Oct 16 2017

Clean Eating Antiscience

Eating “clean” is the latest fad diet pseudoscience. A recent article in The Guardian goes over the many aspects of this movement in great detail, and is worth a read. My only complaint is that the author, Bee Wilson, buys into misinformation about the medical profession and nutrition.

Wilson claims that the medical profession was unhelpful when it came to nutrition. I disagree – the medical profession was at the forefront of nutritional research and advice. The problem was that the science-based answers were not what everyone wanted to hear.

There are many aspects to the clean-eating movement, which Wilson does do an excellent job discussing. It is mostly marketing, a way for self-proclaimed “gurus” to make millions selling cookbooks, diet plans, and detox programs with outrageous claims that it will transform you health and cure whatever ails you.

The movement is also partly a reaction to the realities of modern Western culture. There is an obesity epidemic in our culture, and while the exact causes are debated it seems clear that the food industry is partly to blame. Market forces also favor tasty food, which tends to be calorie dense, and supersized portions.

Clean eating is also partly an eating disorder – orthorexia. Obsession with restricting dietary choices and avoiding “bad” food can rise to the level of an actual disorder and be harmful to health.

At its core the clean eating movement is part of the more general phenomenon of  antiscience. There has always been a conflict between academics and genuine experts, and marketing and popular culture. The two don’t always play well together (not to suggest equivalency).

Experts have a problem effectively communicating their findings to the public, engaging in the marketplace, and dealing with the fringe. There is also a tendency to overestimate one’s confidence and underestimate (or at least undersell) uncertainty. This creates a problem of public perception, which is exacerbated by orders of magnitude by the media. They tend to overhype, focus on fringe elements as if they are experts, and gloss over complexity to give a series of ultimately conflicting and simplistic answers. The public is left with a distorted and negative view of “experts,” which the experts do an inadequate job of fixing.

Meanwhile the marketplace finds experts to be an annoyance and obstacle. They are something to be exploited, to the extent that they can, but failing that they cling annoyingly to facts and reality when marketing sometimes requires something else.

The net result is our modern world. There are millions and sometimes billions of dollars to be made selling falsehoods. That money becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop, whereby it funds spreading the very falsehoods on which it depends. This means, often by necessity, attacking and diminishing any experts who might correct the record.

The media just loves the controversy, and so will elevate gurus, fake experts, and outliers to the level of the sober consensus of scientific opinion in order to attract more eyes. And of course, this has all been exacerbated by social media and the era of “fake news.” Now anyone can hang up a virtual shingle with little up-front cost, and compete on an even playing field with venerable institutions.

That is why I found it ironic that Wilson fell for the notion that mainstream medicine and scientists missed the whole nutrition thing. That is just revisionist propaganda promoted by gurus who are marketing themselves against the experts. The propaganda has embedded itself so deeply in the culture that even an otherwise deeply probing piece missed it.

The standard nutritional advice based on current scientific evidence is exactly what health care providers give. That advice, like science itself, is sometimes difficult. If you are an overweight diabetic, you will be counseled on how to have a diabetic diet and the benefits of calorie control and weight loss. Heart patients are counseled on the current evidence for a heart-healthy diet.

Go to any mainstream health website – it is full of science-based nutritional advice. However, this advice may seem unsatisfying to a public that has already been promised health nirvana just by following this one simple trick.

There are actually several manifestations of the clean-eating marketing con. One is the “simple trick” gambit. Avoid this one food, eat this one thing, follow this simple rule and that you will achieve whatever health goal you have. That is tabloid clean-eating.

However, clean eating also rises in some cases to the level of a religious movement. At that level clean eating is about spiritual and physical purity, it is about being “whole,” “natural,” and “pure”. Eating clean requires dedication and sacrifice, and if it doesn’t work for you then you weren’t fanatical or strong enough. You lacked faith.

At the extreme there is the promise that a hardcore pure existence will allow you to live “forever” (or at least a long time). It maintains itself through heavy doses of guilt and shame. It is judgmental and superior.  That is pretty much like every religion. It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that many religions contain eating restrictions as part of their code.

Of course for mainstream marketing you don’t want to call your clean eating fanaticism a religion, so it is marketed as a “lifestyle.” There are even lifestyle brands (like Goop) based on clean eating and natural living.

And like many religions, when their articles of faith conflict with science, they have to go full anti-science. They need to delegitimize experts and even the very concept of expertise. They elevate their priesthood as the sole purveyors of “Truth.”

Meanwhile, for most people, the scientific answer to healthy eating is not complex. Eat more vegetables. Eat a varied diet. Exercise regularly. Adjust your caloric intake to achieve a healthy weight. If you do that you are 90% of the way there. The rest are details, most of which will be taken care of if you eat a varied diet and plenty of vegetables.



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