Bookmark and Share August 17, 2010 - Dave Mulder

Nutritional science and dogma

Food and nutritional science, as a discipline, is just a few decades old. A lot of what we’ve learned is beneficial: We are starting to understand how our bodies metabolize food and how some diets really work.

The key word in that sentence is starting. For such a young field, it’s amazing how tightly some people cling to the latest nutritional and dieting fads.

nuncio, over at’s Extravolution Blog, writes about his experience with the Atkins diet.

I was incredulous when I first heard about the Atkins diet. I’d never heard of anything like it. How could one possibly eat copious amounts of fat and protein without getting fatigued, constipated, obese; or in some other way damaged?

That’s a great question. How fan a fat-friendly diet be a good idea when everyone is obsessed with eliminating fat from the foods they eat?

The evidence is still incomplete and many lost years of vitally important research and studies still remain to be made up for. But the outline is clear: fat is not bad for you; eating copious refined carbohydrates causes the body to store fat; obese people are not fat because the eat too much – they eat a lot because they are fat; refined carbohydrates appear to be addictive and abuse of these substances can lead to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Simply put, we’re making decisions with only a morsel of information—frequently placing our own health in jeopardy.

Today’s nutritional dogma has been beaten into our gray matter: Fat is bad, carbohydrates are good. We’ve codified those principles into legislation, and worked tirelessly to ensure that every American maintains ambient awareness of what they should and should not be eating.

What if we’re wrong?

When we look at how other scientific fields have changed over time, the early philosophy almost always changes. Psychology is a great example: Freud brought psychoanalytic theory to the world and with it a new way of thinking about and treating behavioral problems. 100 years later, Freud’s name is regularly tossed around but many of his original ideas have been discredited. Today’s psychoanalytic theory is markedly different from the one Freud presented.

And that’s okay. It’s a good thing for theories to change over time, because we’re (hopefully) moving toward a deeper and richer understanding of ourselves and the world.

What’s not always okay is how we put science into practice. When we turn nutritional dogma into law, we’re also making it difficult to change that law when the science behind the assumptions change. We also turn what should be a flexible eating environment into something rigid. That’s how our relationship with food has changed from soil-to-plate to fill-‘er-up.

As with other traditions, nutritional science will eventually bend to the weight of new research. Our diets will change, (hopefully) for the better.

A note to nutritional scientists

As I write this, I don’t mean to turn nutritional scientists into food villains. As a fellow researcher, I know that most nutritional scientists deeply care about putting the right kinds of foods into our bodies. There’s nothing wrong with that, and frankly, it’s a tremendous thing to be working toward.

The problem, today, isn’t necessarily how nutritional scientists conduct research; the problem is how society responds to those findings.

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