Thursday, March 27, 2008

new old nutrition

So I've gone two or so posts without talking about food directly. I'm breaking the "streak" today because of a magazine that came in the mail. It's called Prevention and it's marketed to people with Diabetes. Now, I don't have Diabetes and neither does anyone in my family--anymore. My father, who died a year ago, had Type II Diabetes and the magazine was his (or my mom's; she was trying to help him).

Although Diabetes, of course, is a serious matter, I had to laugh at the cover. The header for the main story reads (or exclaims):

Defy Diabetes
REAL Sugar! REAL Butter!
Potatoes! Cheese!
Even Chocolate!

This header amused me first because it is enthusiastic to the point of ridiculous, definitely not the style taught in writing/journalism classes. It also amused me because "real food" like butter, cheese and "even chocolate" are so foreign to many of us (especially diabetes sufferers diligent about diet) that they come off as nutritional silver bullets. Who would have thought whole foods like these would ever become revolutionary super foods, especially for people trying to regulate their insulin?

But what really piqued my interest was another header which reads:

How Fiber
Weight Loss,
Cuts Blood

Again, through "new research" we're discovering the wonders of fiber, especially how it regulates blood sugar, a hugely important topic for diabetics, whose very lives depend on the regulation of blood insulin levels. This is indeed good news, but I have to ask, is it news? It wasn't to my grandmother who ate high fiber cereals and breads, but apparently it is to several scientists quoted in this magazine.

As I read the cover and stories in Prevention I'm reminded of philosopher Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he said that scientific breakthroughs are huge paradigm shifts that don't happen quickly but which make a huge impact on the culture when they do occur.

Think of the Titanic trying to change course in the Atlantic (slowly, slowly and in that case not nearly fast enough). The nutritional community, like all scientific communities, is like a neighborhood gang (albeit a non-violent one): solidarity is king. Everyone in the gang shares the same vocabulary and keep their private objections private, until, that is, the day comes when it is overwhelmingly obvious that a change is in order. For medicine and nutrition this means everyone supports one theory or therapy until the gang decides that x disease warrants a shift in treatment or x food really does have certain benefits (or detractions). At this point, the shift gets underway. The scientific community, armed with appropriate studies and data, and briefed with certain talking points on a particular topic, issues a statement that "new research" has uncovered a scientific breakthrough. The whole community, aligned to this new thinking moves forward (with key spokespersons doing the talk show and morning TV circuit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)

Before this time, going public is anathema. Say a member has a new idea, some new data to share, a different direction he thinks the research should take. He must stay quiet or at least muffled until this same idea dawns on others, if he'd like to keep his job and his reputation intact, that is. If he doesn't toe the line, if he starts trying to spread the word about this new thinking without the rubber stamp of the group, the integrity of the gang comes into question. Sometimes the group comes along with him; usually they kick him out of the gang, leaving him hanging out there alone, labeled a quack or at least an outsider (not something a scientist or, indeed, a gang member finds very comforting).

So, when it comes to food research, like the "new research" that Prevention reported in its recent edition, it makes perfect sense why it all seems so painfully not new, so not revolutionary to those of us who are not in the gang, those of us who put less and less stock in what the gang says and who listen to other voices that seem to make sense, people like Michael Pollan and Nina Planck, not to mention whole foods store purveyors, naturopathic doctors and other "whackos" out there who have been promoting whole foods for decades.

Above I said the magazine amuse me. It also made me a little sad. My dad, and countless others, could have been improving his health and enjoying delicious, whole foods instead of eating artificial sweeteners and fats and having a rotten--and it turns out unhealthy--time doing it.

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