Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

I was asked for an opinion yesterday on a report by TV3 on a new diet proposed by a researcher in Auckland. Quickly following that in the conversation were references to a chap by the name of Dave Asprey, aka the bulletproof exec and a surgeon by the name of Peter Atia who runs a website called the eating academy. Both of these appear to be body hackers - customizing their diet and finding what works for them.

As far as science reporting goes, TV3 is probably one of our better media organizations, which means that I have exactly zero faith in them to not over hype the result of a single study. Despite this, my response to the TV3 report was, I believe a statement of there being insufficient research (that I could find) regarding the work the researcher proposed or the actual diet.

As for the bulletproof execs site - I am somewhat more dubious. This guy is a body hacker. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. More power to him. Fair enough, his website documents his story, and even better his story is scattered with references to actual research. The science around nutrition is incredibly complex though. And my impression of the science referenced is that a lot of it is very specific, very focused, on small sample sizes and over limited time frames. Asserting recommendations at the level of diet from these is ... troublesome. My level of respect drops even further when there are references to causes and cures for autism, a fundamental misunderstanding or misrepresentation of epigenetics, and the site is selling a book suggesting that you can improve your babies genes whilst it's still in the womb (not to mention using the heading "Darwin was wrong" in a discussion of genes - Darwin didn't even know about genes for fucks sake - sorry, this one always bugs the crap out of me when it gets trotted out).

As for the Peter Atia website - I offer no thoughts, I haven't the time nor the inclination to look at it in depth. Though I will add that the fact that it's a surgeon writing it is no redeeming feature. Doctors can, but don't necessarily make good scientists. And over the years I've seen some doctors come out with some right clangers - surgeons being amongst the worst. Suggesting we should give them more credit because of a medical degree is similar to the logical fallacy presented in many arguments - the appeal to authority. As with pretty much all topics where I am able to offer an opinion, I will go and look at the other work related to the topic at hand that then individual has done and assess them based on that.

Look. These body hackers have found something that works for them. Using dribs and drabs of cherry picked studies and using them to back up their products - scientific, it is not. I'm not, in other words, throwing the baby out with the bath water. There might very well be something to the diets they propose - indeed, I would suggest that at the very least the actual diets they propose could very well deserve closer examination. The fact that they are referencing relevant science is to be applauded - the fact that they can't get some of the basic details right when they are using that science is being used to back up products, not so much. Read these body hackers blogs - take ideas from them and try them, see what works, what doesn't for you as an individual. It could be described as a process that takes inspiration from the scientific process (yay!), but without major work, it remains the experience of an individual (or small group of individuals) rather than solid science.

And yes researchers are beginning to look seriously at various diets and the consequences of different foods types on our health - I work with some of them and have have participated in at least one study looking at effects of given diets (as a subject). It's likely that our knowledge of nutrition and health is barely scratching the surface and a lot of what is currently considered common knowledge is at best woefully incomplete. My best guess at the moment given how diverse we are as a species, is that the answer is a damn site more complex than anyone who is selling something wants you to believe. Me, I'm eating a vaguely healthy diet and waiting for the Cochrane review.

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