Tobacco, Soda, and the Beef with Truth

Tobacco, Soda, and the Beef with Truth

David Katz 31/01/2020 4

The coat of arms at Yale University reads: Lux et Veritas. That means “light and truth.” Those two elements almost always imply the presence of a third, however: heat.

So far as I know, every individual or entity who has stood up to speak truth to power has found themselves not only in the light, but facing a great deal of heat. These days, Greta Thunberg comes immediately to mind. Given the timing, Martin Luther King, Jr. also tops the list. But also, of course, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Nelson Mandela, Erin Brockovich, Harriet Tubman, and of course- Horton- to name only a few. The list is very long, and should certainly include every suffragist, every civil rights advocate, human rights advocate, every environmental group, every anti-war group that ever was.

Entrenched interests do not, ever, go gentle into that good night. They go out kicking and screaming. They scorn and mock and fight and disparage you every step of the way. We have all cried about this at times, and laughed at it, too, when it is well satirized, as in Thank You for Smoking. We know it pertains to food in generalsoda specifically, everything to do with exploitation for profit- and, of course, beef.

We also know that a short list of factors, diet and lifestyle topping that list, account for 80% of the chronic disease and premature death in the U.S. and increasing swathes of the modern world. We have known all that for more than a quarter century. We have known how to modify those very factors to reduce rates of chronic disease and premature death by that same 80% or more for that same span. 

The opportunity to help turn that knowledge into routine action, and thereby help add years to countless lives, and quality of life to countless years- was the specific basis for my career beyond Internal Medicine, in Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine. The seminal “Actual Causes of Death in the United States” was published in JAMA by heroes of mine the year I completed my training in Preventive Medicine at Yale. The rest, as they say, is history.

But not good history. With entrenched and profitable interests fighting the conversion of knowledge into action by every means at their disposal, rates of obesity and chronic disease for profit have gone up, not down. Our food supply remains willfully engineered to be addictive, even as we admonish people to exercise portion control. Food is now the single leading cause of premature death in our country; period. 

Or, perhaps we should allow for the root cause to be misinformation about food, since if everyone knew with confidence what was true and trustworthy, perhaps they would not so willingly mortgage the health of their children to fatten the profits of Big Food, and Big Pharma- two premier beneficiaries of the status quo, or what we might call: breakfast (lunch, and dinner) as usual, in America.

I share the current concern of the global public health community about the coronavirus in China. But the greatest and most pernicious plague of our time is the viral spread of misinformation on so many topics, health salient among them. Consider that even as a nascent panic sweeps the globe over the coronavirus, with many breathless, worried questions about a vaccine- established vaccines for familiar diseases are routinely refused because of effectively disseminated falsehoods.

I founded the True Health Initiative for these very reasons. After years of fighting to leverage what was reliably known to add years to lives and life to years, and help save the planet into the bargain- it was entirely clear that the relevant truths had many enemies. The easiest thing in the world was to douse the truth with so much confusion and noise, that it’s light was made invisible to the world. So here we are, more than a quarter century after my personal efforts began, with more chronic disease, not less- a planet headed toward the cosmic ICU.

The inspiration for the True Health Initiative was a rather atypical doctor; namely, Dr. Seuss. In Horton Hears a Who, Dr. Seuss showed how public opinion could rally against an uncomfortable (or inconvenient?) truth. He also showed that if enough people came together to espouse that same truth, a signal could be generated to rise above the din and discord. And so it was that all the Who’s shouted “we are here” with a strength born only of unity, and the truth prevailed, and the day was saved. History has judged Horton a hero.

The True Health Initiative concept began with those Who’s, and then a question to and about a who’s who in public health: if not now, when, and if not us…who? 

So began my effort to see if the global community of experts and influencers in medicine, public health, sustainability, and more- could come together, despite many differences over details, to stand in common cause, on common ground. The answer was a resounding “yes,” not “we are here,” but rather: “we agree.” Not about every detail, of course. We agree about the fundamentals of a health-promoting diet and lifestyle; we agree about the behavioral imperatives for the health of people and planet alike.

As an organization, the True Health Initiative does not speak for its Council of some 500 fully independent thought leaders from 45 countries; how could we? Just polling the group on a given question might take a year! 

Rather, the Council simply, and only, represents the core principles that guide all actions by the True Health Initiative operationally. The Council stands for a set of core principles, and that’s all; the organization works to advance the uptake of these same principles through message dissemination. We are, effectively, a communication hub for experts and influencers.

Perhaps a useful analogy would be the Associated Press. The AP is a global coalition of independent journalists who share an outlet, a passion for truth-telling, and the highest ethical standards of their profession. That does NOT mean, of course, that every AP story is endorsed by every journalist in that fold from 100 countries. Those stories align with the principles of the entire AP, while directly reflecting the views of the one or several journalists who sign them.

So, too, for the True Health Initiative. We don’t speak for our full Council with every action, any more than every AP member signs off on every story. Rather, our Council defines the principles our every action serves. 

The only other thing to say about the True Health Initiative, a federally authorized 501c3 non-profit, is how much like humble Horton we really are

Organizationally, we are tiny- with just one funded position, almost nothing in our bank account, and certainly… no bots! If we are effective- as we seem to have been opposing unethical “guidelines” with apparent ties to the beef industry advising everyone to keep eating all the processed meat they want- it reflects the power of truth, not trickery or technology. The True Health Initiative is publicly wed to its principles, and not subject to any conflicts of interest. No amount of money can ever change what the True Health Initiative says, does, or stands for- as these all came first, and have been on public display since before the first dollar was raised. As for dollars…anyone contrasting our apparent impact and effectiveness with an audit of our books- would surely either laugh at us, or cry for us. 

The Yale University coat of arms reads: Lux, et Veritas. But there is, quite simply, something else that belongs on that list. Standing up in the light, to speak the truth, subjects one…to the heat. It is not for the faint of heart. But thank goodness for all who have been willing to take that heat. 

Others will judge if the True Health Initiative makes that rarefied list. If so, it makes me very proud.


Dr. David L. Katz, Founder & President, The True Health Initiative

The True Health Initiative is a federally authorized 501c3 non-profit supported by philanthropy. The Council of Directors is a coalition of roughly 500 diverse, fully independent content experts in medicine, public health, and life sciences- from roughly 45 countries. There is no membership fee, nor are Council members compensated.

The THI does not advocate for any specific diet, but rather the general set of clearly established, fundamental elements of health-promoting and sustainable dietary and lifestyle practices

Organizational membership in the True Health Initiative is open to all based on merit and alignment of principles, and does not involve a fee.

The True Health Initiative currently operates with a single funded position; the President is not compensated.

The True Health Initiative has never made use of ‘bots’ to disseminate any message, and has no recourse to any such service or device.

The principles espoused and defended by the True Health Initiative are on public display; have been from inception; and are never altered on the basis of changes in membership or charitable contributions.

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  • Jack Regan

    This is very helpful

  • Scott Glen

    Well delivered.

  • Alison Chappin

    We need to stop feeding kids and everyone extra sugar.

  • Ed Turnbull

    Strong message.

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David Katz

Healthcare Expert

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.

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