Food Fight

Seven Principles for Moderation and Respect

Whether the subject is politics, nutrition, or obesity, moderation and respect seem rare. Instead we have bitter arguments between brittle ideologies. Some folks are rallying behind a belief that “sugar is toxic.” But others are raging against a “nanny state” that imposes sin taxes on soda.

When the AMA joined many other health experts in regarding obesity as a disease, fat acceptance activists saw a dire threat. Still others see neglect of personal responsibility.

Reflecting on the work of Aurelian Craiutu, David Brooks recently suggested moderation as a good tool for coping with complex problems. These seven principles of moderation and respect seem especially apt for dealing with complex issues of obesity and nutrition.

1. The Truth Is Plural

Searching for simple answers to complex problems does more to hide the truth than reveal it. Simplistic nutrition guidance – like failed low-fat dogma of the 80s – can create more problems than it solves. Many factors contribute to obesity. Looking for a single root cause is a mistake. Like magical thinking, it misleads people.

2. Policy Has Limits

Zealots think that the right policies will bring obesity under control. So, resistance from big food must be crushed. As much as smart policies can help, they have limits. And political resistance crops up from people whose legitimate concerns deserve respect. If public opinion stands against a cherished policy goal, it will go nowhere.

3. Creativity Is Synergistic

When people with wildly different ideas interact constructively, solutions can emerge that no one before imagined.

4. Mistakes Hurt More Than Successes Help

Good ideas that turn out badly can do a great deal of damage. Public health campaigns that shame people with obesity have made the problem worse. Trans fats were supposed to be a big advance over butter and lard. But after nearly a century, scientists realized trans fats were causing heart disease and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

5. Truth Comes Before Justice

Truth can be inconvenient. That’s especially true when you have rigid ideas about what’s just and righteous. Menu labeling was supposed to help people make better dietary choices. But in truth, it did not. Failed policies result from glossing over inconvenient truths – especially when they run counter to an enshrined belief.

6. Identities Are Blinding

Tribalism is alive and well. Public health folks have a tough time listening to folks from the food industry, and vice versa. Good science comes from rigorous methods. Scientific integrity is alive and well in industry. Methods might differ in public health, medicine, economics, and social sciences, but academic integrity is a core value. Lapses can occur in academia, just as in industry.

7. Humility Is Essential

Anyone who thinks they have found the truth is dangerously wrong. Humility requires radical honesty about the limits of knowledge. In complex problems of obesity and nutrition, humility has no substitute.

Click here for more from David Brooks and here for Craiutu’s Faces of Moderation.

Food Fight, photograph © Mark Freeth / flickr

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August 25, 2017