The Trouble With Food Dogma

More and more, it seems like the food controversies I read and write about come down to dogma. What do I mean by that? When it comes to food, people—or at least the people who are vocal in the media—seem to like to get attached to an ideology. They become so convinced of its righteousness that any information that opposes it has to be wrong, in their minds. I’m certainly no exception to this phenomenon. I’ve pled guilty before to confirmation bias (tending to consume media and information that confirms what I already believe) and I stand by that. I think it’s easy for people to see things as black and white; people are uncomfortable with gray areas, especially when it comes to issues as critical as public health and environmental conservation.

It has often been the case throughout history that radical thinkers lead the way to broad-scale paradigm shifts, people who stand by their beliefs no matter what. One problem with dogmatic thinking, particularly when it comes to food, health, sustainability, and inequality, is that science doesn’t care about dogma. Science is skeptical. Science is disagreement. It’s about looking at all of the evidence available and coming to a consensus, but not necessarily a permanent one. It’s kind of a silly example, but there was a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the earth was flat—that was their conclusion based on the best evidence available at the time. Fortunately, enough evidence accumulated that contradicted the flat-earth theory that the scientific consensus changed. Getting attached to an ideology has the potential to inhibit scientific progress because it closes your mind to new evidence that might contradict your ideology. That being said, it is never the case that one study or a handful of studies should be able to overturn a theory based on evidence from hundreds of studies. Unfortunately, the media often flips that assertion right on its head, especially when it comes to nutrition science (for more on science in the media, definitely watch this video from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight).

I thought I would talk about a few of the clashing ideologies I often confront in my day-to-day business, and why it’s bad that we get so polarized about our food.

One that’s obviously really personal to me is veganism versus the typical omnivorous American diet. I’ve explained this many times before on my blog, but it is clear to me from the evidence I’ve encountered and the experts I trust that the most health-promoting diet is one that maximizes minimally processed plant foods and minimizes highly processed foods and animal products. I also believe that reducing consumption of animal products will be better for the environment. Transitioning to a 100% plant-based diet was the best way for me to live according to my values, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for everyone. And even if I did think that 100% plant-based was the only way to go, I don’t think spreading that message would be as effective as just encouraging any change in the right direction. Public health and environmental authorities should certainly give people information about what’s best based on all of the evidence, but an all-or-nothing mindset can be very alienating for a lot of people and not necessarily accurate. If you saw my post interviewing my friend the aspiring dairy veterinarian, she opened my mind to the idea that cows offset a lot of our own detrimental food waste by consuming parts of foods that we cannot digest and turning them into digestible food. Of course, far more animals are produced than can just live off our waste, among many other concerns I have about the scale of global animal agriculture. But there certainly is a valid argument for maintaining some degree of animal agriculture, even from a nutritional standpoint. It is disheartening to me that people think they can’t make a positive change in their eating habits just because they don’t want to be totally vegan. Yeah, I know, you could never give up x (cheeseburgers, pizza, steak, you name it), but I’m not asking you to. Try eating it less often than you do now. Try eating one more serving of vegetables per day. Even that much of a change will make a significantly positive impact on your long-term health. Veganism often equates to dogma, but the benefits of plant strong diet are based on science.

Similarly, there is a certain segment of the public that gets very dogmatic about food processing, claiming that all additives and methods of processing are harmful to health. I would never say that all forms of food processing are inherently bad, only that it happens to be the case that a lot of highly processed foods encourage overeating, are low in critical nutrients, and tend to displace more nutritious foods in one’s diet. There are certain foods whose nutrients are more bioavailable when processed, like cooking tomatoes or fermenting grains. Without modern processing and preservation methods we could not have nearly as much variety and certainty in our food supply as we do. And like I wrote about in this post, fortification certainly has its merits. I can comfortably say, though, that we’ve gone a bit overboard with certain forms of processing, like, say, adding sugar to every flipping packaged food on the shelf. People get pretty dogmatic about those additives too, all those scary sound chemicals on the ingredient lists of some packaged foods. My feeling about that is that it’s not doing anyone too much good to demonize, say, aspartame for all of our problems, because the reality is way more complex than that. Usually you have to reach much higher levels of consumption than what’s typically present in foods to show any harm in experimental settings. But I’d like to emphasize that what is evident is that a heavily whole food diet, which is universally associated with good health, mostly avoids all of the additives that are associated with risk.

Another really polarizing controversy is conventional versus organic farming. There are some organic advocates who won’t settle for anything less than a worldwide conversion to organic farming. There are also plenty of advocates that stress that chemical and genetically engineered farming is the only way to yield enough to be able to feed the world. The way I see it, again, is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing to change for the better, and that in fact, our food system would probably work best with a combination of conventional and organic farming methods. We all have to be willing to sacrifice our ideology and be able to be critical of both methods. For that matter, the farms that fall under each broad category of “conventional” and “organic” are not homogenous. Although in general I think we would be better off if a lot more of our food was farmed organically, I’m sure there are farms that would not qualify as organic that are using much more sustainable and safe practices than some technically organic farms. And if we should be transitioning more farming to organic practices, the all-or-nothing regulatory system for organic farming is not helping matters. It takes a lot of time and resources for a conventional farm to transition to completely organic standards to be certified by the USDA, and there is no benefit or price premium for farms that are in that in between stage, so the system can act as a disincentive to make that transition.

The larger issue here may not be that people hold these dogmas and biases, but that their ideologies prevent them from engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with them. It is very often the case that the truth about what’s best for health, animal welfare, or the planet lies somewhere in between the extremes of belief that are visible in the media. It’s especially apparent to me that public health officials, sustainability advocates, farmers, and policymakers all need to communicate a lot better and be a lot more open-minded. We will have a hard time improving our food system in a sustainable way without collaboration between all stakeholders. Let’s get comfortable with disagreement, with gray areas, and with the impossibility of a magic bullet, quick fix solution to any of these incredibly complex food issues.

 

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Tl;dr we have to start talking about poverty

As I reach the end of this semester, I’m reflecting on how my views on creating a nourishing, sustainable, and just food system have been enriched by my education inside and outside the classroom.

What has been clear to me for some time is that the food environment, as determined by industry and government, is not compatible with my vision for public health. We produce and market way too much of the wrong foods and not enough of the right ones, the cost structure constrains nutritious choices even further, and we pollute and waste far too much at all levels of food production and consumption.

All of this is still true, and demands to be addressed by the private, public, and non-profit sectors. But, lately I’ve been increasingly confronted by another major crisis that is also at the root of our public health nutrition problems. I am talking about poverty, friends.

I wrote about my Public Health Nutrition class at the beginning of the semester here. I believe I wrote in that post that I had been waiting for this class during my time as an undegrad thus far with much anticipation, mostly because its title is common to that of the particular career field I plan to enter. I expected to know already a lot of the material about the public health nutrition programs run by the government (e.g. SNAP, WIC, the school lunch program) and I did, but what was remarkable was how much the course focused on poverty as a broader issue to frame the public health issues. For example, one of our big assignments was to read and write a paper on one of four books about poverty, none of them focusing especially on nutrition. We also had a guest lecturer come in and talk to us purely about the housing crisis in town next to the university.

When you think about it, it’s easy to see how poverty and the low affordability of things like housing and health insurance are incredibly critical to understanding food insecurity and diet-related disease. But not enough people are thinking about it. Before taking this class, I recognized the connection, but still lamented the flaws of the food environment far more than the miserable extent of poverty.

One of the concepts that the poverty assignment dealt with was flexible versus inflexible expenses. For instance, every month, people have to pay the fixed amount of their rent, utilities, and other bills. Those are the inflexible expenses. They they go to buy their food, and, depending on how much money they have left over, may have to compromise on nutritious foods in order to buy whatever will satisfy them for the least money. For low-income households, government programs like SNAP fill the gap to some extent but don’t typically provide enough to reasonably afford what public health advocates would prescribe as a nutritious diet, and are really only available to the poorest of the poor.

The thing is, food justice and access is so important, and so are welfare programs when they work, but it is equally important for people to be able to rehabilitate and support themselves financially and afford all of this nutritious food to which they may or may not have convenient access, on top of their fixed expenses. If all of those things sound like different names for the same problem, it’s because they are. Too many people are living in poverty (just watch this video about the horrifying income distribution in this country) for the welfare system to sustain itself.

And another thing: everyone demands that food be really cheap, but the externalities of cheap food cost way more in the long run than investing in better quality, nutritious food to begin with (as I lamented in this post). 

The way I see it now, there are two broad, intimidating goals to strive toward in this struggle:

  • Increase the capacity of the social safety net to support people in need with resources to achieve food security
  • Reduce the need for the social safety net by improving equality of opportunity for low-income and disenfranchised populations AND mandating a living wage

I definitely do not have all the answers with regard to how to reach those goals, and really don’t know how to do it in a politically acceptable way (although I do have some thoughts which I may elaborate on in future posts, and always appreciate comments).

Tl;dr: You can’t adequately address food insecurity or the diet-related disease epidemic without addressing poverty.

 

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

This week, I was extremely fortunate to meet in person with two renowned thought leaders in the field of nutrition.

One was my absolute hero, Marion Nestle, a writer, researcher, public health advocate, and the pioneer in the study of food politics (you can find my other posts about her books here and here).

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The other was T. Colin Campbell, the pioneering scholar of the plant-based nutrition movement. His work on The China Study (which I wrote about here) was one of the first to link diet and health in the public mindset.

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Nutrition nerd that I am, I was quite star struck by both of them. I should point out though, that Dr. Nestle is much more well-liked and respected in the nutrition science community than Dr. Campbell, and I want to explore why that is.

Dr. Campbell has come to be perceived as something of a zealot for a whole food, plant-based diet. He has condemned the dangers of animal products for decades now. He definitely takes a radical approach. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that he sees the government’s failure to acknowledge the superiority of a whole-food plant based diet as absolutely criminal. Some scholars question whether the methodology of the research cited in The China Study is robust enough to advise everyone to adopt a fully plant-based diet. I admit I haven’t taken a close enough look to be able to comment on that, but when I read it, his evidence seemed compelling. He does come off somewhat angry in his writing, though. In person he was pretty calm, I thought. Obviously people who have an interest in selling animal products would tend to see him as an enemy. What I think is interesting is that Campbell actually grew up on a dairy farm, firmly believing in the life-giving power of a diet rich in animal protein until his own research convinced him otherwise.

Dr. Nestle, on the other hand, comes off as much more skeptical and rational. Twice this week on her blog she advised readers to take any news story that claims “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong” with a grain of salt. Her writing is not angry; she lets the evidence speak for itself in a way that leaves little doubt that the food industry is responsible for much of our nutrition woes.

The thing is, to me, ultimately, the foods that Dr. Nestle defends as the most nutritious are exactly the same as those Dr. Campbell defends—whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Dr. Nestle definitely admits that animal products and highly processed foods can be enjoyed in moderation in a health-promoting diet, but she also argues that the evidence has long made clear that the healthiest people eat by Michael Pollan’s creed: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Both Nestle and Campbell have PhDs in nutritional biochemistry, and I believe both ground their work firmly in scientific evidence, although some people think Campbell is a biased quack. Obviously, at this point I find the evidence compelling enough for me to adopt a completely plant-based diet, but not for nutritional reasons alone, as he argues. I’m sure he is biased, but so are most of us. Dr. Nestle does give the impression of being remarkably objective. She tells it like it is, in a way that any rational person, or scientist for that matter, cannot dispute.

Perhaps many will disagree with me, but I don’t think Nestle’s and Campbell’s diet advice are different enough that they should be regarded so differently as scholars and as advocates. I think Nestle just offers the information in a way that’s much easier to swallow (no pun intended). When I met her this week, she signed my book “Do nutrition, change the world!” Challenge accepted.