Finding Common Ground: The Beginning

Finding Common GroundYesterday was Day 1 of Oldways Finding Common Ground, in which 20 nutrition science experts from the United States and abroad presented information about various dietary patterns (vegetarian/vegan, paleo, Mediterranean, and low-glycemic) as well as other nutrition issues like the microbiome, gluten, saturated fat, marketing and the food environment, the changing American diet, and what we know and don’t know about plant foods, meat, fish and dairy.

The reason for the conference, explained Oldways president Sara Baer-Sinnott, is to bring together scientists and journalists to come up with a unified clear message about eating well, then examine how nutrition messages get distorted. You could call the conference an anecdote to the rampant misrepresentation of scientific studies related to nutrition and the crazy headlines that result.

“Knowledge isn’t power if you don’t put it to use,” said Scientific Co-Chair David Katz, MD, MPH of Yale Prevention Research Center, adding that the conference is an attempt to “see past the fractious and disassembled bits to see a larger truth.”

Katz’s co-chair, Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, pointed out that the purpose of he conference is not to agree on every point of nutrition. “Life would be pretty dull if that were the case.”

Willett said when he was starting out in the 1970s, nutrition scientists knew little about food or healthy eating—they were mostly Nobel Prize winners for discovering an enzyme or nutrient cofactor. The messages of the time included avoiding eggs and fat. “When I started digging down, I realized there was very little evidence to support it,” he said.

He quickly found that whoever could talk the loudest got their nutrition messages heard—whether they were science-based or not. “It was almost like religious wars in the middle ages.”

That’s a sentiment that Katz agreed with: “We have somehow managed to dissolve into religious wars over issues of nutrition.”

The speakers presented one or two at a time, followed by a Q&A facilitated by either Katz or Willett  and a science/health/nutrition journalist. There was some spirited debate, especially at the close of the long 9+ hour day when several presenters took the stage for a Q&A. Pictured above we have Katz, S.Boyd Eaton, MD (Emory University), Dean Ornish, MD (Preventive Medicine Research Institute), Steven Abrams, MD (University of Texas Dell Medical School), T.Colin Campbell, PhD (Center for Nutrition Studies), Neal Barnard, MD (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), Willett, Meir Stampfer, MD, PhD (Harvard SPH), and Eric Rimm, ScD (Harvard SPH).

The scientists met over dinner last night to come up with a consensus (oh, to be a fly on the wall). I’m certain that the assembly will agree that a healthy diet includes lots of plant foods but does not include added sugars, refined carbohydrates and other highly processed foods. What is less certain, based on today’s discussion/debate, is what role animal foods, even fish, will play.

“There’s a lot to base our discussion on that we didn’t have 10 or even 20 years ago,” Willett said.

Today, Katz and Willett will announce the consensus and yield the floor to panel discussions about media coverage of science and health, how the media can help demolish nutrition myths (ah, my personal mission) and how to communicate the consensus statement to the public.

“No matter how important the message, no one voice may be loud enough to deliver it,” Katz said, “but what if we pool our voices?”