Is There A Nutrition Common Ground?

Finding Common GroundNext week, I’ll be attending a very exciting conference in Boston. Finding Common Ground will bring together many of today’s leading experts in nutrition science along with members of the media (I’m attending as media). The goal? To come to a consensus on what a healthy diet looks like–and no, this doesn’t mean the “one perfect diet,” because there is no such animal:

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To come to a consensus, and then relay this information, will also require busting through the nutrition noise, i.e. the misconstrued, misguided and sometimes flat-out incorrect nutrition information being reported and promoted from all corners, including mainstream media, bloggers, social media darlings, diet “gurus” and, it must be said, some out-and-out hucksters with a book to sell or a TV show to promote. (Dr. Perlmutter and Dr. Oz, I’m looking at you, and so is the American Medical Association.)

This conference, and what it hopes to achieve, is important to me on several fronts:

The truth is that science, including nutrition science, doesn’t change as rapidly as it appears to. It evolves, yes, because the more we learn, the more questions there are to be asked, investigated, and hopefully answered. Even the recent withdrawal of recommendations about dietary cholesterol intake by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) isn’t some sudden paradigm shift…it’s a response to a body of scientific evidence that had grown enough to supplant what we previously thought we knew about the connection between dietary cholesterol and health.

Speaking of the DGAC, one of the most egregious attempts to confuse the public and ignore nutrition science has been unfolding over the last several months with the attack on the DGAC and the proposed 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (See my June post, “Food Politics Run Amuk” for more of my thoughts on this.) This attack has come from a few fronts, including food industry groups who would prefer that the Dietary Guidelines reflect their business interests instead of the science (and have lobbied the House appropriations committee to support their cause), and from writer Nina Teicholz, who has a book to sell (Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in A Healthy Diet) with a central premise that is not supported by science.* As it turns out, maybe this attack only has one front, as Marion Nestle explains in this post on her Food Politics blog and this The Hill post on the newly minted Nutrition Coalition [cough] outlines.

One weapon in this attack was an “investigation” of the 2015 dietary guidelines report that Teicholz wrote for The British Medical Journal (BMJ). (Read the DGAC’s response here and Dr. David Katz’s excellent letter to BMJ here.) Teicholz was at best a questionable choice to write such an article (considering that she has a financial interest in seeing the guidelines get ripped apart in Congress, one could argue that she is one of the worst choices), and BMJ has been slowly backpedaling, starting with a “clarification” the week after the article was published and a correction a month after publication. The article is still burdened with errors, however, and last week Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and a lengthy list of scientists called for a retraction.

How is it that those with the loudest voices seem to win, even when those voices are grounded in misinformation instead of facts? It’s because we want to believe in the fantastical, not the ordinary. That’s why there’s a constant revolving door of nutrition “gurus” selling books with dubious claims. As Dr. Katz (co-scientific chair of Finding Common Ground), wrote back in April for U.S. News & World Report:

“Given the rules of the game, the formula for a best-selling book about diet is pretty much just that: a formula… . It’s something like: lay claim to a revelation; cite the literature selectively to back up your argument; ignore all evidence to the contrary; offer up a scapegoat, silver bullet or both; and whatever you do, don’t say that the only way to get the benefits of eating well and exercising is by eating well and exercising. Oh, and be sure to throw everyone who came before you under the bus!”

Will Finding Common Ground forge a path toward a more “grounded” reporting of nutrition information? I hope so. It’s going to be a challenge, but little of worth is ever achieved by taking the easy road. I know I’m game!

* I know this post already includes a lot of links, but if you want to read a meticulous, thoughtful, science-based dismantling of Teicholz’s book, please link on over to “The Big Fat Surprise: A Critical Review” on my friend Seth Yoder’s blog, The Science of Nutrition. (I love how Teicholz tries to discredit Seth in the comments of this Marion Nestle post, stating that he’s just a “fan of nutrition.” Well, he must be a superfan, because he has two degrees in nutrition! Way to cherry pick your “data,” Nina!)