Is Conventional Wisdom Set in Stone?

In previous posts and with offhand comments, I’ve mentioned our (mostly) diametric opposition to Conventional Wisdom. I say “mostly” because when it comes to diet, there are bound to be a few areas that everyone agrees with. Real food that doesn’t come in a box is best – I can’t think of any diet book or nutritional “expert,” vegan or carnivore alike, that would say differently. Vegetables can and should be enjoyed freely – I’d even wager that most Primal eaters consume far more vegetables than your average pasta vegetarian. And, while we’re not fruitarians (you’d probably have to go back three or four million years to find a frugivorous hominoid that may be a common ancestor), we modern Primals do eat reasonable amounts of certain fruits. The areas where we virulently disagree – on saturated fat (and dietary fat in general), on red meat, on grains and legumes – are incredibly divisive. You can shun processed foods and eat organic and no one will argue against it, but once you bust out the jar of freshly rendered lard, the bacon, and the eight egg omelets while failing to produce a single cereal grain-based item, everyone becomes a nutritionist/cardiologist/dietitian.

If you’re like me, you might sigh, shrug your shoulders, and return to your greasy repast instead of engaging them with an overview of all the misguided, downright false nutritional info that masquerades as common sense. I’ve been down that road before, and I don’t want to be the guy on the corner with the bullhorn. (There is a proper time and forum for these things.) In fact, I started this blog and wrote the book because they allowed me to make the case and provide references without interruptions. Confronting people in real life about deeply held nutritional beliefs (about as deep-seated as religion, in fact) usually doesn’t end well. Humans have a nasty habit of clinging on to dogma all the more vigorously when it’s threatened with logic and reason.

If you’re relatively new to this lifestyle, though, I bet you can’t resist those moments – because I still get the bug at times. You’re at a company barbecue chowing down on a massive steak and the heavy guy with the plate of macaroni salad (made with light mayo!) smirks and makes a flippant comment about your arteries, completely oblivious to the beast he’s just awakened. The insulin-fat connection, Taubes’ work, the evolutionary basis for the Primal Blueprint, Ancel Keys’ tunnel vision – you bring it all out, and any impartial observer would have to conclude you were on to something. But Macaroni Man is no impartial observer; in fact, very few of us are, and trying to convince someone to carefully consider facts that run contrary to Conventional Wisdom is hard to accomplish in a social setting. You’ll probably go crazy if you try to, and the people around you will just tune you out if you keep it up. No one wants to hear about the evils of whole grains when the waiter drops off the basket of steaming freshly-baked bread.

But we can’t get too complacent or isolated, especially when the arbiters of Conventional Wisdom start to get comfortable. If we let them, they’ll freely spout complete and utter BS that only serves as disinformation. Take the recent appearance of Elizabeth Ward, R.D., on the Today Show.

This is a person – a registered dietitian – who doles out health and nutrition advice on a regular basis in exchange for money. This is a person who has written a book called “Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy” – and yet her choices for healthy food on the road consist of McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and gas station convenience store fare. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like someone who actually expects the best out of people. It sounds like a health official enabling a population’s propensity to load up on junk food. It sounds like just another CW-spouting pundit who aims for the lowest common denominator (unless she truly believes that a McDonald’s breakfast and a stale beef wrap from a truck stop represent a valid healthy option) in order to protect the people from themselves.

And that’s not the only one. What about the recent crop of “Healthy Food” lists? “Women’s Health” just published their healthy list of “Best Packaged Foods.” With stuff like Haagen Dazs Sorbet (Fat free! 25g carbs, “fights heart disease,” apparently) and Mister Salty 100 Calorie Chocolate Pretzel Snack bags (you know they’re eating all six bags in a single sitting) making the cut, you can’t help but wonder about their motivation. But wait! It’s not all bad. Bagged fruit made the list. Hrm… On second thought, does an apple really belong on a packaged foods list? Well, I suppose if you put it in a plastic bag it does. It sort of gets by on a technicality. You could put a Twinkie in the middle of a forest and say it comes from Mother Nature, but you aren’t fooling anyone. (On another note: are people really too lazy to slice up some apples that they need individually wrapped slices?) In any case, a “Best Packaged Foods” lists is sort of like putting together a list of the “Best Terminal Illnesses.” Sure, some may not be as bad as others, but in the end you’d be better off not having any of them.

At least Women’s Health made the point of specifically limiting themselves to only packaged foods. Self Magazine, on the other hand, boldly proclaimed the greatness of their 2009 Healthy Food Awards list, but every item on there comes in a box, wrapping, or package all the same. I guess when your intent is to promote certain brands, you’re somewhat limited in your choices. It’s pretty hard to print a label on a New York strip steak, or brand a handful of fresh raspberries (though I’m sure someone’s trying). Still, it’s great knowing that sour gummy candy is completely and utterly healthy!

Sour Patch Watermelon

(150 calories, 0 g fat per 21 pieces)

Sometimes, you just need sugar! These sweet-sour suckers were voted the tastiest way to sweeten your day. “Gummi goodness!” a taster said. “The right amount of pucker.”

You know, my doctor did recently recommend I incorporate more pucker into my diet, and this could be just the ticket. Thanks, Self Magazine! But what about satisfying the RDA of “warm, gooey mouthfuls”? Look no further than Self’s favorite healthy treat:

Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked Oatmeal

(140 calories, 5 g fat per cookie)

These cinnamon treats are chewy, sweet and huge enough to satisfy a monster-sized cookie desire. Nuke a cookie for 30 seconds for a warm, gooey mouthful.

Engorged cookie desire (ECD) is, after all, one of our nation’s leading afflictions. I’m glad someone’s finally decided to confront that scourge.

Of course, not everyone buys into this nonsense, but what’s disconcerting is that even when you “get it,” you often don’t. Take the people who commented on this Huffington Post article; they railed against Ward’s advice as ill-founded and misguided, but they countered with another layer of dietary CW – the anti-fat, pro-grain mindset. We’re up against multiple levels of harmful Conventional Wisdom, folks. You knock out the easy one (lowered expectations) and three more pop up (saturated fat is evil, grains are healthy, restrict your calories) like a hydra.

First, there’s the popular notion that the people are unable to make decisions for themselves. Doctors give up on their patients ever making lifestyle changes and instead simply write a prescription for statins and blood pressure medication. Personal trainers stick the overweight clients on a treadmill for an hour, because they want to make exercise easy and “accessible.” Registered dietitians go on national television and recommend that families eat fast food to stay healthy. And we wonder why we’re a nation of obese, disease-stricken pill poppers?

Second, there’s the fact that the basic nutritional science underlying all this advice is completely misguided. You peel away the lack of confidence doctors and health experts have in people to reveal an even more insidious underbelly. Even if Elizabeth Ward thought Americans were up to the task of actually eating healthy (what? there are no grocery stores on the road?), she’d still tell them to count calories religiously, eat plenty of whole grains, and avoid any and all saturated fat. The commenters at the Huffington Post rightly took Ward to task for her advice, but as the healthy alternative they in turn parroted the Conventional Dietary Wisdom that caused the obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases in the first place! Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

See, a lot of people understand that lowered expectations beget paltry results. If you set the bar too low, you invite failure. But what happens when the ideal is wrong, too? What happens when the people manage to hurdle the first bar, only to bang their teeth against the higher, supposedly ideal level? Those few souls who manage to follow their doctors’ health advice to the tee – eating more whole grains, avoiding animal foods, counting calories until they’re essentially starving themselves – are usually miserable creatures, and they usually fail. Any why wouldn’t they? We expect misery when we eat “healthy.” Eating right is supposed to be an awful experience. Healthy foods taste terrible, while all the foods that we’re genetically programmed to desire are actually awful for us – or so they say. It’s almost like we’re beholden (for life) to some original dietary sin, and eating things that actually taste good means we’re giving in to our animalistic, primal urges (sounds good to me, to be quite honest!).

If the assembled opposition to a healthy Primal lifestyle looks like a jumbled mess, that’s because it is. If the forces aligned to uphold CW don’t seem to make any sense, it’s because they do not. That’s the point. Conventional Wisdom is cognitive dissonance in action. It’s taking a bunch of inaccurate assumptions that conflict with each other and trying to make them all agree – a monumental task requiring the efforts of millions of complicit people (some unwitting, others willful). Because of CW, diabetic patients are told to eat less fat and more carbs. Because of CW, the obese are told to jog an hour every day, even though it only makes them hungrier for more insulin-spiking carbohydrates. It’s sick, it simply isn’t working, and something has to be done.

But even as they bumble and stumble over their words, the promoters of CW are legion. They wield the power, and unseating them is going to be tough. The small but growing Primal community online is doing their part, slowly chipping away at the BS. You see evidence of this in the teeming farmers’ markets, the comments sections of health articles, and the robust online forums featuring vigorous debates. Some great, groundbreaking work is being done, and I think it’s beginning to seep into the mainstream.

Will it be enough? Will we finally triumph over the ubiquitous looming specter of Conventional Wisdom? Will we wrest control of the hearts and minds of the gentle citizenry? Will we soon see a pasture-raised chicken in every pot, a pitcher of coconut milk in every larder, and a farmers’ market on every corner? Will Grok return to save the day?

Check back tomorrow… Same Grok place, same Grok channel.

Read Part 2 of this post: Is the Stone Beginning to Crack?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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