Dietary adviceTue, 12th Jun '12, 11:10 am::

Nutrition science or the study of diet, has the biggest bikeshedding problem that I know of. To paraphrase, if you go before the Board of Directors and ask for 1.5 Billion dollars to build a Nuclear Reactor, no one will review or discuss the details of the plant. They will assume that experts have been over every inch of the plans, and not want to look foolish by asking a silly question. However, if you ask the same group to approve a 30 dollar expenditure for lumber with which to build a bikeshed, then be prepared for a 45 minute discussion about all aspects of the Bikeshed, including the color of the paint.

Nobody tries to argue with a cardiologist about the workings of the heart. Nobody tries to debate a neuroscientist on the function of the hippocampus. But everybody and their mom has an opinion on what a healthy, balanced diet is just because they own a stove and have been eating all their lives. Over the past century, scientists around the world have identified the following foods as both good and bad: coffee, oil, butter, sugar, salt, wine, beer, carbs, cheese, dry fruits, eggs, meat, seafood, and almost everything in your fridge right now. Consequently, nobody can be certain what is healthy to eat, especially when each individual's needs are taken into consideration. This confusion makes it possible for entirely new industries to flourish - diet advice, dietary supplements, nutrition media (books, documentaries, web sites, apps), ready-to-eat meals, weight-loss, and organic food.

Take a step back and realize that if people actually knew what was healthy for them, none of those industries would be booming now. The problem is that everyone involved in these industries is ready to dispense dietary advice along with the purchase of their product. Everyone has an opinion on whether cheese is good for you or bad. The reason scientific research seems to be conflicting is because of poor journalism. No scientist in their right mind would come out and say "Don't eat butter!" What they do say is "In a study of 125 middle-age men with sedentary lifestyles and a history of hypertension, we found that reducing daily consumption of butter for 3 months, lowers blood pressure by 10%." Media gets hold of this research and suddenly we get "Butter is bad for you!" and "Is there something on your toast that will kill you?"

The vague definition of healthy diet that I prescribe to, comes from MichaelPollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I avoid almost all discussions about diet beyond that because the specifics vary for every single person. A newborn baby with a genetic disorder might not be able to handle plant fiber. A young adult on the rowing team will need more food, including eggs, salts, and sugar than someone of equal body size and metabolism rate who spends all day relaxing indoors. Sugar has different effect on different people and so does fat, cheese, wine, and every other food stuff. We are all slightly different and so maybe your body needs more potassium than mine. That does not mean the effects are entirely different. If you and I both eat four large pizzas a day for three months, we will both be pretty similarly unhealthy with increased weight, higher cholesterol, and possibly scurvy.

So should you put olive oil in your vegetables or go without? Your wish. Just don't listen to anyone who claims to know the exact answer for your specific needs because they don't. Would you ask someone "should I buy a new sofa?" when they don't know your home layout, existing seating arrangement, bank balance, or lifestyle? Then what gives them the authority to tell you what goes into your belly?

 < May 2012Jul 2012 >