Reading this article in the New York Times was infuriating at first, and then simply depressing. I’m not sure why an article from two years ago is linked from their “Health” front page, but most people who read it won’t notice and think it’s much more recent.

The tagline of the article was promising: “For the Overweight, Bad Advice by the Spoonful”. And here I thought, finally, we’re going to hear about how eating lots of sugar and grains is probably not a good idea.

Not so much.

Instead, the article devolves into a hodgepodge justification of set point theory and gives the strong impression that once we’re overweight there’s nothing that can be done. I find it an incredibly unexamined article quoting doctors who are not asking questions like responsible scientists should.

Here are some gems:

Scientists recently have come to understand that the brain exerts astonishing control over body composition and how much individuals eat. “There are physiological mechanisms that keep us from losing weight,” said Dr. Matthew W. Gilman, the director of the obesity prevention program at Harvard Medical School/Pilgrim Health Care.

Well, yes, “physiological mechanisms” mean hormones. If hormones are the issue then have you thought about how you can change the expression of the hormones that keep humans fat once they are fat? Is it too crazy to expect a scientist to ask the question: “We know that X leads to a result we don’t want, so what are the things that can affect X?”

“The meals we romanticize in the past somehow leave out the reality of what people were eating,” he said. “The average meal had whole milk and ended with pie…. The typical meal had plenty of fat and calories.

OK, so you’re talking about a meal from the 1960’s then? Well, this “typical” meal with its fat and pie kept the average American thinner than the current recommendations, with lower incidence of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, despite higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. Wouldn’t that lead you to believe that the problem is with the current recommendations and eating habits? Wouldn’t it lead you think: Maybe there’s nothing wrong with whole milk and a little bit of pie. Wouldn’t it make you wonder how much milk and pie was in that meal? Maybe as a scientist you would go look at your grandmother’s plates and cookware to get a first impression of serving size before doing more research. Wow, that baking dish is really small compared to what’s standard today. Wow, that desert plate is tiny in comparison to the one you have at home. That typical meal probably only had a third of the pie you thought it did. You better try to find hard data on serving size and meal composition. Maybe you should take a look at what we ate 40 years ago that we do not eat today and vice versa? Hmmm…

Personally, I don’t think the typical meal from the 60’s is a great way to eat. However, we know the epidemiological outcome was better than the how we eat now. Isn’t that fact alone enough to scrap the current dietary recommendations that have driven people to low fat diets and processed, low fat food? Isn’t that enough to ask fundamental questions about where the science went off the rails? Wouldn’t a statement like “The typical meal had plenty of fat and calories” make you think that if it had lots of calories and lots of fat and didn’t cause people to balloon like whales then maybe, just maybe, where you get your calories from is pretty important? Oh, and where you get your calories from affects those “physiological mechanisms” that the doctor was talking about before. Hmm….

I will however, agree with the following:

“People don’t know that a 20-minute walk burns about 100 calories,” said Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the weight-management center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “People always overestimate the calories consumed in exercise, and underestimate the calories in food they are eating.”

This is exactly why the effects of your food are so important. If you feel sated because of the hormonal triggers the right foods have set off, you stop eating, so you can rely on exercise for all its other wonderful benefits.

It’s incredibly frustrating that the supposed “paper of record” would publish such a shoddily researched article. Imagine if the NYT’s Washington office reported on a government program that for 30 years had led to nothing but failure. What if the journalist only talked to those experts that thought the program was the only thing that could be done to solve whatever problem it had been designed to address. Naturally, the journalist would get laughed out of the editing room. Not so when it comes to their health reporting.

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