If not research, then what?

Many people seem to have given up on scientific research as a valid way to answer the question: What should we eat? Attitudes range from fatigued (“The rules change every week,”) to mistrustful (“All the results are bought and paid for,”) to cynical (“These researchers have no idea what they’re doing.”) Personally, I think it’s too soon to abandon scientific inquiry.  For all it’s flaws, I still believe that it leads us, in fits and starts and despite wrong turns, toward a greater understanding of the human machine.

But if you’ve given up on research, how will you decide what and how to eat? I can think of several possibilities, each with strengths and weaknesses.

Tradition  Should we simply eat what our ancestors ate?  After all, traditional diets evolved by trial and error, presumably to enhance our survival. It’s an interesting concept that gets complicated in the application. Pollan has suggested that if my grandmother wouldn’t have recognized it as food, I shouldn’t eat it. All I can say is that my grandmother, who raised a family through the Depression, was a major proponent of Velveeta and Spam.

So, how far back should we go: pre-industrial? pre-historic? Can I adopt someone else’s tradition (say, the Mediterranean Diet) and hope for good results? What if I don’t live in a Mediterranean climate (or a bison range)? Does it make sense to use decidedly non-traditional means (dry ice and jet planes) to support a primitive diet? What other aspects of the lifestyle need to go with the diet in order to replicate its success?

Common Sense Do we really need guys in lab coats to tell us what foods are wholesome? For example, it’s just common sense that chemicals designed to kill plants and animals (herbicides and pesticides) are probably not good for humans to consume. Then again, it was simple common sense that eating too much cholesterol from eggs would lead to too much cholesterol in the blood. Sometimes, things that seem logically connected, aren’t.

Personal Experience   “My backaches went away when I cut out dairy.” “I lost weight when I started eating six times a day.” “All I can tell you is that I got pregnant when I followed the Fertility Diet.” Does it really matter whether these outcomes could be reproduced in a clinical trial? Perhaps all that really matters is what’s true for you.  Understanding exactly why something occurred is probably also secondary–on the personal level. But anticipating or understanding long-term results gets more difficult. Will a high-protein diet lead to thinning bones thirty years from now? (Probably not, but you see what I mean.)

Pleasure Principle  With no way of knowing the real truth about how food choices and diet affect our health, why not stop worrying and just eat what you like? After all, we’re all going to die of something someday.

In truth, I bet most of us, even those who haven’t yet given up on science, make our dietary decisions based on a little bit of all of the above. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “If not research, then what?

  1. I have a very simple philosophy when it comes to food. Eat whatever I want in moderation. I do count calories because I have been gaining weight over the years that I need to shed. But I eat food that I consider wholesome – unprocessed till it gets into my hands, traditional foods like cheese that I don’t make – most of the time. I allow myself to eat not-so-wholesome food (e.g. Oreo cookies) not as often and I compensate for calories.

    It helps that I am a vegetarian and most of my calories come from plants. I also find that if I cook healthfully with focus on vegetables and fruits and vegetable sources of protein, the food is satisfying and I don’t feel deprived.


  2. Despite 7 billion people on the planet eating every day, we still know very little about what’s good for you. But that’s no reason to ignore science. I’m certain cigarettes and being obese are really bad for you. Vegetables and exercise are almost certainly good for you. Highly processed foods and simple carbs are probably best to minimize.

    Other than that, eat drink and beat Larry !!

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