How to Win a Nutrition Argument Against Anyone

Two businessmen having an argument

Kris Gunnars wrote an awesome post on How to Win an Argument With a Nutritionist at the beginning of the year. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

He addressed an important way to prove points in debates/arguments, which is supporting points or claims with peer-reviewed journal articles. However, this strategy is only effective when you know when and how to use it.

Have you ever eaten a meal and heard something like “Dr. Oz says that’s not good for you”?

Because eating is something that everyone does, people form strong opinions (that are influenced by various credible and not so credible sources), which are often difficult to change (silly cognitive dissonance!)

In a case like this, if you simply hand someone a list of studies, most people will look at you like you’ve gone mad and the discussion won’t really progress any further.

The better course of action in this case is to understand their views, while presenting your own, and pointing out any flaws in their logic. Most of the time you’ll ask why they think something and get a response of “…I’m not sure…” or “because so and so said so”, which are two good examples of a poor argument.

Once you understand any valid points or flaws in their logic, you can compose a retort to state your stance on the issue.

There are 7 levels used to describe an argument, the basis of which come from Paul Graham’s guide on How to Disagree. While he wrote the article for business professionals, it can be applied to nutrition and most other fields as well.

You should evaluate your own arguments based on these levels (higher is better), and learn to spot flaws in arguments of others.

The 7 Levels of Disagreement

ladder of arguments

We’ll start at the bottom…

Level 0 – Name-calling

“I don’t even know how to respond to that…You’re an idiot!”

When someone simply resorts to calling anyone a name to try and discredit an argument, they aren’t disproving the argument at all. You’ll notice that when you get into a rather heated/emotional argument with someone it often comes down to this after a short while.

Level 1 – Ad Hominem

I briefly discussed ad hominem in my article about Spotting Bullshit Science. Essentially ad hominem is discrediting or accepting an argument solely by who’s presenting it.

For example, if a doctor tells you a low-fat diet is good, many people believe him/her based on his/her position of authority.

Similarly, saying “X can’t be trusted because he’s a Republican”, is the same thing.

Discredit the argument, not the person behind it.

Level 2 – Criticism of tone

If someone presents information to you in a tone that sounds condescending or belittling, you are likely to dismiss it, regardless of what it is.

It can be hard to remain emotionally stable in an argument, but that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to truly understand the presented argument.

Level 3 – Contradiction

Now we’re starting to get to the argument, but on a very simple level. Contradiction is forming a counter-argument but not discrediting the opposing argument or supporting your own.

For example, “Low fat diets are not good for you. High fat diets are much better for people.”

At this point you’ve at least presented an alternative stance to a viewpoint, just not very well.

Level 4 – Presenting a counter-argument

Up until now it’s really easy to spot the flaws in the argument, but here you start getting into more intelligent debate.

Here you not only state your stance (like in level 3, but you also back it up with reasoning). Continuing with the above example:

“Low fat diets are not good for you. High fat diets are much better for people. There are essential fats for the body to function well, while there are no essential carbohydrates. On top of that…(and so on).”

This is a much more common type of argument to have in everyday life. The flaws with this are that arguments can be very broad, and it’s often easy to sound credible arguing whichever side you’re on.

I’ve seen several online spats where fairly popular nutrition/fitness figures have debates, which is all well and good, and they end up writing pages on their view point. When all is said and done, fans of each respective figure believe they have won because their own argument seemed so solid.

With a simple counter-argument it’s easy to slip away from the point and argue for completely different things.

Level 5 – Refutation

I find refutation is a great way to get to the important core aspects of an argument.

When you ask someone why they believe something, it gives you an opportunity to point out a flaw in that logic.

If someone says “I think low fat diets are good for insulin regulation”, then you can explain how insulin responds to different nutrients and why their thought is wrong.

Level 6 – Dismantling the central point

Here we are – level 6 – the top of the ladder.

One problem with a refutation argument, is that in a debate with a large scope, you can pick one or two small things and disagree with them. This typically just ends with a lot of confusion.

The ideal way to address an argument is to first identify the central point. Start with the core belief (e.g. “low-fat diets are best”), and then probe deeper to find out why they think that. You need to identify the main reasons, in this case usually something to do with the ADA’s or a doctor’s recommendation.

Once you have the central point, you need to refute it directly. To do so you can certainly cite studies when appropriate, but also understanding the mechanisms behind the issue will help explain your viewpoint clearly.

Don’t be aggressive

It's a debate, not a fight

It’s a debate, not a fight

You may be passionate about nutrition, but the fastest way to shut anyone out from your ideas is to be aggressive. When people start to get defensive and feel insulted, pride and ego come in and no progress will be made (This goes back to the level 2 argument reasoning).

Most debates should be started with the purpose of learning or education in mind, keep this in mind and it should help you remain rational.

Also, just because you make a level 6 argument doesn’t mean you’re necessarily correct. It is certainly reasonable for someone to refute your argument around the central point as well.

What should you take from this?

At the beginning of the article I stated my central point, in that I believe people present flawed arguments often, and being able to recognize the flaw is crucial to addressing it.

The last thing I’d like to leave you with is that if you go into an argument/debate with the mindset of “I’m going to win”, you will both lose. Stay open minded and once in a while you will end up being the one who learned something.

Examples of good and bad arguments in your life?

Now I want to hear from you.

Have you recently heard any viewpoints about nutrition that made you get into an argument? How did you approach it and how did it go? Let me know with a comment below.

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4 comments

  1. Helen   •  

    I love those levels of arguments, they seem to apply to just about any argument.

    • Dale   •     Author

      Exactly Helen, they are definitely not limited to just nutrition arguments. It’s always good to have an unbiased way to evaluate your thoughts and arguments.

  2. Pam R.   •  

    Great stuff as always Dale :)

    The most recent argument I got in was with my co-workers about eating bagels, and I think my struggle was identifying the ‘central point’, i know what to look for now! thanks

    • Dale   •     Author

      Thanks for stopping by Pam!

      Once you start trying to look for the central point in arguments you’ll get really good at seeing it fast, so don’t worry if you miss it at first.

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