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The First Universal Unitarian Church of the Healthy Diet

Posted Feb 23 2013 10:57am
Some rights reserved by John Scalzi - who is nice enough to share this image on Flickr for free - but has nothing to do with this post.

Some rights reserved by John Scalzi – who is nice enough to share this image on Flickr for free – but has nothing to do with this post.

[NOTE: I write a lot of posts I never publish. This came close to being one of them. I read it now and am ambivalent about it. I suppose that if it gets you to think, then it was worth polluting the Internet with. Additionally - I didn't fact-check this - assume nothing in here is a 'fact' without doing your own research. -LCC]

The man who came to my door in his freshly pressed suit handed me two tickets to heaven and said: “This is all that you need. It’s all in this book.” He waved a bible at me. “It’s all true – 100% scientifically proven.” His smile was confident without being smug – he seemed sincere in his earnestness. He was a likable guy, and if I believed in what he believed, we could be friends.

I am always polite to people who come to my door preaching religion. I would rather keep my own religion private and personal but I will say that I have respect for people of faith – whatever that faith may be.

What galls me, however is the needless need to turn a belief system into ‘fact’.

What a lot of people seem to miss in a world where science itself has become a sort of religion is that a faith-based system does not need to be proven. Faith means you don’t have to prove it – you have faith – that’s what the word means. Yet despite this we have people who attempt to deny that evolution is most likely the mechanism for life on earth, as just one glaring example, and try to shoehorn in whatever science they can to ‘prove’ scriptures written in the Iron Age by people with no conception of science – nor, I believe, would they have cared what science had to say about their beliefs. True faith does not need validation.

Yet, in parts of America you can go to museums that show dinosaurs frolicking with humans . Why? Because the ‘100% truth’ of the bible says that it must have been so. Again, I don’t have anything but the greatest respect for people of faith – what concerns me is their sometimes absurdest attempts to unnecessarily justify their faith – with science abused, bent, twisted, and tortured into proving their point in the process.

This post isn’t about religion, however, it is about belief. and I think there is quite the analogy to be made between faith-based knowledge of religions and the many differing schools of thought about diet.

What I believe (and note the word ‘belief’) is that, like religion, nutrition is essentially an unknowable system – at least at this point in the progress of science. It is simply too complicated for us to draw any solid conclusions. Perhaps the only conclusions that can be drawn at present are that nutritional needs and the attendant health benefits are very individual and that what works for one person might be harmful to another.

Diets – almost by necessity – have become belief systems because of their contradictory natures and differing goals and core values – very similar to the way religions have evolved.

If we follow the analogy and I arbitrarily choose the 1970s as the start of the ‘modern era of nutritional belief systems’, it began with a bang in the 1970s by the US government. A commission headed by former senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern put out nutritional guidelines that became the prevailing dogma since: fat was very bad for you, and plenty of grains and veggies were the ticket to health. This gospel was a misstatement of the original gospel put forth by the prophet of low fat, Ancel Keys, with the conclusions drawn from his famous Seven Countries Study that seemed to show cholesterol in the blood was linked to heart disease. This study itself was flawed in that Dr. Keys cherry-picked the data here – and was further confused because Dr. Keys himself followed more of a Mediterranean diet containing fat in his own life and in the diet books he wrote.

The government recommendations had jumped to a number of conclusions, like cholesterol in the bloodstream comes from cholesterol in the diet, and while this is a gross simplification of a study that itself had major criticisms, it became the state-sponsored dietary belief system and missionaries were sent far and wide to promote this to the world as sound advice – because there’s nothing like convincing others of your beliefs to validate them to yourself.

At the same time, an alternative dietary belief system emerged. Its prophet was Dr. Robert Atkins. Having had weight problems of his own, he had read about a low carb diet (which itself goes back to the 1800s) and tried it – and lost weight. He spent the rest of his life – many of those years in the wilderness labeled a quack and a charlatan – promoting his version of a dietary belief system.

Followers of Atkins suffered their own schism when Atkins came out with a second book, updating the first, and made room in the diet for artificial sweeteners as well as a number of other changes. This was considered heretical by a number of early adherents and you can find people on low carb message boards identifying themselves as on ‘Atkins 74’ to differentiate from the apostate.

After Atkins’ death, a third book came out which further evolved the belief system to emphasis fat less as well as de-emphasize testing for ketones, among other changes. As a result of this dilution of the gospel, many low carb adherents take their own approach and will refer to the plan they follow as ‘modified Atkins’.

Despite the reputation of low carb as potentially dangerous, it is as much based on science as the low fat belief system, albeit citing different studies as well as the same studies interpreted in different ways. Go to any low carb site and as the daily trickle of studies on diet are released, low carb adherents (or ‘defenders of the faith, if you will) will laud the ones favorable toward low carb while picking apart the methodology or conflicts of interest in the other research (A pasta company sponsors nutrition research that – believe-it-or-not – concludes pasta is terrific for you! Who’da thunk?!?)

One might also say that the forces that shaped the 1960s in America also popularized vegetarianism as well as veganism in the country, culminating in the creation of PETA (the People for the Ethical treatment of Animals) in 1980.

I have no problem with their ethical notions and think they are noble ones, but similar to Intelligent Design, they do the exact same thing that the man who came to my door with 2 tickets to heaven.

They have a murky relationship with the PCRM – the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine – which exclusively focuses on science that concludes that veganism – the complete elimination of animal products from your diet – is the only ‘100% scientifically proven’ means to health, happiness and longevity. Given that Atkins, almost by default, expects you to eat meat, PETA and the PCRM stridently bashes Atkins at every chance they get – so much so that the latest version of the Atkins book tries to show a way for vegetarians at least to follow the diet, where in previous books it was deemed impossible. Atkins, after all, is a business – they want to make money. It’s bad business to have a cadre of haters attacking you at every step.

And if they can come up with a reasonable approach for people who want to do low carb but don’t want to eat meat – as well as meeting the vegan folks at least halfway – more power to ‘em.

I am going to repeat myself and state again that I have nothing against people who have strong ethical, moral or even environmental beliefs that in good conscience prohibit them from eating animal products. I have great respect for them. However, perverting the science, cherry-picking the research, and attacking any science that does not fit their worldview is pseudo-science.

We can continue with another popular dietary belief system that sprang up more recently: Paleo.

I believe (note the word ‘believe’ again) that Paleo is a faith-based diet rooted in a concept of ‘authenticity’. Instead of an ethical system based on non-harm for animals it is based on a romanticized notion of our ancestral past and the concept of the noble savage. Again, I have nothing against people who are attracted to this way of life, who reap benefit from it, and are healthier and happier because of it. What I have a problem with is people cherry-picking the science and trying to convince others that their way is right and everyone else is wrong.

This list could go on. We could say that Weight-Watchers is a more traditional diet with fellowship at its core, using the social contract between members to provide support. Paleo itself can be broken down further as there is a ‘primal’ offshoot with a similar basis but a few major differences. I could go on and on and on.

Sticking with just the diets detailed here, again arbitrarily, I find flaws in every one of them – including the one I follow myself.

Low Fat: I believe it has become based on the mistaken notion that calories are more important than the types of foods you eat. This results in making crappy food seem virtuous by slapping ‘100 calories’ on the label and making consumers feel they are doing something good for their bodies when they are doing no such thing. It is simplistic and populist – a belief system for the masses.

Low Carb: I believe that low carb without respite for too long can stop working and possibly cause issues with thyroid and perhaps serotonin levels. It can also cause people to get headaches and fatigue in early stages, and the low fat dogma that most people bring with them when starting the diet frequently cause people, consciously or unconsciously, to do a low fat version of Atkins, which could increase the chance of gallstones. It also likes to pretend that calories don’t matter when they certainly do. Despite this, many early adherents lose weight fast and become rabid defenders of the faith as strident as any PETA activist. I think it appeals to certain personality types as well: people who like to be different. Low carb eating is certainly a differentiator: some flaunt it proudly while others try to hide it.

Veganism: I believe veganism drives people to typically eat a lot of soy – and I have concerns that soy might not be all that good for you long term. Veganism also leads to the same kind of junk foods that the low fat diets promulgate – if whatever processed crap you manufacture has no animal products in it, slap a 100% vegan on the label and you have a built-in audience of consumers eager to try your food. It also attracts a number of different but distinct personality types: free-thinkers and people with deep spiritual and moral beliefs about what they eat.

Paleo: I find their prohibitions of certain foods to be arbitrary. To simplify their thinking: if a caveman didn’t eat it – I can’t eat it. I think this leaves out a wonderful array of perfectly healthy foods that – if cavemen had a chance – they would have torn into with gusto and been as healthy as the Paleo folks believe them to be. The community also can be strident and dogmatic.

If you’re still with me , let me propose an alternative to all of these – one that rejects the extremism of all of them while at the same time embracing all of them. I’m calling it ‘The First Universal Unitarian Church of the Healthy Diet’. This state plainly that the content of this blog is a belief system. There is science to back many of the statements here and much of what I do. But much of the science is still in debate and will remain in debate long after I’m gone.

I don’t expect people to come here to believe as I believe. Like the Universal Unitarian Church that believes in the concept of a higher power but doesn’t have a particular doctrine that is rigidly followed nor does it have a mandate for a single approach, this is a place where people who don’t find themselves fitting into neat categories can come for fellowship, sharing a common belief in diet as a means to greater health and happiness, a willingness to tolerate differences of opinion, and to share what we know and our trials and tribulations as we each individually work to go from a lesser perfect being to a more perfect being, whether we tend toward that being as primarily vegan, paleo, low fat, low carb – or anything else for that matter.

Everyone is welcome here and everyone’s opinions are welcome as well. What isn’t welcome is an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ attitude.

United in a common goal of health and happiness we each explore in our different ways the path to this goal and provide each other the knowledge that we are not alone.

To paraphrase the writer Andre Gide: do not embrace those who have found the truth – embrace those who seek it.

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