THE BLOG

Do You (Really) Know What's Good for You?

03/30/2015 12:52 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

I don't generally watch morning television; I doubt that will much surprise anyone. But watching a bit of morning television is all but unavoidable when you are in fact on morning television. Most of the shows are running their own programming continuously on monitors in the so-called "green room."

And so it is that I saw a bit of the Today show this week, as a result of appearing on the show to talk about miscellaneous "health headlines." I enjoyed viewing a reunion of the cast of Pretty Woman, which I would not have seen otherwise. And, inevitably, I saw a mix of diet news, diet advice, and cooking tips in the short span of voyeurism that preceded my own segment.

Diet, food, and cooking are staples of morning television. What makes the never-ending parade of diet segments possible is, in large measure, the willingness to provide constantly changing messages and not worry about the inconsistency. On any given day, the best, or worst, thing in the food supply might be eggs, or dairy, or wheat, or meat. On any given day, the best way to lose weight and look like one of the beautiful people is to always eat THIS, and never eat THAT; and then the very next day, it might be to always eat THAT and never eat THIS.

This was the case back in the day when I worked for Good Morning America; and it's still the case now.

The question for everyone who is watching routinely is: Do you really know what's good for you?

In other words, with a vast inventory of television segments, spanning years, touting mutually exclusive approaches to dietary bliss and enviable beauty; and with a corresponding panoply of quick-fix diet books -- what is the net effect of all that competing information? Are you, or aren't you, actually confused about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens, e.g., yourself?

The question is partly the result of my on-set reminder this week of what populates the morning show hours. It is also partly the result of an exchange with a colleague this week, who argued that the public is not at all confused about what constitutes healthful eating -- they just don't like it.

I agree that to some extent people don't like, don't want, and maybe can't handle the truth that you actually have to eat well and exercise to derive the benefits of eating well and exercising. There is no silly combination of foods under the light of a crescent moon; or rotating food exclusions on alternate Tuesdays -- that will substitute. There is no silver bullet to substitute for the phenomenal benefits of actually living (and eating) well; and there is no scapegoat food, nutrient, or ingredient that, if expunged from your diet, will let you eat an array of very tasty, glow-in-the-dark crappola with impunity. And there certainly isn't any lotion, potion, or vial of pixie dust that will let you ignore diet and exercise altogether and nonetheless wind up an Olympic-medalist-underwear-model.

But if such dithering really is all that's going on, it means everyone truly knows what's good for them, and is just procrastinating. It means the entire problem of bad dietary patterns and their bad consequences is really just about people who know better, behaving badly. It means, I suppose, that the answer is entirely about personal responsibility. It means no one needs a hug or a hand, but everyone needs a brisk smack and a bracing dose of: "Snap out of it!"

I don't buy it. Personally, I think it's a three-part problem at the least.

1) Genuine confusion. There are experts who contend that the one thing wrong with our diets is meat, or dairy, or both. There are other experts, with comparably impressive credentials, who contend that the one thing wrong with our diets is wheat, or gluten, or all grains. There are experts with impressive credentials who suggest that saturated fat is now good for us, and others with comparable imprimaturs who say it's still bad. There are prominent voices in prominent places making innumerable, competing claims about nutrition.

If you are not a genuine expert in the field yourself, and are not at least a bit confused, I think the only thing it can mean is that you haven't been paying attention.

My impression is that a very significant part of our failure to use what we truly do know about good nutrition is the constant emphasis on only disagreement that reverberates through our culture, in real space and cyberspace alike. There is, in fact, a very different reality -- but we live in the virtual reality where competing opinions and confusion prevail.

2) Cultural pacification. Our culture tells us constantly that ambivalence, and even hypocrisy, is OK when it comes to nutrition. It's OK to fret about the climate, the environment, and the availability of water -- and yet recommend eating more meat. It's OK to fret about the abusive treatment of animals yet glibly wrap our cupcakes in bacon. It's OK to wring our hands about epidemic diabetes and worse in children -- and keep marketing multicolored marshmallows to kids as part of a complete breakfast.

Ultimately, of course, we decide what is and isn't OK; culture is a medium of our own devising. But culture and its murmurings exert a powerful, subliminal influence on us all. And it's hard to recognize that the status quo is all wrong, when messages reach you multiple times every day to tell you: It's fine! Now, just reach for your credit card...

3) Collusion. The icing on this dubious cake is the prevailing tendency for wishful thinking, suspension of common sense, and dyed-in-the-wool procrastination. I think everyone knows that psychedelic pseudo-fruits and multicolored marshmallows cannot possibly constitute fodder for a breakfast of champions, no matter how many exonerating micronutrients are thrown into the vat of gloop. We allow ourselves, however, to pretend this is all OK -- because to do otherwise would obligate us to confront the challenge of fixing it. Perhaps along with some genuine ignorance about healthful eating is the willful pursuit of bliss.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part, but I believe all of this can be fixed. I think the important contribution of genuine confusion can be dispelled by demonstrating to the world -- and to you, if you are among the confused -- that there is, in fact, an overwhelming, global consensus among experts about what constitutes the basic theme of eating well. That theme is actually clear, and the global consensus does exist; I am involved in an effort that is well on its way to demonstrating that.

Once we pull that truth out of the shadows, maybe the other problems fall like dominoes. Cultural messages at odds with the truth become awkward once the truth is widely known. And once we are forced to admit we know where "there" is, we surrender any good excuse to ignore the challenge of how best to get there from here. Perhaps by confronting that challenge together, we can pave the way.

That our relationship with food, and its implications for our health, and that of the planet, are rather badly broken is quite clear. The better we can all say exactly how it's broken, the more likely any of us is to live long enough -- to see it fixed.

-fin

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity