The timeless truth about food is tomorrow will bring a new study disputing yesterday's study. We've known this at least since this dialogue from "Sleeper," a 1973 Woody Allen movie about a health-food fanatic who is cryogenically frozen and reawakened 200 years later:
Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or...hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy...precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible (http://tiny.cc/…)
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The latest example of this phenomenon is a Carnegie-Mellon University study comparing the water usage, energy usage and greenhouse-gas emissions of different diets. The university's press-relations department headlined its release on the study, "Vegetarian and 'Healthy' Diets Could Be More Harmful to the Environment (http://tiny.cc/…)."
To many, that would definitely be an example of "contrary to what we now know to be true." Conventional wisdom has long held that fruits and vegetables are better for the environment than meatier, more processed diets.
Not only does this study raise questions about previous studies, underscoring the timeless truth that if we don't like what one study tells us, we need only wait for the next one. It also demonstrates an Internet-era corollary to this truth: Study One's adherents will flock online, seconds after Study Two is released, to pick it apart.
The alleged flaws in the Carnegie-Mellon study? Using unrepresentative vegetarian diets and comparing per calorie instead of per pound. To oversimplify, the defenders of conventional wisdom think if the researchers had looked at the environmental effects of what vegetarians and carnivores actually eat, they'd have reached a different conclusion.
Judge for yourself where truth lies -- with the new study or the conventional wisdom. Here's a well-argued critique of the study: http://tiny.cc/…. It features a news flash: Two of the study's authors say the university's headline writers exaggerated.
One of them had proposed a rather more namby-pamby headline: "Energy use, blue water footprint, and greenhouse gas emissions for current food consumption patterns and dietary recommendations in the U.S." Go ahead, blame journalists for hyping stories. PR people do it, too.
Here's a well-argued article in support of the study: http://tiny.cc/…. No news flashes here, but some important thoughts. A big one: The devil's in the assumptions; if an account of a study doesn't disclose and discuss them, discount it heavily.
The public wants scientists to provide simple answers: Eat this, avoid that. But are there any simple answers, really? Little wonder, then, that many fall back on an old maxim, however clichéd and loosey-goosey it might seem: Everything in moderation.
Best wishes for an immoderately happy holiday season.
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