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…).