Separate Diet From Your Self

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There is a Paul Graham post I recently went back to. You can read the full piece here. Something had struck a cord with me after a number of recent nutrition publications came out, sparking the usual diatribe online between the “believers” and “non-believers.”

Here is a couple of paragraph’s from Graham’s article:

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What’s different about religion is that people don’t feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone’s an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

Now, indulge me here. I’m going to re-paste the quote, inserting “nutrition” in certain places:

As a rule, any mention of religion nutrition on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion nutrition and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What’s different about religion nutrition is that people don’t feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion nutrition, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion nutrition everyone’s an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion nutrition, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

I think what religion and politics nutrition have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

And therein, as the Bard would tell it, lies the rub.

Diet fundamentally is a belief system. It is an integral part of an individuals self-construct. Notice how someone doesn’t “eat Vegan”, they are Vegan. Someone doesn’t “eat low-carb”, they say I AM low-carb/Paleo. Diet, by definition of the sum total of foods consumed by an individual, is under the influence of region, climate, culture, religion, ethics, and a myriad of other factors. These social, cultural, ethical and environmental factors all converge at an interface with diet.

As a result, separating diet from an individual’s identity is difficult. And this, unfortunately, plays out on a large scale both in the lay community and in the scientific literature.

In the literature, it tends to reflect fundamental human thought errors: cognitive biases. In particular, cognitive dissonance. The two recent examples I referred to earlier were the UK cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra and his publication of yet another “saturated fat does not cause heart disease” paper, and the US science writer Gary Taubes, who continues to advocate that carbohydrates and sugar cause obesity and all diet-induced disease.

Before I get to them, let’s revisit one of Aesop’s Fables, the one of the fox and the grapes. The fox came up to the grape vine, seeing perfectly ripe, juicy, plump grapes hanging  toward the bottom of the vine. The fox leapt up to bite the grapes, but they were just outside his reach. So, the fox jumped once again, and still failed to reach the tantalising grapes. Finally, the fox mustered all his strength for one last effort, leapt with all his force…and fell short again. The fox, ever proud, turned and walked off saying, “those grapes are unripe, I don’t want any sour grapes…”

And thus it is so with the likes of Malhotra and Taubes. They have invested their identity into their hypotheses, and now even in the face of overwhelming evidence against their respective positions, they maintain their rationalisations. In the case of Dr. Malhotra, his recent paper followed on from his previous work attempting to absolve saturated fat of any connection to coronary artery disease. In support of his position, he uses the Mediterranean diet in support of his contention that a high fat diet does not cause heart disease. Except, that has never been in contention: the Med diet is a well-established cardioprotective diet pattern, and while it may have a higher total fat content, it is a diet low in saturated fats.

And Taubes? An organisation for which he is a Director, the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI), has itself recently funded a number of metabolic ward studies by Kevin Hall et al., which have conclusively shown that where protein and calories are matched, there is no material difference between the balance of carbohydrates and fats when it comes to weight loss. Yet, in light of the strongest dietary evidence available – a recent meta-analysis by Kevin Hall of 20 metabolic ward studies confirming this position – Taubes publicly maintains his position that carbohydrates and/or sugar drive obesity, and losing weight is a mere matter of everyone in the population dropping the carbs.

What could allow two clearly intelligent men to persist in the face of overwhelming evidence against them? Cognitive dissonance. There is no going back now: their positions are a part of their identity, and they are unable to let go.

In the lay realm, it’s worse. In the lay realm, aided and abetted by social media, there is a powerful logical fallacy at play: social proof. Anyone can find millions of others to confirm their nutritional belief system, no matter how radical. The more who follow it, the more the behaviours of that paradigm become solidified. The problem, as English author W. Somerset Maugham described, is that; “If 50 million people say something foolish, it is still foolish.”

And there a lot of stupid stuff being said about nutrition in the social media world.

The Solution

Nutritional Agnosticism.

Let go of set beliefs about nutrition. With the rapid advances in nutrition science, dogmatically holding on to a position is untenable, inflexible, and cripples the ability for the conversation to evolve.

The only way to be an effective, fluid thinker about nutrition – to improve your own health, and to be able to see the forest for the trees in the jungle of bullshit floating around about nutrition –  is to absolve yourself of any set beliefs.

You are not your fucking khakis diet.

As this started with Paul Graham, it might as well finish with him:

If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

Far too many people are really, really dumb about nutrition in this moment. And it has everything to do with attaching labels to themselves about their diet.

This is perhaps the most toxic aspect of the nutrition discussion currently, both in academia and in the lay public. Most belief systems aren’t also a hard science field. Religion is not a science. Culture is not a science. Nutrition is a science, and it is a belief system: a powerful aspect of an individual’s self-construct. That makes it unique, and incredibly problematic.

In order to evolve the interpretation and implementation of nutrition science, to combat quackery and charlatans, there must be an uncoupling of church (diet) and state (individual).

Only then can we progress the conversation, free to think clearly about a subject that has been decoupled from one’s identity.