Pictured above: the bowl of ice cream I ate immediately after writing this.
If I told you that ice cream was healthy, would you believe me? What if I got more specific and said studies have shown that regularly eating ice cream reduces your chances of developing type 2 diabetes? What if I told you that the scientific basis for the finding was robust? What would any of us do with such claims? These are the questions raised by a fascinating piece in The Atlantic, which examines precisely this uncomfortable fact.
Multiple large diet studies have found the association outlined above. Regularly eating ice cream is consistently associated with a lower incidence of diabetes. In fact, as the article explains at great length, this finding about ice cream is almost identical to the association between yogurt and better health. But while yogurt has been trumpeted as a health food, researchers have been much quieter about the benefits of ice cream, which can be found in precisely the same base of evidence.
Two things interest me about this. First is the dynamic at the heart of the science. The scientists involved go to great lengths to devise reasons that ice cream might not be healthy. They cite mechanistic evidence and advance plausible theories for why their own finding might not be valid. I’m sure there’s something to these arguments, and I don’t want to get too psychological, but I think a more parsimonious explanation is embarrassment. People already joke about being told various foods — eggs, butter, grains, carbs — are healthy one day, only to be told the next that, actually, they’re not so good, and then to have that reversed. It would look ridiculous for some of the most eminent nutritionists in the world to report that they had found ice cream of all things to be a big part of a balanced diet, and so those eminent nutritionists do their best to ignore the finding.
And this brings me to the second point. Changing your diet based on newspaper headlines is generally foolish, to put it bluntly. Give the article I’m discussing here a careful read and consider the implications of taking it seriously. The science on which public dietary guidelines rest is flimsy. But the alternative diet gurus, the ones who point to the weakness and hypocrisy of the establishment, generally have a far more tenuous relationship to solid evidence than the people they criticize. Don’t listen to anyone who speaks about the link between diet and health with total confidence.
Still, we all have to eat something, and clearly certain dietary patterns are more or less healthy, even if it’s impossible to be certain about the specifics. For my part, I think focusing on whole foods, prepared at home is a reasonable approach, especially when it comes with a bit more deliberate attention to the acts of cooking and eating. And who knows? Maybe a little ice cream for dessert isn’t the worst thing.