Comments on “Nutrition: the Emperor has no clothes”

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perfection Salad

Patrick Jennings 2015-06-04

Hi David I would like to reblog this on the Non-Buddhist in relation to a previous post on “critical thinking” to try and distinguish between a rational thought process or methodology and Rationalism as an ideology/philosophical stance. Would that be good from your point of view and if so how do I go about it? Forgive my stupidity! Thanks for the many moments of “enlightenment” you have produced in me and the entertaining way you present the fruits of much deep thought. Can’t imagine the effort it must cost you.

limits of applied science

Kate Gowen 2015-06-04

I wonder: is it the case that inquiry into matters as complex as human nutrition can yield no knowledge? (Which is what it sounds to me that you are saying, in very entertaining fashion.)

Or is it the case that any of the popular feints at “scientific” knowledge are painted with such a very broad brush, by VERY interested parties, so as to constitute dogma and propaganda, rather than information?

The great thing about geeks of any stripe is their delight in getting intimately involved with the numberless particulars– and sometimes that inspires an entirely new and powerful view. I personally am interested in what the metabolism geeks, the microbiome geeks, and the immune system geeks are turning up these days.


David Chapman 2015-06-04

Hi Patrick—this site doesn’t run on Wordpress, which is the system that offers the “reblogging” functionality. (Also Tumblr? I don’t use that.) Basically, reblogging is just quoting from the article, isn’t it? So you could copy and paste the parts you want to comment on (or the first few paragraphs if you want to point at the whole thing). I’m entirely happy with that, so long as you include a link to the original!

Nutrition as spiritual entertainment

David Chapman 2015-06-04

Interesting comments, Kate!

is it the case that inquiry into matters as complex as human nutrition can yield no knowledge?

Well… So far it seems to have yielded no knowledge, yes. As far as I can tell. I think it would be “wistful certainty” to assert that it must be possible to learn something. (Why must it be possible?)

Or is it the case that any of the popular feints at "scientific" knowledge are painted with such a very broad brush, by VERY interested parties, so as to constitute dogma and propaganda, rather than information?

I’m not sure what you are asking. Certainly nutrition research has been distorted by financial interests. Is that what you were pointing at?

The great thing about geeks of any stripe is their delight in getting intimately involved with the numberless particulars-- and sometimes that inspires an entirely new and powerful view. I personally am interested in what the metabolism geeks, the microbiome geeks, and the immune system geeks are turning up these days.

Yes, I’m a somewhat obsessive fan of nutrition research (which is why I was interested enough to write this trilogy of pages on the subject). However, as far as I can tell, there’s still no reliable methodology, so I have to regard everything I read as a form of spiritual entertainment. It probably has no relationship with physical reality, but it provides hope, the illusion of understanding, and similar spiritual junk food.

The microbiome stuff is the most exciting, because it’s a completely new take, and because it’s a lot easier to manipulate bacteria than human cells. I really really hope it works out!

On Nutrition

Matthew 2015-06-05

Thank you for yet another stimulating article. About a year ago I came across the Weston A. Price Foundation and have been reading literature and cookbooks that align with their philosophy regarding food, eating and nutrition. It made a lot of sense to me in a similar way that Ken Wilber’s stuff makes a lot of sense. It informs my nutritional choices nowadays. Weston A. Price was a dentist who in the 1920s and 30s studied and apparently visited indigenous cultures (pre-modern, non-industrialized) around the world to learn what and how they ate. He was always keen to note the health of the teeth of individuals in each society that he studied. He found that the teeth of individuals in non-industrialized societies were much healthier in general than the teeth in modern industrial society. He identified a number of common food practices across pre-modern societies. Some of my favorite commonalities that he identified were a preference for organ meats over muscle meats, eating the whole animal from head to toe (every part of it), bone broths, fermented vegetable and dairy products (krauts and kefir), and eating saturated (animal fats) and unsaturated fat (olive oils, avocado, coconut oil, etc). Anethema to this diet is processed modern foods and transfats. So, the Weston A. Price diet draws upon the world’s wisdom traditions related to food and to preparing food. (We buddhists also pay a lot of attention to Buddhist tradition). There is a bit of “purity” and idealism in this movement, but I find it very useful and thought I would share it with you and your readers. I’d be curious to hear what you think.


Kate Gowen 2015-06-05

” Or is it the case that any of the popular feints at “scientific” knowledge are painted with such a very broad brush, by VERY interested parties, so as to constitute dogma and propaganda, rather than information?

– I’m not sure what you are asking. Certainly nutrition research has been distorted by financial interests. Is that what you were pointing at?”

The short answer to the (rhetorical) question is that research has been BEYOND distorted by financial interests. In many cases, it doesn’t deserve to be called research; it could more properly be called dogma or propaganda. From working from assumptions that are not proved, to crappy research design, to discarding unwanted results. “Scientific” is one of those words being used to exempt claims from inquiry; like “godly” or “orthodox” in earlier times.

I guess human beings have always felt nervous about venturing out of the herd of their peers. That qualm is hard to assuage in the bewilderingly pluralistic global village we inhabit now, I’d guess. Which tribe is “mine?”

It strikes me that your subject matter is better than a Rubik’s cube as a puzzle, or one of those Chinese ball knots with no visible end to start unravelling.

Weston A. Price

David Chapman 2015-06-05

Thanks, Matthew! Yes, I do know about the Weston A. Price work, and (as it happens) I do eat roughly that way. It’s sort of embarrassing to admit this after saying “nobody knows anything about nutrition”! On the other hand, you have to eat something, and I find that sort of diet tasty and entertaining. I hope it is also healthy, but I don’t think it has a strong evidential base (any more than any other diet theory has). It’s certainly interesting and fun to geek out about, however!

It also does double duty as Buddhist disgust practice; learning to like lambs’ hearts and buffalo kidneys is an exercise in nonduality!

"Scientific" as a synonym for "sacred"

David Chapman 2015-06-05
"Scientific" is one of those words being used to exempt claims from inquiry; like "godly" or "orthodox" in earlier times.

Yes! That’s exactly what I was trying to get across in this post, and in “Perfection Salad.”

Which tribe is "mine" in the bewilderingly pluralistic global village?

Yes, I think that question is the essence of the collapse of the subcultural mode. 25 years ago, we could answer that. Or, at least, many more people could answer it then than could now.

Wistful Eating..

Ronyon 2015-06-12

It often surprises me that people who believe in Darwinian evolution often believe in one best way of eating.
The co- evolution of the horse and the grass should be sufficient evidence to the contrary.
The existence of adaptations and maladaptations for the consumption of dairy and alcohol ,should be a clincher.
On the other hand, bad science in this realm, is like bad medicine. The practice of medicine has killed a lot of people, continues to kill more, and ultimately it has a 100% mortality ,yet I would hardly suggest we stop it in its tracks.
There may not be any correct way to eat, but seeking patterns is a human preoccupation with more positive outcomes that negative ones. Gravity makes things fall and fire makes things hot, usually.
The very changes in our society push human evolution around, from favoring increased breast size and decreased pelvis size, to making efficient use of calories maladaptive. Getting it wrong for any reason is no reason to stop looking for answers. And answers that are only a little right still beat no answers at all. Not jumping to conclusions is a different question entirely. If the first stove I touch burns me, I can still learn to use a stove.
If my mother in laws family cuts out lard,switches to corn oil, and eats more salad, on the doctors orders,and every one of them developed obesity, has their gall bladder removed and gets diabetes, I can skip the corn oil part and still eat a salad.
The abolsolutist tenor of this piece is amusing, but not accurate.
Knowlege is ephemeral , but no less useful . Lemons treat scurvy without us knowing about vitamins. I can build a great electrical circuit without knowing anything about electrons.


M Vargas 2016-12-20

I have been reading through your Meaningness articles with great interest but your observations on “nutrition science” seem misplaced to me. Your specific point - there’s a lot of junk science out there; people are too gullible or ignorant when it comes to falling for the junk science - is well taken. It’s become an unfortunate and dangerous part of our culture. But what does this have to do with “meaning”?

As you’ve discussed it throughout Meaningness, when you say “meaning”, you are talking about certain a category of human concerns - purpose, ethics, one’s sense of self, ect. What you are describing in these nutrition articles has nothing to do with that as far as I can tell. All I see is people (poorly) trying to figure out the cause of an effect. Something causes bad health. If it looks like clogged arteries caused that heart attack, it’s natural to ask what caused the clogged arteries because something caused them. Maybe it’s fat! Oops, maybe not.... It sucks that the search for that cause is really hard and messy and flawed but I don’t see the relevance to a discussion on “meaning”. I certainly don’t see how the belief that diet can impact our health is somehow eternalist, even if somehow that belief is eventually shown to be totally wrong (which obviously it won’t because obviously it’s true - see “lemons treat scurvy” comment above). Unless you’re saying that the basic, general belief in cause and effect is eternalist? That believing physical problems will have physical causes is “wistful”? I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re trying to say but it’s the only way I can see that this “nutrition science is bad science” talk has any relevance with the broader discussion of meaning and our stances towards meaning.

Insufficient context

David Chapman 2016-12-20

Yes, this page is lacking the context that would help make it make sense. Sorry about that; it’s a pervasive problem in writing a gigantic book gradually online.

The point here is that nutrition is an example of a misplaced, quasi-religious (eternalist) faith in Science as delivering answers to all questions. The (currently-implicit) claim is that if it weren’t for that, pseudoscience of all sorts would have a much harder time convincing people to do dumb things.

RE: Insufficient context

M Vargas 2016-12-21

Hmm, I still see a bit of a disconnect on this topic even given the admittedly “quasi-religious faith in Science” some people can have. There is the odd moralizing aspect that some people can give to food, and that can fit into the ethics portion of the search for “meaning”. But that seems like a minor part of what’s going on here with the junk- & pseudo-science stuff. I’m contending that this nutrition stuff (and the general ignorant attitudes about science) is mostly a search for explanations/solutions to “real world” phenomena, which is different from a search for “meaning”. Trying to figure out how a machine works (even a machine as insanely complicated as a human body) seems to me a very different thing then trying to figure out “the meaning of life”. Would you disagree?

Or perhaps you would say I am betraying an eternalist faith in science. :) But I do think that every physical phenomena (as opposed to psychological/spiritual ones, I guess?) has a cause and that the scientific method, properly applied, is a trustworthy way to learn those causes. Even if in practice some of these causes are extremely difficult to find - like almost any involving humans (which is the case for most of the subjects you called out as bad “Sciences” - Domestic, Political, Cognitive, ect) - I see no reason to think that they can’t be found with time and effort.

we are just getting started

Ted Wells 2017-02-21

A professor recently told me that in the 1950s, everything that we knew about the eye fit on ONE page in the medical journals.

Computer scientists at that time thought they would be able to create a human-like robot within 5 years. In the 1960s - they thought it would take 10 years, in the 1970s they though it would take 20 years …and so on. The problem wasn’t that science was “wrong” but that we had underestimated the complexity of the human body.

We never even looked at a human embryo under a microscope until the 1920s.

The point is - it is no wonder that we had gotten so many things wrong (especially early on). The instruments of measure needed had not even been invented. Human beings at the time considered themselves at the height of modern understanding. They didn’t know how much they didn’t know.

I completely agree that we must not fall into the same trap of hubris and certitude (while there is so much that has yet to be confirmed). Yet, just because we have not mastered a field of knowledge does not mean that answers do not exist. (Isaac Newton said gravity only reached Jupiter and after that the planets remained in place because they were held in the hands of God - because his calculations did not work past Jupiter.) We are learning a lot because of new technologies and molecular biology- and in the future may be able to personalize our nutritional needs and medicines in ways that will optimally support our specific genes and state of being at any given moment.

In the meantime, common sense and skepticism is a good idea - as long as a person doesn’t read your article and think it means that eating empty calories and/or junk food is a sensible way to stay healthy …and that we “literally” know “nothing” about nutrition.

Morality and Food

Sasha 2017-06-30

Of course morality does play a role in food.
It’s a moral decision whether to eat other animals, including humans, for example.

Specious reasoning

Kearian 2022-03-16

I don’t necessarily disagree that nutritional science has some problems with research, but this article is guilty of the same faulty reasoning you find in pseudoscience. If nutritional scientists don’t know anything, even with all their data, how could you know for certain that the obesity epidemic was caused by eating a low-fat diet? This is another one of those outrageous claims you hear all the time that lacks any real evidence. Many things changed in the 1970s and 80s, most notably two working parent households increased, and as a result intake of processed foods exploded. There’s certainly no evidence that the majority of Americans during this time were chowing down on brown rice and green vegetables. Since it is almost impossible to get people to follow a strict low-fat diet outside of a very controlled research environment, this would have been an impressive feat indeed. Yes sales for processed foods marketed as low-fat increased, but the average American during this time was eating hamburger helper, mac and cheese, and TV dinners. Hardly what you would consider low-fat fare, even when it is marketed as such. The problem with ultra low-fat diets is not that they don’t work, they work almost too well, just look at traditional asian and blue zone diets. The traditional Japanese diet contains around 50 grams of fat per day (compared to 80 grams in the United States), while the Okinawa typically eat less than 20 grams of fat per day. People in these cultures are very thin, and only gain weight when they change to a more western style diet. The type of diseases most prevalent in these cultures are related to having too little body fat, instead of too much body fat as we see in the west. The problem is that low-fat diets don’t seem to be sustainable for the majority of people who were raised on a western diet and live in environments surrounded by high-fat food, our instincts are designed to seek out and eat the richest food in our environment in order to avoid starvation. I doubt we will ever find a solution to that in our current abundant food world, the people who are unusually motivated to lose the weight and get healthy will, the people who aren’t will continue to die of disease. It’s a sad reality, but reality nonetheless.

Salt for Babies

Malte Skarupke 2022-09-12

I was thinking of this blog post recently because I have twin babies and me and my wife were arguing about whether to add salt to their baby food. They eat noticeably better when the food has a normal amount of salt on it, because otherwise it tastes bland, but you can find no end of advice online that tells you it’s dangerous to add salt to baby food.
Note all the links to scientific papers.

But what’s frustrating in that article (and similar articles) is that all the links go to papers like “babies who ate salty food, are more likely to eat salty food as adults.” The actual claims about salt being dangerous aren’t linked to papers. Why? Because it’s based on nothing, as this person found out:

To summarize that article: some nutritionists tried to figure out how much salt babies need. They didn’t know how to do that, so they said “lets assume human breast milk has the right amount of salt,” except that they got a number that’s too low. Human breast milk actually has like 50% more salt than they thought. When babies get old enough to eat solids, they concluded with the same assumptions that solids should have proportionally the same amount of salt as breast milk. (despite it being obvious that babies really like salt in their food. If you give a baby salty food, like a piece of fried bacon, they will suck the juices out of it for minutes)
Then in 2019 some other nutritionists came along and said “nah, that number is too high. We’ll make the official recommendation even lower.” With no evidence, and despite the fact that the first group got numbers that were too low.

Now lots of Americans are freaking out about salt in baby food, because the official numbers are crazy low, which suggests that you have to avoid salt altogether. Literally every book about feeding babies mentions that it’s dangerous to add salt, lots of online articles say the same, yet nobody ever links to any evidence for this, because there is no evidence.

What’s the right thing to do? Who knows, too much salt probably isn’t good, so now we just try to use a normal amount of salt.

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