Everything we’ve heard about diets is a lie

Maybe not everything, but we should certainly be skeptical of most dietary advice.

In case you missed it, last week a “trickster journalist” revealed how (and why) he deliberately misled people all over the world into thinking that chocolate can somehow help with weight loss. In his study, with real human subjects and real results, he found that a group of dieters eating one chocolate bar per day lost more weight than the other, non-chocolate-eating groups over the course of a few weeks.

The problem? It was junk science, he knew it, and he hand-fed media outlets a fun story on a fashionable topic. The real purpose of the study was to “reveal the corruption of the diet research-media complex,” which it did, to a certain extent (I don’t want to name any names, but the worst offender rhymes with shape magazine).

After the hoax was revealed, some scientists were outraged, but the general public collectively shrugged and chuckled. While the ethics of such an experiment are certainly debatable, the fake study and its accompanying coverage should have been stark reminders of two things: that research involving dieting and nutrition is somewhat questionable, and that there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

What’s wrong with dieting research? A lot of it is bad science, with poor controls and broad results. Many of the results go straight to media headlines without more critical inquiries, hoax or no hoax. And although there are several scientific topics that are hotly debated in the media that really aren’t that debatable, diet research usually gets a free pass.

This is why there are popular beliefs that gluten will give us alzheimer’s (it definitely won’t), eggs will give us heart disease (they won’t), and breakfast is the “most important meal of the day” (it’s really just like any other meal).

The main reason nutritional research is so difficult to interpret is that the results are almost always associations. That’s not the same as an effect; correlation does not equal causation. This means we don’t really know if the Mediterranean diet itself actually has disease-preventing powers, or if people that lead less stressful, more active, health-conscious lives tend to eat more nuts and fish.

There’s really no clear method of testing the effects of foodstuffs on our bodies. A certain nutrient may react one way in a test tube or a petri dish, but we are not test tubes and petri dishes!

Ever wonder how a specific food or nutrient will affect your metabolism? This picture of our metabolic pathways will change your mind. Under normal conditions, our metabolic systems are too complex and dynamic for a singular food or nutrient to have a significant influence on our long-term health, let alone something as complicated as weight loss.

In other words, chocolate will not speed up your metabolism. Raspberry ketones and green coffee beans (whatever those are) will not “zap your belly fat.” And your supplements probably won’t work either; at least not as advertised.

Don’t believe the headlines, and don’t get confused by all the conflicting dietary advice. Everyone with questions about nutrition already has an intuitive sense of what to eat: real food, in moderation. When it comes to your health, there are no magic bullets, and no shortcuts. You didn’t need a scientist to tell you that.

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