Garbage In, Garbage Out

There’s an old saying in science, “garbage in, garbage out.” It means if you put bad data into an analysis in the first place, you will get a useless result. But nutritional studies should really be paying more attention to our real garbage. The simple refuse of daily living.

In our disposable society, everyone will throw something out today. Probably many things. Creating garbage is a basic reality of human life. And although people create far more garbage today than ever before, humans have been doing it since prehistoric times. When archaeologists dig things up to uncover ancient civilizations, they are often just studying “other peoples’ garbage.”

I studied archaeology intensively as part of my Ph.D. degree in Anthropology. And I was particularly intrigued by the idea that garbage forms a part of the material record of a human society–ancient or modern. And I’ve always believed that the same science that archaeology uses for excavations of ancient civilizations can be applied to learning more about our own behavior–especially when it comes to diet and nutrition.

You see, when you look at the hard data revealed in household refuse, one thing becomes instantly clear. There’s a tremendous difference between what people say they eat to what they actually do eat.

People overestimate the amount of fruits, fish, poultry, and vegetables they eat. And they underestimate the amount of beverages and soft drinks they consume. (It’s a safe bet that Coke and Pepsi knew more about that fact than the government did.)

In general, people over-report the healthy foods, and under-report the unhealthy foods. So the government has taught people what to say. The problem is, they just don’t do it! 

This is a major problem when you realize that nearly the whole “house-of-cards” of government research on diet and nutrition (and the new field of “nutritional epidemiology”) has been built almost entirely on information about what people say. Not what they do. 

Studying the solid waste stream of a modern community tells us more about diet and health than we could ever find out in a laboratory–or from a survey. In fact, it may be the only way to really find out what people are eating.

One of the best examples goes back to a topic I mentioned last week–fat.

Way back in 1982, at the “false dawn” of nutrition and health studies, the National Academy of Sciences and other health agencies began recommending that people eat less fat. This equated to many health experts telling people they should eat less meat.

Our garbage actually showed that people did begin eating less red meat. And they cut off more of the fat that could be separated from the meat they did buy. Actually making the red meat they consumed much healthier.

Unfortunately, to make up for their decreased consumption of what was now healthier red meat, people bought more meat with fat that can NOT be separated. Things like bologna, bacon, hot dogs, ground beef, and sausage.

For the first time, consumers began eating more meat with hidden fat than red meat that can actually be made healthier by removing the fat.

Thus, despite following the misguided and half-baked recommendations of government “experts” and agencies, they actually ended up eating more fat!

There they went again. Another government recommendation based on bad science. Where they failed to grasp the real data about human diet and nutrition. And another failed attempt to improve health by controlling behavior.  

And 30 years (and billions of dollars) later, Americans are still confused about what really constitutes a healthy diet.

So here’s a little bit of clarification: Skip the hot dogs and bologna sandwiches. And don’t be afraid to enjoy a nice, thick New York strip now and then. Just be sure to trim the excess fat, and you’ve got a delicious and healthy meal.

And while we’re on the topic of misguided nutrition advice–and the misguided approach for researching nutrition–I’ve got some new details to share with you about the government’s smear campaign against salt. More on that in tomorrow’s Dispatch.