The Unwisdom of John Mackey

John Mackey is the founder of Whole Foods, a business I greatly respect. But he’s not always right.

“You only love animal fat because you’re used to it,” he said. “You’re addicted.”

(From a profile of Mackey in The New Yorker.) I discovered that animal fat improved my sleep when I overcame my (learned) repulsion and ate a lot more than usual.I think it’s obvious that fat tastes good for unlearned reasons. For reasons not based on experience. (Babies like fat. Animals similar to us, who have never eaten fast food, like fat.) Mackey’s comment is an example of a larger disregard of this. Professional nutritionists, including nutrition professors, have ignored the general point that our food preferences must somehow be good for us. I’m not saying all fat must be good for us — just the fat we ate when our liking of fat evolved. The idea that evolution would shape us to like and eat a food component that’s bad for us makes no sense.

12 Replies to “The Unwisdom of John Mackey”

  1. I haven’t read the whole article yet, but, to my satisfaction, he looks terrible.

    I do appreciate Whole Foods, though, for having some grass-fed animal products and other unadulterated food.

  2. That quote jumped out at me too. Gary Taubes would replace “animal fat” with “simple carbs” like rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta.

  3. Seth, how would you respond to the claim that certain food likings (as in fat) are good for us short term but not long term (say, they might take several years off our life) – and that the immediate benefits were large enough to outweigh the longer term detriments evolutionarily speaking?

  4. Sorry mate but I think I gotta take this blog off my list. I respect your ability to go your own way. But recently you’ve been saying things that are counter-logical. Consider:

    quote:
    …the general point that our food preferences must somehow be good for us. I’m not saying all fat must be good for us — just the fat we ate when our liking of fat evolved. The idea that evolution would shape us to like and eat a food component that’s bad for us makes no sense.

    Our food preferences were the result of natural selection at a very different point in human evolutionary time. Food preferences that once served a useful purpose may very well be harmful at this time, in the present context. Perhaps animal fats help you sleep better. OK. Good. But the general argument simply does not hold.

    Also, you recently claimed to measure sleep quality, subjectively, to an accuracy of one part in one thousand. I don’t believe this accuracy at all.

  5. I think it’s obvious that SUGAR tastes good for unlearned reasons. For reasons not based on experience. (Babies like SUGAR. Animals similar to us, who have never eaten fast food, like SUGAR.)

  6. Joe, there was no sugar 100,000 years ago. I’m sure that whatever tasted sweet back then was good for us, at least in the amounts that were available. Israel Ramirez thinks sweet things taste good so that we would eat more plants. Fruit, for example.

    AntiAntiCamper, food preferences that worked 100,000 years ago may now be harmful because we can fulfill them in ways that weren’t available back then. My point is that our basic nutritional needs are unlikely to have changed. If we needed a certain kind of fat back then we probably need it today.

    Anthony, nothing I know about in nutrition supports the idea of short-term benefits but long-term costs. Vitamin C: short-term benefit, long-term benefit. Etc.

  7. I’ve noticed a surprising amount of resistance to the the caveman/paleo theories of nutrition, at least when I’ve proposed it to acquaintances and family members. I think people resist the implication that the most expensive diet is the healthiest . . . it goes against democratic sensibilities.

  8. I think the problem behind the assumption is that evolution didn’t necessarily select for foods that contribute to longevity.

    The strongest effects of natural selection occur up to parenting age. While having older humans around could certainly help the survival of a community, anything that improved odds of surviving and reproducing in the first 20-40 years would have the highest favorability. Hence, it seems entirely concievable that something like fat, which is the densest source of calories and very useful to those with inconsistent access to food, might have long-term consequences that evolution didn’t care about. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily right, but it is certainly plausible. So I don’t think you can say that anything that has a demonstrated positive effect and we evolved to like, is necessarily something that is good for overall health and long-life.

  9. Rashad, I’m pretty sure that grandparents help their grandkids more when they are alive than when they are dead. As for “necessarily” — we can’t “necessarily” say anything about nutrition. If you know of data that cast doubt on my conclusions or assumptions that would be more convincing.

  10. The conventional wisdom is that sugar other than honey and fat other than blubber weren’t available in modern quantities and purities until agriculture.

  11. Sugar *including* honey was not available in modern quantities and purities until recently. Agriculture was invented some 10,000 years ago. Sugar became cheap and plentiful with the advent of the European powers developing warm-weather colonies around the globe suitable for sugar plantations. Honey became cheap and plentiful much later.

    The 19th century saw the invention of human-made beehives with removable, replaceable square frames that bees spontaneously fill with honey. Until then, humans had to smash a beehive (and usually kill the bees) to get at the honey. Honey in any controllable, scalable quantity dates only from that time.

    Modern, large-scale, commercial beekeeping involves keeping a cheap syrup solution near the beehives for the bees to visit. Cheap honey comes from bees that never lit upon a flower. I suppose you could call the resulting product “pure” in that it is simpler, lacking the complexity of wild or artisanal honey, in content and in taste.

    As far as the “purity” of modern fat, I don’t understand what is meant by this. True, olive oil has been available in large quantities since the dawn of the agriculture. (Only in its “extra-virgin” form, though.) But modern plant oils, like canola and cottonseed, are the result of complex, high-tech processes like bleaching and hydrogenation that result in substances that may appear “pure” to the naked eye, but they are so altered from any naturally occurring fats that our animal bodies cannot safely metabolize them. The problem with them does not inhere in their quantity, but in their quality: they are not fit to eat.

    Why marginalize blubber? The fat of many types of marine fauna supported the human race throughout our history. Arguably, it was eating all those high fat creatures so easily captured along shorelines that enabled our brains to grow big enough for us to figure out how to hunt down faster, stronger land creatures. Humans have long thrived on a lot more fat than many well-meaning people allow themselves today.

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