nutrition confusionNutrition confusion is something I write about from time to time, because if you are a consumer of nutrition information, you know that all too often you’ll read “Eat this” only two weeks later to read “No, whatever you do don’t eat this.” I’m not sure what’s worse, that sort of nutritional whiplash or this scenario: when you read something that is patently false but you don’t even know it’s false.

Case in point. I subscribe to The Washington Post’s “Lean & Fit” emails, which contain links to a variety of health-related content that recently ran in their publication (print or online). One of my favorite dietitian-author-foodies, Ellie Krieger, writes an excellent nutrition column for them, and they have a few other good health writers.

Fool Me Once, Shame On You

Last week, when I saw a link to a story about “The Myth of Healthy Fast Food,” I was all over it, because the health halo effect is a topic of great interest to me at the moment. Then I read the article. Pardon my French, but I couldn’t believe what crap I was reading. I was so mad that I tried to do something I never do: comment. When it turned out that comments were closed because the article was almost 2 months old, I did something else I never do. I sent an email to the health editor:

I never, ever (until now) complain to newspapers about articles, but I was absolutely appalled at the bad journalism on display in the January 5 article “The myth of healthy fast food.”

I have no idea who Arun Gupta is or if he writes regularly for the Washington Post (a Google search revealed nothing of note), but his lack of knowledge about the current state of nutrition science regarding dietary fat (specifically, how it’s the quality of fat that matters more than the quantity) was painfully obvious. I lost track of how many factual and contextual errors I found.

Running this article does your readers a disservice, especially in light of the fact that there is considerable nutrition confusion among consumers already! As both a registered dietitian and a journalist, I have to deal with the effects of bad nutrition journalism every day with both my patients and my readers.

The topic of health halos is an excellent (and important) one, but this article made a mangled mess of it. Horrible, just horrible.

[Actually my Google search did find something of note. The writer of this tidy pile of nutrition misinformation is apparently a “tech enthusiast” who is the founding editor of the Occupy Wall Street Journal. That’s right, just who you should be getting your nutrition information from.]

When Numbers Paint a False Picture

This was the paragraph that really killed me:

“Adults should get 20 percent to 35 percent of their calories from fat. But at Tender Greens, Chopt, Laughing Planet and Sweetgreen, the menus bristle with fat bombs that are more than 50 percent fat by calories. At Lyfe Kitchen, which a co-founder calls a ‘healthy, inviting, sustainable McDonald’s’ that features ‘very little’ fat on the menu, only one salad is less than 70 percent fat. Lyfe’s widely praised Brussels sprouts, which it sees as ‘an alternative to french fries,’ are 53 percent fat.”

So I went on Lyfe Kitchen’s website, and found that they list calories and sodium for each dish, so I can’t comment on the assertion about only one salad being less than 70 percent fat, but I can comment on his Brussels sprouts comment, using a bit of math as an illustration:

2 cups of Brussels sprouts = 76 calories (no fat)
2 teaspoons of olive oil = 80 calories (all fat)

Combine those two things and you would have a combined dish that is 52 percent fat by calories. Does eating two cups of Brussels sprouts (which would be four servings of vegetables) with 2 teaspoons of olive oil sound like a fat bomb to you? It doesn’t to me. It’s certainly more healthful than French fries.

Not All Fat is Created Equal

In the following paragraph he says that one of Lyfe’s kale salads has “more fat than a Big Mac.” Well, what kind of fat? Olive oil? Is there avocado or nuts on that salad? The science is well established that it’s not so much how much fat we eat, but what type of fat. That’s why for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee did away with the recommendation to cap total fat, but still makes recommendations for limiting saturated fat. And never mind that a Big Mac also includes a highly processed white-flour bun, which I’m sure Lyfe Kitchen’s kale salad does not (if we’ve learned anything from mistakes of the low-fat era, it’s that refined carbohydrates are the big baddie). There’s also a big difference between a kale salad or roasted Brussels sprouts and calling French fries (potato) or pizza (tomato sauce) a vegetable.

While I agree that the best way to eat healthy is to cook from scratch and eat at home, and I also agree that food branding (both for individual foods and for “healthy” stores and restaurants) can lead us to believe that what we are eating is healthier or lower in calories than it really is, this article is a good cautionary tale about minimizing nutrition confusion. Don’t automatically believe what you read in the media (print or online) or on blogs, especially if you have no idea about the writer or their credentials (in this case, one big tip-off is that you can’t click on the writer’s name to see a listing of what else they’ve written for that publication).