10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice

by | Apr 29, 2009
Tapeworm Diet Pills

Tapeworm Diet Pills

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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?

Read my answer….

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34 Responses to “10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice”

  1. GlobalFit says:

    Good post! You are right–many people lump fitness, diet, and nutrition together. We forget that they are separate disciplines and each has its own specialists.

  2. Lily says:

    Very interesting post with lots of GREAT information! I have been in the fitness industry as a personal trainer for years, and I am also an avid cook/baker (I try to keep it healthy…). There is so much MISinformation out there.

    While each medical condition has its own specialist, I am sensitive when it comes to stroke and heart related issues, and might talk to a cardiologist if I was concerned about stroke. Most strokes are related to the heart (I had a stroke almost 3 years ago due to a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect). So I think that out of those categories you listed, stroke is the one that might warrant speaking to a cardiologist (who is familiar with certain guidelines etc to reducing heart disease and stroke risks) about nutrition. Heart disease and heart related problem go hand in hand with stroke-related issues.

    However, your point is taken that cardiologists have their area of expertise, and those specializing in the nutrition field have theirs.

    Thanks for the info!

    • Darya Pino says:

      Excellent point, Lily! Cardiologists can certainly be useful for stroke, especially for a specific medical condition such as yours. Thanks for stopping by and stay healthy!

  3. Thank you for pointing out who to not always listen to. Thank You.

    Especially the USDA, food companies, cardiologists, MD’s etc. I’ve spoken to many MD’s who admitted they had very little training in nutrition. But they keep dolling out advice, and because they are a “doctor” in a white coat, the public takes it as the ultimate truth.

    It’s amazing how much of our diets are controlled by big companies, lobbyists, and the gov’t.

    As one who has studied nutrition, I can tell you that there is more to it than meets the eye. Thank you for pulling back the curtain a bit.

    Anyone who really wants to learn about food & nutrition should read both of Michael Pollan’s books.

  4. doug says:

    Oh come on people! It’s not like the modern food industry has given us any sort of lethal pandemic recently. Cut them some slack.

  5. Scott says:

    I notice you didn’t mention RD’s or other nutrition ‘experts’ on this list. What is your opinion of those people? Most don’t have any rigorous science training either; in college I took some nutrition classes, and the only reason it was hard was because we had to memorize how much Vitamin C was in a serving of carrots. Total waste; RD’s get more training than that, right?

  6. Naomi says:

    Hi Darya,
    I’m visiting you from the Problogger Challenge. Very interesting post! Definitely makes you re-think ones source of information. I like to get a combo from a nutritionist and a trainer to get the best of both worlds.

  7. Sandra says:

    I now want your list of 10 people or places to look to for the best guidance.

  8. Linda Simon says:

    Darya,
    Love the post, as usual.

    To respond to Scott’s question. RDs (registered dietitians) do get more training than the vitamin C content of carrots. Our training is at least a bachelor’s degree, science based, including chemistry, biochemistry, bacteriology, statistics… This is not to say that we have all the answers. What we were taught is not always true. I was taught celiac disease is rare. Research and science proved this not be true. Nutrition is a very complicated system played out in individual humans. We need to keep researching and learning. As a whole, RDs are thoughtful, caring, and continue to be students of nutrition.

    And now just a funny comment from my and my daughters gynecologist. He told her she should, “Follow a vegan diet. You know, lots of lean meat and dairy.” I spend a fair amount of time educating him on basic nutrition. :)

  9. I never trust anyone who is also selling a product. They are obviously going to recommend I buy their product, regardless of my body’s needs. That is major turnoff for me when I find out that a really smart inspiring person is heading up a pyramid scheme for goji berries or something.

    The way I work with my clients is to not recommend pretty much anything. People already know what they need to do, whether it’s eating more veggies or exercising or meditating, whatever the wisdom of their body says. I’m there to help them make it happen because THAT’s the hard part.

  10. Increasingly, I tend to rely on the published scientific literature on nutrition, unfiltered by anyone else. I’m still wary, and like to see independent verification of study results when possible.

    I see too many cardiologists who focus on invasive procedures and drugs, with inadequate attention to diet and exercise.

    I strongly agree with your mainstream media (MSM) comments. They rely too much on news releases without digging deeper. So much easier for them that way.

    The USDA and HHS are in the process of revising their pyramid for roll-out in 2010. You can bet the MSM will run the news releases verbatim, with supportive quotes from the very experts who participated in the review panel.

    -Steve

  11. Nicole says:

    This was such a fabulous post!
    I found your blog on ProBlogger’s BBB challenge and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it so far!

    Do you mind if I link back to this post?

  12. I would follow my mother. We ate very healthy meals. My kids often comment that a snack at grandmas consisted of raisins, fresh fruit, or homemade whole wheat bread.

    We ate lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, dried fruits. Mom was an excellent cook and the food looked beautiful on the plate.

    Next I follow nutritionists.
    Sheila

  13. Andrea Owen says:

    Great post! I agree with not taking advice from personal trainers. I am certified with the American Council on Exercise and we are specifically taught to not give nutritional advice, in fact it’s a liability. I would always refer clients to a registered dietician.
    I’m still shocked when people tell me they have been working with a trainer who told them to cut their calories to 1300 per day. I advise them to get a new trainer.

  14. Danny says:

    I don’t trust a lot of the alternative medicine advice, but I do trust what indigenous people have been eating for tens of thousands of years – long before we developed agriculture. It’s interesting to watch what they eat and how often during a typical day.

    For starters they don’t eat refined foods such as flour and refined sugar. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are all modern diseases.

  15. michelle says:

    I confirm the very little training for medical doctors. I have several friends that are M.D.’s (internists, family physicians, anastesiologist) now that I watched go through medical school–they have all mentioned that they received practially no training on nutrition.

    Thanks for posting about the USDA and others.

    I wish people would read the ingredients of what they are eating…

  16. Doctors would tell me to eat less and exercise… Which I was already doing!

    They know nothing about glycemic index, insulinic index, the effects of omega-3s, or why water is needed in abundance…

    They are trained to match a medical condition with a known treatment, but aren’t really biologists!

  17. Thanks for pointing out that not all “natural” remedies are automatically effective. I’m always frustrated when someone wants to just trade one set of beliefs and experts for a different set of beliefs and experts. Sad to say, the common thread connecting lots of the “natural” advocates and the USDA is … follow the money.

    So I agree with Michelle above, and it’s why I like Pollan’s rule: Never buy anything that has been advertised.

  18. This is the only weight loss system in South Africa I would trust:

    [link removed]

    It has a multi disciplinary team working on the programme including Biokineticists, exercise physiologists, dieticians and psychologists.

    It is rather expensive, and I currently can’t afford it, but many of my friends and peers have done it, and while the loss was slow, it was constant and long term.

  19. Colleen says:

    Good point! My Cardiologist once pointed at my 19 yr old daughter who is 125 lbs and told me “eat what she eats” after we left my daughter and I starting laughing and talked about how if I ate what she eats I’d be 300 lbs.

  20. Colleen, why didn’t you laugh and say that to his face?

    I’m not being critical, I’d have probably done the exact same thing. But seeing someone else say it makes it clear how conditioned we all are to respect authority.

    I think a lot of doctors need to learn what it’s like to have to defend their advice, instead of having it blindly accepted.

  21. Carmela says:

    Hmmmm…So are we to assume that we should take YOUR advice with a grain of salt as well…I’m asking because just where does YOUR health advice fall (under #8–Personal testimony or #9–natural health guru?) And yes, I read YOUR background!!!

    However, I have listened to all 10 of these people at one point in my life and I agree, I was not helped one way or the other…However for the past 2 years I have learned to do what we all must…EAT ACTUAL FOOD as close to the way It was grown…I started this journey on November 11, 2008 and today October 11, 2010 I am 306 pounds lighter with NO WEIGHT LOSS SURGERY of ANY KIND!!! Will you ever see me on TV!! Probably not, because most people will say It costs TOO much to eat healthy…but then I would tell them plain and simple…It costs TOOO much (health wise) NOT TO EAT HEALTHY!!! I still have a way to go to get to where I WANT to be…but I will get there one step at time.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Of course, you should take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt. Although I do not really fall under personal testimony (my advice is based on data) or natural health guru (I have real scientific training). My advice is the same as yours though, to eat real food and figure out what works for yourself, not bank everything on what someone is telling you (particularly if they are trying to sell you something). Congrats to you and your success!

  22. Tom says:

    I trust my mom, but than a again my moms been a nurse for over 30 years and eats fairly healthy herself. Was never allowed to have pop as a child or many processed food and she shopped at whole foods long before it became cool and hip.

  23. Amy says:

    Of course, since I’m reading you, my kids should start listening to me, right? :o)

  24. Fabienne says:

    calcium DOES do a body good, it gives us bone health. fat IS bad, in excess, as obesity is the pathway to heart disease, diabetes, even some cancers. i may be only 11, and you may be a scientist, but honestly, even though the usda is for the farmers, of course they’re interested in our well being. and my mother? you really should give advice saying not to follow anyone else’s.

    • Fabienne says:

      not trying to be mean or anything, but the whole concept of this list is a paradox. if wse are not to trust previously trusted sources, who is there to say there is a source we can trust?

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