Swallowing nutrition myths hook, line, and sinker

I’m starting to worry about health coverage in the NY Times. Lawrence Altman is a great health reporter, and I like one of Michael Pollan’s pieces in particular, but the Times also has a bunch of those blog-thinggies, and one of the writers has disappointed me before.

Oops, she did it again

Tara Parker-Pope, one of the Times’ bloggers, has credulously reprinted a lousy article from another magazine. First, that’s some pretty lazy blogging—up there with re-posts, blog rolls, and open threads (all of which I can plead guilty to, but not often). More important, though, is the information itself—it’s wrong.

Here post is on “The 11 best foods you aren’t eating”, and all the foods (or almost all) are indeed good foods, but probably not for the reasons given. Most obey Pollan’s Dictum, which I think is good advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    Beets: folate is probably a good thing, especially if you may become pregnant, and perhaps if you have heart disease or some blood clotting disorders. It is not a panacea. And that idea that they contain pigments “that may be cancer fighters” is interesting, but hardly useful in picking them as a meal. What dose? What cancers? How? Why?
    Cabbage: “Loaded with nutrients like sulforaphane, a chemical said to boost cancer-fighting enzymes.” That’s nice, but also a bit silly. “A chemical said to…”. With evidence like that…
    Also, what are “cancer-fighting enzymes?” I’m not sure.
    Swiss chard–protects aging eyes. Really? Maybe. How much?
    Cinnamon may help control blood sugar and cholesterol. Really? The few studies that have been done have been poor quality and have shown some limited effect on blood sugar, but no effect on important outcomes like heart attack and stroke. Actual medicines have been shown to do this quite well. She recommends sprinkling it on coffee or oatmeal. Is that the adequate dose?
    “Pomegranate juice appears to lower blood pressure and loaded with antioxidants.” So what? How much does it lower blood pressure? How does this sugary drink affect blood sugar? What are antioxidants and what evidence supports their use?
    Here’s one of my favorites: prunes. Sure they’re a good food, but do you think they are really healthy wrapped in prociutto and baked, as recommended? By the way, I certainly approve of the idea, I just hold to any illusions that it is terribly healthy, or has any magical properties.

I’ll spare you further examples. The point is that all of these foods are probably good, but recommended for the wrong reasons. There is no evidence for any of the magical anti-oxidant or cancer-fighting compounds. It is pure food-woo. The real reasons that most of these foods are good is that they have a decent amount of protein, fiber, or complex carbohydrates, and fill you up in place of foods that have a higher proportion of fats, simple carbohydrates, and, well, calories.

We do suffer from what we eat, but even more from how much we eat. I’ll stick to the Pollan Dictum (when I can): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.


I would like to remind readers that the writer of this column is no Gary Null or Joe Mercola. She actually has mostly nice pieces and is a regular read for me. As a prolific writer, she is bound to put out the occasional stinker. Bad posts make for good blog-fodder, even from good writers (not that I ever have a bad post…).



  1. Magical thinking about food has been getting on my nerves quite a bit lately. Whole fresh foods are great — even more so if you can afford them — but this whole notion that green tea or a particular colorful vegetable or oily fish or whatever is going to protect you indefinitely from any and all potential disease is just not right.

  2. Grimalkin

    Most of my family has converted to the “antioxidants, detoxifiers, cancer-prevention” stuff. One has even gone vegan. As someone who enjoys food a whole lot, it can be off-putting to have “you shouldn’t eat that” at every meal.

    I don’t mind this kind of woo so long as people keep it to themselves. But those who subscribe to it seem to have the nasty tendency to lecture others during meals. Blegh!

  3. Richard Eis

    This current food fad is just irritating now. I’m getting tired of being lectured on what i should be doing by sickly weak little creatures that obsess constantly about every ingredient and which area of biology it came from.

  4. Look on the bright side – with the way food prices are going, nutritionism is luxury few will be able to afford for long… I predict that the next food fad will largely revolve around how to make appetizing meals from left-overs and those cuts of meat that nobody likes to think about.

  5. It’s interesting that this is written the same time as one of her printed articles on very long-term statin use (i.e. startin in children).
    I thought that article was superb, brought up a serious issue and evaluated our current knowledge as best as possible in a short article.
    If you write her directly, she’s the type of reporter who actually understands science and might respond back.

  6. Oldfart

    I wish someone would make up my mind on this matter. One reads all the time about how wine is good for you, coffee is good for you or coffee is not good for you, margarine is good for you or margarine is not good for you. I love the cabbage crops, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and sprouts. This week they are good for me. I love blueberries and black raspberries. They’re good for me this week too. Next week they will be evil. Why do we know more about the nutrition of cows than we do of humans? I tell all my kids to eat a little of everything under the sun from as many different places as possible. (Except shrimp and things that bottom feed like carp….ugh) They, of course, ignore me.

  7. So, Oldfart… hagfish is out then?

  8. A commercial on TV for some vitamin drink or power bar (I forget exactly what the product is) concludes with the exhortation: “Look for it on the nutrition aisle!”

    Silly me; I thought the produce section was the nutrition aisle!

  9. ebohlman

    Oldfart: The problem you’ve identified is really an “impedance mismatch” between science and journalism. The notion of “certain individual foods are good for you/things you should eat, and other individual foods are bad for you/things you shouldn’t eat” is a religious/metaphysical concept, not a scientific one, so nutritional scientists don’t think in terms of it. But the general public does think that way, so editors insist that stories pretend that’s what scientists are doing. The result, needless to say, is nonsense. Furthermore, the differences between a healthy diet and an unhealthy diet are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, but there’s a taboo on including any (gasp!) math in popular reports, particularly when (as is the case for nutrition) the primary audience is women (whether or not it really would drive away female readers/viewers, the ad agencies believe it).

  10. Mary Parsons

    Jonny Bowden (who wrote the original list) has had the interesting judgment call to go and comment on a blog post that questions some of his credentials and his evidence-base for some assertions.

    I had no idea he was quite so antipathetic/abusive towards the ADA and those health writers whom he accuses of being shills for them. Under the circumstances it is bizarre to see him accuse others of viciousness.

  11. You know, prunes don’t magically lose their fibre and nutrients when you wrap them in bacon 🙂

    I’m really on-message with you here, and hope to see more stories about nutrition. Is a “nutritionist” potentially an unlicensed quack in the US? I learned recently from http://www.badscience.net that this is so in the UK, where the properly trained people are “dieticians”. To my shame I don’t even know about Australia yes, but I intend to find out.

    Anyway, there’s a sort of religious asceticism that sneaks into discussions about health and food. Association with a “bad” food is seen to somehow pollute and destroy the “good”. Steamed carrots are good for you; steamed carrots with a half teaspoon of butter are worthless and evil.

    Umm, no. Butter and bacon have no magic super-powers to destroy vitamin A and fibre and antioxidants, and whatever else is good in carrots and prunes. Sure, you might well be eating way too much butter and bacon when you look at your diet as a whole. But that’s a separate question, that cannot be addressed by looking at a single recipe.

  12. I’ll defend Tara a bit. I think she’s a good reporter and the temptation to write about this kind of nutritional silliness is difficult to avoid if you are trying to write about health.

    Sadly, there is no “super food” that has been shown to protect people from all illness. What we have are a number of epidemiological studies that suggest associations, not controlled trials with interventions showing efficacy. Diet is so complex, and tied to culture, wealth, other health habits, etc. that all of these associations have to be considered weak until there is more rigorous follow-up.

    That being said Tara is a spot-on reporter most the time and we in the blogosphere have to be careful about being to ready to dump on people for slight malfeasance.

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