Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
When it comes to nutrition, not only does everyone have an opinion, but everyone seems to think theirs is an expert opinion. And our culture seems to be ok with that. I’m not.
By the same token, I’m not convinced that someone who happens to live through a bad car crash to drive again is automatically qualified to take over NHTSA, or set up shop as a motor vehicle safety expert, and dispense advice accordingly. Call me crazy.
I am not at all sure that someone who inadvertently sets fire to his kitchen, and manages to put out the fire before burning everything entirely down, is a shoe-in as fire commissioner, qualifies as a fire safety expert, or deserves to sell fire safety advice in books, blogs, and programs.
I’m not entirely persuaded that someone who happens to have gone hiking in Alaska once without being eaten by a bear is de facto a leading authority on bears, and qualified to dispense expert guidance on how to handle them.
I don’t think someone who has been a passenger in a plane is automatically a credible source about how to fly one. I don’t think anyone who has driven over a suspension bridge necessarily knows how best to build one. I don’t think someone treated once by a neurosurgeon gets to offer expert commentary on the nuances of brain surgery.
I trust these examples all seem pretty silly. We would never allow for claims of expertise, and cottage industries based on them, to be established on such flighty nonsense. Unless, of course, the claims of expertise and cottage industries pertained to nutrition and weight loss- in which case, that’s exactly what we would do. It’s exactly what we are doing.
Everyone who has ever gotten fat and then lost weight is embraced as an expert, fully authorized by our culture to dispense advice and sell books advising others on how to succeed. For the most part, every one of these makes a case different from every other- and yet every one is convinced they have found the universal formula. And over and over again, the faithful, or hopeful, line up and reach for their credit cards.
Don’t get me wrong- I am delighted for very individual who figures out how to lose weight, and more importantly, find health. I am delighted each time someone finds a path they can follow to lasting vitality. But the notion that this automatically registers as expertise is exactly analogous to the car crash and kitchen fire examples above. In any area other than nutrition and weight control, we would either laugh, or roll our eyes.
I am not arguing that nutrition is special and should be treated differently simply because it is one of the most profound influences on human health (it is). I am not arguing that nutrition should be treated with particular respect because it makes the list of top 3 causes of premature death and chronic disease, and can exert a positive influence just as great (it does). I am not suggesting that nutrition should be shown unique deference because it represents the construction material for the growing bodies of children and grandchildren we love.
Quite the contrary; I am saying we need to stop treating nutrition differently. We need to stop treating nutrition with unique disdain.
What harm ensues from that disdain? Every silly diet to come down the pike gets the same treatment. I know this, because I do multiple media interviews every week about whatever the fad diet du jour happens to be (the latest theme is intermittent fasting, by the way). These diets are then featured on television (I addressed one today on Good Morning America) and in print in a way that gives them all comparable credibility. And we are all kept in a state of perpetual confusion about what’s what.
The result? We already have far too many silly diets than any one of us could try in a lifetime, and we just keep getting fatter and sicker all the while. The recurrent promise of magic from sources given credibility they don’t deserve forestalls the unified, culture-wide commitment to eating well and being active that really could add years to our lives, and life to our years.
We have created a seething stew of opinion about everything to do with nutrition, including, presumably, stew. That leaves us with far too many cooks, many lacking credentials to be in the kitchen in the first place. I trust everyone knows what that means.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com