Monday, August 12, 2013

Searching for the Middle Path - Diets Reconsidered

I write this blog primarily as way to sort out my own thoughts, and this post is meant to be somewhat rhetorical and speculative.  However, I'm willing to explore this topic, and welcome constructive feedback. I just don't want to get sucked in endless debate with people who feel the need to prove that someone on the internet is wrong. Especially if that person is me, because I'm never wrong. I'm serious. Stop laughing. Damn it!

Anyway, I had an interesting discussion about diet that got me thinking. If you have read my previous posts on this subject, you know I've been an advocate of diets based on evolutionary principles. However, my advocacy of these diets was based purely on promoting individual health with no consideration given to larger questions. I did this intentionally, because the scope of this blog did not extend that far, but clearly, for many people there are moral, ethical, economic, environmental, and religious issues that supersede any and all other considerations.

Diet is a very complex and multifaceted subject that does not lend itself to being studied easily and effectively. The scientific studies are all over the place, and the anecdotal evidence is very inconsistent as well. Not to mention, much of the science on diet is really just junk science, and it only serves to cloud the issues, often intentionally. Here is a short list of some of the confounding factors and unknowns regarding the study and discussion of diets.
  • The role of individual genetics
  • The role of populations genetics
  • The role of epigenetics
  • The role of intestinal bacteria
  • The overuse of antibiotics, and their effects on intestinal bacteria
  • The interplay between physical activity and diet
  • The digestive system is neurologically complex, and we have no idea why
  • How modern agricultural practices reduce food quality and damage the environment. 
  • Modern food sources are nutritionally inferior. All of the meats, vegetables and fruits we eat have much less nutritional value than they used to. Unfortunately, leading many people into making "apple and oranges" comparisons between diets
  • The role of variety
  • Regional variation in food quality, leading to more "apple and oranges" comparisons
  • A general lack of understanding about evolution, even among people in biological and health related occupations 
  • A complete lack of understanding about evolution by the general public
  • A general lack of understanding about the scientific method, the design of scientific studies, and what a scientific study actually represents 
  • The role politics 
  • Confusion between the moral arguments and the scientific arguments
Based on this list, I'm quite certain that there are many issues preventing meaningful discussion about diet. I'm also quite certain that there is much we don't understand about diet, and what we don't understand is preventing us from discovering a unifying set of principles or concepts that could explain all of the accumulated data. 
So many good ideas are killed by off by ideologies gone awry, and unfortunately, the health and fitness community is a breeding ground for ideological thinking. Despite our various ideologies, the reality is that there are people who have had great success using very different and even contradictory dietary approaches. This fact alone should give us reason to disregard our fundamentalist views. Is it so terrible to admit there are no clear answers? It's human nature to seek answers and understanding, but we often do so prematurely, and end up filling in the missing data with elements of speculation and faith.

Let me address the Paleo crowd out there. Yes, there is no doubt that as homosapiens we have all the evolutionary hallmarks of hunters, and the evidence is also overwhelming that hunting dramatically altered our evolution as species, and was very influential in making us who we are as human beings. To deny this is to deny science. However, is it possible that we are more adaptable than we understand, and not really as bounded by our evolutionary past as we might believe? Actually, to me, this is the most important question. Everything about us from our behavior to our physiology and anatomy really only make sense in light of evolution, but what are the practical limits to our ability to adapt? How much wiggle room did evolution provide? In terms of diet, the answer appears to be quite a bit. Evolution can explain perfectly why we are the way we are. It sheds light on our past and our present, but not our future. Can we choose, or at least help guide, our path forward, and if we can, then what would we choose? We have created a world in which we just did not evolve to live in. Do we choose to go back to the past, or to move on? Maybe there is a middle path, allowing for a little of both?

I could go on endlessly asking questions without clear answers. Maybe as I run low on material related directly to running and fitness, I may morph this blog into something more philosophical. Given some of my latest posts, perhaps that process has already started, but for now this is not the place to discuss moral and ethical issues at length. However, let's just say, it is hard for people like me to ignore the implications of eating meat, implications that go way beyond just the treatment and killing of the animals used for food. I'm forced to wonder, can we, as a species, survive with practices that appear to be unsustainable?


Some links to Dr. Daniel E. Lieberman's work on Human Evolution, a subject near and dear to my intellectual heart.

Barefoot Running
Right down the middle, explained

Here is an interesting post I found, and one of the few examples I've seen that discusses common ground on this topic.

Top 10 Nutrition Facts That Everyone Agrees on

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