Nutritional science or sales pitch? How-to guidelines.

Telephone Nutrition

Here’s an actual telephone conversation I overheard in our company break room:

You have got to try this stuff. It’s completely awesome. And scientific, too! I spent like a week on the Internet doing research. I’d never even heard of ketones before, and now I’m drinkin’ the stuff. I’m losing weight like crazy and I feel like I’m eighteen! It’s not cheap but – c’mon – who cares about money when we’re talking about health?

A week later, I noticed an advertisement stuck to the entry to the perp’s cube. So now – after a ‘week of researching the Internet’ and two weeks of downing ‘ketones’  – he is a nutritional expert selling the stuff. I sit close enough to him that I can hear his phone conversations and about three times a day I hear him explain that these are therapeutically pure ketones and they are only available from his company. I notice a plastic jug on his desk with ‘Proprietary’ tape wrapped around it. These guys are good. And they count on you not knowing that there is no category of any medicine or food termed ‘therapeutically pure.’

I am completely irritated.

I’m irritated because, like any evangelist, he has all the answers. Except that he doesn’t, and he doesn’t even know it. The nuances of nutrition are simply too complex to funnel down to any superfood or micronutrient. It is silly, bad science, wastes people’s money, and is potentially harmful. He is selling something that doesn’t work over the long run.

I don’t know if it’s for him or for others, but he also posts his daily diet for all to see:

  • Breakfast – coffee with butter, ketone supplements
  • Lunch – single portion of lean meat, leafy green vegetables, ketone supplements
  • Dinner – healthy dinner of smaller portions, ketone supplement
  • Lots of water all day
  • Lots of exercise

Who wouldn’t lose weight on this diet?  You could substitute ‘Betty Crocker Fudge Brownie’ for ‘ketone supplement’ and still lose weight. He’s eating fewer calories than he needs and extending the deficit with ‘lots of exercise’. He will probablyu begin eating even less as food becomes a boring chore. Ask yourself: how many days over the next month do you want a chicken breast or a quarter pound of bacon for breakfast? There comes a point, though, that all this concentration and money and boring food gives way to real life and the weight comes back. But by then there will be a new book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble about how fermented mango rind can not only help you lose weight and increase your IQ but actually emits pheromones making you absolutely irresistible to the opposite sex! And the cycle starts over.

To be clear, my beef – no pun intended – isn’t with my coworker. He’s just a guy trying to lose weight and make a few bucks who read something in the latest issue of Men’s Health magazine. He’s a good guy, and I like him. He’s caught on to something that’s wasteful and potentially dangerous. But selling pretend food/medicine is a particularly American pastime.

There is another way to do this that is healthful, less consuming, and proffers true benefits. It’s called eating food and doing a bit of exercise. It takes longer and can be boring and that’s the issue. Who wants to trudge through a year of hard work at the gym when you can burn off ten pounds of fat with drugs? Or just have it sucked out?

Let’s Get Healthy

But first, two things:

  • Everyone has a right to an opinion. Just like my co-worker, I’m always interested in ways to live a healthier lifestyle, but I require evidence. Preferably over a 200-year time-frame.
  • All the major health organizations who look at controlled and peer-reviewed research argue that there is little to no long-term gain to any of these fad diets. The big picture has been reaffirmed repeatedly: a diet of whole foods that focuses on plants is our best bet for long-term health and a livable lifestyle. Michel Pollan‘s advice to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants” still holds.

But ketones aren’t my interest here. How to sort out nutritional advice is. How do we learn to step back from the salesman and Internet ads and look to real science for health advice?

Here are some guidelines:

• Remember that science, including pseudo-science, is performed by human beings. Any time a human being is involved, you have a bias. Sometimes you get an outright fake. This doesn’t mean that my co-worker and his ketone pals are wrong. Or that he is right. It means that you should be wary of anyone selling you exceptional results.

• Find a science-based nutritionist that you can trust. This can be much harder than it seems. For more academic references, I like David Katz. I never miss the Nutrition Diva’s weekly podcast for practical nutrition advice about questions straight from the news.

• Run from any reference to superfood.

• Run as fast as you can from any reference to putting butter and coconut oil in your coffee.

• If you want Bulletproof, opt for La Roux and avoid Dave Asprey.

• Learn the buzzwords: natural, organic, toxic, superfood, ketones, accusations of working for ‘big pharma’ – all are fairly meaningless (botulism is organic and natural) and should trigger your bullshit detector.

• Speaking of detecting bullshit, here is Brainpicking’s take on Carl Sagan’s famous and useful Baloney Detection Kit – read here. Memorize it. It’s as useful as the Ten Commandments for sorting out nonsense.

• Learn to recognize and run from salesmen even if they wear white lab coats.

• If you like guys and gals in lab coats – I wear one almost every day – then look for consensus.  When a survey of 10,000 registered dietitians says X, then you can feel pretty good about it. When Dr. No, a Dr. of Chiropractic in Duluth, discovers a MIRACLE CURE for low IQ while on vacation in Tahiti, well, be a little more suspicious. And grab your wallet.

• Read up on food, diet science, and diet hucksterism. I review Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults here. Pollan’s Food Rules is a good reference. Anything from the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, or the American Diabetes Association will be decent. Boring maybe. But a good start.

• Not every ailment requires a superfood. There is such a thing as celiac disease. It’s a medical condition that afflicts a small percentage of the population. But to castigate wheat as a toxin? The grain that provides about 20% of the world’s caloric intake? It’s silly. Use that book as a doorstop and read the next bullet.

• Let’s put rubber to the road here. Do you need more energy? Life just doesn’t charge you up like it used to? You hop out of the shower and notice that growing ring around your belly? Forget ketones. Forget GMOs or gluten-free cupcakes. Start exercising. Start viewing food as energy and medicine. Turn off the TV and go visit your grandma and eat one of her lemon bars. The Centers for Disease Control lists ten health concerns directly related to being overweight. Some researchers estimate that fully 80% of health problems would dissipate with weight loss. So forget your acai juice at five bucks a quart. Walk. Exercise. Eat less. Enjoy yourself.

Have you found good advice for healthy living and good eating? Please write below.

Other posts related to this article:
Book Review, What Makes Olga Run, Bruce Grierson


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2 thoughts on “Nutritional science or sales pitch? How-to guidelines.

  1. Sorry – You’ll have to be more clear -call what charcoal? Activated charcoal is the current rage for questionable health supplements…

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