I have recently spent a lot of time studying for a Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition with the T. Colin Campbell Centre for Nutrition Studies. One of the key questions that came up at the beginning and end of the course is why the public is so confused about the science of health and nutrition. There are many ways that you can interpret the issue, but here are some of my thoughts on the issue.
It seems that we have developed a culture in western countries (and increasingly elsewhere) of believing passionately in science over superstition. I think this is broadly a good thing but there are a few problems that mean that people’s faith in science is too often misplaced.
1. The prevailing trend for scientific studies to be reductionist in nature, ignoring the big picture and often making inappropriate conclusions
2. The influence of private industry (particularly food and pharma) in affecting government policy of research and health guidelines in order to maximise profits
3. The dominance of private industry within the media (since almost all media is commercial) as the main method of disseminating scientific information to the public, meaning that research is often incorrectly framed to support the commercial interests of industry AND that only commercially beneficial research actually reaches the majority of people.
4. Our blind faith in science as “hard fact” combined with the above factors leads us to make poor lifestyle choices and closes our minds to new information, as we are convinced that we already know “the truth”.
5. There is an alignment between the messages that industry tells us and what we all want to hear. As a culture we want to believe that the way we currently live our lives is fine, that change is not required, that we could enjoy more “junk” foods and animal foods without negative health impacts and that most illness is ultimately “bad luck” (genes, environmental factors, random luck etc) and not within our own control.
The result is that we have developed a culture in which people have too much confidence in the health choices that they make, despite the high rates of preventable diseases and constantly increasing healthcare costs. Those that question the status quo are quickly criticised and often ridiculed (or “debunked”!) despite the large body of evidence that might be backing up their hypotheses. I am referring not just to health professionals and scientists like T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, but anyone with an interest in health and nutrition who has spent time reviewing and trying to understand the current scientific evidence with a wholistic perspective.
This might sound a bit gloomy, but I think the internet and social media are starting to chip away at the dominant power of industry to influence the information that we have access to. Films like PlanEat and Forks Over Knives are helping to take essential scientific information to a wider audience, together with numerous articles that are shared peer to peer by informed citizens without being filtered by the mass media or government policy. As more people gain access to the available evidence and more people start to actually implement positive changes in their lifestyles, it will have a ripple effect through society.
People are starting to understand that you can eat delicious food, feel great and minimise your risks of chronic disease (not to mention improving animal welfare and reducing environmental impact). People are starting to wake up to the fact that they have choices that affect their own health and they are starting to feel empowered.
It is early days and the ripples are still small, but I can see things changing in a positive direction and I think that we could see some really positive changes in our culture as a result in the coming years.
We can all make positive choices, so we should all strive to continually educate ourselves and live our positive manner, and hopefully the benefits will pay off not just for ourselves but those around us.
On that note, here’s a public health message from the Coca-Cola Company. Enjoy!!