Throughout history there has never been a shortage of (bad) diet, health and weight loss advice. Everything under the sun has been called a weight loss cure at some time or another. And now that we are blessed with the amazingness which is the internet, snake oil is more abundant than ever.
So who should you listen to?
Most people I speak to are so cynical about health advice they ignore all of it completely and simply hope they are one of the few blessed with the genetics to withstand decades of smoking, poor diet and/or no exercise. They always point to a great aunt who smoked like a chimney and lived to 95. At least she enjoyed her life, right?
The problem with this approach is that the vast, vast majority of us are not blessed with these genetics (sorry, being related to someone with those genes has very little effect on your own personal chances). Also, even if you have the most resilient body in the world the only way to test it is to do an experiment on yourself: Eat whatever you want and maybe you’ll make it to 60 without a heart attack. Maybe you’ll make it to 80 without colon cancer. Or maybe not.
It is also important to consider that no matter how long you live you can improve the quality of that life by making better decisions about how you treat your body now. And contrary to popular belief, these choices need not sacrifice fun and enjoyment. I for one consider my healthstyle habits–fresh delicious food and regular workouts–the best part of my daily grind. By far. The trick is finding a personal healthstyle that makes your life better, not worse.
But if bad advice is so abundant who should you listen to? Who do I listen to?
As hard as I tried, I could not come up with a way to describe someone who can be trusted for diet advice. I wanted to say “scientists,” but I could think of too many examples (usually involving money) where this simply isn’t true. Instead it is easier to think about who cannot be trusted and why.
10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice
- USDA Sadly, the government agency that has been given the responsibility of establishing the dietary guidelines for the United States is the Department of Agriculture. As you can tell from its name, the responsibility of this organization is to protect the interests of American agriculture industries. It has a far lesser interest in public health. Dairy and sugar lobbyists are the reason we are told up to 55% of our total calories can come from these sources. Obviously the USDA recommendations were not based on the data that clearly describes these substances as dangerous. Stay away from the bizarre food “pyramid” on their website.
- Food companies When KFC tells you their grilled chicken is healthier for you than their fried chicken, do you believe them? How about Yoplait’s yogurt? Companies trying to sell you something are notorious for twisting scientific facts to make you believe their products are healthy. Think twice before you believe them, history tells us it is more likely the opposite is true (remember margarine and fat-free cookies?).
- Your mom Although your mother has more interest in your personal health than lobbyists and food companies, she has been subjected to the same deceptive nutrition advertisements as you. A tragic fact of the past 60 years is that our parents grew up learning in school what the USDA wanted them to learn: calcium does a body good, fat = bad health, protein = good health. But these things are not true, no matter how strongly your parents believe them.
- Celebrities It is difficult to look at a beautiful person and not believe they are doing something right or know some secret to perfect health. But just like your great aunt, celebrities have many advantages you probably don’t have that make their looks deceptive: genetics, time and money. These people make a living off looking beautiful and have all the resources in the world to achieve it. If they claim to have some secret to health or weight loss, chances are it is not something that will be effective in the long-term for a normal person. Even more likely is that they are being paid to sell you something.
- Athletes If you are not a professional athlete or Olympian, chances are you do not have the same metabolism or dietary needs as someone who is. As much as I loved watching Michael Phelps win 8 gold medals, I am not going to start eating like him.
- Cardiologists (or any M.D. with no research experience) Cardiologists are highly trained doctors that specialize in disorders of the heart and blood vessels. But while heart disease is strongly tied to diet, cardiologists are not necessarily trained in science or nutrition. I do not wish to take anything away from what these individuals do–most are incredibly talented, skilled professionals. However medical school and residency training focus more on treatment than prevention. Moreover, science (Ph.D.) and medicine (M.D.) are different, and few doctors have the time or training to keep up with and evaluate nutrition science. But some certainly do, and it is worth it to find out who. Another thing to consider is that heart disease is only one chronic disease related to diet. If you are worried at all about cancer, stroke, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease would you ask a cardiologist?
- Main stream media We all love a good story and journalists are trained to sell them to us. But very few journalists–even science writers–have more than a bachelors degree in biology or other hard science. This, of course, is less than the doctors I mentioned above. Though journalists are often very intelligent and can do a great job of analyzing the available scientific evidence (Michael Pollan comes to mind), even my beloved New York Times can drop the ball on nutrition science on occasion. When push comes to shove, they are more trained in story telling than scientific analysis.
- Personal testimony We are all impressed by the person who lost 200 lbs on the Biggest Loser, and I salute anyone who has ever achieved substantial weight loss. But all diet advice from these people should be taken with a grain of salt. Personal testimony is the ultimate in non-scientific fluff (check out any website selling diet pills). In science a personal testimony is called N=1 and is proof of absolutely nothing. These people may be a great source of moral support, but real evidence and facts have numbers and statistics tied to them.
- Natural health “gurus” Cynicism about health, medicine and science frequently cause people to turn to “alternative” solutions that often involve “natural” remedies. I would never suggest that natural solutions might not be the best path to health, but something being “natural” is not a guarantee of any particular benefit. In my experience, advice from natural health “gurus” is often based on poorly designed, poorly controlled studies that do not stand up to rigorous scientific testing. That does not mean these methods will never be proven effective, but keep in mind that most of them never will.
- Personal trainers The gym is one of my favorite places in the world, and if I need help with a certain exercise I ask a personal trainer. Most trainers have (hopefully) gone through a (fairly easy) certification program where they learn the basics of body mechanics. They are not scientists and are not trained in nutrition.
I am not suggesting that these people contribute nothing to our conversation about diet. However you should always be skeptical of who you take your advice from, particularly when it comes to your health.
Is there anyone you would trust for diet advice?