In a recent impromptu interview I was cornered by a nutritionist who was very skeptical of the health advantages of consuming a majority of calories from natural meats, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. He was also a rather outspoken advocate of many of the modern foods I generally avoid. This person took great offense at my direct naming of certain common processed foods as potentially dangerous to your health. I thought equal rights applied to people, not to Twinkies, soda-pop, sugared cereals, milk and fast foods. Regardless, I felt privileged to have such a learned man honor me with his question.
This person asked the following question in a very provocative tone: “Do you have any research studies directly proving that any of the foods you are knocking are dangerous to our health?” “Well? Do you? Now I’ve been asked this question before, but this time I really wanted to dwell on the answer. I asked my inquisitor if he would answer my question if I answered his question. My question was “Will you offer your participation in a simple, safe, short term food experiment on this very topic if I offer reciprocal involvement?” He replied “Yes”.
First, I answered his question as honestly as I could. I told this man that “No, I did not have any scientific research, peer reviewed and published or otherwise to which I could refer”. This was a little too honest, as I was well aware of some research showing the negative effects of consuming some of these specific foods and their constituent ingredients, but I did not have it with me. Nonetheless, I not only accepted my fate but went further.
I submitted that for the sake of this discussion then, we should both hold the position that there is no scientifically conducted, peer reviewed and accepted research directly linking these foods to any dangerous health effects – whatsoever. The logical corollary here is that if I cannot prove these foods are unhealthy to eat, then we must assume they are not unhealthy to consume. There are certainly no laws against eating these foods in any quantity. Hypothetically then we both would assume that there was no danger in consuming these foods. As unfortunate as that may be for my argument against these foods I would accept this position. Given this acceptance, it would seem then, that all of the “Foodie health nuts” need to shut up, once and for all and stop irresponsibly demonizing many of our modern, processed foods.
There was though, the final issue of my little food experiment in which he had agreed to participate. I ran through the details. I will choose three of his family members, including at least one child and put them on a strict diet for a period of 3 months with no exceptions. That diet will consist of the best known processed and fast foods, including Pop Tarts, Cheese in a Can, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Doritos, Wonder bread, milk, ice cream, processed cakes and snacks and candy. It will also include all of the major brands and flavors of soda pop. His family members will be highly restricted to eating and drinking these foods only. At the same time, he will choose three similar members of my family and we will put them on a strictly controlled diet of naturally raised meats, wild caught fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts and seeds and water – with no exceptions. Both groups will have a myriad of health markers including comprehensive blood tests and physicals, noted by a physician before and immediately after the three months period. All of those involved will be supervised by a doctor for the duration of the experiment.
The results will then be carefully documented and provided to a panel of 100 independent doctors and related health experts for enlightenment on the relative health improvement or deterioration of each subject. We will also accept the experts’ extrapolations and estimations on the future health and body weights of the test subjects in 6 months, 1, 5 and then 10 years.
Was this to be a perfect scientific experiment? Nope; no control group, and a larger sample of test subjects, etc. would be better. It would be interesting, nonetheless. I believe the real experiment here would be the test of how much confidence each of us had in our respective positions regarding modern food.
Strangest thing, he suddenly backed out of the whole idea. Turns out he did not like the idea of his 10 year old son being involved in this little experiment, even though I offered up three similar family members for him to choose. Given my answer to his question and my almost complete capitulation to his position, this was confusing.
This leads to a really interesting question regarding the varying degrees to which one might follow each of the two types of diet involved in this proposed experiment. After some discussion, the nutritionist said he wouldn’t have a problem with the experiment if “much less, but still some” of those foods dictated for his family member were provided. Yet, having “much less” of the foods stipulated for my family members for the substitution of other foods was not a concern. This begs the question, if he was not interested in 100% of the foods dictated because they were perhaps “unhealthy”, then what percentage of these “unhealthy” foods was acceptable. At what level of consumption were the chances of deleterious health effects acceptable? Again, this was not a concern whatsoever regarding the foods my family members were to eat. 100% was just fine with me. That was the whole point.
So, “bad” or otherwise “unhealthy” foods which he did not want his family member to consume were fine, as long as they were limited, but the idea of removing them altogether was absurd? My curiosity peaked. Does this position assume that because these processed foods exist, are normative (and tasty, and cheap) that we MUST then consume them, to at least some degree. The final position being that eating only the demonstrably healthy foods all of the time would be an eccentric, radical or otherwise crazy position to take? So, it is alright that I may experience some of the horrible health effects from eating these processed foods either now or in the future and this is a gamble that is mandatorily reasonable? Yet, following the scale in the “up” direction towards the healthiest foods was somehow deemed unreasonable.
Once he backed out of our agreement, I confessed that I did in fact have published research outlining the potential dangers of eating some of the processed foods we had discussed. Further, I could provide stacks of evidence that many of the ingredients in many of these products are likely quite dangerous to human health, especially in the large quantities in which they are typically consumed. Regardless, and to his point the research is still murky and does not seem to indicate clear, direct links between specific processed foods and ill-health. The relationship is simply not recognized in the way smoking has been correlated with lung cancer.
Even if I didn’t have the research on which this gentleman had challenged me, he and I both somehow knew that this food was not healthy. The sad meta-analysis is right in front of us, manifest in the poor, unhealthy folks who consume these foods as most of their calories. The terrible consequences of obesity and related disease are impossible to ignore. This is more than just deductive reasoning only. The proliferation of this super-industrialized, processed food since the industrial revolution corresponds very well with the lines on the graphs illustrating our rising chronic obesity and disease rates. The sad reality here is that these processed foods have generally come to define the majority of “our food” for most of the public.