Cooking with the Professor

Great piece in NYT science section today about how the medical establishment came to get it totally wrong when it comes to fat in the diet.*

In 1988, the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, proclaimed ice cream to a be public-health menace right up there with cigarettes. Alluding to his office’s famous 1964 report on the perils of smoking, Dr. Koop announced that the American diet was a problem of “comparable” magnitude, chiefly because of the high-fat foods that were causing coronary heart disease and other deadly ailments.

That was a ludicrous statement, as Gary Taubes demonstrates in his new book meticulously debunking diet myths, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Knopf, 2007). The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly. The evidence against Häagen-Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros.

The article is a great read in itself, but it’s also a cautionary tale that restates one of the findings of public choice theory — in a winner take all vote, groups will often produce suboptimal results because of the way costs and benefits are allocated, vis a vis the median voter.

It also shows why it’s important to always maintain a healthy skepticism when it comes to conventional wisdom.  Sometimes the CW is really just a myth based on bad (or intentionally misleading) data.  For example, see Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way We Never Were for a great exploration of how the Ozzie and Harriet mythology of the ’50s is as fictitious as anything Homer wrote.

It’s very sad when our leadership is so beholden to the flock that they recycle tired and highly inaccurate stories to manufacture consensus.

* For what it’s worth, I believe that the healthiest diet is highly individualistic, and varies according to gender, ethnic background, season, and location. For example, I — as an Eastern European-descended man living through a PacNor fall — will eat a relatively high-protein diet with lots of meat, fish, seasonal (and local) fruit (apples and pears, etc.), and root vegetables. I will eat one big meal a day (mimicking the neo-lithic hunter’s diet) and snack on things like beef jerky and anchovies. Hey — works for me. And that’s the point.

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