October 8, 2014

Armchair Experts


With so many people visiting to pay their respects during the shiva period following my mother’s death, I had the opportunity to overhear many conversations about diet, food, and health. It is amazing what passes for knowledge about these topics these days—and not in a good way.

If you have ever paid a shiva call, then you know that pretty much everyone who walks through the door comes bearing some kind of cake, platter of cookies, fruit basket, or some other food offering, intended to comfort the mourners. Well, the dining room table at my sister’s house was a testament to this outpouring of love and support via sugar and baked goods. For a week straight, it was covered in chocolates, cheesecake, seven-layer cookies, danishes, banana bread, brownies, muffins, bagels, and Edible Arrangements (with pineapples, melon, grapes, and strawberries artfully cut to look like flowers). (Click here for coupons, if you are so inclined!) Not to mention what was in the fridge: about a hundred years’ worth of “real food,” courtesy of many out-of-town friends flooding the local kosher deli with orders to be delivered. (Traditional Jewish-type foods, like whitefish and herring, lox and smoked sable, about eight zillion pounds of cream cheese for the eight zillion bagels out on the table, roast chicken, mushrooms & barley, and a few kasha knishes for good measure.)

As visitors made their way through the offerings, I overheard quite a few explanations and justifications for why people were picking and choosing this or that, and staying away from certain things and reaching for seconds of others. Most of this, as you might imagine, given that I have been driven to write a blog post about it, was total nonsense. (One guy even asked if we had any low-fat cream cheese. *Facepalm.*)

Most of what I overheard had nothing to do with anyone’s individual metabolic or physiologic needs. No one said anything about skipping the bagels because of a gluten issue, or avoiding the cakes because they were diabetic. (The people, not the cakes, hehheh.) Most of it was more along the lines of, “…all that cholesterol is no good for you,” or, “The brown rice is better because it’s a whole grain.” Moreover, these things were said with complete confidence. They were declarative sentences, not questions. These people honestly believed that what they were saying was factual. That they were ironclad truths. And the situation being what it was, I just didn’t have the inclination to call anyone on it. I didn’t want to stir up trouble by asking how someone “knew” that eating a lot of cholesterol is bad for them, or why they said, with complete confidence, that brown rice being a whole grain makes it a better choice. (Better than what? And for whom?)

All I did was sit back and listen, and come to the unsettling conclusion that, when it comes to nutrition, there are enough armchair experts to fill every last chair in every furniture warehouse in America.

And this got me thinking.

Why does everyone think they’re an expert? Why does everyone feel entitled to chime in when the conversation turns to food, nutrition, and health? Just because we all have bodies and feed them doesn’t mean we know diddly squat about feeding them well. (And thank goodness, otherwise I’d be out of a job.) I mean, just because we’ve been to concerts and have sat in auditoriums doesn’t mean we know the slightest bit about drafting blueprints for an amphitheater or designing an industrial sound system.

Just because I own a car and drive it doesn’t mean listening to Click & Clack every Saturday morning makes me an expert on cars or car repair. (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, pat yourself on the back, because you are probably not an NPR nerd, like I am. Or, perhaps, like a friend of mine likes to say, your radio dial “doesn’t go that far to the left,” hehheh. Click & Clack are Tom & Ray Magliozzi, from Car Talk, where I get my weekly dose of Boston accent, hijinks, and hilarity, while they ostensibly talk about cars and car repair. And if you do know what I’m talking about, tell me, does the long list of names at the end crack you up like it does me? “Our Russian chauffer, Pikov Andropov…” and the law firm of Dewey, Cheathem, and Howe…HA!)

It’s pretty interesting sad, scary, and eye-opening to listen to people with no education—formal or otherwise—in nutrition or physiology, talk about these things. Why do people assume they “know” anything about healthy diets? Just because they heard six o’clock news anchors Dimwitted Dan and Helen Hyperbole report about red meat and cancer, or egg yolks and heart disease, doesn’t mean they know anything about how this all works. And yet, people somehow seem entitled to chime in when the conversation turns to these issues.

Me? When I don’t know much of anything about anything, I keep my yap shut. Maybe I’ll express an opinion, or speculate as to something, but I try to make it clear that that’s what it is: uninformed speculation. Or I ask questions, so I can get informed. But just because I have an IRA and a bank account doesn’t mean I know jack about real financial planning. So when a conversation turns to mutual funds or the stock market, I generally shut the heck up, sit back, and just listen. Like Mark Twain said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Even Robb Wolf, whom most of us would consider a very intelligent guy, with a breadth and depth of knowledge many of us envy, acknowledges when he doesn’t have the chops to participate in a high-level conversation involving something about which he knows very little. He respectfully bows out and leaves the debate to the experts. (He explains as much in this episode of his podcast, at 37:00. However, the question that leads up to that begins at 26:48, ultimately leading to the BEST RANT EVER—EVER! Listen to it. Now. If you’re relatively new to Robb’s work, you might not have been listening to the podcast back in 2011. Please, do yourself a favor and listen to this section. This is an epic rant, and you will enjoy it immensely. [You can also download it free from iTunes. It’s the episode that’s listed for 4/18/2011.])

My point is, people who don’t know much don’t know that they don’t know much. Even worse, they think they know a lot! (In business management circles, this is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it works the opposite way, too—where people who do know a fair bit about something are convinced they don’t know anything, because they’re cognizant of how much more there is that they really don’t know.) In other words, people who are ignorant about certain subjects are so ignorant that they’re incapable of recognizing just how ignorant they are. So they often proceed confidently with incorrect information. If this doesn’t describe armchair experts in nutrition, I don’t know what does.

The same people who confidently chime in with their two cents about saturated fat, calories, whole grains, and fiber, would never presume to know anything about nuclear waste disposal, or flying a fighter jet. If an F-22 pilot or Navy Blue Angels pilot walked into the room, these people wouldn’t saunter up and start a conversation about avionics and aerodynamics. But when they find out I’m a nutritionist, they often say things and then wait expectantly for me to nod and corroborate what they already “know.”

WHY do so many people think they’re experts when it comes to nutrition, but not when it comes to flying fighter jets? Maybe it’s because with flying jets, there are checklists. You do the same thing the same way every time, because if you don’t, someone might get killed. Nutrition isn’t an exact science. It’s not done the same way every time. Joe down the street is thriving as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, while you’ve never felt better than on low-carb with hefty amounts of animal flesh and fat. And that’s fine. (Unique snowflakes, right?) But when someone says they avoid eggs because of the cholesterol, that makes me want to take that person and shake them. Hard.

I’ll say it again: just because we all have bodies, feed them, and move them, doesn’t mean we know much of anything about how best to feed them and move them. Some personal trainers have personal trainers, and some nutritionists have nutritionists or naturopathic doctors. Even experts need their own experts, because the people who do know don’t know everything.

I’m not saying people don’t have a right to chime in when a conversation turns to a subject they’re interested in. But unfortunately, when it comes to nutrition, TV medical gurus, the evening news, supermarket tabloids, fitness & health magazines, and even people’s own doctors have convinced too many people out there that they know something about food and the human body.  But “knowing” something doesn’t make it true, no matter how many times, for how long, or from how many people they’ve heard it. 

I guess the main problem is that thanks to over a half-century of being inundated with messages about the dangers of (take your pick—they’ve all been public enemy #1 at one time or another): saturated fat, cholesterol, red meat, butter, whole milk, white bread, and more, people honestly think they do know what they're talking about when it comes to nutrition, because they've been led to believe that the science is settled.

Well, if you know even just a little about nutrition research—and perhaps more specifically, obesity research—then you know the science is far from settled. (Like, southern tip of Patagonia up to the Arctic Circle far.)

According to Kevin Schulman, MD, director of the Center for Clinical and Genetic Economics at Duke University, (all emphasis that follows is mine), “The question of the right diet for Americans has seemingly been settled in the public health community for years, yet obesity rates continue to skyrocket. This stark contrast begs the questions—do we really have good science to support our diet recommendations? The answer is convincingly no.”

He goes on to say, “The largest public health crisis in the United States is being addressed with the type of data that we question in every other field of medicine: observational studies subject to selection bias and small scale, short term clinical studies which can’t offer definitive results. Further, we seemingly lack the courage to even test our convictions through the type of large scale NIH supported clinical research that has contributed to advances in so many other fields of medicine. It’s well past time […] to test our hypotheses with rigorous science. We owe this effort to the public and to our children who otherwise could suffer from the disastrous consequences of our scientific hubris on this issue.”

To quote an album title from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Question the Answers. It’s all these “trusted sources” of information that have made the ignoramuses believe they know what they’re talking about.  

Not questioning the answers has landed us in epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, obesity, depression, other psychological imbalances, and just plain BLAH, that are bankrupting individual families and our entire country. The gettin ain't so good these days, folks. We’ve got women who can’t get out of bed, men who can’t get it up, and couples who cant get it on. The holding” isn't doing so well, either: we've got children who can't hold attention, aging parents who can't hold a logical conversation, people losing their hold on reality, and people whose bodies and brains are so far-gone that they can’t hold down a job.

But saturated fat will kill you.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. As a high school teacher, I can relate: people have been through school so they "know" how teaching works. Granted there are a lot of bad teachers out there, and much of what the average person "knows" may apply to the less-than-stellar educators, but when it comes to good teaching there is so much going on behind the scenes. Another similar arena is movement: everybody has a body, so they assume they know how they should be moving it--how to sit, stand, walk, etc. Sure, they may hire a trainer to learn to deadlift, but sitting? They "know" that. I wonder if part of all this is the pace of life leaves us simply not paying attention enough. We don't notice how that high carb breakfast affects our cognition around 10AM, how slight but chronic sleep deprivation affects us across the board, how that teacher stays behind to start the less enjoyable part of the workday after the students leave, how sitting in that ergonomic chair leaves their back and hips stiff and uncomfortable day after day...Good post! Thanks!

    1. You're right, Peter. Armchair expertise doesn't apply only to food & health. It can be to anything, really -- teaching, movement, waiting tables... Maybe it also has to do with cognitive dissonance: we stick to what we know because we're so wedded to our cherished routines & paradigms, and we feel threatened by anything that challenges those (whether or not we're aware that we feel threatened). The devils we know, versus the ones we don't. When it comes to food, especially, if someone's been doing something a certain way their whole life, they don't want to find out it's been harmful, or even just sub-optimal. (I think this is why a lot of doctors, RDs, and personal trainers don't embrace ancestral health and movement more -- it's a personal and professional embarrassment to them that they might have been giving incorrect information for decades, and possibly doing more harm than good, and they'd rather bury their heads in the sand than admit it.) :-/