free foods will help you lose weight.
The list above provides a few examples of common beliefs about dieting and nutrition.
But the truth is far more complicated. Nutrition just isn’t that simple.
Let’s take another look at those statements.
Fatty foods make you fat. But..avocados and almonds are sources of healthful fats.
Carbs make you fat. But…fruits and vegetables are sources of carbohydrates.
If you eat no more than 1,400 calories a day, you will lose weight. But…are the caloric needs of a 300 lb man and a 110 pound woman the same?
Eat whatever you want, as long as it is in your daily calorie range. So...how does one determine how many calories he or she needs? Does this mean eating candy bars all day – as long as I stay in my calorie range – is okay?
Low fat and no-fat foods will help you lose weight. But…does this mean I can eat low fat cookies and chips every day and still be healthy?
Sugar-free foods will help you lose weight. So…I can eat as much of them as I want?
Common beliefs about diet and nutrition are often vague, misleading, and open to interpretation, and can lead to incorrect assumptions, as the examples above show.
And looking to experts for advice doesn’t necessarily make things any easier.
It would seem that, in this age of marvelous technological advancement and state-of-the-art research facilities, we would have the ability to find definitive solutions to the diet-related problems that plague us.
So, why don’t we?
Since the 1960s, nutrition science has been dominated by two conflicting observations. One is that we know how to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight. The other is that the rapidly increasing rates of obesity and diabetes suggest that something about the conventional thinking is simply wrong.
In 1960, fewer than 13 percent of Americans were obese, and diabetes had been diagnosed in 1 percent. Today, the percentage of obese Americans has almost tripled; the percentage of Americans with diabetes has increased sevenfold.
I’m reminded of a quote that is often attributed to Albert Einstein:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
Taubes goes on to explain that in 1960, fewer than 1,100 articles on obesity and diabetes were published in medical literature. As of 2014, over 600,000 articles have been published that attempt to provide useful data on these health conditions.
Yet, here we are, with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related health conditions than ever.
It is possible, Taubes says, that the ever-increasing number of studies and books on dieting, obesity, and diabetes are “the noise generated by a dysfunctional research establishment.”
Science – nutrition science in particular – has limitations, he explains:
In nutrition, the hypotheses are speculations about what foods or dietary patterns help or hinder our pursuit of a long and healthy life. The ingenious and severe attempts to refute the hypotheses are the experimental tests — the clinical trials and, to be specific, randomized controlled trials. Because the hypotheses are ultimately about what happens to us over decades, meaningful trials are prohibitively expensive and exceedingly difficult. It means convincing thousands of people to change what they eat for years to decades. Eventually enough heart attacks, cancers and deaths have to happen among the subjects so it can be established whether the dietary intervention was beneficial or detrimental.
Nutrition research also suffers from funding issues. Pharmaceutical companies and the like do not benefit from such studies, so they (understandably) do not want to pay for them. There’s no financial incentive to fund research on the benefits of whole foods.
As a result, Taubes says,
…we have a field of sort-of-science in which hypotheses are treated as facts because they’re too hard or expensive to test, and there are so many hypotheses that what journalists like to call “leading authorities” disagree with one another daily.
In the article’s conclusion, Taubes says our current situation is unacceptable, and asks that we challenge ourselves to do what it takes to find answers.
Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and yet the only relevant fact on which relatively unambiguous data exist to support a consensus is that most of us are surely eating too much of something. My vote is sugars and refined grains; we all have our biases. (Author’s note: I am inclined to agree with Taubes regarding sugars and grains…at least for now.)
Even when funding for studies IS available, problems are common, as Julia Belluz tells us in her Vox piece titled I asked 8 researchers why the science of nutrition is so messy. Here’s what they said.…