Two items have appeared the news lately that ought to change what most people think they know about diets and health – that is, if most people were aware of the news items.
I covered one of them in a recent post about the tipping point: several prominent organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, have finally admitted that upon further review, cholesterol and saturated fat aren’t health hazards after all. We can’t underestimate that one. Given how entrenched the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! theory was, this is akin to officials in the North Korean government announcing that upon further review, communism doesn’t actually work.
Think about just how profoundly the fear of saturated fat and cholesterol has affected us over the decades. It’s why whole milk was banned from schools and replaced with sugar-laden skim milk. It’s why when you go shopping for yogurt, almost every container is labeled nonfat or low-fat. It’s why doctors and nutritionists wanted to put everyone on a low-fat diet. It’s why Weight Watchers started peddling those ridiculous Smart Ones (one gram of fat) meals. It’s why so many restaurants feature a “heart healthy” section of low-fat foods. It’s why restaurant foods are fried in those lousy vegetable oils. It’s why hospitals feed low-fat carbage to patients, including diabetics.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. The point is, fear of arterycloggingsaturatedfat! has underpinned millions of bad decisions over the decades by everyone from food manufacturers to frustrated dieters. Let’s cross our fingers and hope those days are finally coming to end.
Of course, we haven’t just been warned away from fatty foods over the years. Nope, we’ve been warned that all kinds of foods will kills us – red meat, to name an obvious example. And we’ve been assured that some foods will save us – whole grains, to name an obvious example. Most of those warnings and assurances have been based on observational studies. This or that is linked to such-and-such, blah-blah-blah.
I’ve been yammering on about how unreliable those studies are ever since I started blogging six years ago. It’s bad enough that researchers want to draw conclusions from mere correlations. But even the correlations are suspect, because (as I’ve pointed out several times), the data is based on food-recall surveys that simply aren’t reliable. I’ve known that for decades, because when I worked at a magazine, we all had to fill out a food-recall survey for some kind of health evaluation, and it was a joke. We just made stuff up to be done with it.
Now a paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings says the same thing. Here’s part of the abstract:
We assert that uncritical faith in the validity and value of M-BMs [memory-based dietary assessments] has wasted substantial resources and constitutes the greatest impediment to scientific progress in obesity and nutrition research. Herein, we present evidence that M-BMs are fundamentally and fatally flawed owing to well-established scientific facts and analytic truths. First, the assumption that human memory can provide accurate or precise reproductions of past ingestive behavior is indisputably false. Second, M-BMs require participants to submit to protocols that mimic procedures known to induce false recall. Third, the subjective (ie, not publicly accessible) mental phenomena (ie, memories) from which M-BM data are derived cannot be independently observed, quantified, or falsified; as such, these data are pseudoscientific and inadmissible in scientific research.
Pow. Zing. Whamo. The researchers are calling B.S. on M-BMs. But wait, it gets better: they’re also calling B.S. on perhaps the most influential organization to make use of (ahem) “studies” based M-BMs. Here’s how an article in Reason Magazine online describes what the researchers have to say:
A new article by University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher Edward Archer and colleagues Gregory Pavela and Carl Lavie, published this week in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, argues that the conclusions drawn by the federal government’s controversial Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) rest on fatally flawed assumptions about unusable data. Consequently, the authors conclude that the DGAC’s work—and the research used to support that work—is so off base as to be scientifically useless.
Pow. Zing. Whamo. Take that, USDA.
The Reason article includes an interview with researcher Edward Archer. Here’s some of what he had to say:
“My coauthors and I wrote this article because for over 50 years, government-funded researchers have been presenting anecdotal evidence as science. Given that these data constitute a majority of the evidence base for the federal nutrition guidelines, we think the greatest problem in nutrition and obesity research is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge created by pseudoscientific methods.”
“My previous work demonstrated that 60-80 percent of the dietary data from the NHANES is physiologically implausible. That is a scientific way of saying that people could not survive on the amount of foods and beverages they report.”
“It defies scientific and common sense to think that anyone can accurately remember and will honestly report the exact amount and specific type of foods and beverages they consumed yesterday, much less last week or last year.”
“The confluence of self-interest, institutional inertia, and scientific incompetence has led us to where we are today. The federal government has massively increased spending on nutrition and obesity research over the past few decades, and now spends over $2 billion of taxpayer’s money per year. Unfortunately, the people that control that funding are the same researchers that use these anecdotal methods, train the next generation of researchers, and control the publication of scientific papers. The same researchers are getting funded to do the same research year after year after year. This inertia and self-interest are exacerbated by the exorbitant amount of grant funding established researchers receive. As with many things in life, follow the money.”
Follow the money … I should use that line someday.
“The government funded researchers control the field by funding only those researchers that use the same flawed methods; they stifle progress by rejecting contradictory evidence, and immediately impugn the integrity and competence of researcher who disagree.”
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that government-funded researchers stifle research and reject contradictory evidence. But let’s set all that aside and focus on the main point: food-recall surveys are a complete joke. I don’t care how much fancy-pants statistical analysis you perform, if the data going in is garbage, then garbage is what comes out the other end.
So once again, think about how many This Food Linked To That Disease articles you’ve seen in the media over the decades. You’ve probably had well-meaning friends and family members shove them in your face while you’re busy trying to dunk a piece of bacon in an egg yolk. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me they don’t eat red meat because they had a near-relative die of colon cancer, and well, you know, red meat is linked to colon cancer. It’s been in the news and everything.
Saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t health hazards, and pretty much every This Food Linked To That study ever published is a joke.
Those two things ought to change everything.