Healthy Living

Mountains, Prairies, Oceans, And Diets

The United States is beautiful, from its mountains, to its prairies, to its oceans, whether placid on a given day, or white with foam. It’s timely to recall that as we celebrate our day of independence. Kate Smith reminds us routinely, of course, in God Bless America.

When we celebrate America, to some extent we are celebrating principles, ideals, the diverse dreams of a common dream, and our visionary Constitution. But we are to some extent also celebrating the place itself, since none of this would be possible without the literal bedrock underlying the various stands we and our forebears have made. We had to be standing on something, so the actual real estate matters. And that magnificent real estate does indeed extend from mountains, to prairies, to oceans ― as it does to forests, rivers, meadows, deserts, and canyons.

But let’s not be ethnocentric. Implying that a distribution of beautiful places pertains especially to the U.S. may be a matter of pride, but we know it is unjustified. Our gem of a planet is home to the same diverse magnificence, from far-flung seas to far-flung shores.

Personal preference being what it is, many among us likely have a favorite among the diverse landscapes comprising the bounty of our common home. Skiers and climbers, for instance, might be forgiven for favoring mountains; divers, for favoring the oceans, and so on.

These are just opinions, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to learn that similar thinking extended itself into the realm of actual expertise. Environmental sciences are specialized like all others. A degree in forestry leads to very different places than a degree in oceanography. Scientists devoting their careers to the wonders of a given ecosystem could similarly be forgiven for singing its preferential praises.

But we all know, just the same, that there is no objective “best” place. Is the most majestic mountain pass more or less beautiful than the most vital coral reef? That’s a subjective matter best consigned to the eye of the beholder, and everybody understands that. We also understand that the range of entries most of us would consider defensible is bounded. An alpine meadow versus a forest stream might be a tough call, but either compared to a patch of suburban sprawl or a parking lot would not be for most of us. There is a clear theme for the beauty of places, with room for ample, but not endless, variations.

What a beautiful thing it would be if we could acknowledge the same about diet for health, as a global coalition of us has done. Bickering and arguing over whose diet is best could end, and we could all move on to celebrating the stunning advantages of the theme, and making actual use of what we know.

Alas, we are not there yet. I write this as the Fourth of July looms, obviously, and so am prodded to think of the natural beauty of our country, and the opinions we share about it.

But I also write it from the city of Prague in the Czech Republic ― another beautiful place ― where I just spoke at a health conference. Even as I convene here with diverse experts in diet and health from around the world, with a notable contingent addressing the Mediterranean diet, I read a pop culture column by a colleague at home, inveighing against the health benefits of olive oil.

I disagree with this perspective on the weight of evidence. When some of the world’s leading experts on the Mediterranean diet carefully examined the components most reliably associated with health benefits, a generous intake of olive oil made the short list.

The more important issue, however, is not the particular pros and cons of olive oil, but the general principle of conflating personal preference for objective fact. As noted, even experts are prone to the tendency, and it’s most pernicious when they indulge in it.

The trouble in presenting a personal perspective or preference to the public as fact is that you won’t be the only one to do it. Others with credentials as good or better will do the same. The result is confusion at best, as experts clash, placing expertise itself into question and fomenting distrust. At worst, the bickering engenders outright disgust, so that the public just tunes out the debate altogether.

A mountaineering expert might say that mountains are more beautiful than oceans or deserts, and is certainly entitled to that subjective opinion. But only if presented as such. Only if presented in the context of: this is MY favorite place, among the many reasonable contenders. Insinuating that this preference is an objective reality, and that competing preferences are wrong, would not be legitimate.

The same pertains to claims that an oil-free diet is best, and that the renowned health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are despite, rather than because of, the olive oil. Evidence can be cited selectively in favor of this perspective, but it can be cited selectively to oppose it, too. The weight of evidence favors olive oil, and decisively so, just as it allows for a range of diets from very low in total fat (and thus free of added oils, olive included) to very high.

The health advantages of olive oil are especially noteworthy in the immediate aftermath of yet another study of association questioning the ill effects of butter. That topic deserves its own concentrated attention another day, and will get it. For now, let’s simply note that the evolving evidence related to butter and health is mostly a contest between more harm and less harm, not net health benefit. Olive oil is decisively associated with net health benefit. If tempted to ruminate on butter being back, be sure to ask yourself: relative to what?

All of this matters enormously, and now more than ever given the profound implications of human dietary patterns not just for our own health, but also for that of the very planet. We are not clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens. Science, sense, the weight of evidence and the global consensus of experts favor the reasonable broad, but well-defined expanse of a theme. The rest is just opinion, although arguments for ever greater shifts to plant-based eating are fully justified by matters of environment and ethics if less so by data strictly in the realm of human health.

We can like mountains better than oceans, or vice versa ― but no expert can say that one is objectively “better” than the other. They all fall within the expanse of magnificent landscapes enjoyed by Americans, and for that matter, all privileged citizens of this lovely planet.

On the Fourth of July, we don’t have arguments and battles over what is better: mountains, prairies, or oceans. We celebrate the common expanse. If we take a page from that playbook and apply it to diet, as a global coalition of us has banded together to do, we will have something to celebrate all year long: the burgeoning opportunity to apply what we commonly know to the addition of years to lives, and life to years, around the globe. A much increased chance for independence from chronic disease, from sea to shining sea. And, into the bargain, a much improved likelihood of keeping those mountains, prairies, and oceans vital and biodiverse.

That would be beautiful, with or without fireworks. If there’s a picnic to celebrate, I’ll bring the olive oil.

-fin

David L. Katz

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com

Founder, The True Health Initiative

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