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FOR THE LOVE OF FOOD: The FDA manipulates the media, how to talk about health and weight, and sugar doesn’t make you hungrier

by | Sep 23, 2016
For the Love of Food

For the Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup. 

This week the FDA manipulates the media, how to talk about health and weight, and sugar doesn’t make you hungrier.

Too busy to read them all? Try this awesome free speed reading app to read at 300+ wpm. So neat!

I also share links on Twitter @summertomato and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

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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.


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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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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Questioning Journalism

by | Aug 19, 2008

Two news media reports came out today that are worth discussing. With this post I hope to show you that it is not always prudent to trust your health to the advice of journalists. The reason? They are trained to sell articles, not to make you healthy.

In the first story, CNN reports that organic food is not more nutritious than conventionally grown food. This is partially true, but not entirely. The headline is actually very misleading because the implication is that the way food is produced does not influence its nutrient levels, which is false.

The problem begins when the author claims that the study “is the first to assess the nutritional value of organic fruit and vegetables.” Seriously? Do you really believe no one has ever thought of this before?

Of course this has been tested, and there is ample evidence that the way food is grown has a tremendous impact on its nutritional quality. It is unclear to me why this statement is made, but it must be referring to something other than the hundreds of studies published on the nutritional value of organic foods.

The scientific literature on the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables strongly suggests that the health of the soil in which a plant is grown and the season of harvest are the best indicators of nutritional value. Soil health is a complex measurement (as is human health, which we’ll get to in a minute). In general, farms that have a variety of different crops tend to have healthier soil than mono-cultures with only one crop (e.g. giant corn or soybean fields). It has already been established that organic mono-cultures have no more nutritional value than conventional mono-cultures. This is not news.

On the other hand, smaller farms with diversified crops grow much more nutritious produce than large production mono-cultures. Not surprisingly, these farms tend to be the organic farms (though they are not always certified). It is therefore true that “organic” versus “conventional” is something of an artificial distinction and is not a guarantee of a difference in nutritional value. However it is also true that produce purchased from farmers’ markets that feature small, local farms is almost certainly more nutritious than anything you buy (organic or not) at a regular grocery store.

In this experiment all the plots had similar soil, so you would expect there to be no nutritional difference. This is what the researchers found.

Another thing to consider is that in this experiment the scientists are measuring nutrient retention (how many nutrients come out in urine and feces) in rats after being fed dried vegetables grown with either low-nutrient organic fertilizer, low-nutrient conventional fertilizer or high-nutrient conventional fertilizer. So, they do not measure nutrients directly from fresh vegetables, nor do they measure nutrient availability in humans, nor do they test organic food that has been grown in high-quality soil.

Is it just me or are you already starting to feel a little less enlightened?

Also remember that the study does not address the amount of chemicals and pesticides found in rats after consuming this food. However, several studies have found a correlation between conventional agriculture and pesticides in the body. This is yet another reason to consider buying organic agriculture products.

Now consider the headline: “Study: Organic food not more nutritional.” Do you think this is a fair assessment of the costs and benefits of buying organic?

Do not be fooled by CNN’s sensationalism. How food is grown can affect its nutrient content and it is worth it to buy local, organic produce.

That being said, it is far better to eat any vegetables than none at all.


The second misleading article is in the New York Times. The main point of the story is that body mass is not a good predictor of health, with the headline reading “Better to be fat and fit than skinny and unfit.” Indeed there may be some evidence that this statement is true, but it undermines the indisputable fact that it is best to be both skinny and fit.

The study in question uses cardiovascular risk factor measures to determine “metabolic health.” Half of the overweight individuals and a third of the obese individuals were considered metabolically healthy by the researchers. Additionally, one quarter of individuals of “healthy weight” had cardiovascular risk factors.

So what the headline should have read is: “It’s better to be fit than unfit.” The writer of the article, Tara Parker-Pope, embellishes this point with the observation that being fit can be achieved at numerous different weights and brushes aside the fact that you are far more likely to be healthy if you are not overweight.

So far this is not so bad, right? Indeed it is better to be fit, and Parker-Pope goes on to argue that being fit is the best predictor of health. Okay, but what about the weight?

Evidence is abundant that being overweight or obese increases risk for a number of different diseases, not just heart disease. Fat is an endocrine organ and more fat can significantly alter hormone levels that make you susceptible to cancer and other diseases. Breast cancer is particularly prevalent among obese women. Heavier people are also more likely to have arthritis then normal weight individuals and there is a correlation between body composition and dementia risk. None of these other diseases are mentioned in the article.

It is also important to remember that calorie restriction (minimal calories with adequate nutrition) is the single most reliable way to slow the aging process and reduce diseases of all kinds. Abundant evidence has proven that overweight people eat more than slim people (though they frequently don’t know it), suggesting that their risk of age-related disease increases with the amount they eat.

Parker-Pope observes, “Part of the problem may be our skewed perception of what it means to be overweight.” I agree with this statement, but not in the way she means it. In my opinion, articles like this give people a false impression that being overweight is not a problem, when in fact it is one of the most serious risk factors for almost every disease. I think our perception is being skewed to the point that extra body fat is no longer considered dangerous.

To point, last year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, Harvard scientist Dr. Walter Willett predicted that obesity would soon overtake smoking as the number one cause of cancer. Critics say that comments like these are unwarranted and only serve to make overweight people feel inferior. However, the evidence is too strong for me to believe this is a superficial argument about looks or laziness. The point is not to blame people for their health problems, but rather to help those people find ways to overcome them.

I would love to know your opinion on any of these issues.

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