Thursday, November 3, 2011

Credibility and the "Safe Starch" Debate

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his
salary depends upon his not understanding it."  --Upton Sinclair

Are all carbohydrates bad? No. In a post today on Robb Wolf's blog about meat and potatoes, Matt Lentzner said:  "Judging a food solely by its macronutrient composition is stupid. It’s hard to believe it has taken us 50 years to figure that out. We have good fats (saturated and omega-3’s) and bad fats (omega-6’s), good carbs (starch) and bad carbs (fructose), good proteins (meat) and bad proteins (gluten). It’s the quality of the macronutrient, not it’s classification, that makes it good or bad."

I agree with Lentzner that it is quality, not classification, and that it is stupid to judge a food solely by its macronutrient composition. I didn't always believe this, but I do now.

Why is it so hard to understand that there might be "good carbs," or, in the parlance of the debate du jour, "safe starches?" Why is the idea of a "safe starch" so threatening to so many people?  The whole safe starch debate was really surprising to me, until I stumbled across the quote above by Upton Sinclair. Then, all of a sudden, a light went on.

It appears to me that the major proponents of the "all carbs are bad" school of thought (I won't name names, but it isn't too hard to do) all make a good portion of their livelihood (if not all of their livelihood) from promoting this idea. It also appears to me that the major defenders of the safe starch debate, Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet, do not make their livelihood promoting the Perfect Health Diet, so they are more flexible in and open to accepting new information. The same is true with Kurt Harris and his Archevore diet and for others. Their livelihood does not depend on defending a certain belief or viewpoint at all costs, so they are able to go against the grain when strong evidence is available.

The idea that there may be "safe starches" (good carbs) must be incredibly threatening to those whose livelihoods depend on not believing this idea. So they reflexively defend it at all costs. As a professor at a state-sponsored university, I do the same thing when people suggest cutting state funds for higher education. I am not immune to the impulse. Even if I intellectually understand the arguments about out-of-control higher education spending, I am viscerally against them, as my livelihood is at stake. So I am not throwing stones, just seeking more wisdom on the topic.

But it does lead me to this conclusion: arguments made by those without a vested interest in the debate are more credible than those made by people whose income is threatened by the debate. Just as I lack credibility on questions of funding for higher education.


  1. I always remain open to ideas that disprove what I believe is true. I am not beholden to any pre-conceived ideas. :)

  2. Hi Jimmy. That is good to hear. Sometimes, it is a hard impulse to resist, as I hope I made clear in the post above. I wasn't pointing fingers or throwing stones, just seeking wisdom. I freely admitted to doing the same thing.

  3. It's similar when you try to convince researchers that what they've devoted their entire lives to proving is wrong. Sometimes a certain amount of distance from a situation allows the best thinking to be done on it.