Nutritional science or sales pitch? How-to guidelines.

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Wanna buy some ketones?
Psst. Wanna buy some ketones?

An actual conversation I overheard in our company break room:

You have got to try this stuff. It’s completely awesome. And scientific too! I spent like a week on the internet doing research. I’d never even heard of ketones before and now I’m drinkin’ this stuff. I’m losing weight like crazy and I feel like I’m eighteen! It’s not cheap but – c’mon – who cares about money when we’re talking about health?

A week later I notice an advertisement stuck at the entry to the perp’s cube. So now – after a week of researching the internet and two weeks of downing ‘ketones’  – he is a nutritional expert selling the stuff. I sit close enough to him that I can hear his phone conversations and about three times a day I hear him explain that these are therapeutically pure ketones and they are only available from his company. I notice a plastic jug on his desk with ‘Proprietary’ tape wrapped around it. These guys are good.

And I am completely irritated.

I’m irritated because, like any evangelist, he has all the answers. Except that he doesn’t. And he doesn’t even know it. The nuances of nutrition are simply too complex  to funnel down to any superfood or micronutrient. It is silly, bad science, wastes people’s money, and is potentially harmful. He is selling something that doesn’t work over the long run.

I don’t know if it’s for him or for others but he also posts his daily diet for all to see:

  • Breakfast – coffee with butter, ketone supplements
  • Lunch – single portion of lean meat, leafy green vegetables, ketone supplements
  • Dinner – healthy dinner of smaller portions, ketone supplement
  • Lots of water all day
  • Lots of exercise
Don’t you want to be skinny and happy too?

Who wouldn’t lose weight on this diet?  You could substitute ‘Betty Crocker Fudge Brownie’ for ‘ketone supplement’ and still lose weight. He’s eating fewer calories than he needs and extending the deficit with ‘lots of exercise’. He will likely begin eating even less as food becomes a boring chore. Ask yourself: how many days over the next month do you want a chicken breast or a quarter pound of bacon for breakfast? There comes a point, though, that all this concentration and money and boring food gives way to real life and the weight comes back. But by then there will be a new book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble about how fermented mango rind can not only help you lose weight and increase your IQ but actually emits pheromones making you absolutely irresistible to the opposite sex! And the cycle starts over.

There is another way to do this that is healthful, happy, less consuming, and proffers true benefits. It’s called eating food and doing a bit of exercise.

But first two things:

  • Everyone has a right to an opinion. Just like my co-worker I’m always interested in ways to live a more healthy lifestyle. I just require evidence.
  • All of the major health organizations have looked at controlled and peer-reviewed research and argue that there is little to no long-term gain to any of these fad diets. The big picture has been reaffirmed over and over again: a diet of whole foods that focuses on plants is our best bet for long-term health and a livable lifestyle. Michel Pollan‘s advice to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants” still holds.

But ketones aren’t my interest here. How to sort out nutritional advice is. How do we learn to step back from the salesman and Internet ads and look to real science for health advice?

Here are some guidelines:

• Remember that science and especially pseudo-science is performed by human beings. Any time a human being is involved you will have a bias. If said human is selling you something they likely have a strong bias. Or are outright fakes. This doesn’t mean that my co-worker and his ketone pals are wrong. Or that he is right. It means that you should be wary of anyone selling you exceptional results.

•Find a science based nutritionist that you can trust. This can be much harder than it seems. For more academic references I like David Katz. I never miss the Nutrition Diva’s weekly podcast for down to earth advice about questions straight from the news.  And I have just started listening to SciBabe, aka Yvette d’Entremont, who doesn’t provide nutritional advice as such but skewers bad and unsupported advice.

•Run from any reference to superfood.

•Run as fast as you can from any reference to putting butter and coconut oil in your coffee.

•If you want Bulletproof opt for La Roux and avoid Dave Asprey.

•Learn the buzzwords: natural, organic, toxic, superfood, ketones, accusations of

For the uninitiated: real food.
For the uninitiated: real food.

working for ‘big pharma’ – all  are fairly meaningless (botulism is organic and natural) and should trigger your bullshit detector.

•Speaking of detecting bullshit here is Brainpicking’s take on Carl Sagan’s famous and useful Baloney Detection Kit – read here. Memorize it. It is more useful than the Ten Commandments.

•Learn to recognize and run from salesmen even if they wear white lab coats.

•If you like guys and gals in lab coats – I used to wear one – then look for consensus.  When a survey of 10,000 registered dietitians says X you can feel pretty good about it. When Dr. No, a Dr. of Chiropractic in Duluth, discovers a MIRACLE CURE for low IQ while on vacation in  Tahiti, well, be a little more suspicious.

•Read up on food, diet science, and diet hucksterism. I review Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults here. Pollan’s Food Rules is a good reference. Anything from the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society or the American Diabetes Association is going to be decent. Boring maybe. But a good start.

•Not every ailment requires a superfood. There is such a thing as celiac disease. It’s a medical condition that afflicts a small percentage of the population. But to castigate wheat as a toxin? The grain that provides about 20% of the world’s caloric intake? It’s silly. Use that book as a door stop and read the next bullet.

•Let’s put rubber to the road here. Do you need more energy? Life just doesn’t charge you up like it used to? You hop out of the shower and notice that growing ring around you belly? Forget ketones. Forget GMO’s or gluten-free cupcakes. Start exercising. Starting eating what you know is healthy. Turn off the TV and go visit your grandma and eat one of her lemon bars. The Centers for Disease Control lists ten health concerns directly related to being overweight. Some researchers estimate that fully 80% of health problems would dissipate with weight loss. So forget your acai juice at five bucks a quart. Exercise. Eat less. Enjoy yourself.

Have you found good advice for healthy living and good eating? Please write below.

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Other posts related to this article:
Book Review, The Diet Fix, Yoni Freedhoff
Book Review, What Makes Olga Run, Bruce Grieirson
Ugh. Religion and diet advice.
Why is nutritional advice so confusing?

Why you are still not losing weight while exercising


Author: Dennis Mitton

Science writer. Evolution, bio, health, fitness, longevity, and philosophy. Love Russian lit. Run a slow 5k. Proven breeder/twins. Monkey Dance author.

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