The Single Biggest Error People Make About Nutrition
Bet you thought I was going to tell you something about which foods are bad to eat, didn’t you?
The biggest error people make about nutrition has nothing to do with food.
It has nothing to do with vitamins.
It has nothing to do with supplements.
It’s much more basic than that.
The single biggest error people make about nutritional information is to assume it’s not political.
For some reason, we Americans have been seduced by the religion of “science.” We worship at its altar, and we believe its information is “objective.” Even if that were completely so — which it’s not — it would be a somewhat minor error compared to the bigger problem, which is this: We think that what we hear about “studies” on television and in the newspapers actually represents an accurate description of what happened in those studies.
Take dairy. The other day I saw a television commercial that showed undulating perfect bodies, women in tube tops and cut offs, with taut tight bellies that you see in real life about as often as a Supernova cuts through the galaxy, all of them happily spooning some fruity, sugary crap made from yogurt into their smiling mouths as they danced and moved to the soundtrack of the commercial. The voiceover — a male voice booming with James Earl Jones style authority — announced confidently that “studies show dairy can produce weight loss.”
The message: Eat more of this sugary fake crap yogurt and you’ll get skinny.
So here’s the scoop: In 2004, a researcher named Michael Zemel did a study which compared “high dairy eating” folks with “low dairy eating folks” and found that, all things being equal, the “high dairy eating folks” lost about 5 percent more weight over time than the low dairy group. He has since done a couple of other studies showing similar effects. All of the people in his studies who lost weight were not just eating dairy — they were also on calorie reduced diets. The mechanism proposed here is that calcium suppresses a hormone called calcitronin which contributes to fat storage. Much of Zemel’s research has been sponsored by the dairy industry.
So is it a slam dunk? Hardly. Number one, many researchers agree that a calcium deficient diet can make it hard to lose weight, but that hardly means that adding a ton more dairy to your diet will knock pounds off. Since Zemel’s research, other studies have come out, completely contradicting his results. Last April a study was published showing that women women who added extra milk to their diets for a year lost no more weight than women who consumed the same number of calories but drank less milk.
And just the other day a new study was published showing that in older children and teens, drinking more than three servings of milk a day actually promotes weight gain.
Of course none of the dairy industry propaganda about milk causing weight loss mentions the associations between higher milk consumption and osteoporosis, or milk consumption and prostate cancer.
The point is this: Calcium is important, but the studies examining the relationship between milk and body fat are very very mixed at best. And no study — not even Zemel’s — would support the clear message in the ad: Don’t worry, be happy. Drink a ton of milk, eat a ton of sweetened yogurt, and you too will look like you won the genetic lottery when it comes to ab muscles. Even Zemel himself cautioned against such a ridiculous conclusion.
So how is this political?
Glad you asked.
Science — real science — almost never “proves” something without a doubt. Researchers look at dozens of different variables, with different populations, under different conditions, and examine and compare laboratory results to test hypothesis, which are then re-tested, re-examined, and re-formulated. The pace of knowledge is glacially slow. But when an observation comes out that seems to advance the agenda of an industry, you can be sure that that “fact” will be cherry-picked from the mass of data that exists, and before you know it a full blown ad campaign has been launched… Milk causes weight loss. Soy is a health food.
The NY Times today reported on how the Chief of Staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality “edited” scientific reports on global warming by inserting a few key words to indicate doubt and uncertainty wherever the reports pointed in a direction that didn’t advance this administration’s agenda. (As Lenny Bruce might say, “I’m so shocked.”) The food industry does this constantly. The tobacco industry did it remarkably well in the 50’s and 60’s — “There’s no real proof that cigarettes cause lung cancer,” they would say, and then point to a host of studies from which they could cherry pick a fact or two pointing to — if you squinted hard enough and had a couple of Jack Daniels’ — some hazy doubt. And defense lawyers do this in their closing arguments every day of the week. Anyone remember “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit?”
Point is this: When you see an advertising campaign telling you to eat more crap in order to lose weight because “studies prove it works,” treat those ads like you would that e-mail asking you to give your bank account number to a Nigerian diplomat so he can transfer a few million out of his country.