Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Diet Guru Red Flags

There is a dizzying array of titles on the subject of diet & nutrition.
It seems that we're constantly deluged with diet advice. So often I speak with people who have read the latest book of nutrition advice (whether for weight loss or for general health) and are enthusiastic about following it. Then, some time later, they are disillusioned. They couldn't stick with it. They DID stick with it, and cannot figure out why it made them sick or made them gain weight, or had horrible subsequent health effects. And then, I always hear, "There are SO many so-called 'scientific' studies out there! How can anyone know for sure which one is right?"

I'm of the opinion that ad hominem attacks aren't the way to go. I don't want to single out a single diet guru and vilify him or her. But, I admit to getting VERY frustrated with those who make big bucks off of selling diet plans that make people sick or even shorten their lives.
I believe a mostly-Vegan, whole foods diet is best for health. Why? There's a long human history of it working well for people. There's a huge amount of modern scientific evidence for it (see links at the bottom of this post). It is consistent with the historical teachings of the Christian Church on the Spiritual role of food - that we should avoid excessive consumption of rich food, and that we should live simply & frugally most of the time. It's something that everyone can do without a lot of extra work or special treatment. I can eat a substantially vegan diet almost anywhere, anytime without special work (I do not worry about trace ingredients- I look at the big picture). And, it works well for me!

How do you know which diets are good?
Do I believe that you have to eat that way 100% of the time, and without the tiniest flexibility to reap great health benefits? No. I think it's a big-picture thing. Personally, I'm not good at moderation, so I prefer to aim for 100% as much as possible. But, I do have the occasional exception.

Here are a list of common diet guru red flags I have observed. When I see one of these - or several of them, I know I'm being "sold a bill of goods."

1. You catch them in ONE lie or they misrepresent studies done by others. My dear Grandmother, of Blessed Memory taught me this one. "If you catch someone lying once, don't trust them in the future." Simple. But how often I've seen a diet guru lie - by misrepresenting someone else's work to pretend it supports their own work, for example. And their readers think, "Well, it was just one - I'm sure the rest of his or her advice is fine!" If they tell you about the work of another author, and the results of studies done by others, do a little research to make sure that's what the other person actually said before accepting their arguments hook, line & sinker. One tremendously popular diet & health guru claims to be a disciple of the work of a certain researcher & author of previous times. But when you read the guru's book, and then read the book of the researcher it purports to follow, you find that the researcher's work is often misrepresented. In fact, the researcher endorsed a vegetarian diet, while the guru presents his life's work as saying the exact opposite. All this while using the original researcher's name to promote the guru's work.

2. Their comments are over-the-top. If they promise you'll lose 10 pounds per week, or that this diet fixes every health problem ever known to man, or you can just take a magic pill - be suspicious. But, more than that, if they say (as I've seen) something like, "You're better off not to eat at all than to eat [this food]!" or "Eating [this good food] is worse than eating a [candy bar/bacon cheeseburger]." Be very suspicious. This is "sales puffery" and not very honest (see #1.)

3. They endorse greed & gluttony, and vilify simple food. This one goes back to the Garden of Eden. Overindulgence, gluttony, greed and laziness have never been the key to good health - Spiritually or physically. If someone tells you that you should indulge in rich, heavy food constantly, and avoid simple, straight-from-the-earth whole foods, be suspicious.

4. Their advice hasn't worked for them. If they're selling weight loss, look at their picture and see if they appear to be normal weight. Make sure you check the internet for a recent picture - some gurus put publicity photos of themselves on their books that look so unlike them that their own mother wouldn't recognize them.  If they're selling health, their own health records should be an open book. There's an online video that shows a bunch of popular gurus and what they really look like. It's a little too caustic for my tastes, but it does make a good point. (full disclosure: I'm the first to admit that I'm not as thin as I'd like to be on a vegan diet - but I'm wayyy thinner than I used to be. And, my cholesterol numbers are down, too : ) I also readily admit that I don't always stick to the plant based, whole foods model. As if the cookie recipes didn't give that away! And, I'm not making any money off this stuff, anyway.)

5. There's a huge money trail or they promote their own products - or affiliates - as the key to success . Or, you need to spend a lot of money. When you read their favorite studies, find out how those studies were funded (usually a quick internet search will tell you). If they're selling diet products, foods or supplements, that only they make or sell (or that are available from only one supplier), be suspicious. Especially if those products are much pricier than what you already spend.

6. They tell you "you're special." Or, "I'm special and you'll be special too if you follow me!" This is one of the ones I find most annoying. Whenever someone says "Everyone is different" or "You have to do this for your health because [your uniqueness]." What I hear is, "My program doesn't work for anyone else, but I want you to still believe it will work for YOU!" It's true that God made us each unique and we're each special, but the "you're special" sales pitch is too often an appeal to pride. Similarly, the pitch of "I have secrets the rest of the world doesn't know -and I'll share them with JUST you - so you'll be special!" is older than the Gnostic Heresy. It's true that everyone is special. But I wouldn't put sugar in my car's gas tank just because it's unique, and I also believe that (with the exception of rare illnesses like PKU) eating a certain diet isn't good for just me when it's not good for others.

7. Their advice is making people sick. I remember some years ago when a certain high protein diet was the rage, an acquaintance (who was ON that diet!) said, "I have a friend who lost 80 pounds on this diet! And a KIDNEY!"

8. Their advice has a short track record. Human history is about 6 or 7 thousand years old. If their diet has not been followed by anyone until the last 50 years, be suspicious.

9. Their food advice violates your values, or is only sustainable for a short period of time .  If their goal seems to be making food a more important factor in your life than relationships with God or others, or frugality, or stewardship of your time, or other goals YOU think are important, be suspicious. Not only could this diet be hard to sustain for the long term, but you might also find that it takes you somewhere in life you didn't want to go.

10. Their scientific support is old and sparse or their research breaks with reputable scientific method. I know one trendy plan that has (as far as I can discover) TWO studies to support it. And, those two are old studies from roughly the 1950s, that were poorly designed and have not be replicated since then. I know of one wildly-popular current health & diet guru who admits that rather than conduct a scientifically designed study with a control group, that was peer-reviewed and published in a reputable journal, his information was gained through using his own patients as research subjects with no control, no peer review, and no publication - and unfavorable results were simply discarded from his data pool!  One study that was widely reported a while back (besides being underwritten by a big industry) compared people who were literally starving with the subjects on their food. Gee, guess who had the better health data? Oh, then there are those diets that claim they have evolution on their side - the earliest humans ate the way they recommend - without providing a single scrap of evidence, or verifiability. Or, perhaps they cite the stomach contents of ONE mummified corpse to imply that the entire world ate a certain diet. (I recognize that many scientists believe in Evolutionary Theory and mention it as a support, but when it is their MAIN argument, and they provide no evidence for their assertions about various ancient diets, be suspicious) If nutritional advice is solid, there should be an abundance of scientific support, lots of duplication of studies (repeatability) with lots of new studies rolling off the press! Here is a site for a steady flow of good research on the vegan diet

11. They continually cite themselves and their own supporters as "authority." I recently perused a popular book on diet & health. The end notes were ample, and took many pages at the back of the book. But, on closer examination, I discovered that the author had established a "foundation" that provided these studies. And the author's own followers were the authors of the huge majority of the studies in the end of the book. Those from outside sources were misrepresented as being supportive of the author's arguments when they were not (see #1).

12.  They ignore the elephant in the room. People are constantly trying to find some obscure ingredient that has the "secret" to long life and good health. But, it seems to me that the "big picture" is what makes or breaks our health. The constant (and not always easy) effort of a disciplined life will take us much further than finding an exotic supplement to add a trace and heretofore unknown "nutrient" to our diet.

13. Footnotes for minor points, while making their big points with no support at all. This is one I see A LOT in diet books. The author scrupulously footnotes all of the basic information that everyone knows and agrees with, then when they make their central points - those points that break with the scientific majority - there's no support at all. I especially see this with evolution-based arguments ("Cavemen ate this way!" - Interestingly, the various evolution-based diets contradict EACH OTHER!), and "traditional" ("Primitive people all ate this.  . . and NEVER got sick!" )  arguments (which also contradict each other).

14. Me, myself & I - they're the only one with their opinion. If you're reading about a diet or health program that is associated largely or exclusively with a single author & researcher, that should send up a huge red flag! If you tell friends "I'm eating this way" and they ALL reply "I love that author! Her book is great!" - well, that tells you you're following a lone wolf. If  the guru claims, "I'm all right, and it's the world that's all wrong!" be suspicious. (See #6)

15. They appeal to Rebellion. "You don't have to listen to the diet dictocrats!" "You don't have to deprive yourself!" or similar appeals to rebellion are an appeal to unhealthy emotions like rebelliousness and anger, not on science & health. And, they're more often a bid for the writer to have power over you rather than a bid for your good health. (If you're a Christian, the Bible teaches that rebellion is a sin 1 Samuel 15:23 - think of that when you see someone appealing to your rebellious tendencies)

15. They overemphasize weight loss, and under-emphasize health. As my dear Mom used to say, "That diet will make the work of your pall-bearers a lot easier - they won't have to lift so much!" Weight loss is worse than useless if you lose your health along with the pounds!

Finally, if you're checking out a new diet, look at the one, two and three "star" ratings on the various sites that offer reviews (such as Amazon). Read what the raters have to say, and see if there are any red flags being discussed. EVERY book will have some bad reviews- and often lots of them - but if you read carefully, you can see when a reviewer has spotted red flags for you & points them out. It can save a lot of time. And it can save your health!

Here's a list of JUST A FEW of the respected researchers supporting a vegan or nearly vegan diet. It's especially interesting that most of these experts came to the same conclusion independent of each other - and many were strong supporters of meat & dairy consumption when they started out:
Dean Ornish, M.D.
Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D.
T. Colin Campbell, PhD
John McDougall, M.D.
Neal Barnard, M.D.

Here are some materials I feel are Red-Flag Free : )


Brief answers to common questions about protein, calcium, etc.
Health issues & Nutrition site - Dr. T. Colin Campbell
Health Issues & Nutrition Site - Dr. John McDougall
Article on Getting enough Protein

Books about Benefits of Veganism

The China Study: My Favorite book on the topic that I wish EVERYONE would read
Reversing Diabetes - book by Dr. Neal Barnard
Reversing Heart Disease - book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn
Overcoming addictive eating - book by Dr. Neal Barnard

Movies & Videos

Feature Documentary on Benefits of Plant-Based Diet - Forks Over Knives
Nuts & Diabetes, ten minute video
Olive Oil and the Mediterranean Diet, 10 minute video by Jeff Novick

This is being shared at: Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Penny Pinching Party, Wildcrafting Wednesday, Simple Lives Thursday, Healthy Vegan Fridays, Weekend Wonders, Fun Friday, Making Your Home Sing, Clever Chicks, Modest Monday, In & Out of the Kitchen, Slightly Indulgent Tuesday, Anti-Procrastination Tuesdays, Teach Me Tuesdays, Wise Woman, Encourage One Another, Real Food, Allergy Free, Gluten Free Fridays

This post has been featured on
Healthy Vegan Fridays


  1. GREAT POST! :-)
    I LOVE reading books from all those in the 'valuable' list that you mentioned.
    I also get somewhat frustrated hearing all the latest diet crazes knowing that they don't lead to true health. Sad how desperate our society is for answers, yet if they only opened their mind a bit further they could truly see what would help our society :-)

    1. Thanks so much, Sandy : ) I've been enjoying your blog a lot lately - you've had some great recipes on there!

    2. Thanks Anna, that's such a kind thing to say & I'm so glad that you've been enjoying it!
      Congrats on being up there for Healthy Vegan Friday - I agree that you truly deserved your special mention xxx

  2. I appreciate your points about being careful with diets, especially those based on an evolutionary premise or undocumented traditional cultures, however I've also read Denise Minger's and others' refutation of The China Study too. Have you read those?

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Rebecca. I am familiar with Miss Minger's blog post about her opinions of the China Study. Here is Dr. Campbell's own discussion of the topic, for those who are interested.

      I encourage everyone who is interested in this topic to actually read Dr. Campbell's book, rather than what others may say about it - he presents an extremely compelling, sound & logical presentation of his ideas, without falling into the common logical fallacies. He has a lifetime of work in this area, along with unmatched credentials (MIT Doctorate, Cornell Professor of Nutrition, if I recall correctly) in the area he studies, but more importantly, his arguments make sense in a way I have not found in any other writing on the topic of nutrition. (Because, without a doubt, there are some credentialed people out there who don't know what they're talking about!)

      Despite searching, I have not found any persuasive arguments against Dr. Campbell's work. But, even better - applying his theories has brought my weight down 50 pounds, and my cholesterol down 100 points (and, when I fail to follow his advice - from time to time - the numbers show it). The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

  3. Wow, this is a really *thorough* list. Really, I try to avoid most dietary models and just eat what I want - emphasizing whole, natural foods - and focusing on my body's instincts.

    Thanks for writing! :)

    1. Thanks so much for visiting, Rachael, and for your kind comments : )

  4. Thanks for some great advice. I'm working to lose weight the healthy way (by eating real food, and not eating to excess) and, although it's working, it's slow. Those quick fixes can be very tempting sometimes. It's great to have more reasons to resist.

    1. Thanks so much for visiting, Allison : )

      I tried for *decades* to loose weight by counting calories & following a bunch of silly advice (Like: Never eat an olive - they're high fat. Have a marshmallow instead - they're satisfying and low calorie)

      When I quit worrying about weight, and focused on being HEALTHY it helped SO much. I still eat junk from time to time, and have weight-creep-ups from time to time (like right now) but never the problem that I had before I went Vegan. Keeping my eyes on health & wholesome eating instead of calories helped so much!

  5. My favorite diet dr is Dr. Mark Hyman. He has made a huge difference in my eating life. Don't think you find much to red flag with him! Enjoyed your post. Found you on the pink momma blog hop.
    This is my first blog hop and so far I am seeing some cool blogs!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Tam.

      I'm not familiar with Dr. Hyman's work, but glad you're finding it helpful : )

  6. This is very interesting. I find myself in agreement with everything you said. My only caveat is that I did go through a period of veganism, following Dr. McDougal's advice - a book he wrote - and I ended up with far less protein in my diet than I needed. My clue to that was that I was always hungry and had a very vivid dream about eating steak… I'm not sure I could go back to being completely vegan, but I do like the kind of clean eating that it involves. BTW, I had a friend who probably did the same diet as you mentioned in #7 - he ended up with detached retinas, most likely as a result of that diet (he had no family history of anything like that). The plan I'm on, which I love, is Robert Ferguson's Diet Free Life. It is the sanest eating plan I've ever encountered - and I've tried a lot of them. Besides helping me to take off excess weight and maintain my goal weight (when I get there), this plan has helped tremendously with controlling my emotional eating.

    1. Thanks for dropping by! : )

      As far as the protein thing, I would encourage you to read my post on the topic:
      We live in a culture that pushes protein a LOT. A person who is hungry all the time is more likely to just be getting insufficient starches. As for the steak dreams - well, I've had dreams of hot fudge sundaes & candy - but I don't think I was *necessarily* sugar-deficient during those dreams ; )

      There certainly are some programs out there that can cause MAJOR health problems - as may have been the case with your friend with a detached retina. Thanks for sharing that story.

      I am unfamiliar with the work of Robert Ferguson - but would encourage you to check his work (and that of any other diet gurus) for the above red flags.

      I'm glad you're happy with the plan you're following - and hope to see you here again in the future : )

  7. I appreciate the red flags, but your own bias is clear, which is itself a red flag. Veganism is NOT something that has ever been practiced until recently, a red flag you yourself warn of. There are no vegan hunter gatherer or primitive societies and our bodies need some essential nutrients only found in animal product, making supplementation necessary for most on a sustained vegan diet. Well our ancestors didn't have access to supplements, so this clearly isn't a diet anyone before the advent of nutritionism could or would follow.

    How about just sticking to real ingredients. If you can farm it, hunt it or gather it or make it easily from those ingredients - it's probably safe. If industrial processes are required to make edible, it's probably better to avoid it. It's simple and it's one diet that actually HAS stood the test of time.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Amy : )

      Since your blog states that you are an Evangelical Christian, then let me share that the Bible states that the earliest humans were Vegan (Genesis 1:29). The idea that the first humans were hunter-gatherers and primitive societies that didn't eat vegetables or grains and lived largely or exclusively on meat is a product of Evolutionary theory, not of actual history. There were, no doubt, some historical cultures who were unable to obtain as many vegetables as they would have liked (such as the traditional peoples of Alaska), but they were not the only humans in history. And, many peoples in history ate a *mostly* vegan diet for much of their lives - and didn't suffer from many of the modern Western epidemic diseases of affluence.

      The fact that I have done research, tried many of the theories out there and *developed* an opinion on this matter is just the opposite of having a bias. I was (as were many of the researchers I recommend) raised on a high-meat diet, with lots of dairy, and raised to think that was the best for health. That was my bias coming into this (that is also what produced a serious weight and cholesterol problem for me). Having an opinion that is the result of research and study is not the same as having a bias - it is the opposite of a bias.

      My very point (like yours) is that people should eat WHOLE FOODS not processed junk - but I am simply arguing that we should eat plants, not animals. If you read carefully, I'm not even saying that 100% vegan is the only option.

      If you check out my recipes (which are the foods I actually prepare for my family) you'll see that the foods I cook with don't require industrial processes to make them edible. (Although, I do enjoy the occasional junk food - I'm not arguing that junk food is good for me! ; )

      Sadly, many people who have eaten home-farmed animal foods in excess have sadly suffered from poor health and shortened lives. Raising an animal yourself may well give it more humane treatment, but *excessive* indulgence in rich food still impairs health, even if it's "natural" or "home-raised" rich food.

      As far as the whole foods argument - I agree 100% : )

    2. We agree whole heartedly on whole foods. And I would even add, that I agree we should avoid conventionally farmed animal foods because their diets are so far removed from the proper ecology there are a host of health issues related to too much consumption of such meats, as well as overly processed "meat products" often found in stores these days.

      I also think that just generally eating more vegetables is great for EVERYONE. Which I'm sure we would also agree on.

      My only point of dispute would be with including ecologically raised meat, dairy, fish and eggs as part of a healthy diet.

      I would also say, that while I'm evangelical, I'm not a strict creationist. I do not take Genesis 1 and 2 as word-for-word literal. I do believe God created the Earth and that evolution may have been one of the means by which He has created and continues to create. And, in fact, the evolutionary-biology based theory that a change in the way our ancestors ate, from a vegetarian diet to more meat (esp. fish) could explain how our brains got large enough to develop morals, ethics and to perceive of God - which actually sounds strikingly similar to the Genesis account of a food (fruit from the tree of Knowledge) causing us to be aware of good, evil, etc. (This is all conjecture of course I was not around at the beginning of creation whether it began 6,000 or billions of years ago).

      In any case, even well-researched bias is still bias. Just because it's grounded in your own research doesn't mean it's not your own bias - or worldview if you prefer. I have a Christian bias and worldview. It doesn't mean I'm wrong - only that when sharing my ideas with others I need to take my bias into account. Especially if I report something as fact that is based on my understanding of my faith - be it in God or in the research of scientists, etc.

  8. It looks like we agree on a lot, Amy : )

    I respect if you're not a strict Creationist (I am, but I'm not militant about it - nor am I militant about Veganism). But, even if you believe in Theistic Evolution, it is worth noting that the Bible and historic documents show that humans have a long history of vegetable-based diets. (I'm pretty sure though, that animal foods aren't needed for brain development - if for no other reason than that my vegetarian little kid is so much smarter than I was as a little omnivore ; )

    I was going by this definition of "bias " which indicates *prejudice* - judging BEFORE one has researched the facts - and unfairness to boot: bi·as /ˈbīəs/ noun noun: bias; plural noun: biases 1. prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
    "there was evidence of bias against foreign applicants"
    synonyms: prejudice, partiality, partisanship, favoritism, unfairness, one-sidedness; More

    I'd have to be delusional to state that I didn't have an opinion or worldview! Of course I do! : ) But, I hold that it is impossible for a human being to be impartial or objective -we ALL come to the table with our own perspective. When *anyone* talks on *any* topic, I assume they are bringing their own worldview with them. My only question is whether that perspective is accurate or inaccurate.

    As for consumption of animal products - most of those dearest to me do so. I'm not one to criticize people's choice to eat what they choose - but I just don't believe it is healthy to consume *more than a very small amount.* (As an elderly friend points out - many years ago he ate lamb every time he could - which was Christmas & Easter! If modern folks did the same, I don't think that human health would suffer) To be fair, I eat chocolate myself - I don't think it's particularly healthy - but I enjoy it.

    I'm glad you dropped by, Amy - and hope to see more of you in the future!

  9. Great post. As a nurse, I was familiar with Dean Ornish, T. Colin Campbell and John McDougall, so now I'm interested in checking out the rest of them!

    Interesting point about the "high protein diet"... honestly, I think a lot of the problems with that one are due to the people hearing what they want to hear and not what was actually written. I remember reading the book to check it for a friend of mine "back in the day" and it actually advocated a very large amount of greens and what would be counted as "whole foods". People liked the concept of living on bacon instead and completely skipped their greens... can't really blame that on the book itself as it didn't teach that. (I read a lot of books I disagree with just so that I can discuss them with patients from a position of knowledge. Otherwise, patients and their families just say, "Oh, well, she doesn't really KNOW what it says", etc.)

    Not only do we have to be wise to the ways of others who would deceive us, we need to be wise to the ways in which we willingly deceive ourselves!

    1. It is certainly true that we're willing to deceive ourselves! I know more than one "Twizzlers-and-Oreos-Vegan" ; )

      I don't doubt that adding vegetables to an otherwise unhealthy diet would be somewhat helpful, but it would be better still to fix the entire diet. Even with a couple of pounds of spinach added, I can't see a diet of bacon fried in butter as a good everyday entrée - healthwise. (hope you don't mind my sense of humour, here ; )

      I appreciate you dropping by, Elisabeth - hope to see more of you in the future!

  10. Regarding point #10: I hear you! My situation, though, is that I've healed horrific disease symptoms in my body by following said guru. I fear leaving the 'safe spot' I've learned to live in regarding diet choices, because the consequences could be deadly. But it irks me to follow an arrogant pseudo-scientist. Wish I could feel assured that stepping towards are more trustworthy leader wouldn't potentially risk my health gains; I don't know who else is safe for my needs.

    1. I can certainly sympathize with your predicament. When I worked in the health food store, we had a steady stream of people with desperate health situations, who wanted to try ANY remedy to fix their problem. Usually medical science had already failed these people. I will simply encourage you to research further. Find out WHAT it was in this diet that worked for you, and why - with the help of a doctor if that is possible. I have observed with some people very close to me that some diets can get rid of symptoms while masking the fact that you still have the CAUSE of the illness (for instance, a gluten-free diet can mask some cancer symptoms for a while, leading to dangerously delayed treatment). In some cases, a high meat diet can "manage" borderline diabetes, but make CAUSE heart disease, kidney disease and stroke - not a very good trade-off, IMO.

      I'm sorry that you find yourself in this predicament - it is a very difficult situation to be in - and I would encourage making more nutritional research a priority for the sake of your long-term health.


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