Best Diet Bushwa: The Last Shall Be First

by Claudius J West

raw vegetables, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, lettuces, grapes

Is this what Weight Watchers makes you think of?

In January, U.S. News and World Report published their annual Best Diets review.

With dismay, I read that the diet I have most sympathy for, the Paleo diet, out of 29 diets, tied for last place. Just above the Paleo diet sat the Raw Food diet, another eating regime I thought would have ranked much higher.

What study came up with these results?

No study at all. Turns out, the review was based on a survey of a panel of experts.

Oh, yeah? Which experts? How many of them?

Twenty-two experts, all of them with advanced degrees and way more credentials than I’ve got.

I was impressed. Judging by the head shots accompanying each of their bio-shorts, these experts practice what they preach inasmuch as nearly all of them look to be in good physical condition.

Says U.S. News, “Best Diets 2013 cuts through the clutter of claims and delivers the facts about 29 diets.”

But not really.

The results of the rankings are based on a rating system that depends entirely on the opinions of the experts. Is this diet effective for short-term weight loss? Long-term weight loss? Those are questions that can be studied and measured accurately, but reading what an expert thinks is the answer isn’t the same as reading a fact.

In defense of Paleo, U.S. News says: “Paleo diets haven’t yet drawn the attention of many researchers. One tiny study that looked at weight loss found that 14 participants lost an average of about 5 pounds after three weeks on a Paleo regimen.”

If there aren’t many studies about Paleo, then what are the experts basing their opinions on?

John_Montagu,_4th_Earl_of_SandwichSimilarly, in the Ease of Compliance category, U.S. News asks: “Can you get used to the idea of breadless sandwiches?” Until John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, got things rolling by inventing the sandwich so as to keep his fingers clean and grease-free while playing cribbage, breadless sandwiches were all that could be had. If we can get used to one thing, we can get used to another—it’s only a matter of learning a new habit. How hard is it to modify one’s eating habits? That is such a subjective question and depends so much on individual motivation that it hardly seems fair to ask it.

The Raw Food diet underwent an unfair drubbing. Under the category How Much Does It Cost?, we are told:

“Plus, [for the Raw Food diet] you’ll need appliances: High-end blenders range from $300 to $600, for example, and food processors capable of slicing, grating, and shredding can go for $700. Dehydrators cost about $100 to $200.”

That’s overstating the case by quite a bit. I see that the Vitamix 1502 clocks in at $2400, truly high-end, but I managed to get my own Vitamix (refurbished) for under $400. (It’s worth the investment because it last for years). Even a Cuisinart food processor at high-end Williams-Sonoma sells for less than $200, a long way from U.S. News’ $700. As for dehydrators, perfectly good ones can be got for under $40 at Target.

Sounds like someone at U.S. News wants to dissuade you and me from trying the Raw Food diet.

How about the number one ranked DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)? It was developed for the National Institute of Health under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

You do trust the government to know what’s best for you, don’t you?

DASH is a diet designed to lower blood pressure that coincidentally turned out to be good for losing weight and staying healthy, too, if you believe it.

Here’s the DASH plan:

  • It’s low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat
  • Focuses on fruits, vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products
  • Is rich in whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts
  • Contains fewer sweets, added sugars and sugary beverages, and red meats than the typical American diet.

DASH-DIET-PyramidNothing to complain about, there. While I disagree that grains are a necessary part of our diets and I scoff at the bugaboo of cholesterol, let’s set that aside for the time being. What makes the DASH diet better than its close runners-up, the TLC diet (another NIH creation) and the Mediterranean diet? Why, merely the opinions of the expert panelists, that’s what.

And then I see that the NIH on page 4 of their guide to using the DASH diet give a recommendation of eating whole wheat bread spread with tub margarine. Does not compute.

When you think of whole wheat bread you are probably really thinking of whole-grain bread, where the entire grain of wheat is used to create the flour. “Whole wheat” bread isn’t made that way; it’s made from regular white flour (using the wheat endosperm) with wheat bran thrown  in at the end. Forget about the wheat germ with its vitamins and healthful oils. Does whole wheat equal whole-grain? No. Whole wheat is a fraud.

As for margarine, that’s the same as hydrogenated plant oils, which is the same thing as trans fats. I thought that by now everyone knew that (except for naturally occurring trans fats like conjugated linoleic acid) there is no acceptable safe level of trans fats in the human diet. Yet, here’s the National Institute of Health telling us to spread margarine on our “whole wheat” bread. No, I don’t believe I will.

Some commentators over at the U.S. News site accused U.S. News of conspiring with the food industry to hide the “truth,” thus:

“Agree with you 100%. Paleo diet is the best for the human body. Anyone who tries it will see the positive affects [sic] immediately. This study must have been funded by food companies hence is bias[ed] and fixed.”

I believe the food companies are just as willing to sell us vegetables as they are to sell us junk food, except to the degree that junk food is easier to sell, more addictive, and is able to be branded in a way that vegetables can’t be. Also, we are more likely to reach for another bag of chips or work our way to the bottom of a container of ice cream than we are to go hog-wild on the broccoli, so, more profits for them and more reason to push the junk food. But do the food companies have a vested interested in promoting the DASH diet over the Paleo diet? I don’t see how.

paleo diet cavemanYou don’t need a conspiracy for people, even experts, maybe especially experts, to be susceptible to conventional thinking. I cannot know to what degree conventional thinking doomed my favored Paleo diet to last place, but it is my instinct to be unconventional, so U.S. News’ pronouncements about diets will not do much to change my mind. Too much conventional thinking has put us in the fix we find ourselves today.

If ever I were inclined to doubt myself, I would only have to remember the National Institute of Health telling us to keep eating margarine.

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