Don't Be Fooled by Science

Friends and family pushing back against your keto lifestyle? We explain why and how to cope.

Article by Mandy Pagano | 01 Nov, 2020

Article originally published on on 8/26/16. It has been lightly edited for re-publication.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you read any further, we want to make sure you understand that nobody on the Ketogenic Success team is anti-science. Far from it. In fact, we are all extremely pro-science. It's important to realize, though, that one of the fundamental principles of science is a healthy amount of skepticism, and an intellectual honesty that will allow rational, critical analysis of biases and assumptions. When that principle diminishes, you are no longer in the realm of science.]

In working through the why of people's behavior towards folks who change their eating habits last week, we mentioned the need to understand the nature of food science. We live in an age where people treat what they believe to be science as gospel that is now-and-forever set in stone. We have entire social media groups dedicated to people's "love" of science, which consist mostly of space photos and memes involving popular science-y TV presenters. In other words, we are at a point where a large portion of the populace views science (probably subconsciously) as a quasi-deity, the beginning and the end of all things. It is our view that this is a gross misunderstanding of what it actually is and what its uses are. This misunderstanding also contributes greatly to interpersonal hardships when people dispute popular notions of scientific understanding.

Science itself is just a tool. It's a process of experimentation and observation that we use to help us come to a greater understanding of the world around us as well as the world within us. That's all. It's also a field that is always going to be in a state of flux because that is its nature. One day we think we understand things one way, and the next we observe something that turns what we thought we knew on its head. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. Accepting and incorporating those new understandings into our operating framework is an integral part of scientific progress and increasing our understanding of the natural world. Sometimes that means we must throw out things we thought we knew were true. Sometimes those things are dogma held for years, decades, or even centuries before they're overturned.

When it comes to nutrition science in general, and specifically the ketogenic lifestyle, we are currently in a state where the evidence we are obtaining through research, experimentation, and observation are turning the entire field on its head.

Think About It

For the better part of the last century, reputable scientists, doctors, nutritionists, etc., all believed with every fiber of their being that reducing calories, increasing exercise, and keeping dietary fat to a minimum (especially those dreaded saturated fats) would all equal a fit and healthy person. This was taught in every single biology and nutrition class for decades. It's been promoted at every single conference and by all the various health organizations for just as long. This is dogma, and it has been virtually ingrained into the very bones of our professional health community for longer than some of us have been alive.

Now imagine you are a doctor and some upstart comes out of nowhere to tell you that not only is everything you know about food, nutrition, and health wrong, you've actually been harming people with your advice. Let that sink in for a minute. I'm sure you can imagine what kind of a blow that might be to someone (or a whole lot of someones). We're talking about medical and nutritional professionals here. These are people who are trained to examine the evidence and, theoretically, to incorporate new findings into their work. They're supposed to follow the evidence, and yet human nature tends to push back.

A Shameful Episode

If you would like to see just one example of the kind of hardship a scientist who goes against the grain of common knowledge can undergo, take a gander at a man named Ignaz Semmelweis. His story is a doozy. The nutshell version is that he postulated that women were dying in maternity wards of puerperal fever due to doctors spreading disease and infection between patients. Why? They didn't wash their hands. Semmelweis experimented by instituting hand washing guidelines in wards on which he worked- which met with great success- and spent pretty much the rest of his life advocating for hand washing and sterilization for doctors and their tools in medical situations. He was not only ignored by his peers and superiors, he was treated so poorly by the medical community he actually had a nervous breakdown, was committed, and died in a mental institution after being badly beaten by the guards.

Semmelweis is, unfortunately, not the only scientific professional hounded personally due to his unorthodox but ultimately correct views. Scientific history is rife with examples, and just in the last century we have seen scientists laughed out of their fields for going against dogma. A relevant example to keto is that of Professor Tim Noakes. A single tweet to a nursing mother about the advisability of a low-carb protocol brought down the entire South African medical establishment against him. He actually went through not one, but two trials to clear his name. Something similar happened to Dr. Gary Fettke in Australia, and it took him over two years to resolve professional silencing and charges of misconduct for simply giving his patients advice about low-carb diets. So our first major take away is that the medical and scientific fields are run by human beings, with all the normal pride, ego, and other flawed bits that the rest of us have. It's not sacred or unblemished. Not at all.

What Does All This Mean?

The next step to understanding the knee-jerk anti-keto phenomenon is to apply this same defensive and irrational behavior to laypersons. When dealing with the Average Joe, we have to remember that he's probably not trained in science, medicine, nutrition, etc., and that the majority of what he thinks he knows about how we should eat to be fit and healthy is going to have come from the pool of "common knowledge." Some of it will be the general guidelines he's received from his doctor and other people he considers experts (health organizations, federal guidelines, etc., and so on) and the rest is going to be some combination of the stuff that is floating out there in popular culture; the "broscience," if you will. Now think about the reactions we get from actual trained scientists to things that challenge their current understanding, and then apply that to people who have only a vague or superficial knowledge of what science is, and are thoroughly unprepared to evaluate scientific claims and incorporate new information into their worldview.


The Knowledge of Now

One of the main problems we have when dealing with other laypersons is that the information they're working with, both about what they believe to be "healthy" and what they think they know about low carbohydrate living, is decades old. Most people do not realize that even the scientific information we have about nutrition is subject to change with new findings, nor do they realize that modern study has actually changed much of what we know.

Thus, when someone changes their food lifestyle to a ketogenic one many people immediately misunderstand what's going on. First, it contradicts the diet dogma they think they know, which is a half-century or more old and extremely out of date. Second, they think they know what keto is, and that is largely based on the old low-carb diets of the 80s and 90s where you could only have meat, cheese, butter, and a cup of lettuce a day for two weeks, and then gradually started working foods back in as long as you could fit the extra carbs into your limit.

At this point, we don't do things that way, because the science behind ketogenic living has evolved to the point where we know more about it, how it works, what kinds of foods we have to avoid, and which of those we have to cut permanently. We know significantly more about the relationship of insulin and other hormones to weight gain and fat storage, we know about inflammation and what kind of foods can cause it, and we know that calories are not what diet gurus claimed they were in relation to weight loss and gain way back in the 60s. The average person not already marinating in the current thinking of the low-carb movement does not know all these things, and you're telling them that what they believe- what all these experts have been telling them for their entire lives- is wrong.

The bottom line is that if a layperson is not already open to the idea that the popular conception of nutrition science is not set in stone, you can expect to experience some pushback, if not outright anger, outrage, or serious concern for your health. This can all be incredibly frustrating for the ketonian. It's bad enough doc acts like we're going to die from eating too much fat, even though we lost the weight he insisted we needed to for our health. It's even worse when mom is convinced we're killing ourselves with our bacon consumption.

How to Cope

The purpose of these posts is to help people try to understand the mindset behind why we experience the strife we do when we change our food lifestyles. Dealing with this one can be very tricky. When people react negatively to our new food choices because they genuinely believe them to be harmful, it can be difficult to reason them through things when you're contradicting decades of thoroughly embedded thinking. The best suggestion is to understand where the distress is coming from (lack of scientific understanding and an old, outdated knowledge base) and to be as kind and understanding towards them as you can. People who are concerned for your health are usually coming from a place of love for you, even if they don't know what they don't know. Some things you can do to prepare for these interactions are as follows:

  1. Educate yourself
    • You have to know the what and why behind the ketogenic lifestyle if you're going to deal with this kind of conflict. If you don't really understand why this works and that there is a plethora of scientific evidence that it's not only not harmful, it's actually healing, you're going to have a hard time explaining your choices to someone who is concerned for your health and bombarding you with links to low-fat/calorie-counting advocacy.
  2. Be kind
    • If someone is genuinely concerned about your health because they believe the old diet dogma to be true, their motives aren't bad, just misguided. Yes, it's incredibly frustrating when Aunt Sue had nothing at all to say when you were diving head-first into a plate of cookies, but is suddenly aghast that you're eating all that bacon and butter. Remember that for all of Aunt Sue's life, she's been told that fatty foods will kill you and also that it's okay to have anything in moderation. She may even believe that you "deserve" those old cookie indulgences and you're "depriving" yourself now. By going keto, you're contradicting what she thinks she knows and that's hard to process. If she's willing to listen, educate her, but do it gently and with love.
  3. Remember where you came from
    • Most important when dealing with other people is to remember that at one point you believed all the diet dogma, too. We all did. Keep that in mind and it will help you be patient with others.

Keeping these tips in mind and remembering that our movement is still very counter-cultural within the health and wellness community, much less society as a whole, will help you navigate tense or difficult situations when they arise. Above all, be true to yourself and your health, be confident in your choices, and keep on keto-ing on. 

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