What Passes For Diet Research

I received an email recently from someone who tried a diet for thirty days, lost a bunch of weight, and thought I might like to write it up on my blog. I responded, in all seriousness, that when he ran the following study with the same results, he might be on to something and I would be glad to write it up:

  • Had 100 volunteers for a test set who agreed to act, behave, perform, and eat the exact same things for twenty years
  • Had 100 volunteers for a control set who agreed to do act, behave, and perform exactly like the test set for twenty years while eating other foods
  • Had twenty years of data cataloging everything both sets did, visited, ate, and experienced

I never heard back. Here’s the deal: anyone can do anything for thirty days, and all projects involving human subjects are fraught with questionable data. Any ramifications for people in general from this person’s short experience are completely and absolutely non-existent. But that has never once held back a diet huckster from trying a make a quick buck on the diet du jour.

This is exactly the problem with human nutritional research. Good researchers recognize this. Michael Pollan has famously summed up his work with the adage to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” David Katz, author of Disease Proof, argues that all foods in healthy amounts are permissible. I once worked on a research project with a nutritional researcher who told me that the best advice she could figure out is to eat lots of different kinds of foods in smallish amounts in as close to a natural state as possible. Nothing astounding there. In fact, it’s mostly what our grandparents told us about food.

But there are lots of bad and zany hucksters in the world of food and diets. I’ve written before about the use of charcoal – yes, the stuff you use in your BBQ – to quell any nastiness in the stomach. It’s true that charcoal is recommended for use after you drink a dose of poison. But be careful: along with the poison, it will soak up everything else in your stomach and colon. That’s why experts recommend that it is only used by doctors in the hospital trying to save your life. It’s not a tool for the uninformed.

My guess is that my local Borders Books has sixty or more feet of shelf space devoted to dieting. There is the Blood Type diet. Suzanne Somers takes up a shelf. Wheat Belly and Gluten Free take up a foot or two. Paleo argues for space. For some people, these are effective ways to eat. But that is not how they are sold. These books are sold as nutritional saviors. EAT THIS WAY AND YOU WILL DIE! they say. (Here’s a hint – you are going to die whatever you eat.) EAT THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE! (But you need to buy the book to find out how.)

Avoid these books. Whatever minimal science they contain is just there to draw you into laying down your money. Real nutrition is boring, and no one needs to buy a book to read about it. Eat mostly real food. Cook it yourself. Go heavy on plants and light on the meat. Dessert is fine. Watch your portions. Enjoy clean water. Exercise a little. Hug your kids.

Book Review: Diet Cults

Matt Fitzgerald has written a book to help sort out diet craziness called Diet Cults. Following is my Amazon review:

If you want to piss off a lot of people then start poking holes in their religious beliefs. This is exactly what Matt Fitzgerald has done in Diet Cults. If you don’t think some folks are religious about their diets, then consider that they put belief in their experience ahead of any verifiable lab conclusions. And just like religions, what many of these diets share is a belief that only one way of eating leads to the path of true health. If you think theological battles between Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics can get rough, then you’ve never seen a vegan college coed take on an Atkins adherent over a nice steak, cooked rare.

Fitzgerald argues that almost everyone can stick to basic nutritional guidelines and be healthy. Pollan’s “Real Food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” fits well here. There are no super foods. There are no forbidden foods. Protein will not set you free. Paleo will not give you a new lease on life.  Fitzgerald steps through each of these diets, and others too, skewering them as mostly modern fads.

He weaves research in throughout the text and provides references in the appendix.  He also argues from personal experience that elite athletes – people who have the discipline and will to follow any diet for performance – mostly shy away from specialty diets. He tends to lean on the boring but effective and easy. All foods are permissible, and none impart superpowers or super health.

Fitzgerald takes care to recognize that there are individual proclivities toward certain diets. “Diets choose people,” he says. Some people genuinely feel better eating foods without gluten. Some people are genuinely bothered by lactose. My daughter is. But selling a gluten-free or raw foods diet as a cure-all for everyone is what rankles him. These diets typically lack scientific validity and are almost impossible to maintain. There is ample evidence that people lose weight on these diets in the short term – often because they are difficult or boring – and then gain weight back when they drop it.

The book is generally well written though I wonder how many disciple’s minds he will change. It’s not overly rigorous, and in many areas, he simply weighs his experience against someone else’s, and that’s a tough way to win an argument. But I think his approach to eating is likely the best way for most people. Think Michael Polan with an occasional slice of apple pie.

Three stars.


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