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'Nutritional Nihilism' ? Yes !

The NutriRECS Report last week that stated there was no good evidence for excluding meat from your diet has dealt a body blow to the nutrition establishment. This in turn has not been slow to respond, issuing a storm of protest, fiercely denouncing the NutriRECS recommendations and running to the defence of their hostile stance against meat.

In a summary of the mainstream’s position, Marion Nestle described the Report as ‘nutritional nihilism’ (see here), describing this as,

“an approach that insists that because observational studies are based on self-reported information and necessarily flawed, their conclusions are unscientific and should be discounted. Therefore, because we can’t do more rigorous studies, we should not advise the public about diets best for health or the environment.”

Nestle is correct in identifying the stakes raised by the NutriRECS research. What is involved here has nothing to do with eating meat, or diet in general, and EVERYTHING to do with the existence of a nutrition establishment whose authority to issue guidelines is generally accepted across society. This is about the nutrition mainstream as an INSTITUTION, with the jobs, career possibilities, funding, influence, power and prestige that go with it.

NutriRECS points a dagger at the heart of this institutional position, this is why all of its main pillars have reacted so quickly and with such energy. The reason why NutriRECS is so dangerous is that points out the central contradiction that runs right through the nutritional mainstream, and which forms its critical vulnerability. It is this –

The establishment has only one appeal to authority, and this is its basis in a solid, scientific foundation, to be ‘evidence-based’. It is this claim that NutriRECS directly challenges, by applying the scientific method itself in a self-consciously rigorous form to test whether the recommendations of the mainstream have any validity or basis in genuine science. And of course the answer is NO, they don’t.

But without solid science, what do they have going for them ? Nothing. So why should anyone follow their guidelines, or fund their institutions, or support their hopelessly flawed research methodologies ? This is what Nestle has in mind with her phrase, ‘nutritional nihilism’, it is the prospect of the nutrition establishment being dismantled.

In seeking to avoid this fate, Nestle makes an interesting move. She shifts focus away from the scientific credentials of the mainstream position and seeks to locate it within a wider social context. She says,

“The authors took a strictly science-based approach to a problem strongly affected by social, economic, and political factors and values.”

She then combines this with a direct appeal to authority,

“Do the authors really believe that all those other committees and commissions urging less meat were wrong and continue to be wrong? Their strictly science-based approach seems unrealistic.”

This is a significant ploy because it indicates where defenders of the mainstream will turn as their position becomes more and more untenable, as further applications of genuine and rigorous science expose the gaping holes in their ‘evidence’. In response, they will bring in these other factors to bolster their reasoning. First and foremost among these will be use of the ‘environment’ as an argument. Nestle does this herself, stating that NutriRECS,

“Excluded studies of environmental impact, which has a significant bearing on human dietary practices (meat production adds more greenhouse gases than vegetable production).”

This last claim has no more factual basis than any of the nutritional recommendations put forward by the mainstream. Nevertheless, it relocates the focal point of the debate onto very different terrain, well away from the appalling quality of the nutrition establishment’s ‘evidence-based’ recommendations.

This presents something of a tactical dilemma for those of us in opposition to the mainstream. It is not really in our interests to go along with this shift in focus and get caught up in the current clamour over climate change. Nevertheless, we are being give less and less choice as the establishment are increasingly using this to deflect criticism and silence debate, so that any attempt to discuss the current guidelines becomes an argument over whether its true that, ‘we can’t eat meat because it will destroy the planet’.

Alongside this, vegan activism has a critical role to play, in raising the temperature of the discussion to a point bordering on hysteria. This serves the establishment directly, not only the nutrition mainstream, but big agriculture and global food corporations.

Unfortunately, Nestle is of a generation that fails to see this, as do many vegetarians and vegans. She still believes that it is the meat and dairy industries that are driving the agenda behind criticisms of the dietary guidelines, whereas in reality these two industries have been completely marginalised inside the corridors of power by grain and cereal producers. The processed food industry is overwhelmingly plant-based, not animal sourced, corporate interests are solidly promoting veganism and ‘alternative’ protein sources, not beef and milk, correctly so, from their point of view, this is where the money is, its also the kind of society and consumers they want - soy.

Nestle is right to argue that what is at stake here is not strictly or narrowly scientific, it IS about ethics and values, about society, economics, and politics. The agenda she is supporting, wittingly or not, IS driven precisely by these considerations. Science plays a role here purely as an ideological cover, it is a CLAIM to authority, no more, and as NutriRECS reveals, it is a FALSE claim, a sham, one that seeks to hide the institutional, socio-economic, and political interests that form the real motivation behind the recommendations not to eat meat.

So, nutritional nihilism ? Yes, in the name of genuine science, of healthy eating, and of resistance to the global corporate forces that stand opposed to these.

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