Tag Archives: diet cults

Don’t Blame the Dentist for Your Cavities

Among the more absurd ideas being peddled by certain diet cults these days is the idea that mainstream guidelines for healthy eating are directly responsible for the ongoing American epidemic of metabolic syndrome. If you know a hardcore Paleo dieter or a high-fat/low-carb eater, then you probably know someone who believes this astoundingly ridiculous notion, having learned it from Denise Minger’s book Death by Food Pyramid or from Paleo guru Robb Wolf’s blog ravings or from some other mouthpiece of Paleo or HFLC dietary doctrine.

The logic of the argument is well summarized in the promotional copy for Minger’s opus. Here’s a sample: “Shoddy science, sketchy politics and shady special interests have shaped American dietary recommendations—and destroyed our nation’s health—over recent decades. The phrase Death by Food Pyramid isn’t shock-value sensationalism [no, of course not], but the tragic consequence of simply doing what we have been told to do by our own government—and giant food profiteers—in pursuit of health.”

If your IQ is higher than 85, you don’t need me to tell you that this line of reasoning depends on one very big and very false assumption: namely, that most Americans actually obey mainstream dietary recommendations. In fact, the diet of the average American is very nearly the opposite of what is recommended in official resources such as the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Among these guidelines is the familiar recommendation to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Only 11 percent of Americans meet this requirement. The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar each day. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day. The USDA’s MyPlate program advises people to get at least half of their grains in the form of whole grains. Forty percent of Americans never eat whole grains. The American Heart Association recommends that fish be eaten at least twice a week. Only one-third of Americans eat fish even once a week. And so on.

Not only do most Americans fail to follow mainstream dietary recommendations, but they also don’t even know what these recommendations are—or that they exist at all. According to a large scientific survey conducted a few years ago, fewer than half of American adults have ever heard of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and less than 40 percent are aware that these guidelines include the recommendation to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

Blaming mainstream dietary recommendations for the high rates of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes in America is logically equivalent to blaming dentists for the high rate of tooth decay among our citizens. The American Dental Association recommends that people brush their teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once a day. Only 53 percent of Americans follow the first of these recommendations and even fewer of us follow the second. Ninety-two percent of American adults have decayed teeth, despite almost universal exposure to the ADA’s recommendations for dental hygiene. So do we blame the dentists? That wouldn’t make much sense, because the incidence of tooth decay is much lower among those who actually do follow ADA guidelines. Similarly, only a fraction of Americans follow mainstream dietary recommendations, but those who do are much healthier than those who don’t.

Proof that following mainstream nutritional guidelines results in much better health than does eating like the average American is piling up rapidly. Some of the best recent evidence comes from a study associated with the ambitious Dietary Patterns Methods Project. This project is investigating the health effects of various eating patterns that are consistent with mainstream dietary guidelines. The first study to issue from the project measured the degree to which the diets of 424,000 older men and women conformed to each of four indexes of healthy eating—the Healthy Eating Index 2010, the alternative Healthy Eating Index 2010, the alternative Mediterranean Diet, and the DASH diet—and correlated this data with death risk over a 15-year period.

The mortality rate for those whose eating patterns conformed most closely to each of these indexes was significantly lower than it was for those whose eating patterns conformed least closely. Since the subjects were American, it is safe to assume that the men and women who had the lowest scores on these indexes tended to eat the typical American diet. According to this study, the people whose eating habits fell furthest outside official recommendations were up to 28 percent more likely to die of cancer or heart disease between the ages of 62 and 77 than were those who ate according to mainstream dietary guidelines.

Despite such evidence, Paleo and HFLC diet advocates continue to conflate mainstream dietary recommendations with the typical American diet. They do this most insidiously with their use of the term “standard American diet” (or SAD—get it?) to refer to both the way the average American eats and the way mainstream nutrition scientists advise people to eat.

Consider these sentences from “Paleo Runner” Aaron Olsen’s review of my book, Diet Cults: “Considering the fact 2/3 of Americans are either overweight or obese, I fail to see how mainstream recommendations such as the SAD should be used as a template for an optimal eating strategy. The reason diet fads are so popular in the first place is because the SAD has failed us so miserably.”

Here we have an egregious misrepresentation of the “agnostic healthy eating” guidelines I present in the book, which are based on mainstream nutrition science, not on what the average American eats. But is this misrepresentation deliberate or merely a consequence of the reviewer’s own prior brainwashing? I won’t hazard a guess, but it is evident that some high priests of the Paleo and high-fat/low-carb diets choose to conflate mainstream dietary guidelines with the standard American diet despite knowing full well that the two are worlds apart. In so doing they betray not only a startling lack of intellectual integrity but also a troubling assumption about the intelligence of the eating public.

Here, in essence, is what these folks expect you to believe: that if a typical American eater, who spends $1,200 annually on fast food, were to hire a registered dietitian to help him get healthier, the R.D. would make no changes to her client’s diet.

For the record, I don’t think you’re that stupid.

How to Outsmart Diet Cult Spin

Imagine that a juicy new diet controversy has piqued your curiosity. People on one side of the debate are claiming that a certain category of food or type of nutrient is bad, while people on the other side are claiming the opposite. You want to know who’s right. Where can you go for an unbiased answer? The best place to look is PubMed, a U.S. Library of Medicine-funded online database that contains more than 23 million citations for biomedical literature. This is where nutrition scientists themselves go when they need a question answered.

For the sake of illustration, let’s suppose that the particular diet controversy that has captured your interest is the one surrounding grains. One on side of this debate are low-carb and Paleo diet advocates claiming that all grains are unhealthy. On the other side are vegetarians, “clean eaters,” and others claiming that whole grains are healthy. Who’s right? A quick visit to PubMed will answer this question in a jiffy.

Start by typing “whole grain” (or “whole grains”) in the search box. As you punch the keys, an auto-complete function will generate a dropdown menu with suggestions for specific searches that contain your key words. Examples are “whole grain cardiovascular,” “whole grain diabetes,” and “whole grain inflammation.” Choose a search string from among these options, then browse through the list of studies that are called up until you find one that interests you. Click on the title and you will be taken to a one-paragraph abstract that summarizes the study. Now look at some of the related studies whose titles appear on the right of your screen. When you’re satisfied that you’ve come up to speed on the current scientific understanding of the effect of whole grain consumption on cardiovascular disease risk (or whatever), back up and choose another whole grain-related search string.

If you actually do this, you will quickly discover that whole grains are in fact exceedingly beneficial to human health. For starters, they promote a healthy body weight. A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that adults who increased their consumption of whole grains gained 11 percent less weight over a 20-year period compared to the average person.

Whole grains are also good for cardiovascular health. A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that elderly men and women who consumed lots of whole grains had a 21 percent lower incidence of cardiovascular disease.

The effect of whole grains on type 2 diabetes is even more striking. In 2002, researchers at Simmons College published the results of an experiment in which they tracked whole grain consumption and diabetes risk in a population of nearly 43,000 men for 12 years. Those who ate the most whole grains were found to be almost 50 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least whole grains.

The beneficial effects of whole grains on the risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes appears to be mediated in part by the food’s effect on systemic inflammation, which is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases. Numerous studies have shown that consumption of whole grains reduces systemic inflammation. For example, a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 12 weeks of substituting refined grains with whole grains reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a major marker of systemic inflammation, by 38 percent in a group of overweight adults.

There is so much good news about whole grains in the PubMed database that, after looking through it, you might be left wondering why whole grains are condemned as unhealthy by the low-carb and Paleo crowds. The reason is that the creators of the low-carb and Paleo diets made up their minds about whole grains without reference to the published research. In the case of the low-carb philosophy, the notion that carbohydrate is bad serves as a first principle. Since whole grains are rich in carbohydrate, they must be unhealthy, regardless of what the research says. In the case of the Paleo diet, the first principle is that humans living today should not eat foods that were not eaten by our ancestors a million years ago. Since cultivated grains were not eaten a million years ago, they must be unhealthy, regardless of what the research says.

The fact that science overwhelmingly supports the healthfulness of whole grains presents a problem for low-carb and Paleo diet proponents with respect to their efforts to win new converts. How do these diet cults convince people to stop eating whole grains when science says they keep us from getting fat and developing chronic diseases? With trickery, that’s how! There are two tricks in particular that the low-carb and Paleo diet cults use to create the illusion that science does not support the healthfulness of whole grains.

The first trick is a special form of nitpicking that entails focusing on microscopic mechanisms instead of big-picture final outcomes. The anti-grain faction delights in pointing out that many grains contain a tiny compound called phytic acid that is known to limit the absorption of some vitamins and minerals. It sounds bad, but reduced absorption of some vitamins and minerals is not itself a disease. It is merely an intermediate effect of digestion that could conceivably be linked to long-term health consequences. But we’ve already seen that the long-term health outcomes associated with eating lots of whole grains are all positive. What’s more, big eaters of whole grains are actually less likely than others to be deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. So phytic acid is a problem without a consequence—which means it’s not really a problem.

Where health is concerned, the ultimate big picture is longevity. If eating a given food type increases lifespan, the details of how it is digested and metabolized really don’t matter. A 2008 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that a diet including large amounts of whole grains reduced the risk of death by 21 percent in a population of 72,000 women over a period of 18 years. In short, people who eat lots of whole grains live longer. Who the hell cares if the phytic acid in whole grains slightly reduces the amount of iron in the body if whole grains as a whole add years to a person’s life?

The trick of turning public attention away from final health outcomes (which matter) and toward intermediate digestive and metabolic mechanisms (which don’t), which low-carb and Paleo diet advocates use to disparage whole grains, is used by other diet cults to disparage other food types. No food type is immune to such scrutiny. If you look closely enough at nuts, fish, or even vegetables, you will find something microscopic inside that the body has a little trouble dealing with. Big deal! No food is perfect. The anti-grain faction wants to use one small imperfection in grains to distract you from their big-picture benefits and convince you that wheat, rice, and so forth are “killing you slowly” (as one “wellness” blogger put it). It’s amazing to me that anyone is fooled by this kind of chicanery, but at least you won’t be fooled by it ever again.

The second trick that certain diet cults use to create the appearance that science does not support the healthfulness of whole grains is to discredit the relevant research. Because this trick is so desperate and outlandish, members of the anti-grain faction typically resort to it only when the first one fails, but when backed into a corner they will not hesitate to insinuate or even claim outright that the hundreds of studies proving the healthfulness of whole grains represent a giant conspiracy funded by, and serving the interests of, the grain industry.

It is true that industry money has some influence on nutrition science. One of the studies I described above, the one concerning systemic inflammation, was paid for by General Mills. An anti-grain zealot will look at such corporate backing and reflexively assert that the results cannot be trusted. That’s a bit over the top. While industry dollars do sometimes determine which studies are conducted in the first place, and corporate influence may at times be used to ensure that unfavorable results are not published, nutrition scientists by and large do not risk their reputations and careers by going so far as to manipulate data to please breakfast cereal makers. To suspect this is to take cynicism to the brink of slander.

People become scientists because they love and respect truth. Some are corruptible, but most are not. The typical nutrition scientist is like David Katz, a professor at Yale University, who said in a recent article on theatlantic.com, “I don’t have a dog in the fight. I don’t care which diet is best. I care about the truth.”

Even if a rogue researcher were tempted to fudge data to make whole grains look better, it would be hard for him to get away with it. Science has many layers of checks and balances—including peer reviews, the requirement to disclose funding sources, and the practice of duplicating results independently in multiple labs—to minimize the impact of unethical scientists.

In any case, the majority of studies linking positive health outcomes with whole-grain consumption are not underwritten by the grain industry. For example, a recent study by Korean researchers that found favorable effects of whole grains on fasting glucose and triglyceride levels was funded by the National Research Foundation of Korea and the Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning. (Here’s where the most bug-eyed anti-grain crusaders try to argue that these organizations have an interest in boosting the Korean grain industry. The problem here is that there essentially is no Korean grain industry.)

Conspiracies do exist, but they can only get so big and last so long before they are exposed and brought down. For example, the cigarette industry maintained a conspiracy to hide scientific evidence that cigarettes create health risks. But this conspiracy was exposed by whistleblowers including Merrell Williams, Jr., who leaked documents proving that the cigarette makers acknowledged the risks internally. No whistleblower has come forward with evidence showing that the vast ocean of science supporting the healthfulness of whole grains is tainted by fraud. And none will ever come forward, because there is no conspiracy.

You can’t reason with people who want to believe what they believe, but if I were to try, I would make one last point. The soft drink and confectionary industries are huge and powerful and rich beyond imagining. They have poured a lot of money into efforts to counter scientific evidence that consuming lots of refined sugar is not healthy. Those efforts have failed miserably. If you go to PubMed and type in search phrases such as “high fructose corn syrup diabetes” or “soft drinks obesity” you will find all kinds of bad news about excess refined sugar consumption and not much good news.

If nutrition science were corruptible on a large scale, every college nutrition textbook would teach students that soda pop is healthy. But they don’t, so when science says that whole grains are healthy, you can trust it. What you cannot trust is any diet cult advocate who resorts to the conspiracy argument. The use of this tactic should instantly disqualify its user from further debate, the same way throwing up in a beer mile invalidates a competitor’s finishing time (unless he completes a penalty lap).

Like the first trick I discussed—that of distracting public attention from meaningful final health outcomes and turning it towards meaningless digestive and metabolic mechanisms—this second trick of sweepingly discrediting research that produces “inconvenient truths” is used by many diet cults, not just those that have a beef with grains (so to speak). Look for both of these tricks in your future dealings with diet cult advocates of all varieties, and don’t fall for them!

A Few Rational Words about Sugar

Recently I spent the better part of a morning writing on my laptop at a Starbucks in my neighborhood. After an hour or so I took a break to see what was happening on Twitter. The first thing that caught my eye was a tweet from Mark Hyman, a physician and author of several diet books, including The Blood Sugar Solution. He’d just taken a photo of a display case at an airport Cinnabon. Strung across its protective glass, above a mouthwatering selection of pastries, was a sign that read, “Eat me. I’m sweet!” Next to the photograph was this comment from Dr. Hyman: “Drug pushers everywhere. Why don’t they just sell crack at airports instead of Cinnabons.”

I understood the reference. Sugar-as-addictive drug has become a trendy meme lately. Its peddlers believe that sugar has an irresistible power to make people eat more and more sugar and that succumbing to this power destroys health because sugar is toxic—toxic!—in any amount. If you’ve only recently returned from Jupiter and this latest dietary hullabaloo is news to you, just Google the phrases “sugar addictive” and “sugar toxic” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The idea that sugar is addictive is based largely on a handful of animal studies from the early 2000’s demonstrating that sugar consumption activates parts of the brain that are also excited by pleasure-inducing opioid drugs. It’s based as well on a few studies of the same vintage showing that rats fed large amounts of sugar for a long period of time tend to develop a dependence-like preference for sugar. Parallel research proved that fat has the same effects, but the anti-sugar crowd doesn’t have much to say about these findings.

As chance would have it, not half an hour before I saw the tweet that I just described I had eaten a Starbucks cinnamon roll, which is very much like the Cinnabon version of the same and contains a whopping 32 grams of sugar (seven grams more than the World Health Organization’s new recommended daily limit for refined sugars). I like Starbucks cinnamon rolls and I eat them perhaps five or six times a year. But I never crave them and I can’t say that I have felt compelled to consume them with ever-increasing frequency since I first tasted one.

I enjoy eating all kinds of confections, not just cinnamon rolls. Bread pudding and cheesecake are my particular favorites. But I don’t eat these or any other desserts often, either—maybe twice a month when dining at restaurants with my wife. I am careful with my diet and I know that eating a lot of sugar is unhealthy, so I don’t. Most of the sugar in my diet is not refined at all but comes from whole fruits. My pantry and refrigerator are almost always devoid of solid and liquid sweets except for a bar or two of premium dark chocolate, which I eat once or twice a day in tiny amounts. I find it not the least bit difficult to keep my sugar consumption at such a low level despite the regularity of my exposure to it.

In short, the claim that sugar is addictive does not square with my experience. Nor does sugar have the appearance of addictiveness with respect to most of the people I know. The majority of my friends and family members are like me—they love a good peach cobbler yet they strictly limit their sugar consumption and they do so without difficulty. And when I think of the fittest and healthiest people I know, I can’t name one who avoids refined sugars altogether. So the claim that sugar is toxic even in small amounts does not square with my real-world experience either.

If sugar is so addictive, where are all the sugar addicts? When folks like Mark Hyman are asked this question, they usually point to the fact that sugar consumption has increased by more than 23 percent in the U.S. since 1970, and they never fail to also mention that the rates of obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed in the same time span. But these are population numbers; addiction is an individual relationship with a particular behavior. It is one thing to say that a society in general is eating too much of something, quite another to say that large numbers of people within that society are addicted to what they’re eating.

I fear that most of the folks who call sugar addictive have no idea what addiction is. A person may become addicted to virtually any behavior that offers pleasure or relief. The vast majority of people who are exposed to a behavior that has the potential to become addictive do not get hooked. Only those who have a psychological susceptibility end up dependent. In other words, the primary source of addiction is the addict, not the substance or behavior upon which he is dependent.

Sugar alarmists are fond of equating the addictive nature of sugar with that of alcohol. Let’s have a look a this. Nearly 70 percent of American adults drink alcohol at least a few times per year, yet only 6 percent drink enough to qualify as alcohol dependent. Meanwhile, 33 percent of alcoholics suffer from depression. Alcohol offers an escape (imperfect and ephemeral) from psychic pain. That’s what makes it potentially addictive. But booze becomes an addition only for those who have an extraordinary need for such an escape.

These dynamics are even starker as they relate to hard drugs such as heroin. Gabor Maté, a psychiatrist who oversees harm-reduction clinics for drug addicts in Vancouver, B.C., has said that every single one of the female heroin addicts he treats is a current or past victim of physical or sexual abuse. One of the arguments against legalizing hard drugs is that doing so would lead to an explosion of abuse and addiction. In fact, legalization would barely move the needle unless it was somehow accompanied by a drastic increase in the rates of physical and sexual abuse. It is not illegality but the absence of inner torment and desperation that keeps most people from using heroin. I mean, would you start buying heroin if it was made legal?

It is true that some substances have more addictive potential than others. Only a select few substances have the power to relieve (again, temporarily) great inner torment. Those that do are the ones that stimulate the highest levels of opioid release in the brain. Heroin increases opioid levels hundreds of times more than sugar does. Therefore a person who is suffering enough to cling to the relief provided by heroin is very unlikely to get hooked on something as comparatively weak as sugar.

This is not to say that sugar addicts are completely nonexistent. As I said above, people can get hooked on anything that offers pleasure or relief. But insofar as sugar addiction is real, sugar itself is not to blame. Anti-sugar crusaders often claim that sugar causes depression, but the scientific evidence suggests they’ve got it exactly backwards: people living in psychic pain are likely to eat more sugar—and more of a lot of other things besides sugar. Indeed, newer research indicates that any food that tastes good may stimulate opioid release and reconfigure the brain’s reward circuitry in a manner that modifies future behavior. Among the overweight people I know, most would appear to have greater weaknesses for fat and salt than they do for sugar.

Getting back to alcohol, I’d like to point out that drinking alcohol in moderation is one of the healthiest habits a person can have. Moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, lowers markers of systemic inflammation, and even increases lifespan. The University of Cambridge Medical Research Council included moderate alcohol consumption on a selective list of four behaviors that collectively increase lifespan by fourteen years. The other three were not smoking, exercising regularly, and eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Is alcohol a toxin? Yes! Plenty of things that are toxic in excess are healthy in moderation. Nutrition scientists now believe that most antioxidants in plant foods are toxins. They enhance cellular health by provoking a stress response. So it’s a bit rash to look at the negative consequences of consuming large amounts of sugar over a prolonged period of time and conclude that no one should ever consume any sugar.

Millions of years ago, fruit was the most energy-dense food in the diet of our primate ancestors, thanks to its sugar content. Without fruit sugar our Neogenic forbears would have had a hard time meeting the energy demands of survival. Today sugar is known to significantly enhance human work capacity by acting on the brain to make physical exertion feel easier. Sugar need not even be ingested to yield this effect—merely tasting it is enough. This is why runners quaff sports drinks during marathons.

Humans like sweet-tasting things for a reason, and we’ve liked them for a long, long time. Seven million years ago we were essentially bonobos, an ape species that has “an incurable sweet tooth,” as one writer put it. Our ancestors evolved this predilection because individuals that had a taste for sugar ate more fruit and thus lived longer and bore more offspring. The pleasure we derive from sweets is a natural genetic inheritance, yet anti-sugar extremists treat it like a biological form of original sin, something to be ashamed of and to repress. By the way, have you tasted human breast milk lately? It’s surprisingly sweet. It contains 54 percent more lactose (“dairy sugar”) than cow’s milk.

Pleasure is not only nature’s way of guiding creatures toward healthy behaviors; it is also intrinsically healthy. Scientific support for this idea is abundant, yet it seems counterintuitive here in America, a society founded by dour religious fanatics and still reeling from their scowling influence. American diet gurus of all stripes are deeply mistrusting of gustatory pleasure. Anti-sugar zealots triumphantly expose sugar’s similarity to cocaine vis-à-vis its action on opioid receptors as though this were the most damning charge that could possibly be leveled against a nutrient. Well, guess what else stimulates opioid release in the brain? Laughter, exercise, and mother-infant bonding, among other things.

I’ve got an idea for Mark Hyman’s next tweet: Why don’t we just give babies crack if we’re going to allow mothers to hook them on being cuddled and cooed at?!

Chocolate, too, increases opioid levels in the brain and it is well-known to elevate mood state for precisely this reason. This explains why depressed persons eat twice as much chocolate as the average person. But check this out: Chocolate that is modified to be tasteless has no effect on mood state. The taste experience of chocolate is inseparable from its drug-like action on the brain, which is inseparable from its beneficial health effects. Of course, sugar is only a secondary ingredient in chocolate, but sugar-free chocolate is practically inedible.

The pleasure we experience when eating sweets is dismissed by sugar haters as a crude, animal thing, but it can be much more. Some sweets are works of art. If your average candy bar or soft drink is the confectionary equivalent of reality television, a blueberry panna cotta made by a great pastry chef is The Godfather. Enjoying an exquisite chocolate mousse or truffle is a celebration of human creativity and of our species’ uniquely sophisticated relationship with food.

When I was growing up my mother used to make a French silk pie for special occasions. The recipe called for loads of sugar as well as five eggs, each of which had to be whisked for five minutes. I’m not making this up. The result would make your knees buckle. My mom should be sainted for making French silk pie as often as she did, but whoever came up with the recipe deserves a Nobel Prize.

Some members of the anti-sugar faction have suggested that sugar should be a controlled substance, like its “cousin” crack cocaine. I have nightmares about living in an Orwellian dystopia where sugar police—literal sugar police—break down the door of my childhood home and haul my mother off to prison for making French silk pie for my father’s birthday. (Not really.)

Sugar haters constantly invoke science in support of their dogma, but their style of messaging is strikingly unscientific. The typical anti-sugar communication is, like Mark Hyman’s Cinnabon tweet, strident and holier-than-thou. One of the sacred texts of the movement is a YouTube video of a 2012 lecture titled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which was delivered by Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco.

“I’m going to tell you tonight a story,” Lustig began, “and by the end of the story I hope that I will have debunked the last 30 years of nutrition information in America!”

This is not the language of a scientist. It is the language of a stage magician, or a circus barker. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and prepare to have your minds blown by the sinister might of Satan’s favorite nutrient: sugar!” Lustig’s tone is theatrical, applause-seeking, and unserious. If I had known nothing whatsoever about nutrition before watching Lustig’s lecture I would have assumed an attitude of extreme skepticism toward everything that came out of his mouth after those introductory words and I would have subsequently looked to other experts to inform my beliefs concerning sugar.

An overreaction? Hardly. Style matters. Scientists who betray obvious signs of wanting to believe what they believe are not good scientists. Compare Lustig’s chest-thumping histrionics to the measured tone of Stephan Guyenet’s delivery in his lecture, “The American Diet: An Historical Perspective,” also available on YouTube. Guyenet’s position on sugar is that we eat too much of it. That’s all. Virtually every nutrition scientist who holds this view expresses it the same way he does—dispassionately—whereas almost everyone who holds the view that sugar should be subjected to some kind of “final solution” expresses it as Robert Lustig does: frothing-mouthed.

One might defend the sugar haters on the grounds that a message as urgent as theirs demands an overwrought delivery. But I think it’s the other way around: the moralistic, browbeating style of the sugar haters’ messaging is symptomatic of an irrational disposition that led them to their over-the-top views on sugar in the first place.

Most of us are not qualified to judge whether science supports this or that position on sugar—or on any other nutritional debate, for that matter. The best we can do is let our gut instincts (so to speak) tell us which scientists to trust. My gut responds favorably to signs of open-mindedness and reason, which I see in Stephan Guyenet and in others with a moderate take on sugar. But I have known other folks who cannot resist the godlike certitude of a Mark Hyman or a Robert Lustig.

In the specific case of sugar, though, there is something else that we nonscientists can go by, and that is personal experience. I’m sure there are many people who have been easily persuaded that sugar is addictive and toxic because they eat sugar by the shovelful and their health is terrible. But many others have been so persuaded even though their experience with sugar is like mine, lacking any evidence of dependence or consequence.

I’m not suggesting that these eager victims of dietary brainwashing are stupid, or that their indoctrinators, the likes of Mark Hyman and Robert Lustig, lack intelligence. But the argument that sugar is addictive and toxic in any amount is utterly fatuous. Why do smart people entertain such a silly belief? Well, smart people believe all kinds of silly things, but food is a unique case. Humans have a special susceptibility to form irrational beliefs about food, and also to irrationally demonize foods that are perfectly okay to eat, if only in small amounts.

Mankind is nature’s ultimate omnivore. But we weren’t always. The story of Man is a story of dietary diversification. Throughout our existence we have made a habit of eating things we have never eaten before. Sometimes a new food we tried really was toxic and was subsequently declared taboo. As time went by, though, individual cultures began to make taboos of foods that were not toxic, merely for the sake of defining themselves as distinct from other cultures. Hence the ancient Jewish prohibition against eating meat and dairy in the same meal, which was originally a prohibition against eating a specific sacrificial dish of a rival religion.

Things aren’t so different today. Nearly all popular diets present themselves as rationally focused on health. Yet most of them demonize foods or nutrients that are health-enhancing (as strict vegetarians do, for example, with fish) or else they greatly exaggerate the harmfulness of foods or nutrients that are best consumed only in small amounts (as the sugar haters do with sugar). Those who create and enforce these taboos have no more idea why they’re really doing it than my dog Queenie has as to why she humps my leg, but I’m telling you why: instinct. There exists within the human breast an ancient impulse to forge community bonds with people who refuse to eat what we refuse to eat and to condemn those who eat what we refuse. This impulse runs so deep that, according to studies by Yale psychologist Karen Wynn, infants as young as six months of age exhibit a desire to punish puppets that seemingly don’t share their food preferences. It takes a special effort to resist this impulse and to think rationally about diet, an effort that many of us lack the wherewithal to make.

This “diet cult” instinct, as I call it, is wonderfully allegorized in the story of the forbidden fruit, which, in case you’ve forgotten, is to be found on page one of your Bible. God tells the first human, Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you will surely die.” Adam eats the sweet fruit anyway, but he does not die. He lives, according to scripture, another 930 years.


The Case Against Vegetables

According to mainstream nutrition science, there are basically six categories of healthy foods:

  1. Vegetables
  2. Fruits
  3. Nuts, seeds, and healthy oils
  4. Fish and natural meats
  5. Whole grains
  6. Dairy

According to various popular diets, five of these six food types are actually unhealthy. Fish, for example, is forbidden by “plant-based” diets even though science gives it a thumbs-up. Grains are forbidden by the Paleo Diet despite mainstream scientific approval. Even fruit is condemned by the new high-fat, zero-sugar diets, something that probably nobody thought possible until the last decade or so.

The one category of “officially” healthy foods that has so far escaped condemnation by any popular diet is vegetables. I find this ironic, because vegetables are the only supposedly healthy food type that people really should avoid. That’s right: Despite everything you’ve heard, vegetables are not good for you.

Skeptical? Let’s have a closer look. First of all, as everyone knows, vegetables are packed with fiber. This nondigestible form of carbohydrate may have a glowing reputation, but in fact it is an antinutrient that keeps your body from absorbing the essential nutrients that are needed to support good health. A little fiber may not be so bad, but if you load up on vegetables the way most diets tell you to, all you’re doing is canceling out the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are in them.

Speaking of phytochemicals, if you are a health-conscious eater, you are undoubtedly aware that vegetables are chock full of these mostly unidentified nutrients, many of which function as antioxidants in the body. What you may not know is that phytonutrients are toxins. Plants manufacture them as natural pesticides. In humans, these little poisons provoke a tiny stress response that strengthens the body’s own built-in antioxidant defenses. This process is known as hormesis and it is basically what is meant by the expression, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Lots of other compounds work the same way. Alcohol, for example, is a toxin that enhances human health when taken in small amounts by provoking a stress response. But what happens when a person consumes more than small amounts of alcohol daily? Bad things! And what do you suppose happens when a person overloads the body with phytonutrients by eating vegetables by the truckload? Personally, I hope I never have to find out.

Some vegetables also contain a nasty form of carbohydrate known as a FODMAP. Many people have trouble digesting these nutrients. In fact, if you think you have a gluten sensitivity, there’s a 92 percent chance you don’t, and that your real problem is FODMAPs, which are found in broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage and other vegetables. Best avoid them.

Vegetables in the nightshade family—which includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—contain nutrients that promote inflammation. And systemic inflammation, of course, underlies many common chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s and certain cancers. Best avoid these vegetables too.

It may not be strictly fair to blame vegetables for how they are grown, but these days they are grown either organically or inorganically. Pick your poison. Organic vegetables are fertilized with manure. About 4 percent of the organic vegetables you buy from your local grocer are contaminated with fecal bacteria. On the other hand, the toxic pesticides that are used on nonorganic veggies are even scarier.

Add it all up and you get a category of foods that should have little or no place in the diet of a person who cares about his or her health. These three little words could add years to your life: “Hold the veggies.”

Seriously, though

Yes, I’m joking. But I’m joking with serious intent. My point is that if you look at any type of food too closely, out of context, and with an agenda, you can make it seem dangerous. All food types contain nutrients and non-nutritive constituents that have the potential to negatively impact health or that are processed by the body through mechanisms which have links to negative health outcomes. But none of this matters. What matter are final outcomes, or the answers to questions such as: Does this type of food raise or lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes? Is this category of food associated with a longer or a shorter lifespan?

Advocates for various popular diets—or diet cults, as I call them—have tried to make you terrified of the proteins in fish and natural meats, the lectins and starches and gluten in whole grains, the saturated fat in dairy, and the fructose in fruit. But these reductionist smear jobs have no more validity than the one I just subjected vegetables to in the first part of this article. Why? Final outcomes.

Stacks of research have shown that fish eaters maintain more youthful brains in old age, that eating lots of whole grains reduces markers of systemic inflammation and lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, that dairy consumption is associated with healthier blood lipid profiles, and that people who eat the most fruit gain the least weight in adulthood.

It’s time to fight back against the diet cults. You don’t have to be afraid to eat like a normal person. I’m not saying that “anything goes” with diet. Mainstream nutrition scientists agree that consumption of processed meats, sweets, refined grains, and fried foods should be kept at low levels. But everything else—fruit, fish and natural meats, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dairy, and, yes, vegetables—is good for you.