Who Can You Trust For Diet Advice?

by | May 1, 2009
3D Brain MRI

3D Brain MRI

Last time I gave you a list of 10 people you can’t trust for diet advice, but many of you were left wondering who can you trust? As I alluded to before, it is extremely difficult to give a generic answer to this question because, frankly, there is no single group of people I can point to and say, “These people always do it right.” This is never true.

Where To Start

In the comments on Wednesday, reader Steve Parker M.D. (blogger and author of The Advanced Mediterranean Diet – visit his new Diabetic Mediterranean Diet Blog) said he mostly relies on primary scientific literature for his information. “Primary” literature is the original study where the actual scientific data is published and analyzed. This is very different from a newspaper article or press release (what a newspaper article is based on).

Without a doubt going straight to the source is the best way to get the facts regarding food, health and nutrition, and this is exactly what I do.

The Catch

It would be wonderful if we could all read the science directly and decide for ourselves how to eat for health and weight loss. But unfortunately, most people do not have access to these studies unless you are on a university campus or pay the exorbitant subscription fees (hundreds of dollars) for each individual scientific journal (there are thousands).

Moreover, unless you have extensive training in biological sciences (more than a bachelors degree), these papers will make no sense to you anyway. Some people try to get around this by reading only the abstracts, but reading an abstract to comprehend a scientific paper is like trying to understand a Seinfeld episode by reading the TV Guide (only more irresponsible).

This is the root of the problem.

Scientific experimentation and analysis is incredibly complex and requires decades of training. Therefore the general public needs the data translated into plain English and explained in simplified concepts. It is tempting to believe that anyone with the appropriate education and a knack for writing can provide this service, however the nuances of data interpretation make this very tricky business. It is frighteningly easy to spin ideas and make claims the data does not really support. This is even scarier when you think of health and how many lives are at stake.

The difficulties that arise from this issue are far reaching. At the most extreme, we have seen that research funded by industry is biased toward a favorable result for the company conducting the research.

Another potentially dangerous scenario is the misinterpretation of data by press rooms and journalists, who then translate these false ideas to a wide audience. Finally there are well-meaning people who do their best to alert the public to important health concerns, but simply misinterpret the science for one reason or another.

Who Is Qualified?

Scientists Although I myself may be biased, I am inclined to trust the opinions of well-respected (highly published) scientists in the field of food and nutrition. Luckily, several of these people have written wonderful books clearly explaining the basics of food and health. Although I am probably the only person under 50 to have ever read these books, they are wonderful resources that I recommend whole-heartedly.

Here are my favorites:

Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Dr. Walter Willett

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

What To Eat by Marion Nestle

Smart journalists Despite my tirade above, scientists are not the only ones with good diet advice. Some journalists have the intelligence and tenacity to uncover all the necessary information and convey it to their readers. To know if you have found this kind of journalist you must read their work and make critical judgments about the logic and conclusions drawn from the data provided.

I have read more bad than good books by journalists, so please be skeptical of what you find. Note: extended book reviews are on the future agenda at Summer Tomato (for short summaries please read the captions under the books in the Summer Tomato Shop).

So far the most thorough analyses I have read from any journalist are the works of Michael Pollan. I also think the work of Gary Taubes is essential reading.

These are the best books on food and health ever written:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

Trained nutritionists and dietitians I have also been impressed by many of the nutritionists I have encountered (especially Dinneen at Eat Without Guilt – find her on Twitter @EatWithoutGuilt). Nutritionists and registered dietitians are specialized in nutrition, food and eating. These professionals are skilled at working closely with an individual to develop personal eating plans. Although they are not specifically trained to read and interpret scientific studies, their education ensures substantial familiarity with the literature on nutrition, putting them ahead of most medical doctors.

Conclusion

In general you should be more skeptical than accepting of diet advice–particularly if the recommendations sound very strange or unnatural to you. However there are many good resources if you are careful to choose them wisely.

I am always looking for more book recommendations. See what I have read in the Shop and leave your additions in the comments.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in this lively conversation!

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