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Exposing Fraud & Quackery in 100 Best-Selling Nutrition & Diet Books

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Saturday, August 8, 2020

Millions of people buy nutrition and diet books every year, making the writing and selling of this category highly profitable. The important question that needs to be asked is – who exactly is writing these books and what are their qualifications? Are they to be trusted? Or are they snake oil salespersons out to make a buck? The journal Nature recently published the findings of a group of researchers who analyzed the top 100 bestselling nutrition and diet books from 2008 to 2015. The following is a summary of their findings.

Assessing the authors:

“For each author, we attempted to extract educational and occupational information by searching their name in online searches to find biographies, interviews and news articles, including the author’s occupational information. These searches were performed between 15 October, 2018 and 27 October, 2018. We also utilized Wikipedia pages and Google Books author information when possible. We performed additional searches in Google Scholar for the authors that claimed to have university faculty appointments and recorded the number and type of publications with 100 or more citations, such as research articles, reviews, or opinion pieces. Only a minority of published works reach 100 citations, therefore passing this threshold can signify substantial visibility of the published work. We also validated claims of faculty appointment by searching for the author in the corresponding university’s faculty listing.”

The qualifications and credibility of most of the authors should come as no surprise:

“There were 83 unique authors among the top 100 diet and nutrition-focused books as some authors had multiple best-seller hits among the top 100 …….. Of the 83 authors, 33.7% had a medical degree and 6.0% had a Ph.D degree, while about half of the authors had no M.D., Ph.D or other graduate degree. The current and previous occupations of the authors revealed that a third of them were at some point practicing physicians, and a great variety of other occupations were also represented, including editors, entrepreneurs, personal trainers, nutritionists, actors, bloggers, reality television stars, a fire fighter, and a professional pool player.”

Authors with(out) university appointments:

“We decided to further investigate the credentials of these best-selling authors to see how many of them had faculty appointments in universities. Of the 83 authors, we found a total of 20 authors with some mention of a faculty appointment, either currently or in the past. Of those 20, seven were currently on the faculty of some university and the information could be validated in the website of the institution by searching their name. Several of these authors seemed to have auxiliary appointments at adjunct or ‘voluntary’ positions (unclear what that latter faculty title means). Most of the current professors were in biomedical (including nutrition-related) fields, but one was on the faculty of non-fiction writing.”

Many of the authors have been in trouble with the law:

“Among those who are publishing extensively in the peer-reviewed literature, we found one who was investigated for research fraud and then retired. As we perused the available information of the careers of the authors of nutrition best-selling books, we also came across some examples of legal or regulatory repercussions. One author lost his ability to practice medicine and was investigated by the New York district attorney for promoting questionable health practices, one received several letters of warning from the United States Food and Drug Administration, and one was convicted for misrepresenting the content of his books among other crimes and went to jail.”

The majority of the authors claimed their specific diets prevent or cure a wide variety of diseases:

“We collected and categorized the Google Books summary of each of the top 100 diet and nutrition-related books. Eighty of the summaries mentioned weight loss or weight management, and of the summaries that specified a program length and/or the number of pounds that could be lost, the median was 21 days …..  Apart from weight loss, one of the most common claims of the summaries was that the nutritional and diet advice in the books could cure or prevent disease. The most commonly listed diseases were diabetes and heart disease. Other commonly listed diseases that could be treated or prevented using these books were cancer, dementia, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, and depression.”

Contradictory nutritional advice:

“…one summary suggested counting calories, while eight books advised their readers not to count calories. One summary suggested reducing portions/calories, four advised not to reduce portions/calories, three suggested cycling size of portions/calories consumed, and two encouraged their readers to eat more food. Given the large, almost wild, diversity in nutritional opinions and claims, it may be difficult to set a threshold of what would qualify as disputable and unsubsantiated versus not. Regardless, many claims seemed very puzzling to us and based on our knowledge of the scientific literature we would not be able to even remotely endorse them.”

Text-mining the 100 books – a list of mind-boggling claims:

----“Carbs are destroying your brain”—Grain Brain

----“Fighting off liver disease? Drinking coffee can reduce liver inflammation. Battling breast cancer? Consuming soy is associated with prolonged survival.”—How Not to Die

----“Zero Belly diet attacks fat on a genetic level, placing a bull’s-eye on the fat cells that matter most: visceral fat, the type of fat ensconced in your belly.”—Zero Belly Diet

----“SKIP THE CRUNCHES: They just build muscle under the fat…LESS (EXERCISE) IS MORE”—This Is Why You’re Fat (And How to Get Thin Forever)

----“Eating pasta, bread, potato, and pizza will actually make you happier, healthier, and thinner—for good”—The Carb Lovers Diet

----“Skip breakfast, stop counting calories, eat high levels of healthy saturated fat, work out and sleep less, and add smart supplements”—The Bulletproof Diet

----“Modern “improvements” to our food supply—including refrigeration, sanitation, and modified grains—have damaged our intestinal health. Dr. Axe offers simple ways to get these needed microbes, from incorporating local honey and bee pollen into your diet to forgoing hand sanitizers and even ingesting a little probiotic-rich soil”—Eat Dirt

----“Overeating doesn’t make you fat; the process of getting fat makes you overeat.”—Always Hungry?

----“Do you have an overall sense of not feeling your best, but it has been going on so long it’s actually normal to you? You may have an autoimmune disease, and this book is the “medicine” you need.”—The Immune System Recovery Plan

----“Shows you how to grow new receptors for your seven metabolic hormones, making you lose weight and feel great fast!”—The Hormone Reset Diet

----“The world’s foremost expert on the therapeutic use of culinary spices, takes an in-depth look at 50 different spices and their curative qualities, and offers spice “prescriptions”–categorized by health condition–to match the right spice to a specific ailment.”—Healing Spices

----“The idea that people simply eat too much is no longer supported by science”—The Adrenal Reset Diet

----“Dieters can actually lose weight by eating foods, nutrients, teas, and spices that change the chemical balance of the brain for permanent weight loss—a major factor contributing to how quickly the body ages. In fact, everyone can take years off their age by changing their brain chemistry.”—Younger (Thinner) You Diet


“In all, our assessment of the summaries of best-selling books on nutrition shows that they may provide information or misinformation about very important matters and they are a heterogeneous mix. We cannot exclude that some of them may be providing sound or even excellent advice, but it is likely that many, probably the large majority, contain substantial misinformation and claims that have no scientific foundation. Our assessment by text-mining seven top-selling books showed little reference to standard evidence-based medicine tools (randomized trials and meta-analyses). The information spread in these books may eventually have more impact on the public than the peer-reviewed scientific literature, as more consumers reported using nutritional information from friends and family members or from news articles or headlines or news on TV than from reading a scientific study in 2018.

“Major flaws, conflicts, lack of proper author credentials and evasion of proper scientific documentation may need to be more broadly communicated to the public. Regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration have no clear framework for intervening at the moment. However, we need to find ways to safeguard the public from misinformation. Greater public awareness of the untrustworthiness of much of this literature is needed. In an era of escalating anti-science movements, the downfall of nutrition science and its compounded misrepresentation are also particularly dangerous for the reputation of science at large.”

Science, advocacy, and quackery in nutritional books: an analysis of conflicting advice and purported claims of nutritional best-sellers https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-020-0415-6

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Photo: https://foodimentary.com/2012/09/09/september-9-national-i-love-food-day/  

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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