The Nation's Health + Nutrition

Nutrition: The nutrition counterculture

When we look back over our American nutritional history over the last 50 years, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that much of the innovation in nutrition did not come from official agencies like the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, the FDA, the USDA, or the AMA.

Instead, it came from the popular culture. It came from bold, extravagant claims made by maverick figures like Ancel Keys, Nathan Pritikin, Dean Ornish, and Robert Atkins. Of course, some ideas have now fallen by the wayside, dismissed in a broad American "experiment" as ineffective, impractical, or kooky. But it permitted experimentation on an extraordinary scale with millions of people following a particular strategy at a time.

The advice of the official agencies tended to be reactionary. When nutritional deficiencies (remember those?) of the early 1900s were prevalent, they issued advice on food choices to help alleviate deficiencies. When deficiency transformed into excess after World War II, "smart" food choices from food groups and "sensible eating" became the theme.

Unfortunately, the advice was always adulterated by the enormous influence of various special interests, anxious to protect their national franchise. Powerful groups like the meat industry, wheat producers, and the dairy industry all made sure they had a big hand in crafting and influencing what was told to the American people.

The result: the advice offered by official groups has always represented the compromise of what some agency wished to convey to the people and the very powerful input of industry. What if the government decided to advise us what automobile to buy? Imagine the uproar in the auto industry when Washington tells us to buy Toyota for fuel economy and reliability. How long would that advice last?

That's why almost no knowledgeable adult follows the advice of the USDA, the National Academy of Sciences, or the Food Pyramid. I believe that we all intuitively recognize that the advice is watered-down, sometimes silly, sometimes downright unhealthy.

Nonetheless, the national experiment in diet that has taken place since 1950 has led to a collective wisdom of what is good and what is bad. The most productive conversations on nutrition therefore take place outside of the USDA and Washington. It occurs, instead, in places like bookstores, websites, and the media. Of course, there's lots of misinformation and profiteering in these sectors, as well. But like the enormous force unleashed by the collective wisdom of those contributing to the Wikipedia phemonenon, we've zig-zagged to something closer to the truth than ever uttered by an official agency.

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