[Food For Thought] Nutrition Science is Seasoned with Sweet Succulent Ignorance

Studying biology is hard. Remembering facts is easy.  Running experiments is hard. Taking someones word for it is easy. Reading through peer-review studies is hard. Reading through magazine articles is easy and reading just the headlines is even easier.

Imagine an alien gave us the automobile.

Just hear me out…

Imagine that instead of Henry Ford, and alien came by and dropped a bunch of cars everywhere, all over the world. At first no one knew what to do with it. The car had wheels and a steering mechanism but it was obvious from it’s weight that it couldn’t be pulled by horses like regular carriages. They aliens also provided a key, and it was obvious where it fit (the lock next to the steering handle) but any attempts to turn the key just resulted in a lot of noise and strange symbols flashing in the main display but no one could figure out what they meant. The front bulbs also went on after the key was turned so many people used their car as a lamp. After a few weeks, however, the lights stopped flashing and no noise came from the car. Then an exceptionally persistent individual discovered, after many months of trial and error, that applying an electrical current to a particular component in the front body caused the lights to go back on.

Fast forward a few years and there are now two basic camps. Those that try trial and error experiments to figure out how the car moves and those that have taken apart the main front component (which they now call the engine) to figure exactly how it works. The public, however, only believe in the former approach, particularly in a hypothesis called the fast-in fast-out model. The theory works like this: the faster you blast liquid at the car, the faster it will move. Of course the key has to be turned, lever pulled and pedal pushed but this has been shown time and time again to be true and so the public has never second guessed the theory. Those working on the engine claim the engine is way too complex for such a simple explanation but the majority of people don’t care. The media and corporations love cars. There are magazines and newspapers entirely devoted to car motion. “10 Unusual Fuels That Can Move Your Car”. “Optimize your fuel input angle with the new Nike FuelBit”. “I moved my car 10 ft in a week! Buy my book to find out how.” It seems that every month they discover a new technique to move your car and every month someone makes a dollar out of an unresearched, generalized and sensational headline.

This is where we are now with nutrition science. We are standing on the hood of a car blasting it with gasoline and the little fuel that trickles into the gas tank, inches the car forward just enough to justify the theory.

Fortunately for us, we know how cars work. We don’t just make educated guesses based on correlations, we actually KNOW how it works. We know where the fuel tank is, how the engine works, and what chemical properties can make the most efficient fuel.

The human body is only a million times more complex than a car engine. The guys working on the engine in our analogy? They are called biologists and this is their life’s work. Despite what we’ve accomplished, we still have a lot to learn. The amount of known unknowns in nutrition science is astounding.

Because of this, the nutrition industry is run by correlation. It’s the best we can do with our limited knowledge. Unfortunately, correlations are dangerously easy to misinterpret. For example, people who eat fast food every day tend to have more heart attacks. Is it the mustard, the ketchup, the bun, the lettuce, the cheese, the burger meat, the burger fat? Unfortunately and seemingly arbitrarily, the burger fat took the rap even though no one has any idea about what mechanisms are involved in converting the cholesterol you eat into LDL (bad cholesterol) in your blood. We, as a society, just assumed it was true. Fortunately science is self-correcting.  In fact I just recently read a thorough causative argument on how excess carbs can be converted into serum LDL cholesterol.

Generalized, birds-eye view correlations confuse the public and demonize entire groups of food rather than a specific molecular culprit. I’ve read many articles that say polyunsaturated fats are good for you and many that say they are bad for you. The truth is that there are many types of polyunsaturated fats and each article is purposefully being vague to support their argument.

Now I’m not suggesting cutting out carbs or telling you what to eat but at the very least you should be aware that there’s a lot about our body that we don’t know. Don’t take people’s word for it. Try it out yourself. If it works, keep doing it, if it doesn’t, modifiy a variable and retest. Whenever you hear the term “everybody’s different” it’s code for “we’re too dumb as a species to figure out the underlying variables involved”. Someday we will understand everything and we’ll laugh at how ignorant we were but for now we are still just trying to figure out where the fuel tank is.

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