I learned the most from the talks that focused on food policy and regulation, especially the panels by Baylen J. Linnekin, Margaret Sova McCabe, and Emily Broad Lieb and Peter Ballerstedt, Anna Kelles, Lynda Frassetto, and Adele Hite; and the talk by Robert Lustig.
One of the most shocking things I learned was that some of the corporate sponsors of the American Society of Dietetics and Nutrition, through which all RDs and nutritionists have to be licensed in order to practice, include Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Mars (!!!), Kelloggs, and General Mills. Yeah, this nation is screwed.
But the points that Baylen made stick with me the most. We were all at AHS because we share dietary beliefs that are outside mainstream and local, state, and federal government policies, laws, and regulation impact how and what we want to eat. But should they regulate what we eat? What if we put food into the first amendment in order to prevent them from regulating what they eat? Given the bad job they've done so far with regulating food (ahem, MyPlate), I think that's a pretty fascinating idea.
Because, from the other talks I attended, it's pretty clear that other policy options aren't working. For example, Jennifer Pomeranz discussed the problems with limiting marketing to young children. The US can't restrict commercial speech because of the First Amendment. The FDA can protect us from false commercial speech but doesn't have much power to enforce it. They don't have the resources to test the validity of every false claim companies make for the healthfulness of their products.
Robert Lustig also pointed out that the government guidelines, PI campaigns, warning labels, public school education, menu labeling have not worked. He claims that sugar meets the same criteria for addiction as other substances that are regulated; like alcohol, it is toxic AND abused. But should the government tax sugar, restrict access, or interdict?
Creating a 'nanny state', or whether the government should be telling us what we can or can't eat, is one of the hottest topics in government right now. I'm not sure I support a nanny state, because it could equally be applied to saturated fat!!!
Our panel entitled 'Working to Reclaim Ancestral Health in Latino Communities' was bittersweet. Armida Ayala, a Mexican anthropologist who is working in Latino communities in LA (including my hometown of Wilmington!) to provide nutrition information and access to healthy foods, gave an inspiring talk about how we need to 'take evolution out of the cell and into the moral compass'. Her point was that in order to solve the obesity and diabetes epidemics, we need to use our evolutionary capacity for empathy and practice social justice by helping Latinos and African Americans get healthier in order to be healthier as a whole society. It was beautiful and breathtaking.
The bitter part was that the session was poorly attended because they scheduled it at the same time as the 'Safe Starches' debate, which is really sad. The sweet part, though, was that the people who were there were super passionate about the topic and already working in their communities. I know that something awesome will come of it.
We also got some pretty amazing feedback on the session. Someone told me that it was the only session with emotion - corazón - at the conference. Around the blogosphere: Paleo for Women liked our session and made a similar call for action and Alec Henderson thought that we had the answer to the obesity epidemic.
Everyone seems to have their pet diet, which made a lot of the conference seem like an Ego show rather than a scientific conference. One of the worst examples was Robb Wolf's talk. He was giving a pretty good presentation about the use of the Paleo diet to help Reno police officers lose weight and improve their metabolic profiles, which saved the department a significant amount of money, until he went off about his pet theory that obesity and metabolic syndrome is caused by intestinal permeability and inflammation and showed some pretty unimpressive cherry-picked studies that demonstrated metformin reduces intestinal permeability by affecting tight junctions.
But the most cringe-worthy was the Q&A session after Stephan Guyenet's talk. Last year, he got hammered by Gary Taubes about his theory about carbohydrates and food reward during the Q&A session. He started off this year's talk with a smug, 'I won't be talking about carbohydrates this time', then went on to discuss the role of gut microbiota and health in obesity and metabolic syndrome. He brought up a study that demonstrated that people who were born via cesarean section have higher rates of obesity than those born via vaginal birth, then went on to discuss how this could be because the babies born via cesarean section were not exposed to the proper gut microbiota during the birthing process. But then Robert Lustig got him during the Q&A, pointing out that what he presented was just a hypothesis and he never mentioned that it could have been the reasons that made the women have a cesarean section (e.g., gestational diabetes) that influenced obesity risk for the babies later.
He brought up a good point. Whenever these people bring up their pet ideas, they usually don't present them as hypotheses. Instead, they present them as fact by showing papers from PubMed that support their tenuous claims. The other unique thing about AHS is that there are a lot of non-scientists in the room. But I feel that the way they present their ideas is misleading to this group of people that would have a really difficult time distinguishing well-supported data from hypotheses. It's like they do it because they're more concerned about making money than actually helping people and our country.
Will I attend next year?
I'm not sure. I feel that AHS has to define it's goals more clearly. If it wants to be a credible scientific for discussing nutrition, then I think the people who give scientific talks should actually be scientists working in the field. Right now it's just people who scan PubMed in their free time.
But I do feel that if there's any way to gather people who are thinking outside of the box, such as Armida Ayala, Adele Hite, and Baylen Linnekin, in order to solve this country's modern health challenges, there's no better place than AHS.