The greatest flaw in nutritional dogma?

I recently interviewed Dr. Christopher Ochner, an accomplished researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital, and have found I have a couple of leftovers to discuss. In this post — I don’t know if I’ll write the other — I respond to this answer he gave in the interview:

“The only diet we know that people can stick to is the American diet. That teaches us that people are going to eat the foods they love to eat. The trick is not cutting out the foods we love to eat, but finding a way to make the foods we love to eat better for us.”

I just think this is intensely wrong, and its wrongness is intensified by the fact Ochner is a prominent, educated voice in obesity research. No, he’s not alone, by far — this is the predominant view among registered dietitians and others — but it is just not true, and deprives millions who struggle with overweight of the primary way out of their struggles.

To someone whose eating is having an undesired effect, what could be more obvious guidance than to eat differently, even if those changes would be significant? To say, “well, they just won’t do it” is to abdicate leadership, among those whose job it is to lead the suffering out of their predicament.

“The only diet we know that people can stick to is the American diet.”

Not true! Millions of people don’t eat standard American fare — because of food allergies, out of concern for animal cruelty, or for other reasons. They all have found a reason to eat differently, so to me, the challenge is to provide better reasons for others to eat differently, not to give up.

Most readers know, I gave up refined sugar (above the fifth ingredient) more than 20 years ago, and gave up refined grain (flour) more than 10 years ago. Especially regarding the latter, I didn’t want to, but after years of fighting it, I found reason enough to concede to a trial period, and I’ve chosen not to go back. Not out of rectitude, but out of raw self-interest.

“The trick is not cutting out the foods we love to eat, but finding a way to make the foods we love to eat better for us.”

In this, I observe a large dose of what T. Colin Campbell calls nutritional reductionism, in which people (especially marketers) focus on “less fat” or “high in fiber” instead of looking at a food for what it really is.

(There was a time, after I’d “given up” refined sugar, that I was bingeing on “no sugar added” ice cream, as if that change made the product healthful. Worse, I briefly got into sugar-free candies, whose workarounds produced painful stomach distress and rampant flatulence that I tried to tolerate — because, hey, no sugar! In both cases, I’d have been better off — as I am now — by just surrendering ice cream and candy.)

Technology may someday produce modern manna — eat all you want and never gain weight — but so far, efforts (or empty promises) in those directions are leading us further from health.

In several of my podium speeches, I talk about the quite-human tendency to believe that somehow we can do whatever we want without consequence, that somehow we’re not subject to natural law. A foundational part of my release from extreme obesity has been accepting otherwise, that as just another citizen of the planet, I will experience the obvious outcomes of my choices. If my choices aren’t taking me where I want to go, the answer is to make different choices. Given reasonable reasons to do so, practically anyone is capable of doing that.

Note: I dawdled a bit in addressing this over misgivings that, at least figuratively, I was talking behind Ochner’s back, that I could have brought it up while in conversation with him instead of waiting. But he agreed to an interview, not a debate. Also, I discussed the misgiving with him first, and he’s cool with my responding, at least in principle. In specific, he’s free to comment, on my blog, in a guest post if he wants, or in his own forums. I’m guessing he won’t — not worth his time, from his perspective — but he has those options. 

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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