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).

print_2x3_300dpi_marionnestle_8110533

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.

colinchina_right

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.

Political? Who, me?

I have officially returned home for the summer. I was sad to leave school, but I’m excited for what’s to come. Hopefully I’ll have even more time to write! What I have had time to do so far is finish up an excellent read, Food Politics, authored by one of my idols of the food movement, Marion Nestle. An esteemed professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, she is famous for being able to translate the complex nutrition messages bombarding us into usable advice, and for being an outspoken critic of food industry tactics to influence government to increase their sales at the expense of public health. The latter is the subject of the aforementioned book. I highly suggest you give it a read; Nestle gives a detailed and compelling summary of the history of food industry’s influence on government in the U.S. But if you won’t get a chance to read it, here are the important points from the book I took away:

  • A food company is a business. Its priority is to sell its products, and, if it is a publicly shared company, to increase sales of its products constantly to satisfy investors. The rest of the points follow from this.
  • Food companies spend a shocking amount of money on marketing–or perhaps it is not so shocking, when compared with how much more profit is earned as a result of marketing. This marketing, without exception, encourages the public to eat more of whatever it is that the company is selling, regardless of the health consequences of consumption of the product. Marketing obviously has a huge influence on sales, whether you the consumer realize it or not–otherwise, industry wouldn’t spend so much money on it. 
  • The food industry will do whatever it takes to ensure that the government’s dietary guidelines (think the Food Pyramid and MyPlate) steer clear of directly advising the public to eat less of their products. 
  • But how can the food industry be able to influence nutrition education, you ask? Remember that food companies have a TON of money and power that they use to:
  1. Lobby to influence legislators to pass policies favorable to the food industry and reject policies unfavorable to it.
  2. Form or fund political action committees that donate large sums of money to legislators’ election campaigns.
  3. Sponsor scientific research on the effects of consumption of their products. Though there is usually no way to prove that this biases the results, research sponsored by industry is statistically much more likely to find favorable effects or minimize unfavorable effects of a product than independently funded research. 
  4. “…befriend federal officials, develop legislation in their own self-interest, and use public relations to create a positive image for their activities…”
  5. Sue their critics, who usually back off, given the whole money and power thing. 
  • A substantial portion of major food companies’ obscene marketing budgets fund advertising to children, who are much more vulnerable to the influence of advertising than adults. The industry has also historically exploited children by advertising in schools (IN SCHOOLS, FOR PETE’S SAKE!). And of course food companies will also do whatever it takes to ensure that government won’t restrict their marketing practices.
  • Food companies use potentially misleading health claims to promote sales, and petition the FDA to allow them to make these claims. They also add nutrients to otherwise unhealthy foods in order to be able to make those health claims. 

Until I became familiar with the work of Marion Nestle, I knew I wanted to make an impact on the obesity epidemic, but I was very iffy about the political side of things–I didn’t want to touch it. I had never been interested in government, politics, or current events before. I took AP U.S. Government in high school and didn’t retain any of it because I thought it was boring. I held very few strong opinions.

But when I learned that the food industry’s political tactics are hugely to blame for the poor health of U.S. citizens, I became much more interested, informed, and quite passionate about political issues related to food and health. I now know that there is no way to reverse the doomed dietary trends of this country without getting political. It will take a lot of time and effort for the government to rein in the food industry like it did the tobacco industry, but it is worth the time and the cost; if obesity keeps rising the way it has been, the outlook is very grim for the American public. 

This post is especially relevant right now because there is a bill being put up for vote in the House of Representatives that would roll back the extremely needed new, healthier standards for nutrition in schools. You can read about it on Marion Nestle’s blog. You can sign a petition in protest here. Don’t be afraid to get political if you care about these issues! 

Let’s start a dialogue! What should or shouldn’t the government be doing to reduce obesity and chronic disease?