Nutritional Self-Defense by Thomas Newberry


People believe what they want to believe – a fact well-known by the food industry. Love milk? Then you want to believe it’s good for you. So when the dairy industry touts all the calcium in milk, you eat it up (pun intended). Even though no other mammal gets calcium from milk past infancy. And even though no other mammal consumes the milk of another mammal. And even though it could not possibly have been nature’s plan for lifelong delivery of calcium through milk (because where would mom get it, right?).

How many studies about the negative effects of dairy have been published by the dairy industry? None. So that must mean that there is nothing negative about dairy. Or that they have an amazing record of only conducting studies that support their view. Or that they do not publish contrary information. Which is the most likely and makes the most sense for a for-profit business?

The first step in nutritional self-defense is to accept the fact that you are a sucker. If you want to believe milk is good for you and you read a dozen articles that come down equally on either side of the issue, which ones are going to seem more plausible to you? The ones you want to be true.

So when I see an article like “13 Nutrition Lies That Made The World Sick And Fat” that Dr. Farrago included on his blog, I approach it with a note of skepticism. First, I make myself aware of inherent biases. In other words, I try to figure out what the author wants to believe and judge those claims with an extra degree of skepticism. Then, I use logic and these simple facts:

  1. Plants make you healthy. If you can’t trust yourself to believe what is true versus what you want to be true, just eliminate everything you have ever heard anything bad about. What does that leave you with? And what is the oldest nutrition advice in the world? EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!
  2. You can handle processed foods fairly well. Processing is simply putting energy into food outside of your body. We have been doing that for thousands of years. As a species, we have adapted to processed food and we will continue to do so through a process called epigenetics. But, there is a big difference between food you can “handle” and food that makes you healthy.
  3. You can handle animal matter fairly well. The evidence of your carnivorous past is right there in your face. Canine teeth are used to kill. But historically we ate a LOT less meat than we do now – like an order of magnitude less.
  4. The experts don’t know shit about individual nutrients. There are thousands of chemicals in just one plant and yet there are only about 5 dozen substances we call nutrients with measurable effects on the body. The “experts” have even begun to admit their ignorance by inventing vague new categories of nutrients like “phytochemicals” (FYI “phyto” means “plant”). And even the identified nutrients will cause different effects in the body based on other nutrients that are present. Nutrition is way too complex to lend itself to the scientific method of isolating variables. This goes for both micro- and macro-nutrients.
  5. There is no magic. There is no pill, drop or injection that will make you healthy. There are also no superfoods. Quinoa may be very nutritious, but not so much so that it should be in a whole separate category. BEWARE OF WISHFUL THINKING.

The author of the Nutrition Lies article is Kris Gunnars from Authority Nutrition. There are 116 citations in the article. Were those the only studies on those subjects? Why did he just choose the ones that supported his view? Was there no credible research to the contrary? Can we figure out what he wants to believe from the fact that he advocates an Atkins-style diet? Let’s review the “Lies” that Kris busts.

Lie #1: Eggs are bad for your health. An Atkins guy defending eggs – what a surprise. He cherry-picked 13 articles in support but none to the contrary. Why are these the articles to believe? Also, the way this “lie” is phrased over-simplifies the issue to the point of irrelevancy. The truth is that EVERYTHING is bad for you if you consume too much of it. You can drink too much purified water and die from water toxicity for heaven’s sake. Why do eggs get a free pass?

This same reasoning applies to all the busted lies, particularly Lie #6: Coffee is Bad for You; Lie #7: Meat is Bad For You; Lie #9: Refined Seed and Vegetable Oils are Healthy; and Lie #13: Fat Makes You Fat. As for the other “lies”:

Lie #2: A Calorie is a Calorie. I happen to completely agree that this is a lie, primarily because of the bioavailability of nutrients (ever wonder how many calories you absorbed from that whole kernel of corn you just saw in the toilet?) and the thermic value of food (it takes more energy to digest unprocessed plants than it does for processed foods or fat). But of course the Atkins guy touts the benefits of protein and decries the dangers of fructose. So in his world too much beef, no problem, but too much fruit, watch out fatty! That does not even pass the giggle test.

Lie #3: Saturated Fat is Unhealthy. I just want to point out one ridiculous line from this part of the article. I will paraphrase and remove the abbreviations: “It changes cholesterol from very, very bad small high density low density lipoproteins to large low density low density lipoproteins.” “Good” cholesterol is high density (HDL aka High Density Lipoproteins) and “bad” cholesterol is low density (LDL aka Low Density Lipoproteins). But if the low density cholesterol is high density it would be “very, very bad”. Is this making sense to anyone? Maybe the truth is that we don’t know shit about the role of cholesterol in the body. Try this on for size: NOBODY DIES OF HIGH CHOLESTEROL OF ANY DENSITY. Statins are the most prescribed drug in the world. We have reduced cholesterol. Why hasn’t it affected disease rates?

Lie #4: Eating a lot of protein is bad for your health. Interesting that this is a separate lie from “Meat is bad for you.” Could Kris, the Atkins guy, really be talking about plant proteins here? Did you know that a potato is 9% protein, rice is 10% protein and spinach is 51% protein? It also seems obvious that Kris is trying very hard to be provocative. Most people believe the exact opposite of this “lie” – that protein is the most important part of the diet. Human breast milk is less than 6% protein. You triple in size in your first year of life. If protein is so important, then it is especially important then. Why so little? Also, if you eat nothing but animal protein, you will die. It is called protein poisoning and commonly known as “rabbit starvation” because it happens to people who get trapped in the wilderness and try to survive on wild game alone.

Lie #5: Everyone should be eating “heart-healthy” whole wheat. Once again, you have to disbelieve some evidence and believe other evidence to agree with Kris here. The evidence on gluten is hardly conclusive, but why is this “lie” worded this way? If anyone just reads Kris’ headlines they might conclude that whole GRAINS are not healthy? To be clear, WHOLE GRAINS ARE VERY HEALTHY even if there is a problem with the gluten in wheat.

Lie #8: The healthiest diet is a low-fat, high-carb diet. The healthiest diet is a diet with lots of unprocessed plant foods – NOT vegetarian, vegan, raw, organic or entirely unprocessed, just loaded with healthy plants. That type of diet ends up being low fat and high carb, but that is not what makes it healthy. It is the abundance of beneficial micronutrients that makes it healthy. If you do not eat lots of plants you do NOT get those nutrients. Focusing on how much fat or carbohydrate or protein is in your diet is not helpful AT ALL.

Lie #10: Low-carb diets are ineffective and downright harmful. Of course Kris HAS to believe this is a lie if he is going to keep touting his diet. But despite the benefits of low carb diets being “pretty much a scientific fact at this point”, there is a LOT more evidence to the contrary than there is in support. And it is also interesting that Kris cherry picks statistics about the effects of a low carb diet on all sorts of chronic diseases but leaves out cancer. Can you guess why?

Lie #11: Everyone should be cutting back on sodium. I largely agree with Kris on this one, but primarily because there is an amazing lack of evidence to support the idea that sodium is harmful. However, absence of proof is not proof of absence. We can blame this “lie” on “biological plausibility”. Sodium intake temporarily elevates blood pressure. If your blood pressure is permanently “temporarily” elevated it seems logical that hypertension would follow. There has never been a study to test this, much less prove it. That does not mean it is a lie. What we do know is that people who follow restricted sodium diets tend to have worse health outcomes than people who don’t pay attention to sodium.

Lie #12: Sugar is bad because it contains “Empty” calories. Okay this one is downright infuriating. If you don’t read the article but trust Kris, you might reasonably conclude that the lie is that “sugar is bad”. But the lie is that sugar is bad ONLY because it contains empty calories. Sugar is bad for all sorts of reasons. But why does Kris pick on sugar? He gave a free pass to eggs, saturated fat, protein, coffee and meat.

How do nutrition lies get started anyway? Primarily through a process called an “information cascade”. Every time you hear a “fact” from a new source it gains credibility. This is because most people are not willing to question what everybody else clearly believes is true. Statins, anyone? This is the irony of Kris’ article. He claims to be busting nutrition lies, but it’s really just his opinion. The article and the way it is written only really serve as elements in an information cascade.

To defend yourself against nutritional bullshit do not get nutrition information from headlines, food companies or anyone who would benefit from you believing their story.

Thomas Newberry is a business manager at the Nutritional Health Center