What Passes For Diet Cult Research

Diet CultsI received an email recently from someone who tried a diet for thirty days, lost a bunch of weight, and thought I might like to write it up on my blog. In all seriousness, I responded and said that when he had the following to give me a call:

  • 100 volunteers for a test group who agreed to act, behave, perform, and eat the exact same things for twenty years
  • 100 volunteers for a control set who agreed to do act, behave, and perform exactly like the test set for twenty years while eating other foods
  • Had twenty years of data cataloging everything both sets did, visited, ate, and experienced…

I’m not holding my breath.

Anyone can do anything for thirty days and all projects involving human subjects are fraught with questionable data. Any ramifications for human’s in general from this individual’s brief experience are completely and absolutely non-existent. But that has never once held back a diet huckster from trying a make a quick buck on the diet du jour.

This is exactly the problem of human nutritional research. Good researchers recognize this. Michael Pollan has famously summed up his work with the adage to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” David Katz argues in Disease Proof that all foods in healthy amounts are permissible. I once worked on a research project with a researcher who told me that the best thing she could figure out is to eat lots of different kinds of foods in smallish amounts in as close to a natural state as possible. Nothing astounding there. In fact, it’s mostly what our grandparents told us about food.

But there are lots of bad and zany hucksters in the world of food and diets. My guess is that my local Borders Books has sixty feet or more of shelf space devoted to dieting. There is the Blood Type diet. Suzanne Somers takes up a shelf. Wheat Belly and Gluten Free take up a foot or two. Paleo argues for space. For some people, these are effective ways to eat. But that is not how they are sold. These books are sold as nutritional saviors. EAT THIS WAY AND YOU WILL DIE! they say. EAT THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE! (But you need to buy the book to find out how.)

Avoid these books. Whatever science they contain is just there to draw you into laying down your money. Real nutrition is boring and no one needs to buy a book to read about it. Eat mostly real food. Cook it yourself. Go heavy on the plants and light on the meat. Dessert is fine. Enjoy clean water. Exercise a little. Hug your kids. Have a sip of wine. Raise your glass to toast evolution that made us so wonderfully flexible in nutritional needs.

Book Review: Diet Cults

Matt Fitzgerald has written a book along these same lines called Diet Cults. Following is my Amazon review:

Diet Cults

I beg you. No charcoal milkshakes.

If you want to piss off a whole lot of people then start poking holes in their religious beliefs. This is exactly what Matt Fitzgerald has done in Diet Cults. And if you don’t think some dieters are religious then consider that they put belief in their experience ahead of any verifiable science. And just like religions, what many of these diets share is a belief that only one way of eating leads to the path of true health. If you think theological battles between Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics can get rough then you’ve never seen a vegan college coed take on an Atkins adherent over a nice steak, cooked rare.

Fitzgerald argues that almost everyone can stick to basic nutritional guidelines and be healthy. Pollan’s “Real Food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” fits well here. There are no super foods. There are no forbidden foods. Protein will not set you free. Paleo will not give you a new lease on life. He steps through each of these diets and others skewering them as mostly modern fads.

He weaves in research throughout the text and provides references in the appendix. He also argues from personal experience that elite athletes – people who have the discipline and will to follow any diet for performance – mostly shy away from specialty diets. All foods are permissible and none impart superpowers or super health.

Fitzgerald takes care to recognize that there are individual proclivities toward certain diets. “Diets choose people”, he says. There are people who genuinely feel better eating foods without gluten. Many people are genuinely bothered by lactose. But selling a gluten-free or raw foods diet as a cure-all for everyone is what rankles him. These diets typically lack scientific validity and are almost impossible to maintain. There is ample evidence that people lose weight on these diets in the short term – often because they are difficult or boring – and then gain weight back when they drop it.

The book is generally well written though I wonder how many disciple’s minds he will change. It’s not overly rigorous and in many areas, he simply weighs his experience against someone else’s and that’s a tough way to win an argument. But I think his approach to eating is likely the best way for most people. Think Michael Pollan with an occasional slice of apple pie.

Three stars.


Read my 9 Keys for Healthy Eating here.

See Diet Cults here at Amazon
Diet Cults here at Barnes and Noble
Matt Fitzgerald’s Amazon page
Matt Fitzgerald’s website