The Toxin Lurking In Your Inbox

nutrition pseudoscienceI was checking my email Saturday and raised an eyebrow at one of the subject lines: “This harmful ingredient lurking in everyday foods!” My first thought was, “Bad grammar.” My second was, “How in the hell did I get on this woman’s email list?” My third thought was, of course, “What is this alleged harmful ingredient, and how irritated will I be when I find out what it is?”

Because I wasn’t born yesterday, I didn’t click on the link in the email. However, I was able to find the sender’s website from the domain name in the email. Yep, I was irritated. The wealth of false claims and pseudoscience on the homepage was nearly mind boggling. (OK, not really, because I see variations on this theme all too often, nearly always perpetrated by someone with no legitimate nutrition background.)

First, she talks about “fat-burning meals.” (OMG there is no such thing!!!!!) Then it gets even better (read: worse).

A Point-Counterpoint on Nutrition Pseudoscience *

* Claims based on non-existent, science, outdated science, shoddy science, or a combination.

Her: “It’s no surprise that new medical science is finding that gluten, dairy and table sugar are the top three toxic ingredients that are found in many kitchens across the country.”

Me: Medical science is finding no such thing. Gluten is only “toxic” to people who have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy. Dairy is not toxic, period. And while medical science is pretty much in agreement that excess sugar (and not just “table sugar,” but other sugars that are added to foods and beverages) is not good for us for a variety of reasons, to call it “toxic” is a bit extreme. You are not one bite of cupcake away from death.

Her: “Unfortunately, the increased levels of consumption of these toxic ingredients are literally killing our families. In fact, for the first time in modern history our kids have a lower life expectancy than we do.”

Me: Really? Killing our families? Literally? Again, the idea that we are one bite away from death is an absurd notion (unless we are talking about someone taking a bite of a food that they are severely allergic to). Unfortunately, it’s one that is frequently trotted out by people who don’t know what they are talking about. Fear as a motivator…never a good idea.

As for the statement about today’s kids having a lower life expectancy than we do, which she later refers to as a “well-known fact,” is pure fallacy. The scientist that came up with that idea totally pulled it out of his own head, jotting it down on a napkin. No research to back it up, whatsoever. Unfortunately, he said it, the media ran with it, and now it is a well known fact fallacy, destined to be repeated by blogger and purveyors of nutrition pseudoscience until the end of time.

Her: “And science is now pointing to the fact that diseases such as high blood pressure, joint aches and swelling, childhood diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, constant fatigue, obesity and a laundry list of other very serious ailments are mainly a byproduct of overconsumption of gluten, dairy, cane sugar and overly processed foods.”

Me: No (mostly). Yes, excessive sugar consumption is associated with most of those diseases and health conditions, in large part because excessive sugar contributes to chronic inflammation in the body, and inflammation in turn to contributes to each of those conditions she listed (except maybe fatigue, but if you are constantly sugar rushing and crashing, yeah you’re going to feel fatigued, especially if sugary foods and drinks are crowding out more nutritious foods in your diet).

If you have celiac disease and continue to eat gluten, then joint aches, swelling, and constant fatigue may result. People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may experience those same symptoms as well.

As for dairy, if you are lactose intolerant you will probably spend too much time in the bathroom after consuming at least some dairy products (although many people do fine with yogurt and cheese), and if you are allergic or intolerant to one of the proteins in milk, then you may experience joint aches and swelling. But research shows that dairy foods contribute to healthy blood pressure, healthy weight and cardiovascular health. I’ve done deep dives into the research on this, so I know what I’m talking about.

The Big Takeaway

I’m not going to lie, this woman pisses me off. While much of today’s nutrition confusion lies at the feet of mainstream media (mostly from headlines…often an extreme headline is paired with an accurate, sensibly written article, but many people never make it past the headline), there are many other perpetrators of nutrition misinformation, from doctors with best-selling books steeped in pseudo-science to bloggers who read and believe these books and are regurgitating them to their readers.

This pisses me off because I see the fallout from this every day in my patients. The fixation and worry over what foods might kill you or save you gets in the way of actually eating a balanced diet that supports good health and allows you to enjoy your food. It’s unnecessary mental clutter. The information itself can become toxic, if we let it.

My advice? Ignore nutrition information that uses words like “toxic,” “killing,” “magic,” “miracle,” “secret,” or my favorite phrase, “what your doctor doesn’t want you to know.” Those words are used to sell products or ideas through fear or the promise of salvation. Don’t fall for it.