Summing up: A slightly different kind of science story?

I’ve covered heart disease, diet, nutrition, and exercise long enough that newsroom colleagues have regularly come to me for their medical care. I’ve already been paid for the work, so I don’t have to charge them. And I was around long before Obamacare.

Still, it’s hard to keep up with the journals while you’re practicing, you know what I mean? And sometimes I wish someone would just lay out for me where we are now on low-carbohydrate diets compared to low-fat diets.

That’s what Melinda Wenner Moyer does in a story in aeon magazine. It is not a news story, and not a feature, but something else. It’s analytical, but it’s not in the usual form of a news analysis. It reflects a variety of opinions, but it’s not a commentary; it resists offering its own opinion. I’d call it a history–or a news history. Which is, I think, a kind of story we haven’t seen much of, and could perhaps use more of.

Moyer begins with a personal anecdote relating that she lost 15 pounds on a wheat-free diet a decade ago. When she later started eating bread again, she didn’t put the weight back on. But don’t be misled; Moyer is not preparing to argue in favor of wheat-free meals. As I said, this story is a historical survey, not an opinion piece.

After her opening, Moyer begins the history, starting in 1863 with William Banting’s Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, a document I wasn’t familiar with. She jumps to the 1960s and continues from there.

We get a very nice recap of all the zigs and zags in dietary recommendations in recent decades; Atkins and his low-carb diet (introduced on The Tonight Show); and the various versions of the paleolithic diet, in which we have been advised to eat like our stone-age ancestors, because that’s what we evolved to do.

In the broad sweep of the story, Moyer didn’t tell me too much I didn’t know, but she reminded me of many, many details I’d forgotten, and, yes, did introduce me to some research and sources I hadn’t known about.

Sadly, Moyer concludes that the science–decades of it–still doesn’t tell us what we need to know to make intelligent decisions about wheat, fat, carbohydrates, and calories.

“The science does collectively suggest, but not prove, that a calorie is not always a calorie, and that carbohydrates–particularly refined ones–might have unique metabolic effects that increase risk for chronic disease,” she writes.

It’s also “safe to say,” she writes, that the carbohydrates we consume are “unnatural”–not something our ancestors ate. And we “might stay healthier if we take flour and added sugar off our plates.”

I think this is an interesting genre, and I’d like to see more examples of it. I worry that these stories might be difficult to sell to editors; there are no fireworks here, and no particular news peg. But news histories could be useful to readers who might want to be reminded what’s happened and where we are now with gene therapy, or climate mitigation proposals, or nuclear waste storage, or quantum computers.

These stories can also be especially valuable to writers who might want to pick up where the news histories leave off.

-Paul Raeburn


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