June 23, 2024

Seed Oil Disrespecter, a practicing physician in Kentucky named Brian Kerley, explained it a bit ago in a meme: 98 ears of corn go into five tablespoons of corn oil. He describes seed oils to me as “hyper-concentration of marginally edible foods,”—more than anyone can normally eat. Kerley began getting radicalized before medical school, having gone down “diet rabbit holes” after getting into paleo; he began making memes about it during his residency, in 2021, “because that’s what people do.” Eating this many ears of corn a day, every day, leads to what Kerley—speaking as a doctor—calls “metabolic consequences in the long-term,” which he links to obesity and other health problems down the line. By Kerley’s definition, more than just trace amounts of a seed oil contains “too much polyunsaturated fat,” to be healthy.

Among nutritionists, the seed oil debate is less cut and dry—and not very new. (Studies on seed oils go back to at least the ‘60s.) According to Dr. Marion Nestle, emerita professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of a number of books on nutrition, the debate over seed oils is “an old story,” which “has to do with the structure of fat and the difference between omega 3 and omega-6 fats.”  

For Nestle, the premise is more that extra large fries are to blame than the oil they’re fried in. “The food industry’s job,” Nestle says, “is to get people to eat more of whatever it is they’re making. The collateral damage from that turns out to be obesity and its consequences.“ 

According to Nestle, there’s more food now, and it’s served in bigger portions, and it’s everywhere. It’s structural: industrialized food producers who produce most of what we eat became incentivized to super-size portions and introduce ultra-processed foods that taste very good and are very unhealthy. Tax breaks and a reliance on shareholder value corporatized the food landscape, Nestle says, and made more food get sold in more places. Over time, “healthier foods became relatively more expensive,” since they “increase in price more than ultra-processed foods” over time.  

But even if the trads and the PhDs tell different stories, they agree on the broad practical consequences—you should very much avoid eating ultra-processed foods, and the modern world makes that extremely hard. Nestle’s books chart how big food took over, and how unhealthy it is. Accounts like Kerley’s get this information across in an immediate way, and explain how to work a seed-oil free diet into your life. At their best, the shirtless doctors, raw-milk drinkers, and Greek statue meme accounts show how bad things have gotten, and propose a way to react that’s not peer reviewed, but is probably better than the status quo. 

The diets are also not theirs. Most of the reels, tweets and stories are, like Nestle says, not anything new. There’s an argument that seed oil avoidance goes back to early work by Dr. Ray Peat, an outsider biologist whose work had to do with cellular energy. Many posts about red meat-heavy diets tease out sentences and conclusions from key esoteric nutritional books, like Dr. Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, from 1939, and Dr. Cate Shanahan’s Deep Nutrition from 2017. Both make a case that diets built around nutrient rich animal foods—like meat on the bone, organ meats, saturated animal fats—along with fresh and fermented vegetables, are the healthiest. Lots of the posters’ exercise and diet advice is straight out of 1970s lifting, and much of the trads’ skepticism (about the food economy and for-profit medicine) and passion (for fresh, normal foods) wouldn’t sound out of place if they came came from long-time lefty nutrition heroes like Dr. Andrew Weil or Michael Pollan. 

To be sure, it’s understandable if someone can’t swing trad food because of the politics that hover around it. But these posters didn’t invent this way of eating; they’re just posting their groceries. It would be deranged if the left (or center, or whoever else) left eating tripe, raw milk and pickled greens to a certain political wave that has showed up late to the party and thinks it’s early. All foods have their politics, and these groceries can be expensive and hard to find. But we all have to eat, and we might as well eat pretty healthy. 

The memes aren’t double-blind studies, and any advice that comes packaged as a strict rule is worth treating skeptically. Not everything the shirtless doctor, the Roman coin guy or even the butter kid says should be taken at face value. But the root of their appeal is getting the big thing correct: Unhealthy, ultra-processed foods are everywhere now, and are making us sick. And so the best way to get healthy is to go back in time. 


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