Words Of Wisdom From a Legendary Nutrition Scientist 06/10/2021
Have you ever felt confused by the often wildly disparate advice regarding food and specifically, dietary fat, which has circulated in and out of the mainstream throughout the years? Or perhaps you have been the convincing and confident advice-giver who later realized their error, and have spent the next several decades apologizing for it, as I have?
In the early 2000s, I remember being just another know-it-all college kid rooting around in her parents’ snack cupboard, and scolding my dad about buying unhealthy chips. “Look at the ingredients in these chips, Dad! Lard? That’s so bad for you!” After a mini-lecture about choosing healthier snacks, my duty as official snack-approver was complete.
Twenty years later, I still evaluate my parents’ snack cupboard when I come to visit, except now, the conversation sounds more like, “Look at the ingredients in these chips! Lard? That’s so good for you!”
After all, I’ve done my research now.
Questioning The Narrative
But how did I “know” with such certainty that lard was bad (apart from the hubris of my youth)? The same way that many of us “knew” for a long time that saturated fats such as those from beef, pork or butter were artery-clogging villains - a topic which Vital Choice has explored in depth (before it was cool!)
There has been a long history of confusion on the part of most consumers and cooks about what fats (if any!) we are supposed to cook with and eat. Simultaneously, the available research and content for consumers and professionals has greatly increased (Liu, 2014).
Fortunately for my parents and myself, I’m better equipped with research nowadays - and, there’s better research available. But opinions on the topic can be found everywhere, as dogmatic and controversial as ever - and many of the old myths around fat persist. For some scientists, getting the best information about the best dietary fats out has become their primary mission. One such: Dr. William Lands.
Bill Lands: A Lipid Legend
Much has been written on the Vital Choice website featuring the work of Dr. Lands. As the author of over 300 published scientific papers and the authoritative book Fish, Omega-3 and Human Health, and with over 11,000 citations, he has been at the forefront of our understanding of the complex mechanisms and consequences of food choices, charting the mechanisms of action of the relationship between dietary fats and inflammatory responses.
Such a vast body of work is impressive enough, yet even more impressive is that he can poetically summarize his food philosophy in six simple words: “Nix the 6, eat the 3.”
His work is partially the reason we can now document and provide evidence for the claim that excess omega-6 consumption is responsible for many of the health woes considered commonplace today.
The main source of omega-6 fats in the American diet is in “vegetable oils” derived from nuts and seeds such as soy, corn, safflower, and sunflower, and dominant in nearly every prepared food from grocery stores to restaurants. Conventional livestock feeds are also rich in omega-6s, which makes most conventional meats imbalanced toward omega-6 as well.
Dr. Lands has meticulously documented the negatives of high omega-6 consumption: not only does it exaggerate our immune response toward excess inflammation, but high omega-6 intake also diminishes our ability to metabolize the inflammatory-resolving tendencies of omega-3, which are found most abundantly in seafood.
Dr. Lands continues his work after retirement with a refreshingly simple community approach, creating clear, concise messages that schoolchildren and grandparents alike can follow. He has created a web app which contains an authoritative list of the omega 3/6 balance score for almost any food imaginable.
Dr. Lands’ work has made an immeasurable impact on so many lives, and he is one of my nutrition heroes. Yet some of his writing that I’ve found most meaningful has applications that go well beyond nutrition.
In Pursuit of Paradox
In an article entitled, “A critique of paradoxes in current advice on dietary lipids,” Dr. Lands shares, from his perspective as a biochemist in lipid research, an eloquent exploration of the tangle of wrong advice, bureaucratic obstacles, oversimplified messages from health authorities, and missing pieces of evidence required to help us better understand the critical role of essential fats in human health. The paradoxes he continued to encounter led him to some crucial insights.
It is beautifully written and keenly accurate, and one principle from it has haunted me ever since I first read this piece, in a section entitled “The science of nature and the nature of science,” wherein he examines the slippery slope of oversimplification into falsehood:
Sometimes a communicated fact is oversimplified to the point of causing erroneous misrepresentation or misconception. In this way, an oversimplified fact can seem fictional. Also, in a paradox, facts form a puzzle as one view of truth contradicts another. Paradoxes come easily from oversimplified stories that are missing key information. The apparent contradiction of two facts is often resolved by adding a third fact we need to know. In a sense, a paradox gives structure to what we do not yet know.
The paradox of poor public health outcomes despite a “healthy” plant-based diet has not escaped the notice of many in the nutrition sciences. Just as I “knew” that lard was a lurking danger in my parents’ snack cupboard, many researchers and medical professionals have asserted for years that “vegetable oils” were healthier than animal fats - despite a dearth of evidence in the scientific literature.
Thanks to Dr. Lands and his dedication to resolving that paradox, we know that an oversimplification such as “vegetables are healthy” therefore “vegetable oils are healthy too” neglects the less glamorous but more accurate truth: vegetable oils are typically high in omega-6 fats and consuming too much can devastate our health. It’s not as simple, but Dr. Lands cautions against oversimplification, because it can lead us away from truths.
Those words have stayed with me for so many years: “In a sense, a paradox gives structure to what we do not yet know.”
These are words of wisdom and humility. They have brought me so much comfort in uncertain times, particularly over the past year, and I hope they bring you comfort, too.
In these times of many questions and uncertainties, my hope is that a better answer awaits those who seek it. When “facts form a puzzle, as one view of truth contradicts another,” as Bill Lands says, will we keep looking for the key information to resolve an apparent paradox? Or will we settle for a simpler story?
All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642)
- Lands B. (2008). A critique of paradoxes in current advice on dietary lipids. Progress in lipid research, 47(2), 77–106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plipres.2007.12.001
- Liu, A. G., Ford, N. A., Hu, F. B., Zelman, K. M., Mozaffarian, D., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017). A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutrition journal, 16(1), 53. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4