nutrition reviews | A photo of the back of a woman's head as she reads a nutrition book. The open page has a bold header titled "The Rules"

Part of the magic of social media is finding out about things of interest that are actually beneficial. (For the moment, we’ll forget about the aspects of social media that are far from magical.) A few weeks ago, a researcher I follow tweeted about Red Pen Reviews, and I immediately signed up for email updates. Here’s why you might want to, too.

What is Red Pen Reviews?

Red Pen Reviews are “Expert health and nutrition book reviews that sort fact from fiction.” Red Pen’s founder, Stephan Guyenet, who has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Washington, got the genesis of his idea from one of my fellow grad students at UW, Seth Yoder. Seth had written some detailed critiques of Gary Taubes’ books. (Side note: I cohosted an episode of Seth’s podcast which featured Dr. Guyenet waaaaaay back in 2014.)

All of the Red Pen reviewers have at least masters degrees, most have PhDs, in nutrition science or something closely related. They include Mario Kratz, PhD, a faculty member at both UW and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he runs a research lab. Dr. Kratz was a guest lecturer in my Nutrition & Metabolism class when I was at UW, and I’ve interviewed him on his research on dairy fat. In fact, Dr. Kratz was the primary reviewer for Red Pen’s latest review, on The Plant Paradox, by Steven Gundry, MD.

Some backstory

The Plant Paradox was published almost two years ago, and I’ve had people (patients and others) asking me about it ever since. Mostly this came in the form of, “I just bought The Plant Paradox, what do you think of it?” and me trying not to sigh. In one case, during the reception following a talk I gave, a young woman said some of her family members were telling her that she HAD to read The Plant Paradox. She asked what I thought, and I suggested she set some boundaries with her family. And then I went on to explain why lectins were not the devil.

Given all that, I was thrilled to see a detailed analysis of this book from someone who actually does nutrition research (which Dr. Gundry does not, despite claiming to). I won’t say more, because the review speaks for itself.

Why this is important

There are a lot of nutrition-and-health books out there. Many are written by medical doctors with no particular nutrition training. Some are written by people with no medical or scientific background whatsoever. Many make outsize claims that sound too good to be true because they are in fact not true. This is unfair, because most readers don’t know how to evaluate claims, and the research those claims (allegedly) come from, for accuracy. This is not a personal failing on the part of readers—if you don’t have a background in nutrition or biological sciences, how could you know how to evaluate nutrition claims? I know nothing about automobile mechanics, which isn’t a personal failing—I’ve simply never studied it. (That’s why I will never write a book on carburetor problems…wait, do cars even have carburetors anymore?)

Not only are these books unfair, they have the potential to be demoralizing and possibly dangerous. Demoralizing, if you believe their “magic bullet” claims and don’t experience the same results yourself, or if you try to follow whatever diet/lifestyle protocol is laid out in the book and just can’t sustain it. (To be fair, most of these books have very extreme, unsustainable protocols.) Possibly dangerous, if the dietary prescriptions in the book are unbalanced (as they often are) and lead to the restriction of numerous foods or food groups. This could lead to nutrient deficiencies over time, and possibly trigger an eating disorder in susceptible people.

The bottom line

That said, thank goodness that there is finally a source for credible, painstaking critiques of these books. The reviewers evaluate books for their scientific accuracy (how well does current evidence support the book’s claims?), reference accuracy (how accurately does the book cite references?) and healthfulness (will the book’s advice improve your health?). They also evaluate how difficult it would be to follow the book’s advice. There are five reviews so far, three with poor reviews, two with good reviews.

If you want to be a savvier consumer of nutrition information, and avoid being hoodwinked by false claims, read the reviews and sign up for their email list to be alerted when a new review is posted.