Science is all the rage in our modern age, taking the place of religion and philosophy in many people’s lives. But because science has become the one-size-fits-all replacement for intellectual pursuit, the abuse of science has blossomed. And to be honest, even much of the science we cite in support of our low carb / paleo / primal diets falls far from the ideal of the scientific method.
You might think I’m fretting about questionable statistical methods by qualified researchers, the mass media’s mangling of science stories to imply that fructose causes cancer, or emphasis on the USDA’s Food Pyramid by people who should know better, but that’s not my main concern today. What bothers me most is the improper use of science to support a particular position or sell a product. Science is not used for inquiry and discovery, but as a sales method to impart a patina of respectability to otherwise dubious claims.
On Low Carb Daily, our news aggregator for low carb, paleo and primal articles and news, we categorize the articles according to the author’s expertise. The Medical Blogs category is reserved for degreed medical doctors with current or past practice with actual patients. Researchers are degreed individuals with doctorates or master’s degrees in a related field, with the idea that they at least understand human biology. Advocates are those of us who may have a specialty in another field, but are interested in the low carb way of life, and contribute a lot to the community through published books, movies or websites that go beyond personal blogging. Two categories address the “regular people” that contribute, Personal Sites and Recipe Sites. We are not attempting to impose a hierarchy of importance, as some of the most useful low carb information is found in the personal experiences of regular people. But when you read an article making a scientific claim, you want to know more about the background of the person making the claim. The scientific opinions of doctors and researchers should carry more weight than personal trainers, dietitians and the rest of us mere mortals.
Paleo and primal diets are becoming more popular, and many new adherents are excited about trying to match modern day diets to what is called “evolutionary eating”. But there is an almost religious fervor being expressed about it, with some claims that don’t pass the smell test, such as: grass fed beef is much better than grain fed beef because of the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio. When you look at the actual amounts of either fatty acid in both types of beef, you see that it really doesn’t matter which one you eat for your body’s overall Omega 3 / Omega 6 ratio, as the difference in total intake is about 30 mg. While there may be philosophical or ethical reasons to prefer one over the other, emphasizing the minor difference in Omega 3 / Omega 6 ratios is pseudo-science.
Dan, at the blog At Darwin’s Table, is a biologist who understands both science and the on-line community. He identifies one of the problems with the way lay people approach the idea of evolutionary eating:
Just because an organism possesses a certain trait does not mean that this trait is adaptive. Or was evolved for that purpose. Which brings me to the paleo diet. Too many people make bold statements about what humans are adapted to eat. They do this often by simply making judgments based off what they think or have heard. Although the idea of the paleolithic diet is very much rooted in scientific theory, when people do this it starts to become more of a belief. In other words people will find examples to confirm what they want to believe.
For example, are Inuit adapted to eating lots of fat or did they do it because thats all they had access to? This is just an example and certainly easily investigated by looking at fat metabolism in Inuit people. But until that research is done (if it has been done) people should be careful when saying that some hunter gatherer group is adapted to eat lots of fat. Or worse that humans are adapted to eating lots of fat.
Dan recently had a guest post from JP, a student studying to be a kinesiologist, who expanded on the problem from his perspective:
I’m concerned about the future of evolutionary eating. I was attracted to paleo eating because of its scientific component. The evolution theory is still, after all those years of scientific progress, one of the most popular theories. It’s really hard to scientifically (not religiously) argue against evolution, natural selection and the concept of adaptation. This gave me the strong foundation I needed to build my lifestyle on. Obviously, whenever you build a house, you want to make sure it stands on solid ground. No one wants to have to start back again every couple of years. On top of that, evolutionary eating is based on anthropology – which happens to be my favourite science. Anthropology has a lot to offer in the nutrition debate.
As evolutionary eating became more popular, people forgot about some of its important parts, or made up new concepts that I would argue are pseudo-science at best. Indeed, more often than not, people reinterpret some data and make it look like it’s optimal.
There is more there in JP’s post, so I encourage you to read the original.
You can find a ton of information on-line. And a lot of misinformation. I have become more aware of the abuse of science, but finding the balance between healthy skepticism and outright cynicism is difficult. I hope more people with science backgrounds help clarify issues, as Dan and JP have done. And I hope those making claims are a bit more circumspect in their pronouncements (but alas, that may be too much to ask!)