I’m not about to claim that overeating, and the wrong kinds of eating, aren’t major problems. (They are.) And I’m not about to say that corporations that manufacture and sell industrially processed foods aren’t doing a lot to worsen this. (They are.) Yet I’m sceptical of Dr Aseem Malhotra‘s warning of the former and jeremiad against the latter. For he claims:

It is estimated that diet-related diseases are responsible for 35 million deaths worldwide, dwarfing smoking-related ones of 5 to 8 million. And while there have been tremendous advances in discouraging cigarette consumption, we haven’t really started to act on obesity.

If the crude mortality rate is any guide there are, per year, just over 60 million deaths worldwide. Are over half of them because of diets? I doubt it. See, I think Dr Malhotra took the statistic from here

The United Nations announced in September that chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes contribute to 35 million deaths worldwide each year…

But is diet the cause of all incidences of heart disease, cancer and diabetes? No. I doubt Lance Armstrong or Gary Hall picked up their illness through pigging out on junk food one too many times. In fact, as well as all the people who were doomed by their alcoholism, lack of exercise, increasing age or genetics that number presumably includes most of the smokers Malhotra was using a comparison. This apparent sloppiness is especially serious when he goes on to make fairly ambitious prescriptions: including banning junk food from schools (which you could make a case for but would be a grave abrogation of parental freedoms) and establishing compulsory food tech lessons in primary schools (which might be doable, though I’m not sure teachers will be thrilled to supervise thirty children with raw food, knives and cooking appliances).

CiF commentators passing off misunderstandings and received wisdom as fact is hardly new. (Here, for example, as we’re on the subject, is my look at Barbara Ellen’s stupid claim that people who eat flesh are necessarily stupid.) Yet when a practicing doctor can make – unless I’ve made a ridiculous error – such a ridiculous error it drives home how lax the standards of epistemic rigour can be in today’s society. And if we’re blind to the truth we’ll never understand the problems it illuminates.

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