Why are there so many varying and conflicting guideline for nutrition and health? Sometimes we hear that fat is good and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes carbs are good or ok and sometimes not. It shouldn’t be that difficult to figure this out. Well, it turns out that how you figure things depends on several conditions including who you’re figuring for.
In the area of “science”, the gold standard for testing hypotheses is experimentation. When it comes to matters that deal with living humans, experimentation is not ethical, and so it is generally replaced with “studies”. This is fundamentally only gathering and analyzing information. The choice of what to gather and how to classify and analyze it is the heart of the problem, and it’s called bias.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bias, especially as it applies to scientific information. I bet most people who hear that word “bias” immediately think of it as applied to interpersonal dynamics. In these days of political correctness, we are sensitive to the negative connotation of “bias”. Bias implies some sort of unfair pre-judgment or prejudice directed at some person or group of people. Many educated people are especially alert for the slightest hint of racial, ethnic or religious bias.
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of it applied to certain areas. For instance, you may have a bias towards chocolate or peaches or the color blue. This simply boils down to a personal choice and preference. When it impacts only your own corner of the universe, I think we can agree that there’s nothing wrong with it.
I’m concerned about a more insidious form of bias. Specifically, the bias that exists in the arena of health and nutritional science. Here, I’m talking about information prejudice. If people deserve consideration based on their merits, shouldn’t we extend that same consideration to the information that we use to formulate the truth? In this setting, bias leads to a corruption of the truth which may have direct adverse effects on people. Why do so many educated people including most health care practitioners accept many of our current concepts of health maintenance which have been built on bad science?
Bias is not always the result of a deliberate malice. Sometimes there is only a subconscious preference for an outcome. Other times there is an economic gain at the heart of bias, and this can progress to deliberate deceit.
This is where bias runs amok, because it’s all about the money that funds research studies. If big business pays for a research study, say a pharmaceutical company, then it is not hard to imagine that there might be a tendency to have its findings fit the company’s economic interests. The researcher who can draw conclusions favorable to an industry’s claims is more likely to get another grant.
This is one of the main reasons that we have so much confusion in the area of dietary and nutrition science. For people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and most endocrinologists are still recommending a diet that contains a large amount of carbohydrates, while at the same time advocating for Hemoglobin A1c of less than 7%. These recommendations seem to be at odds. Since carbohydrates are sugar (we’ll leave fiber out of the discussion for now) why would anybody think this would be a successful path for a person who can’t properly metabolize sugar?
In my opinion, there’s a bias in favor of sugar laden foods, because most people are raised eating them, and they taste good. They give our brains good chemical signals, so we like them. After all, how can apple pie be bad? Also, there is a lot of money in the business of food products, which makes it rife with biased work or even deliberately false information. For example, look at the efforts of the Coca Cola Company and other sugary beverage makers to obscure the harm that the excessive intake of sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup is responsible for. Check out this link.
The ADA sidesteps the obvious contradiction between their recommendations and their health expectations by saying that there’s not enough study data of a low carbohydrate diet, or any other diet, for them to alter their recommendations. The American Heart Association (AHA) has recently reaffirmed their dogma that a low saturated fat diet is the best path for heart health.
If we look at the health data of Americans over the past 40 years, most of whom have consumed a diet rich in carbohydrates and low in saturated fats, they have an alarming incidence of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. How does this data affirm benefits of the high carbohydrate low saturated fat diet? Both Groups have this data in hand, but somehow they can’t conclude anything negative about the approach they are promoting. They either don’t see it or don’t want to see it.
The point of this discussion is to make sure that you know to never believe any information on its face value. Be open to new information, in any area, and seek to confirm it through other sources. Always be a little bit skeptical and always ask yourself, who benefits from the conclusions of any study.