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Book Review: Death By Food Pyramid by Denise Minger

Posted on June 03 2014

I started reading Death by Food Pyramid : How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health by Denise Minger several months ago (Minger writes the Raw Food SOS blog). I was cruising along, really enjoying the book, when I made the mistake of watching the first season of Game of Thrones on Amazon Instant Video. That led me to reading the 5 books currently included in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, and Death By Food Pyramid was put to the side for a few months.

I finished my journey through Westeros a few days ago (must have been well over 5000 pages!), and immediately picked Minger’s book back up. Finished it in two days. Song of Ice and Fire has apparently made me a very fast reader.

Anyway, to the point, Death By Food Pyramid is an excellent book. I rarely write book reviews here on Runblogger because books take a long time to read, and book reviews are hard to write. But I feel compelled to write about DBFP because I like to think that if I were to write a book about nutrition this is what it would look like. (There’s no way that will happen since although I generally try to eat well, I have far too “healthy” an appetite for IPA, pizza, and coffee to give anyone nutritional advice.) One of my goals when I wrote Tread Lightly was to objectively look at the science underpinning potential links between running shoes, running form, and running injuries. In her book, Minger takes a similar approach to investigate the links between nutrition and health. This is a much bigger topic, and the consequences of getting nutrition wrong are far more dire than the consequences of running poorly in a bad pair of shoes. Minger tackles the topic masterfully.

In about 250 pages Minger goes through such topics as how science works (great explanation!), why most nutritional advice coming from the US government is suspect and often tainted by special interests and lobbying groups, and (my favorite) why no single diet is going to necessarily be best for promoting good health for all human beings (which is basically what I concluded about running shoes and form – due to human variation, no single best answer for all people). She covers all of this ground in a lighthearted yet rigorous way, and cites tons of scientific and historical documents to support her position.

To give you a few examples of her approach, I’ve pulled a few quotes that I highlighted from the book:

On Nutrition Advice in General

“No matter how far science advances, nutrition is still a field booby-trapped with hucksters, charlatans, and diet gurus hoping you’ll blow half your paycheck on their life-extending line of goji berries and deer antler velvet.”

On Nutrition “Experts”

“Folks with low genuine skill in their field suffer from double trouble: not only do they grossly overestimate their own abilities, but they also don’t even have the knowledge necessary to realize what they’re saying is inaccurate.”

“Anyone who’s certain they’re right about everything in nutrition is almost definitely wrong.”

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

“Currently, no nutrition-oriented classes are required to get a Harvard medical degree—and ditto for 70 percent of the other medical schools in the nation.”

On Peer-Reviewed Journal Publications

“Science-ese ultimately prevents most of us from venturing beyond the reader-friendly blurbs we see in newspapers and popular diet books. It holds us hostage to ignorance, ensuring any health news we receive must first pass through layers of middlemen.”

“…peer-reviewed studies can seem infallible to the media and general public alike, and often dodge the scrutiny and skepticism other publications receive. Unfortunately, the reality is hardly rosy.”

“We know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.”

“We shouldn’t assume that just because a study endured peer review, all the thinking has been done for us.”

Minger wades through a lot of the science on topics like whether or not saturated fat to heart disease, whether red meat is bad for you, the pros and cons of a plant-based diet, and much more. She hammers home repeatedly that correlation does not equal causation, and I particularly like this quote on that topic:

“Sleeping with shoes on might be correlated with waking up with a hangover, but pulling off your sneakers before bed won’t stop that headache if the real culprit is tequila.”

She finishes the book by analyzing three diets that seem to perform well for some people – Paleolithic, Mediterranean, and Plant-Based. She then looks at the diets of indigenous groups that are (or were) known for their good health. Among these she tries to identify commonalities in what they do and don’t eat. Some of this won’t be surprising (e.g., sugar and processed foods are minimized), but some of the commonalities are interesting (e.g., lots of shellfish, eating animals head-to-tail rather than just choosing muscle meat).

I’ll finish by saying again that one of my favorite parts of the book is Minger’s emphasis on human variation when it comes to diet. She points out several examples of how humans can differ when it comes to the ability of the body to process food. For one:

“It turns out the number of AMY1 copies contained in our genes is not the same for everyone. And the amount of salivary amylase we produce is tightly correlated to the number of AMY1 copies we inherited. In humans, AMY1 copy number can range from one to fifteen, and amylase levels in saliva can range from barely detectable to 50 percent of the saliva’s total protein.44 That’s a lot of variation!”

Minger then goes on to describe how people with varying amounts of amylase respond to starch intake in very different ways (e.g., those with low amylase tend to see a larger insulin spike after eating starches), and how these differences could predispose some individuals on a high starch diet to increased risk of things like Type 2 diabetes. The point here being that, as Minger writes:

“…chasing a single ideal diet is the wrong way to approach health…It’s simply a genetic reality. And it goes a long way to help reconcile how one of your friends could shed eighty pounds following Atkins while another claims they’ve never been slimmer or more energetic since going lowfat vegan.”

This human variation makes me think that maybe I should think more about eating like my nordic ancestors than hunter-gatherers on the African savannah. Sure we all share a single human lineage, but some things have changed since humans move out of Africa. My ancestry prior to 1900 was almost entirely in Scandinavia (Sweden to be exact), and I wonder if a diet similar to what was commonly eaten there would be more optimal for my health. Tough to know, but interesting to think about. And I’m not sure I’ll be adopting my great grandfather’s taste for pig’s feet any time soon (though he did live well into his 90’s).

I don’t want to give too much away, I’ll simply recommend that if you are interested in science and nutrition, read Death By Food Pyramid.  It’s a great book.

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