I’m taking a break from the usual to post about something I’ve been thinking about lately – things are about to get a little philosophical around here so if you’re interested in deep thoughts from a dietitian, please continue!
At this point in life I think I’ve finally hit a level of self-actualization that allows me to get a little philosophical about my food. I make that statement at the risk of sounding completely millennial and pretentious and that’s not how I intend to sound but I guess I’m OK with that.
I recently listened to a presentation that was reminiscent of a TedTalk. The speaker proposed that we are, perhaps, living in a post-truth world. To a large extent I would agree. There are simply some people who can’t be bothered with the evidence. If it sounds good and it fits their ideologies, they resolutely agree EVEN when faced with evidence that supports the contrary. Also known as, bias confirmation. A favorite tactic of nutrition evangelicals. Think fad diets, Gwyneth’s GOOP, and anyone else that refuses to apply any logic when it comes to food/health/nutrition or doesn’t have the wherewithal to realize they’re doing it.
They’re the ones who so adamantly stand by their cause/fad diet/tropical miracle ingredient/multi-level marketing scheme they disregard all fact and reason that’s put to stand against it. It may be because they tried it and it worked for them, so it must work for everyone. It may be because they lack an understanding of human physiology and biochemistry. It may be because they’re in so far over their heads they’re committed to riding this thing straight into the ground just to save face (hey, if I’m being honest that’s what I might do). The reason doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it contributes to an overall lack of critical thinking. That’s a huge issue when presenting research to the public and disseminating it in a way the public can easily consume and use.
Critical thinking is essential
I’m a big believer that actual literacy has little or nothing to do with health literacy, nutrition literacy, or STEM literacy. You can be a highly successful person and still not understand jack sh** about nutrition. And that’s OK. I will be the first to admit I don’t know jack sh** about rocket fuels or the stock market or deep sea marine life. It’s really OK, we can’t be experts in everything but we can have a resource to turn to for everything when we know we don’t know.
People generally like a world that’s black and white. A nice, clean, obvious division with little or no grey area in between. Unfortunately this rarely happens and more often than not, there is an a$$ ton of grey. Embrace the grey.
A lot of grief has been raining down on nutrition research lately. Blame it on What the Health, blame it on any other shock-doc pushing an agenda, blame it on that pesky lack of STEM literacy…but as someone who worked in research for a time, let me tell you: researchers aren’t trying to trick you. They’re not trying to play a tennis match with the evidence and bounce back and forth between “it’s great for you” and “it’s gonna kill you.” Far from it. That’s the media’s spin on things and actual, legitimate nutrition researchers are just as annoyed (and likely more so) as you are with hearing that.
WTF are inferential statistics?
So I get to my main point about inferential statistics – not as scary as it sounds. It simply means we can draw a conclusion about the whole based on information about the parts.
Here’s an example: There’s a open sidewalk in front of you. You take a step, and your brand new shoes sink up to the laces…the concrete has been newly poured and it’s wet AF. To get yourself out, you might take one more step. Same thing happens to the other foot. Now what? Have you accumulated enough information to deduce that the rest of the sidewalk is also made of wet concrete? Or do you assume a little more risk and take one more step, or another, or another?
(I mean, if your shoes are already ruined, who cares, right?)
What does this have to do with nutrition?
This is essentially what we have to do with nutrition research. There is simply no way we can ever capture an entire population. We’re left trying to select the most representative random sample we can and even that is left to chance. Are we ok with that? In a world with billions of people, we have to be but it’s not easy to accept that.
So what can we do to avoid falling prey to our own conscious/unconscious biases? We have to make the counterargument. And that brings us (whew, finally) to my *other* main point which is that I’m no longer steadfastly avoiding meat. Why? You can read more about it in this post. But to sum it all up, I was concerned about animal ethics, food safety, and stretching my post-undergrad grocery budget as far as it could possibly go.
I’ve mostly resolved that last one, so let’s focus on the first two. Are the animals I eat treated fairly and humanely, and is my food safe to eat?
Yes and no. I cannot possibly guarantee that every animal that ends up on someone’s plate has been treated fairly and humanely. And while I have a great deal of control over the safety of my food, some variable are beyond me. But here’s what I do know, based on conversations I’ve had with numerous farmers and what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes:
- Small farms can treat their animals well, and I can feel OK about eating them
- Large farms can treat their animals well, and I can feel OK about eating them
- Small farms can treat their animals terribly, and I still feel icky about eating them
- Large farms can treat their animals terribly, and I still feel icky about eating them
- Most farmers care more than I’ll ever know about their animals, and only want the best for them
- A few bad apples can ruin the bunch
For a visual representation of that, see below.
At the end of the day, I have to apply epistemology to my every day life. I have to draw a conclusion about the food system based on the information I have about its parts. By being highly selective and gathering as much evidence as I can (both for my argument and the counterargument), I can make an informed decision I can feel fine about. And I can better follow my personal guidelines for intuitive eating that have become more important to me than any labels I might place on how I eat.
Yay, critical thinking skills. I need more practice in this area, but this was a big step for me.
Curious about more on this topic? Here’s a few items that are up next on my reading list:
What do you think about the current state of nutrition research?