When we have to make important decisions about our health, most of us would prefer to back up our choices with as much hard evidence as possible. We often look to scientific research to guide us, and in the field of nutritional science, there are plenty of experts claiming to have absolute proof that their dietary approach is the best. But in recent years, we’ve seen an interesting phenomenon: two or more researchers defending opposite points of view, each of them with pages of studies to back up their recommendations. How can a single food be proven to be good for you in one study, while another study proves that same food to be bad for you? If you’ve ever been frustrated by contradictory nutritional “facts,” please join Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, as she sheds some light on the subject in this refreshing new video from #IPEtv!
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Here is a transcript of this week’s video:
Hi, I’m Emily Rosen, Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.
Today’s topic: The Problem of Nutritional Proof
We’re often confused, and rightfully so, when different nutrition experts offer scientific proof of their particular viewpoints. How can one researcher proof the health merits of a non-meat diet, while others prove the opposite? How can one set of scientific results demonstrate that excess sodium raises blood pressure and another study show it has zero effect? The answer lies in the interpretation of scientific results. The mind often behaves as if it has two parts: the thinker and the prover. Whatever the thinker thinks, the prover sets out to prove. In other words, scientists make interpretations based on personal biases, just as any of us would interpret a situation from our own unique viewpoint.
Some studies show a direct link between cholesterol in the diet and cholesterol level in the bloodstream, but other studies show no correlation at all. Some studies demonstrate the effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing colds, and others show its absolute ineffectiveness. There are even scientists (hired by tobacco companies) who claim there is no conclusive evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung disease, even though more research has been amassed to prove this link than perhaps any medical condition. And when a majority of scientists agree, someone always dissents, and that voice is often a Galileo, a Newton, or an Einstein who dares to see differently.
The problem of proof arises when we believe our interpretation of evidence is the only interpretation of the evidence.
For example, raw foods enthusiasts point to scientific evidence which shows that when cooked foods are consumed, white blood cell counts immediately rise, while no such increase occurs when eating raw fruits or vegetables. The white blood cells function as immune system scavengers, removing foreign organisms and any chemical compounds the body considers invasive. The conclusion is drawn that therefore cooked foods are bad because the body considers them invasive and toxic, and raw foods are good because they evoke no immune system response. However, one can look at the same results and conclude that the cooked food is stimulating the immune function and causing the increase in white blood cells not because the food itself is toxic, but because a function of cooked food is to “exercise” the immune system in producing white blood cells for real emergencies, somewhat akin to a biological fire drill. Indeed, it’s quite natural for the body to use the invasion of low doses of microorganisms or chemical poisons to immunize itself against greater danger. And on one level, food is a foreign substance that the body must “overcome” through the process of digestion and assimilation. In this sense cooked food can be seen to strengthen the system while raw foods simply do not have the same white-blood-cell-stimulating effect. And yet, many people who adopt a raw food diet see tremendous results in weight loss, energy, skin health, heart health, cognitive function, and more.
In yet another example, one scientist I know was interested in proving a vegetarian diet biologically inferior. His studies of the digestive system revealed the existence of a carrier molecule in the bloodstream that transports the type of iron found only in animal foods. In another words, the iron from meat is in a different chemically bound form from the iron in plants, and the subjects he tested had special, previously unknown chemicals that carried only the animal or “heme-bound” form of iron. He concluded that because this carrier protein exists, human beings were therefore meant to eat meat. This reasoning is certainly logical, but one could just as readily conclude that because one eats meat, special iron-carrying proteins are produced in the body to accommodate meat’s unique form of iron. Indeed, his subjects were all meat-eaters; none were vegetarian. Who knows what he would have found if he had tested both these groups? Trying to prove what we were “meant” to eat is ultimately an impossible task. How we prove our personal biases with “conclusive scientific proof” is what bears close consideration.
Many people are accustomed to reading newspaper or magazine articles that discuss scientific studies, which point to or prove a conclusion. People believe what they read without question, in part, because most of us do not have the background necessary to dispute scientific findings, and in part because many of us believe that when scientific proof is demonstrated, all the scientist in the world are standing in white coats nodding their heads in approval.
We naturally want to believe that scientific findings are met with unanimous consent, but in truth this is rarely so.
Scientific study is often like opening shutters in a darkened room. When the sun fills the room with light, we can conclude that the act of opening the shutters made the sun appear in the sky, or reason that the sun was already there and opening the shutters simply allowed the light to come through. Can you see how different conclusions can be drawn from the same evidence, and that we tend to interpret results based on what we are looking for.
What’s more, we live in a day and age when a majority of scientific research in food and medicine is paid for by industry. Researchers are heavily pressured to have findings that favor the drug or product being tested.
Consider the following quote:
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.”
That was spoken by Dr. Marcia Angell – former editor in chief of one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world.
The good news is that we can take all this mistrust of industry driven science and personal scientific bias and begin to put more value on our own body wisdom, on personal nutritional exploration, and on being scientists of our own bodies to see what truly has us feeling better, and what makes a difference in our health.
We live in a time of nutritional uncertainty.
It’s a great time for each of us to empower ourselves in a wise and dignified way.
I hope this was helpful.
To learn more about us please go to psychologyofeating.com.
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Again that is psychologyofeating.com.
This is Emily Rosen, Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.
Thanks so much for your time and interest
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