I hate my chin.
Seriously. I have a weak chin. And I really don’t like it.
That’s why I’m not a big fan of rooms with mirrors on three walls. I’m thinking of the dressing room at Macy’s, and the place where I get my hair cut, and the bathroom at the YMCA where Cate and I go every week to swim laps.
Standing there in the Y bathroom in my goofy swim trunks, seeing myself from this So this is how others see me perspective, I’m usually able to convince myself that my shoulders are sort of wide, and that maybe all the running and swimming and better eating are paying off.
But then I find myself looking at my chin, and I realize how I’ll never swim my weak chin away. There it is. It will always be there. And there’s just no avoiding all those mirrored rooms waiting to remind me.
I bring this up so that you’ll understand that I really do get it when people get all fired up over the opening chapters in our book Deep Nutrition, which deal in part with the way our looks (Cate would say “our anatomies”) are affected by dietary choices. Politics, race, religion, physical appearance—such third-rail topics cut close to the bone, and we take these things so personally because they can so powerfully govern our life experience, everything from what we choose to do for a living to the people we count as friends. In various degrees, they help define who we are.
But what I’m a really confused about is why, just recently, we’re all starting to take our dietary choices so personally. If you read the nutrition blogs, you’ve seen how vicious people can get: “The author claims to be Paleo, but he’s obviously Primal! What a FAKE!” “Good for him, being a ‘conscientious’ vegetarian. I see he still recommends eggs! MURDERER!” “She acts like she came up with the whole idea of linking anatomy with health herself! Weston Price came up with that WAY before she did!!! And she doesn’t give him ANY credit in her book!!!”
I recently watched a Youtube video of a well-known vegan commentator (an Australian fellow who, I swear, sounds just like the Geico Gecko) doing a slide-by-slide hit-list presentation of his nutritional enemies and indicting each one for not looking “buff” enough.
The reason I’ve brought all this up is that, just this week, I almost fell into the same trap. I almost took this nutrition stuff personally.
Here’s what happened: I was reading Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s best-selling book, The China Study. The thing is, I’ve got this vegan buddy and he’s a super guy and very, very smart. While we were chatting he brought up something from The China Study—a book I’ve read—and I couldn’t remember the data he was referencing, so I felt I should probably read it again.
Which I did.
But then, on page 59, I got angry. I ran into a section entitled “NOT ALL PROTEINS ARE ALIKE,” one of many sections in The China Study suggesting that animal proteins are extremely unhealthy. Here’s a quote: “Controlling cancer through nutrition was, and still is, a radical idea. But as if this weren’t enough, one more issue would yield explosive information: did it make any difference what type of protein was used in these experiments? For all these experiments, we were using casein, which makes up 87% of cow’s milk protein. So the next logical question was whether plant protein, tested in the same way, has the same effect on cancer promotion as casein.”
Which made me wonder, “Did it make any difference what type of protein was used in these experiments?”
For example, why is casein used to represent all animal protein? “Casein…makes up 87% of cow’s milk protein”? Really? Milk from where? What breed of cow? What was the cow fed? At what time of the season was this milk collected? Was the milk pasteurized or otherwise processed? How was the casein isolated from the milk? What was the full nutritional context in which this isolated casein was introduced (to the rats)?
While we’re on the subject, can you tell me more detail about the “plant protein” used for comparison? You mention gluten and soy proteins: How were these isolated? From what sources, specifically? In what nutritional context were they introduced?
Here’s the “next logical question”: Do such details matter?
I think they do, a lot. That’s why science is so hard, and the reason scientists sometimes ignore, at their conclusions’ peril, Einstein’s advice to make things “as simple as possible, but no simpler [italics mine].” As one respected nutrition researcher succinctly put it, “Not all proteins are alike”! That’s a good point, made by the same man who said (on page 20 of The China Study), “We oversimplify and disregard the infinite complexity of nature. Often, investigating minute biological chemical parts of food and trying to reach broad conclusions about diet and health leads to contradictory results.”
Which is why it might prove problematic to make broad conclusions about diet and health based on an experimental contest between, say, “casein” and “plant protein.” Right?
Oh darn. Here I am getting angry again.
It’s not Dr. Campbell’s fault. It’s Cate’s. See, she’s one of those scientist types, and she can’t resist getting all huffy-puffy when she runs into what appears to be sloppy science (or sloppy scientific writing), and now she’s got me doing it. She often reminds me that, as far as she’s concerned, sloppy science is more than an aesthetic problem, like some bothersome carpet stain in one of the great halls of medicine.
Bad science can lead to bad consequences. People can get hurt.
People like Cate’s brother, who had leukemia. Or me, with my weak chin and the long list of health problems I suffered from until I got turned on to a more holistic diet—all largely due to sloppy science. My parents were both raised in an era when expectant mothers were told, by confident men in white lab coats, that they could pretty much eat and drink and smoke whatever they wanted and it wouldn’t do all that much to impair the health of their growing baby.
Bad science. Bad advice. And, for me, lots of lots of rooms with floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
And so, in the same way I understand why some readers get upset about the DN chapters on nutrition and looks, please understand why I was tempted to take what I took to be unsubstantiated scientific conclusions personally.
Which brings me to my point, about forgiveness, dialogue and—heck, as long as I’ve gone this far, I might as well go all the way—love.
Bad science happens when people take scientific conclusions personally—theirs or anyone else’s. It happens when they think they are defined by their scientific beliefs and, for that reason, refuse to expose those beliefs to the criticisms and suggestions of others.
Bad science happens when we fall so deeply in love with our beliefs that we coddle and defend them rather than release them to the wilderness of frank and open discourse.
Bad science happens when we stop listening, even, to the friendliest voices of our detractors, many of whom are just like us: Decent folks just trying to figure things out.
Dr. Campbell didn’t cause my health problems. In fact, I’ll bet if he could go back in time carrying a satchel filled with the best nutritional information, he would do his best to help me out. True, some of the science in his book drives me a little batty. But I choose to believe that, just like Cate, his earnest intention is to help people live better, healthier lives. And according to the vast majority of the folks who have reviewed his book on Amazon, his efforts have not been in vain. After reading his book, lots of folks have been effectively convinced to stop eating processed foods and to start eating plenty of (organic) veggies more, and to start cooking for themselves. And their health is now the better for it.