Why Nutrition ? What am I Doing Here ?
I have just enrolled in a Bachelor of Nutrition at an Australian university. This blog will track my journey through the mainstream of nutrition science as it is now taught. Here, I want to explain my motivation.
This is not my first degree, I am not a fresh faced teenager straight out of high school. I have a BA (Hons) already, a PhD in Philosophy, and an MBA. I lecture at post-grad level, I have academic publications, and recently had my first book published, drawing on research in another field. You can find me on YouTube addressing conferences, I still train and consult in that area of expertise.
Entering the field of nutrition is a new departure for me. So, what am I doing ?
Right now, nutrition science is a battle ground. Sides have been drawn up, blows are being exchanged. The stakes are high. I’m here to join the fight.
Gaining an official qualification is simply a means of accessing the battlespace. Its not the only way to do so, but the advantage of this approach is that it takes me right into the camp of the enemy, it allows me to challenge them on their own terms. I will learn everything they know, I will match their credentials, and then I will go for their throats.
At the end of the Bachelor degree, I will have at least two options, or maybe a combination of both. I could pursue a Masters in Clinical Nutrition, and become a registered practitioner, a dietician. Make no mistake, in our part of the world the Dietitians Association of Australia are THE enemy. Another path lies in the area of public health, policy development, advocacy… the politics of it all. That appeals, but we’ll have to see what openings there are when the time comes.
Why fight on this terrain ? That’s simple, because the fight is on. In my other field of expertise I am a lone voice, going very much against the grain, at least at the higher levels. We are talking about the Western militaries, which are in a truly sorry state. A real desire for change, however, will only come after more lives have been lost, after defeat and humiliation. And then it will be too late.
a scientific revolution is already in full flow
When it comes to health and fitness on the other hand, and within them nutrition, it’s a different story. On the one hand, the picture is dire, and getting worse, we live in societies whose peoples are getting fatter and sicker by the day, but on the other, there is a real push back, mostly from below, and led largely by outsiders to the field. There is real momentum behind the low carb movement in all its forms, numbers are building, and the supporters of the mainstream position are coming under increasing pressure. Their science is being questioned, their financial and political entanglements exposed, their ethics challenged.
I first took notice of the nutrition field about five years ago. On a personal level I’d evolved towards an LCHF diet some time before, just from having an interest in fitness and wanting the best results from my training regime. What caught my eye about this area, however, was something else, it was the sense that here, right before our eyes, was a classic ‘scientific revolution’ in full flow. These are rare events, they are both exciting and fascinating.
Anyone familiar with the history and philosophy of science will recognise the name, ‘Thomas Kuhn’, and have read his seminal work, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. If you haven’t, I strongly recommend it. Kuhn argues scientific revolutions go through four phases – first there is a period of ‘normal science’, where practitioners work on detailed problems within a ‘dominant paradigm’ whose validity they take for granted. Over time however, there arise ‘anomalies’, facts and evidence that don’t fit the paradigm. Things only really blow open, however, when a new theory or framework emerges that can handle the anomalies better. ‘Normal’ scientists resist this development for as long as possible, using all kinds of underhand means, but at some point an open struggle breaks out between supporters of the two competing hypotheses. Finally, the new paradigm triumphs, and a period of normal science resumes.
The nutrition field fits this framework extremely well. I would say we are now either at the tipping point of phase three, or at least very close to it. Competing hypotheses certainly exist, the insulin model of obesity for example, heart disease as an inflammatory problem, zero carb diets etc, the mainstream is doing its utmost to hold these down, keep them at the margins, dismiss them as fringe, but they are very much on the defensive. The dam will burst, and soon.
The establishment won’t go down without a fight, however, too much is at stake. Part of my purpose in this blog will be to explore just what exactly the stakes are. This is not by any means simply a struggle to assert scientific truth over falsehood, to provide a better form of treatment for diabetes sufferers, to help people beat their weight problem. Far more is involved.
the ethics of the fight
I am a trained philosopher, my interest is first and foremost in the ethical issues that surround current debates on diet and nutrition. This is not to downplay the question of scientific truth, the ‘diet/heart hypothesis’ is either true or its not, and that matters ; but it is to say that an appeal to truth as a guide is ITSELF an ethical position, it is a value statement. Not all the competing positions share this value, veganism for example, is motivated by something quite different. Humans may have the digestive systems of carnivores, but this is a truth they want to escape, ‘for the sake of the animals’, whose welfare has a higher value in their frame. The ethics behind the mainstream position shares some of this thinking, a theme I will develop in due course.
From this perspective, paleo is an important development. This is so even if we end up disagreeing what a paleo diet actually should look like, or if we stick with dairy, or go carnivore. Paleo is significant for the way it frames the discussion – we should eat what we are evolutionarily adapted to eat, which maybe is not what we have been eating since the dawn of civilisation, and most certainly not for the last hundred years. Paleo is an ETHICAL position above all, and like all ethical standpoints it can be accepted or rejected, there is always a question of choice here.
To borrow from Aristotle, ethics are ‘our conception of the good life’. Ethics differ from morality in that there is more than one answer to the question of ethics, there are different ideas about what a good life is. Human cultures and civilisations throughout history have answered this question in countless different manners, and will do so in the future as well, so long as our current globalising masters don’t succeed with totalitarian programs such as EAT-Lancet.
Ethics are always contested, they are always in dispute. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to ethical conflicts – separation. People can go their own way, do their own thing, as a community, a society. The practicalities of this may not always be there, but in principle the option is always available. The Amish are doing pretty well by all accounts, they might be the only Americans left in a hundred years, is not so far fetched a prospect. Building the carnivore/keto/low carb tribes is important and worthwhile, extending their influence over farming and food distribution is also a vital battleground. Regenerative agriculture using pastoral animals, as well as practices that are appropriate to a local topography and climate, cultural traditions, and are sustainable into the future – these are also part of our ethical standpoint.
Morality presents a different problem. Moralists believe there is only one right and one wrong, for everyone, for all time. Vegans are moralists, so are Seventh Day Adventists, and so in truth, are supporters of the mainstream position. Carnivores could be, but at this point are choosing not to go down this path. I think that is a good move.
The ethics behind nutrition debates are not hard to detect. Simply compare Shawn Baker to Michael Greger – who do you want as a role model ? Whatever your answer, that’s your ethical position.
This is not a trivial point. The Seventh Day Adventists, for example, have a well developed and seriously thought through objection to both the aesthetics, and the ethics, of Shawn Baker, how he looks and what he represents. Their position is grounded in faith, in a theology that defines masculinity, strength, powerful physique, as ‘sinful’. This is also pretty much the viewpoint of the mainstream, although less clearly articulated. This is why we can’t rely purely on science to settle the debate. Falling testosterone levels are a fact of life in the West today, the truth of that statement is not in question, but whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing… The truth is that the dominant powers in our society believe it’s a good thing, we are back to ethics, values.
'better than nature' ?
At the same time, the terrain of scientific inquiry is still extremely important. It matters because it is the ENEMY’s terrain. This point needs some explanation.
We live in Modern times, our civilisation is a product of Modernity, the Enlightenment, the rise of modern science and technology, the Reformation, the Renaissance. Our current state is the end result of these historical developments. When supporters of the mainstream position make their case, they rest on these civilisational foundations. This includes a confidence in conventional science and its body of knowledge, in technology, in pharmacology, in our ability as Moderns to improve on tradition, overthrow it if necessary, to progress, to improve.
I recently looked at the original marketing material for Crisco, the first trans fat, from 1911. I might do a blog post on it, is fascinating, for in it is contained the promise of Modernity, ‘we can do better’. Crisco is explicitly promoted as ‘better’ than natural cooking fats, better because it has been manufactured scientifically, it encompasses all that we now know, and has been produced in a carefully controlled, sterile environment. In our post-modern, more cynical times, we often forget just what the appeal of Crisco was, why urban and suburban housewives were willing to adopt it with enthusiasm, just as they were later with ‘low fat healthy’ products.
Crisco contains a truth claim, to be ‘better than natural’, a claim everyone now knows to be false. The mainstream position, eat wholegrains, cut fat to a minimum, lots of fruit and veg, also rests on truth claims. These underpin their encouragement of us to buy processed food by the ton in the supermarket, rather than ‘real food’, or the traditional elements of our cuisines, such as milk, butter, or cheese in the case of Europeans. These claims to truth are equally as false as was Crisco’s, and demonstrating this conclusively will have devastating implications for the current order.
On the other hand, this is also why there will be intense resistance. Last week I re-read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Part of his argument was about the central role consumption plays in our economic life, and how everything would fall apart without it. We have a massive processed food industry that makes us sick, and then a massive health and pharmaceutical sector to undo the damage from our poor diet. Where would our economy be without those two sectors, how would we cope with the millions of unemployed if they shut down ? Part of the ethical support for the mainstream view rests on these kinds of arguments, it is not all cynicism, direct financial interest, it is a certain view of ‘the good life’. Eat crap, take drugs, use the health system, everybody wins !
Modernity rests on an Enlightenment view that science and technology can liberate us from both the constraints of nature, and of tradition. For the last two hundred years we have been putting that idea to the test. Our world today is the result, and enough time has passed for us to be able to deliver a verdict. In my eyes, its been a disaster, and is unsustainable. We are close to collapse, somewhere similar to where Rome was in the early 400’s, and that’s not just my view, forebodings of an apocalyptic future are everywhere in popular culture, just check out Netflix titles. Veganism is one by-product, a kind of millenarian death cult, but it is by no means unique in that respect.
truth matters, so does beauty
The Modern project of science and technology got us into this state, however, science is ambiguous, at its best it contains a higher purpose, the search for truth, the desire for knowledge of the external world as it really is. This transcends its Modern version, it runs deeper. Truth is the ultimate masculine value, just as beauty is the ultimate feminine value. Civilisations are founded on a sense of truth and beauty. Underlying the carnivore diet is such a sense, that makes it interesting, that raises the stakes, just as does the realisation that our times rest on both falsehood and ugliness.
I’ll be honest, I LIKE the carnivore diet. I like the IDEA of it as much as I like a good steak. I choose my words carefully, I am making an aesthetic statement, a claim about beauty, not truth. I WANT the carnivore diet to turn out to be the best for humans, I am emotionally invested.
Nevertheless, truth matters, and will win out. If it turns out not to be so, I will accept that truth, I will give up carnivore as a nice idea, but no more. If eating carnivore makes you sick, weak, sterile, then it fails my ultimate ethical test, which is for a society where we are healthy, strong, and fertile.
Whoever ‘we’ turns out to be is another question. I’ll leave that for now, except to say that there can be more than one ‘we’. Am fine with that.
Over the next three years, maybe longer, I will be entering the camp of the enemy. I will be studying their science, their truth, their values. One purpose of this blog will be to help me maintain my sanity, my inner balance, to vent my emotions. It will also be to sharpen my tools, to develop my arguments, to build my insight, both on questions of truth, and on the ethics involved. Remember, I want to go for their throats. No mercy.
I invite you to come with me on my journey.