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The Information Cascades of Diets

The advent of modern medicine in the early to mid-1900s caused the populace to consider life span and personal wellness on a much larger scale. An effect was many people beginning to ask, if I am what I eat, what should I eat? With the food industry booming and modern advertisement escalating there was a large push to find the “perfect diet” and to market it. Since then there have been numerous waves of radically different consensuses of what is good to eat and what is not. For a time, ice cream was listed as a health threat rivaling cigarettes. In the seventies, carbs were in, and fats were out. This saw a drastic change in the early 2000s with the hyped Atkin’s Diet of high fat, no carbs. Modern dieting beliefs are finally tending to a more balanced make up of food. Both the anti-fat and anti-carb diet waves can be contributed to information cascades.

A single leading nutritionist, the creator of WW2 K-rations, published a paper concluding that fatty foods were the leading cause of coronary disease in the United States along with many other maladies. Several more poorly designed studies came to the same conclusion. With this consensus in the scientific community, the Surgeon General released a statement proclaiming fatty foods were to be avoided at all costs. The anti-fat cascade continued to the point of being considered a known fact. Studies began revealing that the consensus was false but many doctors and researchers did not stand up against the grain for fear of their reputation being tainted. It took an information cascade in the opposite direction towards anti-carb to reverse the anti-fat fad.

“Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


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November 2011