Let’s Agree to Agree: Why It’s Vital to Stop Arguing About What We Should Eat

oldways katz, sara, willetEnough already.

It’s time to stop the food fights and come together to find common ground on healthy eating.

That was the goal of the Oldways Summit Finding Common Ground — a scientific and media conference I attended that had the ambitious task of crafting a unified, clear message about what it means to eat well.  This truly groundbreaking conference set out to find common ground — to clear up the confusion and show the often perplexed public that we agree on more than we disagree.


The conference was convened by Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, along with co-chairs David Katz, MD, MPH, Founding Director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and Walter Willet, MD, DrPH, Chairman of the Department of Nutrition, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, all pictured above.

The outcome — a consensus statement on healthy eating — included 11 principles that represent the common ground identified by the diverse group of elite scientists who attended the conference.

This was no small task.

We had experts representing all factions — from Paleo to Vegan.  Dean Ornish was there to talk about the virtues of low-fat, while Harvard’s Frank Hu, who served on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, questioned the need to put a lid on total fat.

There were discussions about everything from the glycemic index to gluten free.

We explored the reasons why this meeting was so important — the distorted messages about nutrition in the media, the hyperbolic headlines and the self-proclaimed experts who trumpet a point of view more than actual evidence.  This issue is certainly a frequent topic here at Nutrition Unplugged.

What does the public think when they see what appears to be a flip-flopping of nutrition advice?  What are they left to think when they see experts argue?

As David Katz said: “Let’s not bicker over ‘my diet can beat your diet’ while everyone is eating glow-in-the-dark foods.” We lose people when they see us argue.  It’s easy to throw up your hands and do nothing when they think nutrition advice will just change again tomorrow.

oldways with katz

I was extremely honored to be part of a panel at the two-day conference:  Media and Coverage of Science and Health: Problems in Consistently and Constantly Communicating Common Ground.

Joy Bauer, of the Today Show, was our moderator, and I was joined by fellow dietitian Toby Amidor and Chicagoan Monica Eng.  I talked about the reasons why I think it’s especially challenging to communicate science-based nutrition advice in today’s media landscape.  You can find my presentation here, along with other speaker presentations.

The opening of our session was lead by science journalist John Bohannon, who shared his experience of publishing a junk study (eat chocolate to lose weight!)  just to see if the media would pounce on it.  And some certainly did.  It was a good lesson on how studies can be manipulated to get certain desired results and how the media love to promote provocative diet studies.  While he made some good points, I thought his presentation was  a bit tone-deaf and he ended up offending both the scientists and the media.

The night before the conference there was a wonderful reception that served tremendous food representing the various programs of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization based in Boston.  We enjoyed food from the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, African Heritage Diet, Oldways Vegetarian Network and beautiful cheeses representing the Oldways Cheese Coalition, an international effort of cheesemakers, retailers and enthusiasts fighting to preserve their right to enjoy raw-milk and other traditional cheeses.

During the reception someone asked me what camp I was in.  The question surprised me and I wasn’t quite sure what she meant.  She explained, “you know…vegan, paleo, etc.”  I responded, “well…all of them, none of them.”  I don’t consider myself a member of any camp.  I told her I enjoy all foods — perhaps my eating style is most similar to the Mediterranean Diet, but I don’t really put myself into any one food tribe.  I’ve written about this before, why must we label how we eat?

I encourage you to visit Oldways and read more about the Finding Common Ground conference, including the consensus statement, network of scientists intended to be reliable sources for the media, and the plans to unite scientists and journalists in a positive campaign for better public health.  Dr. David Katz is well on his way of achieving this goal with the True Health Initiative, which has a similar mission.

So where did they find common ground?  Here’s a summary of the 11 points of agreement:

1. Support of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:  higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts, moderate in alcohol, lower in red and processed meats, and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.  This  includes the idea that there’s more than one way to achieve a healthy diet — these foods can be enjoyed in a vegetarian diet, Mediterranean diet or other style of eating.

2. Sourcing food that is sustainable for the health of humans and the planet.  The upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are expected to exclude sustainability from the recommendations.  The Oldways scientists found this to be a mistake and emphatically supports the inclusion of sustainability in the report.  Food insecurity cannot be solved without sustainable food systems.  Inattention to sustainability is willful disregard for the quality and quantity of food available to the next generation.

3. Support of the 2015 DGAC process. At a time when some distractors have criticized the committee, the Oldways scientists expressed confidence in their approach to the weight of the evidence.  They also support a transparent process where the evidence-based report of the scientists is translated directly into policy without political manipulation.  [This was included because Congress intervened this year to prevent sustainability from being included in the 2015 DGAs, even though the Committee fought hard to have it included.]

4. New view of food.  Food can and should be good for human health, good for the plant and simply good — unapologetically delicious.

5. Confusion is unnecessary. Despite uncertainty about some details, much of the public confusion about healthy eating is unnecessary and at odds with the understanding of experts and the weight of the evidence.  The group affirms that experts with diverse perspectives and priorities can find common ground.

6.  Fundamentals don’t change.   The fundamentals and current understanding of diet and health do not change every time a new study makes headlines. It’s important to consider the weight of the evidence, along with biology and heritage.

7. Accurate reporting is responsibility of both scientists and media.  Consider context.  New evidence should be added to what was known before, not substituted for it sequentially.

8. Seek out the swaps.  The group endorsed the principle of dietary substitutions, or a “compared to what” approach to make dietary changes meaningful.  Instead of simply saying “drink less soda,” say “drink water instead of soda.”

9. Action plan is needed.  The group recommended education programming, policy and legislation in support of these goals be implemented widely and in a timely manner, with regular monitoring and evaluation.

10. Food literacy is important.  I especially love this one.  We need to help people learn more about the origins of their food, the conditions under which it’s produced and its impact on their health and the health of the planet. This includes food traditions and the cultural context of food (health through heritage) and cooking skills.

11. Food systems approach. We must consider food systems (production, manufacturing, food waste, etc.) when discussing priorities for human and planetary health, while supporting social responsibility and animal welfare.

Learn more at Oldways Common Ground.

Read what others had to say:

Megan Scudellari

Catherine Katz, Cuisinicity

 

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1 Comment

  • Liv Faye

    Hey Janet 🙂 Thank you so much for writing a piece on the conference, I was really looking forward to reading your point of view! I’m SO happy health experts are coming together for this cause, the excess confusion and fights over healthy eating should STOP, they’re so harmful to people looking to improve how they eat. I also don’t agree with labeling your diet, I find it so restrictive and unnecessary. I specially love points 6 & 10.

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