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.