The Solid, Common Ground of Healthy Eating

Healthy eating
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I was privileged to co-chair with Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard a recent meeting in Boston, sponsored by Oldways, all about the common ground of healthy eating. The conference, which brought together a who’s who in nutrition from around the world, has generated a lot of media coverage. Some of that coverage has emphasized the consensus achieved, but other items have focused on the challenging process, implying that discord prevailed over accord.

I was there, and it isn’t so.

The process was, indeed, somewhat tumultuous- but that was by design. Unlike the august, multidisciplinary group of scientists tasked with generating the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, the Oldways conference intentionally brought together experts who would find it hard to agree.  The DGAC was assembled on the basis of complementary expertise. The Oldways conference was assembled on the basis of not just acclaimed expertise, but competing views.  The positions represented ranged from vegan to Paleo; the speakers taking turns at the podium had careers devoted alternatively to the study of plant foods, traditional diets, dairy foods, and meat, to name a few.

We stacked the proverbial deck against ourselves, in other words, and did so on purpose. Reaching agreement among people owning much the same opinion at the start is rather trivial. Doing so with a group of extremely knowledgeable, intensely opinionated experts owning widely divergent if not diametrically opposed views at the start- is groundbreaking.

And so this conference, committed to common ground, broke new ground by finding exactly that.

The details of the consensus achieved, available here, are comprehensive and robust. They address foods that should predominate in healthy diets, and foods that should be deemphasized, minimized, or avoided.

That our group endorsed the 2015 DGAC Report is far from trivial, given the assaults and abuse to which that document has been subject. This independent group of scientists, having nothing to do with USDA, or the US Government, and representing multiple countries as well as perspectives- concurs that the DGAC did a masterful job, and reached the right conclusions.

Our group also imparted a minimally veiled “for shame” in the direction of our politicians and federal agencies for expunging from the official Dietary Guidelines the devotion to sustainability advised by the DGAC. The Oldways Common Ground experts not only stand united in defense of sustainability as a basic priority of dietary guidance, but assert that it is fundamental to matters of food security right now.  Sustainability, in other words, is not only about the availability of nourishing food and water for our children and grandchildren, but also about systems for the equitable production and distribution of food today, so that we stop propagating the almost surreal combination of obesity and hunger.

There is more to the consensus, extending into areas of policy and legislation, and even social justice.  But since you have access to the original, there is no need to embellish each of these here.

That we bickered and argued- over meat and potatoes, among other things- on the way to consensus, I readily concede. That the challenges of the process attenuate the product in any way, I emphatically deny. Au contraire. A robust consensus was reached despite the native tendency of this particular group to polarize.  A robust consensus about basic principles was reached despite the proclivity of academics to begin debating fine points before ever even discussing fundamentals. 

To put this in context, you might imagine convening a group of experts in the woods and asking them if the woods were healthy, or beautiful. They might all agree on those answers, but goaded by a lifetime of rather reductionistic study, they might blow right by that question and immediately start to argue over the properties of differing leaves on differing stems off of the differing boughs of differing trees. Such reductionism is essential to modern science, clearly. The road to Nobel Prizes often runs through rather narrow tunnels: microscopes; telescopes; particle accelerators; a biochemical pathway.  But when the requisite answer is too big for such a tunnel, as is clearly the case for, “can we say what diet is best for health?” – a famous liability attaches to that predisposition.  We are at risk of missing the forest for the trees.

In Boston, a flag was planted in the common ground of that forest, hoisted figuratively, if not literally, with a solidarity to rival that famous image from Iwo Jima. The experts involved certainly do not renounce their right, and indeed inclination, to differ about details; to favor the particular leaf of a particular tree for whatever particular reasons.  But just as certainly, we affirmed the common ground of that forest, stood together in its glade, and sang a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya.”

Where the conference has ended, a global campaign now begins. Of note, much the same common ground has already been affirmed by a veritable who’s who in nutrition and public health some 250 strong thus far, and representing nearly 30 countries.  That starts to hint at the promise of something even more luminous than common ground: a common planet, and common cause wrapping right around it.

We are the very species- the ingenious, pertinacious species- that put our footprints and our flag on the moon. Many of us may live to see the same done on Mars. This is an indication of how adept we can be at getting “there” from “here,” once we acknowledge we want to go- and agree on where “there” is.

The fundamentals of healthy eating can contribute to a massive global reduction in chronic disease and premature death; they can add years to life, and life to years. They can, into the bargain, help preserve biodiversity and our aquifers; conserve fragile ecosystems; foster social justice; blur the distinctions between food demand and food supply; stabilize our climate; banish abuses of other species; and ensure that’s what good for us to eat will still be an option for our children, and their children.

The pursuit of that luminous prize beckons as the New Year looms. That is the invitation, and the provocation, of common cause. That it finds a global coalition of experts standing on solid, common ground- is redolent with promise.

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