Conventional nutrition guidance has taken a battering in recent years. Many of the ideas that have been drummed into our psyches; the notion that saturated fat is bad, cholesterol is bad, vegetable oils and whole grains are healthy have been turned on their heads. Not though you would notice, as it seems to business as usual at many of the institutions the public look to for information.
The United States Department of Agriculture is one such institution that finds itself in the position of both promoting U.S. agriculture whilst providing advice about what constitutes a healthy diet. If those two things seem contradictory to you, it’s because you possess a functional brain, and what better way to engage that grey matter of yours than to read Death by Food Pyramid?
In her light and witty style Minger deftly takes us through the history of the food pyramid and the many factors that contributed to its evolution. The competing political, economical and personal beliefs of the key players that shaped U.S. dietary guidelines and thus the world’s guidelines are laid out for us in the opening chapters. What I particularly like about Minger’s account, that has perhaps been lacking in other pieces, is how she portrays these figures, not as villains or heroes, but rather as people who often had the best of intentions, yet were bound by their personalities, politics and a lack of the information really needed to make better decisions, situations which could befall any of us.
In between she entertains us with little nuggets about the true origins of the pyramid and the fact that at the time of its release it was subject to some pretty intense criticism from the scientific community.
After dealing with the history and politics Minger turns her attention to the science first by exploring what it means to be an ‘expert’ and what we should perhaps be on the look-out for when we are presented with evidence by such people and institutions. The world is teeming with experts in nutrition, but just because they have PhD’s, and enough credentials and papers to sink a battleship doesn’t necessarily mean that what they say is true. With that in mind Minger details many points that should be considered when evaluating both the expert and their claims.
A whistle-stop tour of science paper terms and concepts including brief, but well written, sections on epidemiology, correlation, causation, confounders, risk and statistical significance leads into a discussion of the various types of studies scientists use is rounded out by a section on how to read a science paper.
With the stage set she re-examines the case against saturated fat explaining the difference between the diet-heart hypothesis and the lipid hypothesis and how Ancel Keys and his Six Country Analysis and Seven Countries Study paved the way to the current dogma about saturated fat. Throughout she teases apart the cracks in many of the ‘landmark’ studies used to railroad the current nutrition guidelines into place, examining not just saturated fat but cholesterol and the dodgy reasoning and history of hydrogenated vegetable oils.
As for dietary suggestions Minger doesn’t push any one particular idea, rather she looks at the many different diets available and identifies the unifying aspects, both what they include and, perhaps more importantly, what they exclude. Taking into account genetics she questions the idea of a one diet suits all approach showing us the full range of the human diet eaten by various cultures around the world.
All in all, there is so much information in this book that writing a summary is no easy feat. Suffice to say Death by Food Pyramid is one of the best books I’ve read on nutrition this year and as with all good books it rightly deserves a second, and maybe even third, read.