The Gospel of Food: The Myth of the Doctrine of Naught

By Glassner, Barry | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Gospel of Food: The Myth of the Doctrine of Naught


Glassner, Barry, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


AFTER GARY TAUBES, A VETERAN SCIENCE writer, argued in a New York Times Magazine piece in 2002 that foods such as steak and cheese, "considered more or less deadly under the low-fat dogma, turn out to be comparatively benign," and that "cutting back on the saturated fats in my diet to the levels recommended by the American Heart Association would not add more than a few months to my life," he was decried by spokespeople for advocacy and governmental organizations, and more vehemently still, by many nutrition writers. Jane Brody devoted an entire column to repudiating him, and in a phone interview I had with her the day after Taubes's article came out, she dismissed his claims as "total conjecture" and "irresponsible." (1)

"Laughable" was the word that Sally Squires, the nutrition columnist at the Washington Post, chose to describe Taubes's argument, even though an earlier version had been published in Science magazine and won a National Association of Science Writers award. "Get real," Squires demanded in one of three disapproving pieces she published soon after Taubes's article appeared. Recalling Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper, in which a man wakes up two hundred years hence and informs doctors that steaks and cream pies were once believed to be unhealthy, Squires counseled readers: "We laughed then, and we should be laughing now." (2)

A Lone Voice at the New York Times

In the health or science section of a major American newspaper, you are about as likely to find vocal skeptic of standard dietary advice as you are to find an anticapitalist in the business section. Critics like the Los Angeles Times's Emily Green write for the "food" and "home" sections, and freelancers such as Gary Taubes publish occasional pieces in the New York Times Magazine. To my knowledge, only one full-time science and health reporter--Gina Kolata at the New York Times--has dared to dispute the doctrine of naught.

In many articles over the past decade, Kolata has questioned whether low-fat and low-cholesterol diets reduce the incidence of heart disease and cancer; whether eating sugar causes obesity; and whether consumption of acrylamide, a much-maligned chemical in French fries and other starchy foods, causes cancer. (3)

The moral of many of Kolata's stories was summed up in an article she published in 1999. "Sometimes well-intentioned advice is later revealed to be based on hopes rather than facts," wrote Kolata, who contends that studies of the relationship between diet and health have serious limitations. Most are observational: they survey people's eating habits to see if those who develop heart disease or cancer have different diets than those who stay well. "Such studies have a fundamental drawback," Kolata points out. "People who eat in a particular way are very different than those who don't eat in a particular way." (4)

Those who subscribe to the doctrine of naught may have different personality traits, genetic predispositions, job or family pressures, or leisure-time activities than people who eat Big Macs. And any of these nondietary differences may account for differences in rates of heart disease or cancer.

Even the largest and most highly cited observational studies have had both hits and misses. Kolata notes that the Nurses Health Study, directed by Walter Willett, correctly identified smoking as a cause of cancer and heart disease but wrongly concluded that hormone-replacement therapy protects against heart disease, Alzheimer's, and osteoporosis, and that vitamin E protects against heart disease. Prominent university researchers have raised similar concerns about Willett's study. (5)

In principle, the problems of observational studies can be avoided by either of two alternative approaches--international comparisons or randomized trials. But similar difficulties arise in those as well. Are the lower rates of heart disease in China and Japan attributable to diets low in saturated fat or in refined carbohydrates, as proponents of the gospel of naught contend, or to some of the many other cultural, genetic or culinary differences between those societies and ours? …

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