Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Nutrition Is Like Religion - Let The Hate Mail Commence

There will be a slew of "don't get fat at Christmas" articles doing the rounds and I suppose if I wanted to stay topical and get some google hits I should come up with one too. But to be honest I don't find it very interesting. If you've worked hard on your training and nutrition this year, eat whatever the hell you want and then get back on track when it's done.

That wouldn't make a very good article though , so maybe I'll try and come up with something half decent for next week. In the mean time though, I've opted to massively offend large sections of both my profession and the population at large.

Here goes...
I believe that "nutritionism" has more in common with religion than it does with science, and I don't believe that this is a good thing. I don't feel that this engenders reasoned and rational debate and if you give me five minutes I'll explain why, then if you still disagree you can come to Shoreditch and burn me at the stake.

"Nutritionism" here refers to the largely unregulated industry that has developed around telling us what to eat in order to lose weight, allegedly rid yourself of diseases including cancer , and achieve everything in between.

I believe there are many well meaning people in this industry who do good work and provide value, I also believe there are some dangerous charlatans. Obviously part of my job involves advising clients on nutrition (though I believe in keeping things as simple as possible and focus more on changing behaviours than arguing about how much selenium something contains or trying to diagnose endocrine dysfunctions with a callipers ). My goal is not to malign any one person but to point out some flawed thinking that seems to be very common in the nutrition world and maybe get a few people thinking.

I'm also not trying to upset religious people or argue them out of their position. I just believe there are some interesting parallels between the religious mindset and that of devotees to particular nutritional practices.
1- Reliance On Faith Over Evidence- Religious claims can not be scientifically proven,which is inconvenient if your goal is to convince the world of your point of view. So, if the evidence won't work for you, one method is to attack the need for evidence itself. Religion does this by using faith as an integral part of religious practice. The act of believing really hard in something in the face of a total lack of evidence is in itself seen as virtuous.

Many nutrition gurus employs the same tricks. Like religious ideas, many of their very specific claims have never been proven scientifically. Instead there is a reliance on testimonials over data, "well all I know is it works for me and my clients" is a common refrain. Highly emotive and personal stories of "triumph" over illness or obesity are highly persuasive, we are wired to respond to them far more than dry statistics. But they are no basis to make an informed decision wether an intervention works or not.

There is also a trend toward portraying science and statistics as incapable of testing certain alternative approaches, and to claim that "anything can be proven". Evidence that contradicts your claims is dismissed as propaganda from evil pharmaceutical companies. Its not that these companies never use dirty tricks, but this phrase is usually used to shut down debate rather than engage in it, and comes from a position of intellectual laziness.

In the fundamentalist Christian worldview, evolution is portrayed as "merely a theory" (the use of the word "merely" in this instance demonstrating a misunderstanding of the word "theory") and creationism as a "competing theory", when it lacks a single shred of evidence to support it.

So this anti-scientific trend is prevalent in both the religious and nutrition worlds, at least when the evidence is not in their favour.

The approach in a nutshell; "science does not support my worldview, so rather than seeking to prove my theory or accepting the evidence and changing my mind, I will seek to undermine science itself"

The need for evidence for the existence of a higher power is possibly another philosophical debate altogether, I realise there is an argument that this question lies beyond the remit of science (I don't actually agree with that argument, but anyway). But if you are going to make scientific claims, wether they be "the universe is 3000 years old" or "protein will destroy your kidneys" you must back them up with scientific evidence, not blind faith.

2- Overly Defensive Response To Criticism. Science is about coming up with an idea and then trying to disprove it.

Then, if you haven't been able to disprove it yourself you throw it out there for your peers to rip apart and see if they can disprove it. If they can't prove you wrong, you may just have something.

Religion and the wackier areas of nutrition and alternative medicine use the exact opposite technique. It is about coming up with an idea, looking for (or making up) evidence to support it, ignoring evidence that contradicts it and reacting defensively to any who challenge your idea.

Religion has been very successful about portraying itself as somehow above debate. We can have a spirited argument about anything from our favourite food or football team to politics but once religion enters the frame its "this is my faith so you're not allowed to criticise it". The mantra "everyones entitled to their opinion" is chanted and the subject changed. Why? Are these ideas so fragile that they can't be questioned?

This attitude exists in the nutrition world also. It is incredible how often I've witnessed proponents of one particular school of nutritional dogma become angry to the point of throwing insults simply because I don't hold with their beliefs. Ive said this before but if you're getting angry because I disagree with you rather than engaging in a reasoned and rational debate, perhaps you're simply not that confident in your own beliefs.

An even more common technique is to attempt to label the critic as "closed minded" for not agreeing with the alternative view. I always thought being open minded meant looking at the available evidence and making an informed decision. It seems in the alternative nutrition and religious worlds, closed minded simply means "having views that differ from ours"

Anger, slurs and ad hominem attacks are all indicators that the person arguing has run out of facts.

Is any of this important?

I don't care if people want believe in God. I don't even really care if they want to waste their money on supplements that don't work (which isn't all of them) or with nutritionists who talk crap (which isn't all of them). Im happy to see these things as a self selecting tax on people who don't understand statistics.

But I do care about the systematic undermining of science within our little health and fitness bubble and to the general public. Because as it turns out , at the extreme what starts with some wasted money on supplements can end with the death of thousands

I care about holding the personal training and nutrition world to a higher standard of critical thinking.

If you still want to burn me at the stake I can be found at B@1 Spitalfields most Saturdays. Alternatively if you enjoyed this ramble, mines an espresso martini.

1 comment:

Personal Trainer Windsor said...

I couldn't agree more: the nutritionism industry is ruining our good name and tarring us with their brush, I'm all for moderation of good and bad so long as you have a sensible, bespoke exercise regime!