Good Low-Carb, Bad Low-Carb: Many low-carbohydrate diet gurus constantly lie. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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I do not pretend that I am the final judge of scientific fact. Sometimes—or even often—I am wrong. My emphasis is on intellectual humility, an openness to evidence, and a respect for the weight of that evidence.

It is important to keep our discussion of health science within the realm of the factual, and it seems to me that recently Jason Fung and many of his friends’ claims have begun to diverge ever more from this norm of decent behavior. Their claims grow ever more extreme, their self-reinforcing circle of gurus ever more cloistered. When their errors are pointed out, they neither defend or engage with the fact-checkers but instead continue promoting statements that are scientifically indefensible. They have formed a cloistered echo chamber that is accountable only to itself. And they imply with their behavior and denunciations of the establishment that they more scientific than most scientists. Theirs is the height of intellectual dishonesty, and they represent a danger to society.

Low-carbohydrate diets have interesting and potentially important health applications. I try to maintain good relationships with experts on the low-carb diet. Among low-carb people on social media, I like Ethan Weiss a lot and have had great scientific conversations with him. Likewise, while I have been critical of David Ludwig, we have often had interesting and quality scientific discussions. I love Peter Attia’s podcast and enjoy interacting with him. I will probably be interviewed by Gary Taubes; I hope to discuss with him his upcoming debate with Stephan Guyenet on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. And although I don’t know him personally, one exemplar of science-based discussion in the keto space is Dom D’Agostino. While important criticisms have been leveled at some of Dom’s ideas in the area of cancer, it is clear that he is knowledgable and takes facts seriously.

The serious effort to try to take criticisms seriously is the mark of a scientific person, and most if not all of the above individuals try to fit that bill.

Jason Fung and many of his friends (Tim Noakes, Nina Teicholz, Zoe Harcombe, etc.) represent the opposite. Their demonstrated unwillingness to engage rationally with others shows that they regard themselves as immune to criticism. Their constant lying shows that they have little regard for the facts.

Western societies are facing multiple crises that require a clear understanding of the facts to handle appropriately. Because we live in a democracy, a widespread misunderstanding of the facts can be detrimental to a well-functioning political process. Some of these facts are related to issues with a substantial nutritional or food component—e.g. the obesity epidemic, the present crisis of chronic federal (read: healthcare) overspending, greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental degradation.

If the popular discussion is to be characterized by the circulation of claims that are factually false, the consequences to the political process—and decisions made as a result of this process—could be catastrophic. This happened at the highest levels of government in the 20th century in Europe. Arguably it is presently happening the highest levels of government today in America. Those of us with a voice and ability to influence discussion have a moral obligation to point these facts out in terms that might be uncomfortable to us.

Therefore we should say: the above-named individuals promote lies, and do so constantly and flagrantly.

Almost any paradigm, ideology, or dietary regimen that results in a calorie deficit while maintaining nutrient adequacy will improve health. Do we need lies that are tailored to inflame emotions and gain followers to achieve this? We do not. If Jason Fung’s ideas worked, and that was the end of it, there would be much less controversy. But then there would be no Jason Fung. Jason Fung has used deceptive and inflammatory rhetoric not because it is necessary to communicate his ideas, but because controversy about his lies is exceptionally good marketing for his advice. Jason Fung’s lies indeed have little directly to do with the actual recommendations he makes.

Therefore, if Jason Fung’s ideas help people, they should use them. But people should ask themselves whether the lies are necessary to embrace the truths, and whether it is appropriate to defend people’s bad behavior because one agrees with their advice. We can entertain alternative and interesting ideas without embracing pseudoscience. We can acknowledge advice without endorsing lies.

A final possibility can be suggested: that we tolerate and even secretly enjoy the lies because we are angry. Honesty is a norm of civilized society. But if one hates civilized society, then dishonesty is justified, even pleasant, even funny. It needs to be considered whether anger is the real driver of the lies coming from this camp in the health world—and whether a discussion motivated by anger is the one we really want.

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2 Comments

  1. Good stuff – really can relate to how they ignore you if u disagree with them. It maybe human nature but is really disables better growth and understanding of issues.

  2. Statements about openness to scientific queries, debate etc. are easy to agree with. Less so are ad hominum attacks on JF and others.

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