A Call for Civility in Alternative Nutrition

I’m going to start this post discussing Sigmund Freud – but it’s not what you think – really. This post is not about psychology.

Sigmund Freud was a cokehead in a time when it wasn’t a big deal. The notion of doing drugs at the time was not a counterculture phenomenon – it was something that was considered more a bad habit at most. Freud was a doctor in Vienna and possessing an active imagination, as well as a coked-up personality, invented psychoanalysis as a means to make a living.

It was quite popular with the well-heeled Viennese women of the day, and this quack became quite famous. It wasn’t all a waste of time: Freud invented the notion of ‘ego’, which is something that we probably should have had if he hadn’t invented it.

The problem, as I see it, was that as interesting as some of his theories were, it wasn’t science. A doctor listened patiently while women complained – and they felt better. That’s not science. While Freud provided an air of science to the proceedings with his amusing theories, it was nothing of the sort.

Very early on there was dissention: Carl Jung was one of his students but soon parted ways. He was best known for his notion of the ‘collective unconscious’ – a common underpinning that all humans supposedly had. Later on, Abraham Maslow came along with his ‘hierarchy of needs’ which is insightful – but again, it isn’t science, but more a sort of observational philosophy.

This observational philosophy permeated psychology well until the late 20th century, at least in my 4am unsourced and highly subjective narrative here, but early in the 20th century, there was a response to what was being viewed at the time as a mish-mash of theories of the mind that were fun, but really weren’t actionable science.

The result was a new school pf psychology called behaviorism.

Behaviorists purposely didn’t care what went on inside the mind. They cared what the organism did as the result of stimuli. My take on it was if you give a rat a small rat yummy every time he steps on a little lever, he’ll learn to click the lever to get rat yummies.

Yeah, sure – boring compared to imagining the rat having penis envy or the Electra complex, but it was observable, measurable, and certainly seemed more like science than all that other stuff.

In my horrible overview of the history of psychology here, behaviorist considered the workings of that little rat mind a ‘black box’. This is important because it begins to get to the point of this post – which I’m sure you’re still wondering about. In a quote I found on the Internet (the link promptly didn’t work the next day), I found this description, which I like and will use:

A metaphor of black box is usually described to explain the behaviorist approach about learning, i.e. the learner is a black box and nothing is known about what goes on inside. Knowing what’s inside the black box is not essential for determining how behavior is governed by its environmental antecedents and consequences. The behaviorists believe that the psychology as a science to develop a reliable and useful theory of learning have to use observable, reliable data as evidence.

I like that. It’s sciency. It’s also history: behaviorism, like Freud, has been put in the garbage heap of history for the most part. Psychology has moved on to more subtle means of understanding the human mind and more practical therapies for changing behavior than the nonsense that was the foundation of psychoanalysis or the crude observations of behaviorism.

The behaviorists served their purpose. They brought psychology back from pseudoscience to science again, and while it was discarded as too simple and replaced with a more effective combination of cognitive therapy and medication, it was a great launching point to a real science of psychology.

I was thinking that perhaps the example of the behaviorists ought to be applied to nutrition.

In my ninth year of doing low carb, I still don’t know why it works for me. Theories abound, and on other sites on the Internet, fierce and vicious debates surround the mechanisms by which some people lose weight on low carb. Gary Taubs is vilified. Atkins is called ‘Fatkins’. Even Jimmy Moore, the decent human being that writes livinlavidalowcarb.com, is viciously attacked. Every time I read these debates, my head hurts.

The truth is – we really don’t know. To paraphrase Michel Pollan: Nutrition science is where surgery was in about 1650 – interesting potential, but I’m not sure I’d want to have an operation then.

I suppose I feel a bit like those behaviorists in the early 20th century looking for refuge in some real, actionable science rather than these ‘I’m smart – he’s an idiot’ debates between Atkinistas, Paleos, Vegetarians, Vegans, and so on.

How about this:

  • People try low carb – and it works for them. They feel better. Their blood work improves. They lose some weight.
  • Some people try low carb and it doesn’t work for them. They don’t lose weight and or don’t feel good. They try something else.
  • Some people try ANY diet and it works for them. Then it doesn’t. They try something else then.
  • And none of us prance around feeling smarter or superior to other people who hold a different opinion or seek to try a different approach than ours. Instead, we compare notes – what works, what doesn’t. We respectfully disagree if we need to, and we encourage one another to find our own roads to optimal health through empirical research on ourselves.

Just because some study says such and such doesn’t mean that embracing or avoiding a certain behavior or food will have the same effect on you – it does mean that there might be some merit in trying it and see what happens. It also doesn’t give anyone the right to engage in name-calling.

Now – none of this is for those of us who play it safe, and follow the guidelines set out by the medical authorities currently in vogue. If we choose to take personal responsibility and consciously ignore their advice, we must also bear the risks.

And for those of us willing to do this, a call for civility. A vegan and a low carber have more in common with each other than we do with someone eating the Standard American Diet. Stop making a way of eating into a religion with notions of good and evil, saints and heretics.

Maybe there’s multiple paths to optimal health, and maybe those of us searching for new ways deserve each other’s respect for at least trying.

4 thoughts on “A Call for Civility in Alternative Nutrition

  1. Well said,

    If you haven’t already read them, there are two books I recommend; Nutrition and Your Mind by George Watson and Biochemical Individuality by Roger J. Williams.

    In my opinion, we known empirically, in a general sense, for at least a hundred years what constitutes proper nutrition. The physiological and biochemical aspects are clear. However, these useful aspects of science have been co-opted by a nutritional/industrial complex manifested in the educational activities of the International Food Information Council Foundation(IFICF) and similar food industry sponsored organizations. The IFICF is arguably one of the most pernicious corporate protection schemes ever devised. Here’s what it says about itself:

    “Incorporated as a public education foundation in 1991 and based in Washington, DC, the International Food Information Council Foundation is independent and not-for-profit. We do not lobby or further any political, partisan, or corporate interest. We bring together, work with, and provide information to consumers, health and nutrition officials, educators, government officials, and food, beverage, and agriculture industry professionals. We have established partnerships with a wide range of credible professional organizations, government agencies, and academic institutions to advance the public understanding of key issues. For example, we have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion as part of the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, a public-private partnership focused on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPlate Food Guidance System. Recognizing the global nature of food safety, nutrition and health issues, the Foundation extends its mission internationally. We share education materials with an independent network of Food Information Organizations and partners from around the world. We also serve as a news media resource. We provide science-based information to the media and refer journalists to our 350 independent, credentialed experts on a variety of nutrition, food, and safety topics…We believe in the importance of educating health and nutrition professionals. We regularly host Continuing Professional Education (CPE) programs which are offered in person and via Web cast, and have developed a series of Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the American Dietetic Association, CPE-approved learning modules on a variety of subjects.” http://www.foodinsight.org/about-ific-and-food-safety.aspx

    The IFICF is largely responsible for the current group think mentality regarding saturated fats and omega-6 industrial seed oils. For example, Timothy Noakes recently figured out the establishment was wrong recommend everyone restrict saturated fat intake to prevent heart attack(1) Of course, South African, university trained dietitians are certain Noakes is simply confused about saturated fats(2). But really, according to the scientific evidence(3,4), the low-fat/ replace-saturated-fats-with-polyunsaturated-oils advice is backwards. Nice going IFICF.

    1. http://www.health24.com/fitness/Diet_Supplements/16-481-512,73175.asp
    2. http://www.nutritionsociety.co.za/useful-information/21-visit-to-professor-tim-noakes
    4. http://healthydietsandscience.blogspot.com/

    1. The issue here becomes political, Dave. I don’t believe that politics can fix much of anything nowadays, but lawyers-turned-politicians listening to nutrition information provided by manufacturers is NOT going to make things better.

      I think the answer is personal responsibility, but is there even an awareness that such a thing as ‘alternative nutrition’ exists? And how would an individual know that it is an option? Most people see the equation as: either follow the USDA guidelines or eat whatever I want – as much as I want. They DON’T think there is an alternative means, and if they are aware of it, they think these people are a little wacky – as I did before I tried low carb 8+ years ago.

      The problem is that a number of people who give what I think is much sound advice also get pretty wacky at times. I think Dr. Mercola is an example. His newsletters provide much in the way of what I believe to be sound advice, and then BAM! – one comes along about something so off-the-wall that he provides his detractors with all the evidence they need to toss his same advice on the same heap as his good advice.

      Not only is the current nutritional system broken, but our entire way of looking at nutrition is broken as well. I think we need a new system that isn’t top-down science where scientists draw conclusions based on research, extrapolate to human populations, then disseminate advice. It hasn’t worked – and doesn’t work. We have ample evidence of that.

      What we need is a bottom-up approach. Empirical testing by individuals who actively participate in a new system of information-gathering about nutrition, weight optimization and health, and empirically test some of the theories set by the weight loss research – and see what works in the field. This happens every day, but it is anecdotal, decentralized, and the knowledge is lost.

      End of rant.

  2. I’m not sure where you are headed with this. I am at the point in my “diet” that I am happy just finding my pants still fit loosely.

    I find the “topic” of what I eat to be less and less interesting to the people around me as I pass the one year mark (five years overall) (unless the person talking to me wants to tell me about their diet strategy). This is just what I eat. And what I don’t eat. It is no longer a weight loss “diet”. I have to be content with being healthy and strong. I am pear shaped and will be pear shaped no matter what I weigh, and the view from the full length dressing room mirror is NEVER going to make me smile. There are no comments that I look great or “have you lost weight”. I just am what I am. I have the habit, but not the reward.

    When I do eat things that I should NOT eat, I feel bad. I am hungry, tired, constipated etc etc. I also don’t sleep well. I may lack “reward” but I certainly get “consequences”.

    Too many of us want what we used to have. We think the “giving up” is only to lose the weight and once lost we can start adding in the good stuff again. We can’t. Why would diabetics choose to take medicine rather than change their diet? Why have organ damage because you can’t give up pizza, bread and pasta? Why play roulette with your body’s health?

    When did food become a happy drug to sooth all emotional ills?

    My current diet is dull, boring and certainly not happy. I eat what I eat only because I am hungry. I no longer eat for pleasure. I don’t even try to make “tasty” treats. If something I cook actually tastes good– it’s a pleasant surprise which I enjoy. I always make sure to eat enough food at any meal. I never allow myself to get really hungry with no food proper available. This eating pattern reminds me of my mother’s cooking when I was a child. We ate it because we were hungry but never because it was delicious.

    1. I admit this post is lacking some clarity…I think I was trying to cover a half-dozen points in one 4am ramble. Forgive me.

      I once thought of food as a ‘utility’ – like electricity. Perhaps that’s OK sometimes. Or most of the time. I still think there needs to be time for the delight and joy that food can be – but it must be divorced from the curing of emotional ills. When it ceases to complement life and becomes a replacement for it is when food becomes our master.

      It’s a balancing act, to be sure. It’s safer where you are, and if I was there perhaps I’d have taken the weight off I was trying to take off these past 12 weeks.

      PS – women are provided unrealistic images of the female body daily. Check out http://www.mybodygallery.com/ – are you really that different from what real women look like that you can’t be comfortable looking at yourself in the mirror? You might be buying into the BS that anorexic models are some realistic ideal. Don’t allow this sort of self-violence.

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