When I say that my eating philosophy is to first and foremost listen to my body which leads to a diet with a variety of foods in reasonable amounts and everything in moderation, people tell me that it’s obviously not healthy to eat that way since I’m not thin and that I should choose one of these options instead:
- Drink two thin chocolate beverages that contain laxatives, eat one meal a day that is low fat and low carb
- Eat reconstituted soy protein five times a day and one meal of low fat protein and green vegetables
- Eat a certain number of calories regardless of where they come from
- Eat a bacon double cheeseburger but hold the tomato and the bun
- Take pills whose label suggests that I “wear dark pants and bring an extra pair to work”
- Eat an extremely limited low calorie diet 6 days a week, binge on the 7th day
- Eat breakfast cereal 4 times a day, eat a meal of lean proteins and low carbs for dinner
- Eat a ton of cabbage soup and on Tuesday eat as many bananas as I want but nothing else
I think that the main difference between my diet and all the others is that people make money selling those other diets and mine is what I think we would come to if we weren’t being inundated with messages from the people making sixty billion dollars a year selling us snake oil.
Let’s look at some of the history of the industry to see how we feel about their trustworthiness:
To me this is the quintessential story of how the diet industry works:
Ephedra was used in diet supplements to help speed the metabolism. In 1997 concerns started to build over serious side effects. That lead to the proposed ban by the FDA on products containing 8mg or more and stricter labeling at lower doses including the disclosure of the known health risks which included heart attack, stroke and death.
Instead, the Ephedra Education Council was created by the supplement industry to lobby against the restrictions. They bankrolled a “scientific review” by a private consulting firm which found that Ephedra was safe. They used this report and their deep pockets to lobby against the labeling requirements. They also attempted to stop a study confirming the wide discrepancies between the label and actual amount of Ephedra in supplements from being published.
Metabolife – the manufacturer of the best selling brand of Ephedra supplement – kept 14,000 complaints about adverse effects from the FDA and spent over $4 million lobbying against state-specific legislation in Texas. Meanwhile on the National Stage Senator Orrin Hatch questioned the scientific basis for the FDA’s proposal (because his degree in history and background working in the Mormon church really qualifies him for this). Oh wait, turns out he forgot to tell anyone that his son was working for a firm hired to lobby both Congress and the FDA on behalf of Ephedra, and that the same five pharmaceutical companies and their industry trade association that paid his son’s lobby firm also donated $172,500 to a charitable foundation that the \Senator had started. Oops. In 2000 Business Week reported that that the FDAs regulation efforts were “beaten down by deep-pocketed industry lobbying” and the FDA withdrew the proposed labeling changes and restrictions.
When professional baseball player Steve Bechler died and the medical examiner reported that Ephedra toxicity played a “significant role” the FDA re-opened its case to regulate Ephedra. Senator Orrin Hatch participated in what Time Magazine called a “dazzling display of hypocrisy” when he said “it has been obvious to even the most casual observer that problems exist”, and then declared FDA regulation of Ephedra “long overdue.” Finally in 2004 after over 15,000 complaints and a number of deaths, the FDA issued a final rule banning the sale of Ephedra-containing dietary supplements.
The question of if anyone should be allowed to lobbying the government agency that is in charge of our health and safety is a whole ‘nother blog.
Diet pill marketed by Wyeth. In 1994 Fred Wilson, a Wyeth official, indicated concerns about fenfluramine’s labeling because it showed only four cases of pulmonary hypertension when a total of 41 had been observed, however action was not taken until 1996. In 1995 the same company introduced Redux in the hopes that there would be fewer side effects. Leo Lutwak, the FDA’s medical officer insisted that the drug contain a black box warning of pulmonary hypertension risks and refused to approve the drug without it. So under pressure from lobbyists the FDA management moved the drug off Lutwak’s desk and assigned it to someone else who approved it with no black box warning for marketing in 1996. In the end 300,000 claims were settled including some posthumously because pulmonary hypertension can be fatal.
The Snackwells Effect
Ah the non-fat craze. After we decided that “the problem” was not, in fact, sugar, but before we decided that “the problem” was
carbs, I mean meat, wait make that gluten, we were sure that fat was the scourge of our society. Companies started to make everything low fat and fat free and the Snackwells Effect refers to the subsequent finding that people consumed more calories of low fat and fat free foods than they did of full fat foods. It’s also worth noting that many of these foods were much higher in sugar than their full-fat counterparts. I don’t actually think either of those is the worst thing about the low fat craze. I think the worst thing is that it encouraged the widespread chemicalization of food and the belief that eating food chock full of chemicals but with a lower fat content was somehow nutritionally better than eating whole foods. I think that’s crazy but we’ve talked about that before.
I’m giving this part of the low-fat/fat-free crazy special attention. Olean is a fat substitute that appeared in a number of Proctor and Gamble products, perhaps most notably “WOW” potato chips. And by that they meant “WOW these chips have a health warning label but people are still buying them!”. In fact, the bag that these puppies came in legally had to say that they “may cause abdominal cramping, loose stools and inhibit the absorption of vitamins and other nutrients”. This is somehow healthier than potatoes and oil? Products with Olean are still available.
So if you’re still wondering why I don’t jump on the new bandwagons and take Alli (a diet pill whose label suggests that users bring a extra pair of pants with them to deal with unexpected anal leakage), or give up gluten because it’s the diet demon of the day, or whatever the hell diet Oprah is schilling right now, then suffice it to say that I don’t trust these people for reasons that I hope are now obvious. Even if their suggestions made any kind of sense I’d still be wary. Luckily my Health at Every Size/Intuitive Eating plan makes WAY more sense to me than anything else out there so it was an easy choice to skip putting my life on the line for a pill that may only be on the market to keep a Senator’s son employed with a high-paying lobbying firm.