DIET: A New Direction

Somebody said we change jobs every five years whether we know it or not. You may be a high school math teacher for four decades but in reality you do eight fundamentally different things during that time: teach trigonometry, coach basketball, advocate for students, advance the cause of teachers, all sequentially.

I don’t think it’s that simple, but I like the idea that while we may bog down in our work, we find new significance and challenge every so often and our basic preoccupation and activity keeps changing. For some people I suppose changes could happen simultaneously so that different activities weave in and out alongside one another over time, sometimes in the foreground sometimes quietly continuing behind the scenes.

For me, alongside trying to push for better care for the elderly, I’ve been working on a distinctly out-of-mainstream approach to diet for I guess about ten years. And just several weeks ago I finished a book on the subject. Well, a manuscript (so far no publisher has signed a contract or even read the thing). But it’s been quite a long time in the making.

Out-of-mainstream? Is it ever. The main idea: “Diet has No Influence on Health“. The only bad food is food that tastes bad. An empty calorie is a calorie that doesn’t satisfy you. This apparently insanely revisionist concept is I guess consistent with my iconoclastic orientation toward science in general and health care in particular. I’ve always imagined I have a nose for what makes the grass grow greener alongside a nose for delicious food.

I had only harboured ill-defined suspicion that there was something histrionically silly about public fascination with eating our way to longevity, until about eight years ago when I ran across a very reliable review of the scientific evidence for the impact of fat modification and reduction on heart disease: zero. No impact. I celebrated quietly and decided to look carefully into several other healthy-eating ideas: salt, sugar, antioxidants, fiber, and so on. I found for every one of them much the same story. Even presuming that all the scientific evidence, even the poor-quality studies, are done meticulously and honestly and interpreted correctly the benefits claimed are absolutely minute. Nobody with a healthy sense of portion should pay any attention to (for example) one chance in 10,000 of living several weeks longer. And yet we continue to restate and celebrate healthy eating’s imagined massive impact on our chances of getting sick and dying.

Thinking about what might be going on I wasn’t able to imagine in favour of healthy eating the kind of powerful self-interest that might explain, for example, why we spend billions of dollars on drugs that don’t work. There are lots of healthy-eating academics who benefit from publicity around diet, but that didn’t seem enough to explain the absolutely universal public obsession with junk food, the Mediterranean diet, and the epidemic of obesity.

In this upcoming book (“upcoming” is probably going to mean published electronically) I speculate about the influence of scientific healthcare, and also about how human beings feel about food and how we gravitate towards ideas about what we put in our bodies. It turns out that nourishment is not only fundamental to each of us as individuals, but has had an unavoidable influence on the development of our brains, behaviour, and a lot of other stuff beyond our digestive systems. Food matters so much that we are designed to bring our sophisticated thinking and organizing to bear on its acquisition and consumption, but also on ideas about what it is and what it means.

At the moment I’m calling the book Delusion for Dinner but as anyone who has ever tried to write one knows, coming up with an effective title for a book is not the easiest part of the enterprise. I’m sure I can do better. Meanwhile, I’m putting the finishing touches on the references and exploring how to get my magnum opus out to the public, who can’t wait I’m sure to be freed from all their firmly- but unhappily-held diet myths.

Stay tuned.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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2 Responses to DIET: A New Direction

  1. CLGD says:

    I just finished reading “Sugar, Fat and Salt” by Michael Moss (it is regarding the food industry and their use of the three ingredients). Your book should be an interesting counter argument.

    As for “healthy eating” I’ll share something that happened to me. I was at a Community Kitchen and the other participants were really into the organic, uber-health stuff. After having my fill of braised tofu, quinoa salad and the like (all of which was lovely, but I was really craving BACON!”), it was my turn to suggest a menu. I kept with the healthy theme for the entree, but suggested that we make something sinful and chocolate for dessert. The health nuts hijacked my menu and insisted on making a chocolate pie with an avacodo base (because it’s a “healthy fat”). I actually laughed out loud and made a gagging motion (I swear, this time I thought they really were joking…. they weren’t…..)

    Needless to say, I have moved from Community Kitchens. A friend and I get together once a week and cook together (sharing our own recipes and stuff we pick up from the Food Network, recipes on the ‘net, stuff we have in restaurants, etc). We use bacon fat and whole milk. We have bread, meat, cheese, etc. We even have quinoa once in a while (cause we like it – not because it is “healthy” per se).

    It’s interesting though – like Judith, who commented above me – I have been happier and have lost some weight. Maybe BACON! isn’t so bad after all…

    Anyways, look forward to the book when it is released.

  2. Judith Hunt says:

    I am really looking forward to reading this book. ‘Diets’ just make me miserable: mentally and digestibly. I have noticed that in years when I have been happy my clothes got looser.
    My wise father told me often that to lose weight I needed to exercise, not eat less.

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