Nutrition for hire-Manipulating science to create the illusion that a biased nutritional claim is fact by presenting an unbalanced argument.
Science for hire is a relatively well-known concept and the topic of many articles and documentaries. Essentially, science for hire is the use of scientific principles to manipulate an audience’s opinion, often towards an erroneous conclusion, that benefits the author of the message.
Key examples of science for hire include:
- How tobacco companies were able to get people to believe cigarettes were harmless
- How the NFL was able to suppress information on the severity of concussions in football
- The Sugar Research Institute’s efforts to downplay the health risks of sugar
Science for hire gives the illusion that a claim is true using scientific techniques to give it validity. However, science for hire bastardizes the scientific method.
The scientific method forms hypotheses and rigorously tests them by controlling variables that affect the outcome. In essence, it uses data to drive the validity of the hypothesis by eliminating alternative explanations. When properly used, science looks at all data both for and against a topic, and builds consensus based on the weight of the argument from all sides.
Science for hire has the process flipped. A person or organization selects an idea they want to be true and constructs an argument to support it by only presenting data that aligns with it. Studies that are not supportive of the argument are either ignored or dismissed as erroneous with no valid reason.
Nutrition for hire is essentially the same process, only using nutritional science as the vehicle. Nutritional science is extremely complex and high quality experiments in humans difficult to perform. As a result, it’s easy to manipulate and rife with fraudulent claims passed off as proven fact.
Nutrition for hire: The Food Pyramid
A common claim put forth in popular diet books is that the Food Pyramid is based on manipulated data that caused the obesity crisis. There is a strong argument for the first part of that statement.
For one, the Food Pyramid was published by the US Department of Agriculture(USDA). The purpose of the USDA is to regulate the production of food. It is in no way the arbiter of what makes up a healthy diet. Of course, health authorities have some input.
Furthermore, processed food companies have a pretty long track record of manipulating the arguments against their products. They do this by funding studies that promote their interests, and have no obligation to publish the results of the studies they fund that show harm.
But the food recommendations didn’t cause the obesity epidemic because people don’t follow them. People eat what they want, and most people probably couldn’t even tell you precisely what the Food Pyramid told us to eat. Not to mention that the much better MyPlate came out 10 years ago and obesity still increases year over year.
The food environment is a much larger driver of what you eat. Things like advertisements, store layouts, financial considerations, cultural factors, and the large number of fast food restaurants at your disposal. They sway your purchasing decision by enticing you towards a food, manipulating the data is just icing on the cake.
Be that as it may, nutrition for hire is obviously bad for people who want to understand the right things to eat. We should commend these popular diet books for bringing nutrition for hire to light. However, most, if not all, are guilty of the same thing.
You’re simply just not aware of it. At least, until now.
Nutrition for hire: When financial incentives align
If looking for the truth, it’s clearly not in your best interests to hear only one side of a story from a biased perspective. The truth lies with hearing all sides of the story and the total weight of the evidence. But this requires you to actively search for all sides.
The problem with nutrition for hire starts when financial incentives align between 2 parties. This is often portrayed as much more nefarious than it actually is by authors of common diet books.
They give the impression that food companies seek out researchers who they can pay to design manipulative studies. This isn’t normally the case, though it likely does happen.
Most often, researchers pick a specialty and perform research in that specialty. When that researcher’s track record of research aligns with that of a food company, their incentives align and food companies help fund further research.
The food company wins because they get evidence that their products are healthy, or alternatively, not unhealthy. The researcher wins because their lab gets more funding to operate. But, generally speaking, this isn’t great for getting a balanced perspective.
And we really shouldn’t expect food companies to give a balanced perspective in the popular press. When you go to a job interview, do you highlight all your flaws? No, you present the argument for your employment and it’s up to the employer to figure out what’s true.
You are under no obligation to show them how bad of an employee you might be, and neither are the food companies.
Nutrition for hire: Authors, bloggers, podcasters, & niche products
Authors of popular diets books would have you believe that they don’t have financial interests that bias their perspective, but they do. For one, they would sell far fewer books if people knew they were presenting a skewed perspective.
Furthermore, there are systems in place where the financial incentives of these authors align with others who promote their message. Bloggers(I get the irony), podcasters, and social media influencers are in it, just to name a few.
These people amplify the initial message that create niche products for other authors, food producers, supplement companies, and various other companies to jump in to fill voids created by the false message. As a result, you end up spreading misinformation, spending loads of money on things that don’t work, and end up no healthier as a result.
You’ve likely witnessed how this works. Essentially everyone used to see amazing results in weight loss and felt better from a gluten free or Paleo diet. Back then, these diets worked because people stopped eating processed foods, ate more meals at home, and cut back on added sauces and oils because they contained things they couldn’t eat.
Then, of course, niche products popped up. Processed foods and restaurants popped up that met Paleo requirements, gluten free versions of processed foods became more commonplace and tasty, and supplements popped up to breakdown gluten. Then, all of a sudden, these diets stopped being effective for everyone.
This is ultimately where this game goes every single time. It’s starting with the Keto and Carnivore diets right now. And they’re pivoting to a new point to get attention to a newer audience.
It’s no less nutrition for hire than food companies paying researchers and only publishing positive results.
The sales funnel and audience sharing
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with building an online following and profiting from it. And using a system of bloggers, podcasters, and social media influencers is a great way to get your message out to the masses. But this is not fundamentally any different than a food company funding research that promotes its products.
In both instances, financial incentives align which allows 2 entities to profit from one another. And though in many instances the author/blogger/podcaster relationship isn’t immediately financial, the assumption is that it will eventually become so.
This comes through a concept known as the sales funnel. The sales funnel is a marketing concept that explains the customer journey from awareness to making a purchase. This exists in many forms, but the image below captures the general concept.
The key concept is that first a customer becomes aware of your product, then enticed, then they purchase it. If all goes well, they become an advocate that touts the benefits to others and become a vehicle for getting new customers
But your reach ultimately limits the number of advocates you get. That’s why you need bloggers, podcasters, and influencers to broadcast your message to their audience.
Expanding your reach
In order for this process to work, the customer has to be open to the message, buy into it, and then willing to try it out. Eventually, though, you’ll stall out finding new customers. That’s why it’s important to find other people with an overlapping message with their own following that are open to the idea.
Then, they write a blog about you, have them you on their podcast, or share your posts on social media. That way, you expose their audience to your message and your audience gets exposed to them. That’s why you see the same author on 10 different podcasts over the course of a month. It spreads and reinforces their message to more people.
They put out a book and try to expand their reach. And you repeatedly read or hear their side of the story from a heavily biased narrative in blogs, podcasts, and on social media. Remember when carbs were the enemy for the Keto and Carnivore crowd?
Oddly enough, now it’s not the carbs, it’s the plant toxins and seed oils. And thus, a new audience is born. And just as a ton of research from folks like Kevin Hall show it’s not the carbs. Odd how that works.
It’s almost like they’re moving the goalposts to sell more books or products to keep their message alive.
Seed oils are the new carbs…again
I’m not altogether sure where I was when this started again, but people are back on the seed oils are toxic thing. I actually looked into this a few years ago. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I got more skeptical of Paleo. That, along with the explosion of niche products that popped up.
Briefly, seed oils are soybean, canola, corn, sunflower, and rapeseed oil. Since they are high in omega 6 fatty acids, many believe they are inflammatory by a couple of mechanisms.
First, they oxidize easily, though so do omega 3 FAs which are clearly beneficial. Second, they may increase arachidonic acid levels, which may increase pro-inflammatory molecules.
Finally, they may compete with the enzyme that makes anti-inflammatory omega 3 FAs. However, you should eat these rather than rely on converting them as we’re poor at this conversion anyway(That’s why fish is recommended 2x/week).
The food industry would have you believe there is nothing wrong with seed oils. Conversely, authors and bloggers would have you believe that there is strong evidence that they are bad for you. Oddly enough, both are wrong and right at the same time. Let me explain.
What the evidence shows
There is evidence that higher consumption of seed oils is associated with more inflammation. Conversely, there is data showing that higher seed oil consumption is not associated with inflammation, or even lowers it.
So you go to an author’s page who wrote a book about seed oils causing inflammation and only see the studies showing it increases inflammation. And, of course, food industry websites tout the studies showing it has no effect or that it decreases inflammation.
Note: Food companies don’t fund all of this data. You can check those out here, here, here, & here. Another important factor is that a tracer study found that the primary proposed mechanism for concern doesn’t happen in healthy humans who consume omega 6 FAs in the short term(only .2% was converted to arachidonic acid).
The data on omega 6 FA consumption is extremely volatile, ranging from harmful to beneficial, with more of the weight going to beneficial or benign. And new information indicates that you should pay more attention to omega 3 FA intake than the ratio of omega 6:omega 3. The body prefers to use omega 3s for the purposes it uses it for, it’s not going to substitute omega 6s just because there’s more.
A great review on this topic and how the Omega6:Omega 3 ratio is at odds with the data was published by Dr. Bill Harris in 2006. You can check that out here. He’s also discussed this in an in-depth podcast with Peter Attia you can check out here. As always, listen with a skeptical mind, and check all sources.
The blogosphere shifts its stance on the Omega 6:Omega 3 FA ratio
Just like fashion, nutrition is cyclical. Some of this is driven by the fact that new data comes out every day. Another big factor is that it often takes time to get fully exposed to all the data that’s out there. Reading through all these studies takes time.
Mark’s Daily Apple has clearly evolved on this topic. Their stance used to be that the Omega6:Omega3 ratio is important, and that we should limit Omega 6 FAs. However, they pivoted and changed this stance because that’s what the data showed. Don’t worry about the ratio, make sure you get adequate Omega 3 FAs.
Diet Doctor is a low carb website which used to be on the side that seed/vegetable oils are unhealthy. Like Mark’s daily apple, they have shifted their stance quite a bit over time.
Their current stance is that there is no human data that seed oils are unhealthy, some human data that they are healthy, and cooking with them is probably safe if not at extreme heat for prolonged periods. Furthermore, they are not linked to the obesity epidemic, with human studies showing replacing saturated fats with vegetable oils improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing liver fat in the short term.
I think it’s great that these blogs shifted their stance when presented with all the data. I also used to believe seed oils led to poor health until I read all the data and diversified from blogs to get my information. It’s clear that looking at the data from all sides points to a neutral or beneficial effect from seed oils.
But to be honest, I’m extremely shocked by this. Truth be told, the data should show conclusively that higher seed oil consumption increases inflammation and shortens lifespan. The fact that the data is so volatile leads me to believe people shouldn’t bother worrying specifically about omega 6 intake.
But I do think people should keep their intake low. Just not because omega 6 FAs increase inflammation. Which is why nutrition for hire is so destructive, and makes nutrition confusing,
Why you should restrict seed oil consumption
Let’s be real for a minute…You should definitely limit or restrict your consumption of seed oils. But if the data showing a relationship between omega 6 FAs and inflammation is murky, why?
Simply put, it’s not that you’re consuming more omega 6 FAs. Instead, it’s that the foods that most contribute to seed oil consumption are coming from 3 categories:
- Processed foods
- Eating out
- Added oils in sauces and dressings
It’s clear that the less things you eat out of these categories, the healthier you’ll be. The reason these foods aren’t that great is that they hijack your satiety mechanisms, so you eat more of them. Ultimately, they cause you to put on weight.
The problem with telling people the main issue is that seed oils are toxic or inflammatory is that workarounds will pop up. Ever notice how more and more processed foods such as chips and popcorn are being made with olive oil or coconut oil? Why do you think that is?
And do you really think replacing seed oils with other fats will change how great they taste, and in turn, how much of them you eat? You can avoid seed oils if you like, but replacing them with other fats/oils likely won’t impact how much processed food you eat.
Purchasing Primal Kitchen: How Kraft/Heinz hedged their bets
People were concerned when Kraft/Heinz bought Primal Kitchen because they thought the quality of ingredients would suffer. But Kraft/Heinz doesn’t have to change a thing. People were already buying these products at the lower volume/higher prices before they were bought out. And for no apparent reason.
Combining variations of sweet, fatty, and salty causes us to overeat whether they’re made with coconut or canola oil. Food producers don’t care if you’re buying $2 worth of a 16oz bag of seed oil chips or $5 worth of a 10oz bag of coconut oil chips. It doesn’t matter anyway, you’re still going to run through the stuff because they taste great.
There may be some marginal benefit to swapping out seed oils for healthier oils in processed foods, particularly ones exposed to high eat and oxidation. But it’s not even remotely close to what maintaining a healthy weight and limiting processed foods will do.
It would be like worrying about your chewing gum habit when you’re broke from spending $500 a night going out on the weekends. Cutting back on a $1 pack of gum isn’t going to fix your financial situation.
When you hijack the same satiety mechanisms using a healthier oil you still overeat, so you’re not addressing the bigger problem. Either way, Kraft/Heinz will take your money. They’ll just use either side of the debate to make their case…and count their cash.
It takes 20 extra calories per day to put on 2lbs a year, which is how much most people put on. You can easily do that with any processed food. You could do that by eating one medium tomato a day over your calorie needs.
The Carnivore and the tuber…
The stream of misinformation you are exposed to on a daily basis from blogs, podcasts, and videos is relentless. The most recent example comes from the vacation of a popular meat-eating diet author in Africa .
He noticed that the Hadza chewed on tubers and spit out a substantial portion of it. Of course, this means that all of the anthropological data showing that the Hadza eat a high fiber diet is false.
A 3-second google search for “Hadza Tubers Spit Out” brings up a paper from 2000 analyzing the edible portion of different tubers. You’ll also find that there’s a name for what they spit out: a quid. You’ll also find that researchers in anthropological data account for what they spit out, which is why the range for fiber is so large:
Whether this is willful ignorance or a lie of omission is irrelevant if you’re seeking the truth. And it’s not going to change anytime soon.
Anytime financial incentives align, no matter the scope, there will be incentive to push false narratives. This goes for multinational food corporations as well as authors of popular diet books.
Nutrition for hire is simply bad for anyone looking for the truth on diet, no matter the scale.
Nutrition for hire is a primary driver of why people are misinformed about diet. Using elements of science incorrectly to present a false narrative isn’t exactly a new thing. Snake oil salesmen have been scamming people for centuries.
With the internet and the plethora of media vehicles to distribute bad information, it’s easier now more than ever. But this doesn’t mean people should eschew podcasts, blogs, and Youtoube videos. The amount of great content out there is worth the bad.
Unfortunately, this does put the onus on the reader to dig into what they see, hear, and read. Just because something’s on a podcast or blog doesn’t mean it’s true. You have to dig in and verify what people on those media are saying.
Just because a source is hyperlinked doesn’t mean it’s an accurate representation of the study, or that the specific study cited represents the scientific consensus. This is extremely common and a cornerstone of nutrition for hire: Using components of the scientific method but misusing the entire process.
A great way to select better information is to follow more people who say may or could, and follow fewer people who say does and is. If you find the evolutionary basis of health interesting and use it to guide health decision, follow more anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.
Fortunately, a lot of these guys are writing books now for the layperson. Many are very open about engaging laypeople, and go to great lengths to explain why certain ideas are shaky and they’ve come to other conclusions.
It’s great to follow people who question the literature, just realize that a lot of the time the reason they question isn’t to get to the truth. It’s to get to their truth, which isn’t always what’s best for you.