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Aug 15 2008

Food fads

I find it a little odd the fascination that many people have with food.

I know people who watch the cooking shows on TV with almost a religious fervor. Diet books abound. People eagerly seize on the latest ideas about what may be good for your health and what may be bad and make wholesale changes in their diets based on news reports.

Ben Goldacre, writing in London’s The Guardian jokes that there seems to be a drive to divide everything in the world into two classes: those that cause cancer and those that cure cancer.

In pursuit of this goal, the ‘science’ reporters in newspapers and magazines seize on the most tenuous and dubious links coming out of research laboratories and draw sweeping conclusions that may actually harm people. We have become prey to all manner of pseudo-experts on food.

Goldacre reports on the red wine-breast cancer link that recently made news:

The story follows a standard template which they clearly now teach as valid in all journalism schools: a food contains a chemical, the chemical does something in a dish on a lab bench, therefore the food kills cancer in people. Or rather, red wine contains resveratrol: this chemical has been found to increase the activity of an enzyme called quinone reductase, which converts a derivative of oestrogen back to oestrogen, and that derivative can damage DNA, and damaging DNA causes mutations, and mutations cause cancer, so therefore, in the world of journalists, red wine prevents breast cancer in people.

This is a phenomena we might call “data mist”: where someone gets one piece of research information lodged in their imagination and suddenly, for them, it explains the entirety of medicine.

In reality, though, meta-analyses show that “overall, half a glass of red wine a day increases your risk of breast cancer by 10%. If their figures are correct, alcohol causes about 6% of all breast cancer in the UK, meaning 2,500 cases a year.” (emphasis added)

There is no question that people who try to keep up with food news are perplexed. Quick: which of the following foods are good/bad for you: butter, eggs, sugar, salt, chocolate, wine? In truth, all of them have had their ups and downs and I personally have no idea what their present status is. And I don’t care.

I share Michael Pollan’s wonderment, expressed in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), about the way food has become a major source of anxiety in the US.

As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities – figuring out what to eat – has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we ever get to the point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu? (p. 1)

America seems to lurch from one food fad to another, one day avoiding all beef, and the next day all carbohydrates. The swings are so violent that they can result in huge changes in the marketplace of foods, causing some businesses to even go bankrupt. Words like ‘antioxidants’ and ‘transfats’, which were unknown except to scientists just a couple of years ago, are now household words even though most people don’t know anything about them except for the simple equations ‘antioxidants=good’ and ‘tranfats=bad’. Watch for the word polyphenols to achieve similar stardom very soon.

Pollan thinks that such wild swings are a sign of a national eating disorder.

Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation’s “dietary goals” – or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the “food pyramid.” A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. . . . It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines.
. . .
Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of “unhealthy” foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are. (p. 2,3)

Pollan speaks of the ‘American paradox’: a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthily.

I myself long ago decided to pay only a passing interest to reports about what kind of food is good for you or bad for you. All I ask is that my food not be messed with by the addition of hormones, antibiotics and high levels of processing. I figure that as long as I eat moderate amounts of a balanced diet of minimally-processed foods that have been around and eaten for a long time, I should be ok. What did not kill off my evolutionary ancestors should be fine for me. Oh, and the food should be tasty too.

Could I increase my life expectancy by a scientific monitoring of my food intake? Possibly. But it would not be worth it for me. I eat whatever I like and enjoy my food.

POST SCRIPT: The unbearable lightness of Cokie Roberts

I find it amazing that NPR continues to have Cokie Roberts as an analyst. I cringe whenever she comes on and spouts her poll-based drivel and conventional wisdom. When did she last say anything that was even remotely insightful? She is one of those annoying people who constantly speaks, without any evidence, about what “the American people” want or think, which somehow always seems to be exactly what she and her coterie of Washington insiders think they should want or think.

Eric Alterman, writing back in 2002, described her best: “With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue . . . a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality.”

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Acai

    What are your thoughts about the Acai Berry?

  2. 2
    Acai Berry

    I think we need to be very careful about “exaggerating’ the claims of acai berry, even though it is a superfood. It’s not a magic pill from jack and the beanstalk :)

  3. 3
    Acai Berry

    Acai berry is something we drink like almost everyday here in suriname.
    I don’t know why people think that it only grows in brazil

  4. 4
    Acai Berry

    I think some of the changes Michael Pollan predicts are a bit far fetched. But who knows? We can only speculate what could happen.

  5. 5
    hemroids

    You should also eat more fibers if you want to stay away from hemroids.

  6. 6
    Free Acai Berry

    I agree that watching all the health food reports will not lead anyone to a conclusion about what is right to eat.

  7. 7
    easy diets

    my favorite line:
    All I ask is that my food not be messed with by the addition of hormones, antibiotics and high levels of processing

  8. 8
    Acai Berry

    Hi, Really interesting information.Your blog sounds good. Keep posting more tips for health.Read my complete story from being fat to fit using Acai Berry and Colon Cleanse. Get a free trial for 14 days. I will really be surprised if you do not see its effect within the trial of using the Acai berry supplement.

  9. 9
    Acai Burn

    You should check reviews of all the acai berry pills and juices before taking any free trial.

  10. 10
    homemadeenergy

    Useful content for acai berry.

  11. 11
    Liver Cleanser

    Now there is a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Cokie Roberts, I hope I don’t hear it again anytime soon.

  12. 12
    First aid courses London

    Who is Cookie Roberts?

  13. 13
    Juicing Fan

    If we go back to eating more natural foods, we’d all be in a better place. Fruits, veggies, more water, less soda, etc. We pump our bodies full of chemicals that they weren’t meant for.

    People are looking at how food can help prevent/cure disease because people are looking for more than just treatments.

  14. 14
    Bad Credit

    Eating fads will always change as people get tired of one fad and go for another. It’s human nature.

  15. 15
    Antioxidant Diet

    You are certainly correct in slamming the diet, food and nutrition industry for it’s continuous changing of food paradigms; however, if you do the research I’m sure you’ll find that antioxidants are the real thing. The problem occurs when people overdo it, as in your mention of resveratrol. If people would simply eat a well-balanced, nutritional diet that includes several high antioxidant fruits and vegetables every day and move around a bit they would be in better shape and “probably” extend their lives somewhat more than the average person who is so caught up in their healthy diet that they grab a burger at the local buger joint because they don’t want to prepare food today. Unscrupulous marketing can take a very large part of the blame for an unhealthy America. Is there anything that cannot be found in this country? We’ve certainly found obesity and we seem to like it while giving lip service to healthy food.

  16. 16
    Bolingbrook Dentist

    I think the bottom line is simple. You simply need to eat the right foods and stay somewhat active. Its so simple yet we live in a society where obesity is the norm. You can push the blame on whoever you choose but everyone has a mind of their own. To bad they don’t use it.

  17. 17
    John Mericle M.D. D.A.B.R.

    Maybe you don’t care what you die of, but there are a lot of others who do. It’s not how long you are here but how well you are here. I would just as soon avoid cancer and stroke. Reminds of my old radiology partner who commented “I’d sooner die than give up my steak” when he first found out I was vegan. That was in 1980. Right before he retired in 1987 he had me do an air/contrast enema to make sure he didn’t have colon cancer. During the course of the exam he told me he had quit eating meat years ago. The funny thing is I hear lots of “bravado” until I walk into coronary care -amazingly quiet in there.

  18. 18
    Superfoods

    Ha, I love the American Paradox analogy, because its true we see too many people fat and at home watching reality tv about other people trying to lose weight! I think we are on the verge on an awakening though, within the next 5 years the lid will be blow off of “big food” and the FDA and well see a lot of changes in out diets and health as a nation…hopefully

  19. 19
    Radialabs

    If we go back to eating more natural foods, we’d all be in a better place. Fruits, veggies, more water, less soda, etc. We pump our bodies full of chemicals that they weren’t meant for.

  20. 20
    Allen

    An excellent analysis of modern popular journalism, in which scientific reports are not considered in the context of other research, but taken as a single snippet, often with something the researcher states as a hypothetical speculation presented by the reporter as fact. Foods are certainly one of the most popular subjects. Your prediction about polyphenols is beginning to come true. They are present in many foods, especially certain vegetables and fruits, although with so many other phytochemicals that it is difficult to determine which is responsible for which health effects. How much the polyphenols contribute to various health effects is still speculative, but more and more journalists are making excessive claims.

  21. 21
    Heather Smith

    Good post, there is no such thing as superfoods, best foods to eat are those with anti-oxidants, fruits vegetables and lots of water less of those sodas and foods full of chemicals we will all be healthy.

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