Bummed by Bittman

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I used to really admire Mark Bittman. For years, I obsessively read his New York Times column “The Minimalist,” which was dedicated to simple weeknight recipes, typically consisting of just a few ingredients. He is delightful in those Minimalist videos–a home cook, really (he has no formal training), throwing together ricotta, flour, eggs, and parmesan to make gnocchi, or grinding pork-fennel burgers in his beloved food processor. It helped that his Minimalist recipes skewed Italian and that Bittman himself is a bit of a goofy New Yorker, but I found him both inspiring (he was getting people in the kitchen with these quick recipes!) and entertaining.

I was a bit disheartened when his more-than-13-year run as the Minimalist came to a close in early 2011, but also excited: Bittman would become an Op-Ed columnist for the Times, writing about the links between food, health, and the environment. I had appreciated his approach to these topics in his 2008 book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating–I had even gone to see him speak at the Philadelphia Free Library about how Americans should eat less meat (and better quality/better treated meat, at that), how America’s school lunch program needs revamping (children in Brazil are served healthier lunches, he said), and how a soda tax would help to subsidize real farmers. I agreed with all this, and found his strategies for what he calls “sane, judicious, conscious eating” to be both simple and sound.

The “sound” part of Bittman’s food ideology is, for me at least, now seriously in question. In his most recent Times Op-Ed column, “Is Alzheimer’s Type 3 Diabetes?,” Bittman employs alarmist, inflammatory language to cover up for a lack of facts. The piece, published online on September 25th, argues that “Alzheimers could well be a form of diet-induced diabetes.” Bittman writes that diabetic insulin-resistance can spread to the brain’s cells: “And when the cells in your brain become insulin-resistant, you start to lose memory and become disoriented. You even might lose aspects of your personality. In short, it appears, you develop Alzheimer’s.” Bittman is not saying that diabetes causes Alzheimer’s, but that Alzheimer’s and diabetes have the same cause: “an overconsumption of those ‘foods’ which mess with insulin’s many roles.”

I can follow Bittman’s logic up to a point: eating highly processed foods laden with sweeteners can cause us to be at greater risk for developing Type-2 diabetes. But I can’t take his hand and make the leap from a diet heavy in processed foods and sweeteners leading to a greater risk for developing diabetes” to the definitive that “you develop Alzheimer’s.” P does not imply Q.

Why do I refuse to follow Bittman here? Simple: he does not back up his claims, at least not with scientifically-proven facts. Bittman’s sources for this Op-Ed are: an article in the non-peer-reviewed magazine New Science (a magazine my aunt, who is a distinguished doctor and former research scientist, called “crap”), a video by Dr. Oz (of Oprah fame,) and research being conducted by Dr. Suzanne de la Monte. Dr. de la Monte’s research may well turn out to be valid, but it is not completed yet, and one neuropathologist’s research does not prove definitively that “you develop Alzheimer’s” from eating processed foods.

But that seems to be what Bittman has bought into in this Op-Ed: he drops the conditional quickly after his lede, ending his piece with, “The link between diet and dementia negates our notion of Alzheimer’s as a condition that befalls us by chance.” I bet that many people whose loved ones suffer or suffer from Alzheimer’s would find such a statement offensive.

What do I find offensive? Bittman’s belittling tone. He calls the standard American diet “SAD,” he puts scare quotes around the word food when describing that which most Americans eat. This type of language serves only to isolate readers whose food habits may actually put them at risk for diabetes. During my year at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, I hope to write about food and health issues in a manner that lacks such a patronizing, provocative tone.

And this isn’t Bittman’s only instance of flawed logic carried through to extremes. Earlier this summer, Bittman wrote an Op-Ed that definitively linked dairy consumption and heartburn. To summarize: Bittman suffered from chronic heartburn. When he cut back on dairy, his heartburn was relieved. Therefore, Bittman says all sufferers of heartburn should cut back on dairy. Once again, P does not imply Q.

I still consider his tome How to Cook Everything to be my kitchen Bible, and I’ll still search out his new recipes for the New York Times Magazine, published in a column called “Eat.” But Bittman seems to dedicate more research to perfecting his recipes than he does to backing up his claims about the links between food and health.

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