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Nutrition and the Obama Moment

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

For the last two years we've been hearing the question "Is America ready for a black president?"

Meanwhile, we've been ignoring the even more important question: "Is America ready for an intellectual president?"

Intellectuals have fallen on hard times in recent years.

It probably started back in the heyday of William F. Buckley (who would probably characteristically roll his eyes if he saw what he had beget a half-century later). Intellectual conservatives began demonizing "the liberal elite"; this morphed into a demonizing of "elites" in general -- "elite" defined as anyone who had more education than you did, typically confused with "elitist" -- and morphed further into a general dumbed down populism and celebration of anti-intellectualism. (How else to explain otherwise intelligent people actually saying positive things about Sarah Palin?)

Add to the mix an emerging culture whose important features include text messaging -- with it's "C u L8tr" vocabulary -- American Idol's celebration of karaoke-level singers, "The Secret", four word sound bytes substituting for political positions (three words in the case of "Drill Baby Drill"), pollsters reducing swirling and complex shades of purple to "Red!" and "Blue!", a general coarsening of the culture and a population-wide lowering of attention span and you've got the perfect storm: complexity is out, simplicity is in. Who's got the time to read "War and Peace" when there's some Asian guitarist on YouTube playing the theme from Deliverance in his dorm room in under 60 seconds?

It doesn't help that intellectuals are often tone deaf to feelings, which hardly makes them more likeable. The kid who's about to lose his puppy because of the arcane rules of his apartment's co-op board doesn't want to hear a treatise on "Democracy in America" or get lectured on civics, community and the theory of the common good. A detailed and nuanced discussion of medical statistics, causality and correlation is no competition for the powerful pull of a heartbroken mother on Oprah who is convinced that the mercury in vaccinations caused her kids autism. (Some -- though not all -- of those mothers are probably right, but that's another column.)

And yes, some intellectuals have been (are, indeed) pin-heads, paralyzed by analysis and all that.

But in a country in which 42% of college graduates believe that flying saucers have visited us, one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun orbits the earth, a jaw-dropping 1/3 of the men running for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 do not "believe" in the "theory" of evolution, and about 20 million people listen to Rush Limbaugh (not because they think he's a comedian), there's good reason to think that intellectualism is on the ropes.

Maybe this will change now that we have in the White House a guy who actually understands nuance and complexity.

A guy who actually thinks.

Lord knows, we in the world of nutrition and health could use some of that.

Here's a not-so-theoretical example: Joe the Plumber wants to lower his cholesterol! Obama-man understands that there are about 8 or more subfractions of cholesterol (not just "Good!" and "Bad!"), they act quite differently in the body, and that -- newsflash alert -- lowering cholesterol may not have much to do with lowering the risk for heart disease in the first place. Slapping a "no cholesterol" label on a Twinkie may make you feel better about eating it, but it doesn't make it a health food.

Of course, it's far easier to "lower cholesterol" than it is to understand what goes into lowering your risk for heart disease (hint: lowering cholesterol has little, if anything, to do with it).

It's also easier to define "healthy foods" as being equal to "low in fat", another boneheaded position if there ever was one, and one that is at least as common as the belief in flying saucers and just about as accurate.

And hey, I'm just getting started. For a full catalogue of boneheaded, rote-repetition, non-thinking positions on everything related to diet and supplements, see American Dietetic Association. Or go to MyPyramid.gov.

These nutritional memes are so deeply embedded into health establishment culture that to question them puts you immediately in the company of the tin foil hat crowd -- or at the very least, the 9/11 Truthers.

I'd love to see Obama set the tone for the return of thinking. It's due for a comeback. And we could sure use it when it comes to health and dietary advice.

If only I could be more hopeful that it will actually happen.