Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop of Caesarea (modern-day Turkey) who is widely venerated as a saint by liturgical Christians and who some historians controversially credit with inventing the hospital, wrote a treatise toward the end of that century entitled On the Holy Spirit. Therein, he defined dogma as that which is “observed in silence,” and stated that the Church had such dogmas because the early fathers had “learned their lesson well” that “reverence for the mysteries is best encouraged by silence.” He contrasted this word with kerygma, which he defined as those things that are “proclaimed to the world.”
Nevertheless, Wikipedia, that veritable fountain of etymological wisdom, tells us that a dogma is “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, or by extension by some other group or organization. It is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted, or diverged from, by the practitioners or believers.” The article notes further that “the term ‘dogmatic' can be used disparagingly to refer to any belief that is held stubbornly, including political and scientific beliefs.”
I would like to state at the outset that I have no problem with people who ponder the hidden mysteries of their diet by observing them in silence.
Likewise, I think it is fine to think about diet, or for dietary things to seem good. What really becomes a problem, however, is when one adopts the rigidity, inflexibility, and stubbornness that characterizes the modern concept of dogmatism.
Three Types of Dietary Dogmatism
When Hans Keer of Cut the Carb said “goodbye” to low-carb, Dr. Richard Feinman left him a great piece of advice in the comments:
You did what low-carb people have been recommending. Find out what works.
Nevertheless, not everyone takes this approach. For every vegetarian who starts eating meat, there are at least three others who have a list of things the first person did wrong that stopped the diet from working the way it was supposed to. For every high-carber who cuts the carbs and subsequently finds their health down in the dumps, there are plenty of successful low-carbers ready to harangue them about how they didn't wait long enough to get fat-adapted. For everyone who stops drinking milk, there is a line of raw milk drinkers behind them waiting to point out why their milk wasn't raw enough, wasn't grass-fed enough, or wasn't fermented long enough.
Humans are creatures of bias, and we can all be tempted to take this approach. We've probably all done something like this before at one point or another in our lives if we feel strongly about the importance of diet in health. This is something I believe we should try to resist. If we don't, we fall into the same category as the people who insist that the reason attempts to institute prescriptive forms of Marxism have invariably failed is because these forms of Marxism have never been instituted “correctly.” We become so wedded to an idea that we either ignore the contrary evidence, or take the even easier approach and never bother to look for it.
I think there are three basic types of negative dietary dogmatism:
- Subscribing to a dietary theory based on insufficient evidence, without realizing that in fact virtually all dietary theories have insufficient evidence to be maintained inflexibly.
- Generalizing from our own experience to that of everyone else, or vice versa, not realizing that there is enormous variation in individual responses to diet.
- Generalizing from our own transient experience to our own selves with a sense of permanence, not realizing that our dietary needs may change over time.
All of these pathological modes of thought can be cured with a little humility. If we just attempt to do a little more listening than talking, a little more reading than writing, and a little more learning than teaching, we will do a great service to ourselves and to the thousands of people out there looking for help.
Subscribing to a Dietary Theory Based on Insufficient Evidence
Mat Lalonde gave a great presentation at AHS about the impropriety of jumping to conclusions about diet based on evolutionary or ancestral principles without thoroughly investigating them with science:
Dr. Lalonde argued that observations of ancestral health can only be used to generate hypotheses, not to confirm them. I essentially agree, although as I pointed out in my AHS reflections, I think we also need to use ancestral health observations as a fall-back framework for interpreting how we should act in the face of scientific uncertainty.
But if we use these observations as a framework for interpreting uncertainty, just how dogmatically can we use them? Just how certain can we be about the way we use them?
As the atheist philosopher Sam Harris once said, “as advocates of reason, we know that mystery is going to be with us for quite some time. In fact there are good reasons to believe that mystery may be ineradicable from our circumstance.”
This will always be as true of the field of human health as it is of any other field. In all likelihood, most of what is true in the universe is either unknowable, untestable, or both; most of what is knowable and testable is likely untested; and most of what is tested retains either some controversy about the basic facts or at least some uncertainty in its application to life outside the laboratory. I don't mean to diminish or ignore the many remarkable accomplishments of modern science — we can see them all around us — but we will never have justification for being know-it-alls.
We can try eating like an Inuit or like a Kitavan, but if our aim isn't to do what Dr. Feinman says and “find out what works,” we may find ourselves in trouble.
Generalizing to Everyone Else Ignoring Variation
People exhibit remarkable variability in their response to diet, or at least in how they report these responses.
Take Katelyn Giovino. She posts a lot on my Facebook page about her positive experiences with zero-carb dieting, and more recently with very low-carb dieting, and judging by her pictures it seems to be going well for her. Or consider a 39-year-old man named Erik who wrote to me the following:
I enjoy reading your in-depth articles on nutrition. I have been on a very low carb diet (20 Grams or less) since 2008 and I have never felt better.
I also hear from a lot of people who have problems with low-carb diets. Consider this woman's experience:
I too have tried many diets to find perfect health and an anxiety-free
life. I have been following a paleo type diet for two weeks and my anxiety
has gone through the roof…very low carbs. Today I finally broke down and
had some soaked oatmeal with almond milk and butter. How long did it take
you to feel better? I am so tired I can barely walk let alone work out,
which I live to do. Any insight would be helpful.
Or consider this woman's experience:
I wonder why I am overweight with the way that I eat. I try to maintain a diet of less than 80 grams of carbs each day, and even followed a SPC diet for 3 months and lost no weight. If I go below 80 grams a day with carbs, I begin to shake…so much so that I can barely turn the pages of a book. My blood sugar levels are running in the low 90s fasting, with an HbA1C of 5.9. Years ago, I followed a fairly low fat diet with higher carbs and lost 18 pounds, yet my reasoning tells me this can't be healthy! I had a lot more acid reflux on that diet as compared to very little on a lower carb diet. . . . Years ago I went on the Schwarzbein diet of 60 grams of carbs a day. I gained weight and was shaking all the time! How is this possible on such a low level of carbs? I do not crave carbohydrates. I don't crave bread or candy or rice, yet I can't seem to go so low in carbs without terrible side effects: shaking, despondent sinking feeling, unable to move or exercise at levels very low – 20 to 40 grams or so. What is wrong with me? I hope you can lay this mystery to rest! Thank you so much.
If we see other people thrive on low-carb we might ask “what's wrong with me?” Or if we thrive on a particular diet and see someone else who doesn't, we might ask “what's wrong with you?” We should instead be asking what's wrong with the diet, or what's wrong with the diet's interaction with the particular person.
Some people just need someone they respect to validate their concerns and make them feel like it's ok to trust their own bodies and learn from their own experience.
A False Sense of Permanence
In the third type of dietary dogmatism, when we have a success, we may feel that we've found all the answers for at least ourselves, but this may be a false sense of security.
I have found that over the years since I've retreated from vegetarianism, I have increased my ability to eat a more plant-based diet for periods of time. I also find that if I eat a diet very low in muscle meats and rich in organ meats for a few months, I can go two months on a practically vegan diet, with maybe some oysters and clams here and there, and feel terrific. How we feel right now is not just influenced by what we ate today, but how we ate the last week, three months ago, six months ago, three years ago, and so on. As a result, what was true of my ability to eat one type of diet for a period of time six years ago is not true of my ability to eat the same type of diet for a period of time today.
Likewise, what is optimal for us might change over time. We might spend a period of time correcting past deficiencies and imbalances, but perhaps a time will come when we are replete and it is time to tweak our diet again.
Finally, we may have found only part of the answer. If we lost 100 pounds with one diet, but we have 100 pounds more to lose that just won't come off, we're not done searching. If we improved our anxiety but now our hair is falling out, we're not done searching. A time may come when we choose to re-evaluate our past successes and consider whether the paradigm we used to interpret them should be modified. Our success may have been real, but our interpretation of it may not have been.
Thus, even our own success can trap us into harmful dogmatism if we don't keep an open mind.
The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu taught that the weakest thing in heaven and earth conquers the strongest. Substances that are inflexible break apart much more easily than those that bend. If we learn to bend a little, we will find ourselves winning our battles much more often. Lao-Tzu was a smart guy.
(See also my conversation with Anonymous).