Treehouse Diversity Warning

The Buddy Clubs of Obesity, Nutrition, and Fitness

Can we talk? Well, if you’re not in our buddy club, maybe not. More and more it seems like we have difficulty in listening to people who don’t think like us. If you haven’t noticed this in politics, you’re not paying attention. But we also see it happening in the study of obesity, nutrition, and fitness. Folks seem to organize themselves into buddy clubs where everyone conforms to a particular way of thinking. Outsiders are not welcome.

Several current examples bring this to mind.

Taxing Sugar

People have strong feelings about nutrition. In fact, various religious traditions have clear doctrines about the moral significance of food. Humans want to sort different foods into good and bad. Darkness and light. Right now, sugar and especially sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are landing in the bad category.

Likewise, tax policies have always aroused strong feelings. We need tax money to run government to serve the common good. But taxes can become oppressive and regressive. Feelings on this subject run strong.

So it’s not surprising that people have intense feelings about taxing SSBs. Some in public health think it’s a very effective way to fight obesity and diabetes. Others say the evidence is lacking for that claim. But are these people talking to each other? We think not. In fact, at ObesityWeek, SSB tax advocates convened a session to discuss this subject and only like-minded supporters showed up. Harvard’s Jason Block told us:

We invited many tax opponents to come and present. All declined. The session was meant to be a wide-ranging exploration of sugary drink taxes. I think/hope we were able to get all those arguments on the table.

Red Meat

For another case study of intolerance, take a look at the red meat kerfuffle. Annals of Internal Medicine recently published five papers that questioned the conventional wisdom on the dangers of red meat. Defenders of the conventional wisdom were, naturally, outraged. First, they tried to block the publications. That didn’t work.

Next came an attack on the integrity of the authors. One of the authors had once published a paper with financial support from a food industry research group. This was an argument to disregard that annoying set of new papers. Diverse thinking makes our heads hurt.

Fitness Clubs

The problem of stigma in fitness facilities is well documented. People like to show off their buff bodies. We make implicit judgments about the the physical status of people with different body types. Some people even questioned the fitness of a nominee for Surgeon General based upon her appearance. “Round cheeks” send the wrong message, they said.

Can we only respect the expertise of someone who fits a narrow physical specification?

One Size Fits All?

Obesity, nutrition, and physical activity are complex, interrelated subjects. So we will likely never find one right way to think about health problems related to these subjects. Unanimity about policy solutions is even less likely. In fact, one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with obesity, nutrition, and physical activity doesn’t work.

That’s why we need diverse thinking. We can’t solve these complex problems without it. Buddy clubs get in the way.

Click here for more on diversity and problem solving.

Treehouse Diversity Warning, photograph © Ronald Douglas Frazier / flickr

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November 10, 2019

2 Responses to “The Buddy Clubs of Obesity, Nutrition, and Fitness”

  1. November 10, 2019 at 5:03 pm, Richard Atkinson said:

    Very well said. Unfortunately politics is bleeding over into science. A recent editorial commented that different sides take the exact same facts and come to widely different conclusions. That may be OK for opinion, but it is not OK for science. In some of the disagreements above, the facts aren’t in, but that doesn’t stop proponents of a theory from not only a conclusion, but persecution of those who think differently, especially if the alternate argument is not politically correct. We have reached the state of hubris in our civilization that the ancient Greek playwrights warned about as a harbinger of doom.

  2. November 11, 2019 at 3:35 am, Mary-Jo said:

    So very true, Ted. And it’s getting in the way of making real progress in helping people get healthier and improving/increasing their quality of life years. In the years I have both practiced as a dietitian and suffered, myself with obesity, living across 7 countries, traveling to many more places and observing the vast sociocultural, economic, societal differences re: complex, multifactorial realities of obesity, nutrition, fitness, I have come to realize how vital it is that we honor and implement the pluralistic approaches needed to effect positive changes, both for individuals and in populations. There just is no ‘THE’ answer that works to solve my or your obesity or the obesity epidemic, that optimally nourishes me or you or the whole world, that makes me or you your best fit self or gets the nation and world at peak fitness. Somehow, we must learn to manage, with openness and respect, how we can effectively develop this pluralistic philosophy, so that the right approaches/interventions, reach the individuals and populations, according to their multifactorial needs.