Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Disturbing History of Nutrition Science

What is the biggest mistake scientists have ever made?  Nina Teicholz's The Big Fat Surprise, a wonderful history of the awful state of nutrition science, suggests that science's worst mistake may well be the idea that saturated fat is unhealthy.  She makes a convincing case that nutritional guidelines over the last half century, by focusing on fats rather than sugars, have resulted in the premature deaths of millions of Americans and others around the world.

Even more interesting than turning conventional wisdom on its head, this book is an eye-opening journey into how an entire field of science can be hijacked by special interests and strong personalities. Moreover, this book holds important lessons about how the process of science is still susceptible to the same biases and group-think as the rest of society.

Nina Teicholz sums up the story of how nutrition science went wrong:

"Well-intentioned experts, hastening to address growing epidemics of chronic disease, simply overinterpreted the data. Scientists hypothesized that dietary fat was to blame...  This hypothesis became accepted as truth before it was properly tested.  Public health bureaucracies adopted and enshrined this unproven dogma.  The hypothesis became immortalized in the mammoth institutions of public health.  And the normally self-corrected mechanism of science, which involves constantly challenging one's own beliefs, was disabled.  While good science should be ruled by skepticism and self-doubt, the field of nutrition has instead been shaped by passions verging on zealotry. ...Once ideas about fat and cholesterol became adopted by official institutions, even prominent experts in the field found it nearly impossible to challenge them."  

"What I found, incredibly, was not only that it was a mistake to restrict fat but also that our fear of the saturated fats...has never been based in solid science.  A bias against these foods developed early on and became entrenched, but the evidence mustered in its support never amounted to a convincing case and has since crumbled away."

Let the sorry story of nutrition science be a lesson for the scientists and promoters of scientists in other fields.  We like to think that science is independently and objectively building a tower of knowledge for the ages, one rock at a time, but the reality is that our science is a product of our society, our beliefs, our biases, and our assumptions.

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