Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Sad State of "Modern" Nutrition

I believe I mentioned before that I'd read a book titled Food Rules by Michael Pollan. It was an "eat this, don't eat that" guide broken down into a series of rules, but it made some interesting points as well. One of those points really got me thinking. I don't have the book handy, so I'll have to paraphrase and hope that I get the sentiment reasonably close. Pollan suggested that the state of nutritional science is in its relative infancy, akin to medicine back in the Renaissance.

Wow. That's an amazing, and frankly horrifying, notion. I'm by no means an expert on Renaissance medicine, but I'm not utterly unfamiliar with it. It was pretty bad in the 1600s. Oh, and the 1700s. Yes, and the 1800s were also terrible times to be sick or injured. In fact, it wasn't until the middle of the 1900s that chemistry and biology had advanced to a state where medicines became somewhat reliable, vaccines could be counted upon to ward off disease, and surgery developed into something more than a quick amputation and a roll of the dice.

So imagine if Pollan is right (and I've seen very little reason to doubt him). Nutrition is clearly a mess, especially in Western society. We're fat, we're eating a LOT of garbage that we can guess isn't really good for us, and we're under a constant barrage of "knowledge" and "science" about what will fix us. "Don't eat eggs! No, wait, eat eggs! Don't eat meat! Eat more meat! Chicken, no... beef! Cholesterol kills you! No, just the 'bad' cholesterol. Oh wait, maybe cholesterol isn't such a big deal." It goes on and on. The big vitamin manufacturers try to get us to load up on nutrients  that we literally piss away. The homeopathic gurus tell us to eat this or that weed. And then a year later, we find out it doesn't actually seem to do squat, until some other new study tells us it does. It's one thing after another, leaving us running around like madpeople, crazed and confused and hungry for knowledge as much as for food.

If we're truly only as far along today as medicine was in the Renaissance, we may be nowhere close to actually understanding how the hell nutrition actually works. We might be hundreds of years away. That's hard to fathom for us - we see change happen so often and so easily these days, that it's difficult to imagine how we could fail to be right on the cusp of having this whole nutrition thing figured out. But the years go by, and we never seem to get any closer to clarity. We not only don't know for sure what we should and should not eat (and in what quantities) to fuel our bodies and ward off disease, but at a fundamental level we lack any understanding whatsoever of why one thing could be better than any other thing. We've identified vitamins, minerals, compounds, chemicals, enzymes, and all sorts of other stuff, to the point where we know it when we find it, we can remove it, add it, increase it, decrease it, and so forth, but we haven't the slightest clue why it does any of what it does. We might as well be bleeding ourselves with leeches for all the good it does.

Granted, there is stuff that demonstrably works. Getting off of a "western" diet full of processed foods, sugars, refined carbs, pesticides, hormones, and so forth seems to do a pretty good job of keeping people from looking like fat Americans, but, again, we don't really understand why (and anyone who tells you they do is just guessing. They may feel very strongly about their guesses, but they're still just making this stuff up. Which doesn't mean they're wrong.). We still need to invent the dietary equivalent of the blood transfusion, or the antibiotic, or the vaccine. I sincerely hope we don't have to wait 400 years for it (and, granted, the pace of change is MUCH faster than it was in the 1600s), but I'm not holding out hope that we're going to figure it out in the next decade, even with all the supermarket check-out aisle magazines tantalizing us with "dietary secrets revealed!"

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