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Guest blogger defends Pollan from criticism

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Yesterday I posted about Michael Pollan's essay Unhappy Meals for New York Times Magazine, in which he promotes eating whole foods rather than food products and raises doubts about scientists’ who give diet recommendations based on 'nutrients' out of context from the 'foods' in which we should be eating them.

I enjoyed Pollan's article but was not surprised to learn that not everyone did. This morning I got an email from a reader (well-credentialed I might add) pointing me to an article for Slate by Daniel Engber, arguing against Pollan's criticisms of nutritional science and his overconfidence in the 'great-great-grandma-knew-best philosophy.' The tipster, who today will be know as our "guest blogger," and will remain anonymous for professional reasons, had this to say:

Matthew,

Here's an article that I thought you might find interesting on food that got me riled up. I totally disagree with him and with his assumptions, here are my thoughts:

1 ) Mr. Engber's confidence in science (especially in food science), is much too high, if not unfounded. The thing is, advice given by doctors (eat fruits and veggies and exercise) wasn't discovered by science but it was common advice that was studied. As an aside, Mr. Engber's use of Ben Goldacre's column isn't exactly supportive of his position, it's supportive of Pollan's. I'd suggest that readers actually follow the link in the story to read Goldacre's column, which gives insight into nutrition that I won't go into here except to bring out the big one: anti-oxidents have never been shown to prevent or cure disease; eating assorted veggies that contain anti-oxidents does.

2) Comparing food science to other areas isn't appropriate. Climate IS easier to study, there are no people to involve. People are difficult to study, and it's unethical to control and test them like you can with most other sections of science. Especially with food. A study where you regulated exactly what and when thousands of people ate for 5-10 years isn't going to happen yet that's what's needed to really figure things out. Additionally, no one is going to spend the money to figure out the specifics of nutrition when we already know what works to keep fit! We'll spend money to figure out general guidelines, and how to eat if you have certian diseases or special needs, but the majority of research money in the future will likely be spent on childhood diseases, climate change, and alternative energy because we don't know what works yet!

3) We've certainly made great strides in communicable disease and neonatological medicine. Outside of that, our progress on and understanding of disease is pretty poor. Name me non-communicable diseases we've cured. Hmmm....that that many, huh? Mr Engber's total misunderstanding about this is exemplified by his view that we will one day cure heart disease. Not only is this not possible, he could he not have picked a worse example. Hearts get old, the muscle atrophies with age, it becomes less elastic, it will stop eventually even in the most healthy people. Science can't stop aging. In fact, the most healthy people usually die of heart disease late in life. As another aside, why would you want to eradicate heart disease? So everyone can die of cancer and stroke? We've got to die of something. For me, here's hoping for heart disease at a ripe old age by eating good food, but not too much, mostly plants.

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