Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Why science is failing

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After my fellow dietitian Abby Langer wrote this article for Self, which I personally felt was quite considered and rather generous to the carnivore movement, I noticed a commonality among many of the people spewing abuse and vitriol (does an all-meat diet make you exceptionally angry?) toward her, and RDs in general. Any guesses? It was that many of them were engineers. I’m not sure what’s up with that. However, I can tell you that they are far more confident in their belief in the magic of the carnivore diet than I am in probably anything.

Then I was listening to StartUp podcast and something clicked. This season they’re following what’s called a “church plant” which is people trying to start new churches. On the last episode they were talking to a researcher who said that membership in all Christian churches in North America is declining, except for at evangelical churches. The reason for that? The certainty the evangelical church provides. Unlike other churches where there may be grey areas, things left up to interpretation, the evangelical church has definitive answers. And people like certainty. In religion and in nutrition.

You’ve probably heard the comparison of certain dietary beliefs to religious beliefs before. It’s nothing new. People attach their sense of self to a religious or dietary belief. They’re vegan, paleo, vegetarian, carnivore, catholic, or muslim. In the realm of diets, dietitians are agnostic. In the realm of medicine, Western doctors are agnostic. A great deal of the time, science is agnostic. We constantly question our beliefs and change them as new evidence comes to light. When someone asks is corn good for me we inwardly cringe because there are so many ways to answer that question and they all start with “it depends”. The carnivores are the evangelicals of the dietary world. They have all the answers with the utmost certainty. And how can someone who’s desperate to find a diet that will cure what ails them not be enticed by that confidence when faced with dietitians and doctors who are saying “let’s try this first and if that doesn’t work then we’ll try this” and on and on. We don’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach. We offer tailoring to help individuals find the way of eating that fits them best.

If you want certainty without evidence then you can find all the advice you want, and then some, from carnivorous engineers on twitter. If you’d rather have uncertainty and a little variety in your diet then find yourself a dietitian.

Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

4 thoughts on “Why science is failing

  1. When I was seriously obese, I needed those dietary certainty claims to start the lifestyle changes. The vegan certainty rules got me healthy. Eventually, I listened to the certainty claims of the meat eaters, and synthesized them into a normal diet. Today, I’d tell anyone to follow an actual dietitian, but I’d add certainty claims, to get them motivated.

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  2. Hi Diana,
    Although I typically agree, or at least have no concerns with the positions and opinions you express in your blogs I am having trouble with this one. 
    A couple of challenges: the first is the title ” Why Science is failing”.  Science is much closer to Dietitians, in terms of testing known food combinations for likely outcomes and experimenting with adding or taking away foods to generate a desirable outcome, than an Engineer or follower of a religion will ever be.  Can you imagine what our world would be like if Engineers said I “think” there is enough steel in that bridge or skyscraper…let’s try it and test that hypothesis.  Religion is all about belief in something that cannot be challenged or proven…for some it is a way to control the masses and for others it gives them a reason for existing when their own contributions or potential contributions are not enough.  This is not science.  Your blog post does not answer the question in the title and unfortunately is nothing more than sensationalism, which is disappointing.
    Science – the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

    The second item is your fellow Dietitian – here is a quote from the article she linked to referencing Jordan Peterson and his daughter “People are very impressionable, especially people who are sick and they want to be better, and they’ll try anything. I worry that this kind of thing is taking advantage of some people who are really struggling.”  Think about what is being said and what isn’t.  Do we know if these impressionable sick people have been under a doctors care and only continued to decline?  Do we know if they took a scientific approach by starting with a baseline and then introducing/removing foods one item at a time while gauging their reaction to the change? The sentence is written in such a way as to suggest that these are gullible sheep being lead off a cliff and that the results of their following a diet that does not match the thinking of the author is sure to lead to death or further misfortune.  Google “Has anyone died from a carnivore diet”…I couldn’t find a single hit though I am sure there must be someone linking a death to this diet.
    Having listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast with Peterson it is my understanding that he and his daughter introduced vegetables one at a time into their meat diet so that they could determine if the vegetables helped or hindered with the over all positive results they achieved with their meat only short term diet.  This worked to a degree but Jordan continued to suffer from depression until he removed all carbs from his diet.  His daughter talks about this in her blog https://mikhailapeterson.com/2018/04/19/april-19-2018-jordan-petersons-carnivore-diet-and-update/  She is asked about scientific evidence supporting the value of the carnivore diet and readily states “Nobody knows. There’s nothing particularly scientific out there, it’s all anecdotal.” Your fellow Dietitian appears to be using sensationalism to undermine her own position which she states to be “In terms of diets overall, I’m open to the fact that different ways of eating work for different people”.  Her, in bold, statement “We have no evidence that it’s actually good for your health.” could just as easily have read “We have no evidence that it’s actually bad for your health.”

    I agree that there are people who will aggressively defend their decision to live by the carnivore diet (their choice must be right if they can convince lots of people to join them) and there are those who will attempt to profit from those who are searching for the ultimate elixir of life.  The reality is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of the same thinking across all aspects of our lives….this is nothing new. 
    The problem I have with this statement “let’s try this first and if that doesn’t work then we’ll try this” is that without context it completely fails to build confidence in the desperate patient.  It feels arbitrary, unscientific, vague, unsympathetic, uncaring…”lets flip a coin and see if this results in life or death” tone to it.  Of course that is not the intent but those on the Internet that you and Abbey criticize understand that the desperate person does not want fuzziness…they want certainty…they want a strategy that will cure them and while no one can promise such a thing a solid scientific approach will build confidence in most people.  Of course even a good strategy will be subject to subsequent consultations where the professional will either make or break the progress and relationship.

    The message from Dietitians, I believe, should be that there are strategies that can be followed to help improve health and that if you, as an individual, feel you must try a particular unproven approach there are things you can do to reduce your odds of short and long term health problems.  After all, how will the rigid Dietitian feel if science proves that a carnivore diet does actually help some people?

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Richard

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    • Thanks for your lengthy comment. My point was that science, including nutrition as espoused by dietitians does not offer the certainty that people desire. As a result, we are seeing more and more people turn to uncredentialled, often predatory, self-taught “experts” who claim to offer miracle cures and who are steadfast in the certainty that their diet is The Best Diet. Science, with it’s limitations, research, and constant evolution is unable to compete with the allure of charlatans when people are desperate for help and answers. It’s the same reason that I once said that dietitians aren’t sexy.

      It’s also all well and good for self-proclaimed carnivores to eat whatever diet they choose. It’s another matter entirely for them to act as experts in a field in which they have zero education or qualifications.

      Also, by referring to us as “rigid” you contradict the very point that I (and you) made. As dietitians we work with people to help them find ways of eating that work best for them. We are open to many different diets and patterns of eating. Contrast this with the strict and limited diet promoted by self-proclaimed carnivores which is truly rigid. If there is ever any evidence to show that there are actual benefits to a carnivorous diet then we dietitians will be open to helping people who are interested in adopting this way of eating. That is the nature of nutrition science. It is constantly changing and as professionals we base our advice on the best evidence available.

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