Navigating the maze of nutrition myths
"Food is food.
Medicine is medicine.
Let's stop confusing the two."
This is the primary theme of the book Food Isn't Medicine (Vermillion, 2022) by Dr Joshua Wolrich, a point that the author reiterates repeatedly to allow the reader to absorb his words and their meaning fully. At first glance, the phrases come as a shock because before the invention of modern medicine, wasn't food used as a treatment for various ailments?
As I sat down to write this review, my work kept getting interrupted by the various Facebook reels my mother was watching sitting across from me. They all had similar themes. One video talked about the various, almost magical-sounding, benefits of apple cider vinegar. Another laid out the foods to start your day with to remain full of energy. But at the core of these videos one message remained—that besides the listed benefits, eating these foods will also lead to weight loss. This was the purpose of the book by Dr Wolrich, an NHS surgical trainee and nutrition MSc student—who is not only debunking false nutritional claims but also actively combatting weight-related discrimination and advocating for a more inclusive approach to healthcare. He imparts his expertise through his podcasts consisting of a strong online following of over 350,000 supporters.
Through the central messaging of Food Isn't Medicine, he counteracts multiple stigmas and illuminates various problematic beliefs. Firstly, he critiques shaming people for what they eat and putting the blame on them for having any sort of physical illness, as if eating the right food would not have resulted in the condition. Next, he sets straight the various dubious diet claims and their misinformation. Lastly, he exposes how behind every health claim lies a fat bias induced untrue weight loss claim. The central purpose of the book is to induce the idea that health can come in many different sizes and that nutrition is a multifaceted subject.
The book is strategically structured with each chapter dealing with the various misconceptions surrounding each of the macronutrient food groups, such as a chapter on carbohydrates, fats, and so on. The chapters are then further subdivided to deal with specific false information. Some of the information Dr Wolrich discusses are quite popular claims, such as "Carbs make you fat", "Sugar is as addictive as cocaine", or claims of how restricting a singular food group from your diet is the key to living healthy and losing weight.
He deals with all the misleading information by laying out all the evidence, so that readers can make the decision for themselves. It includes various clinical trials that provide counteracting evidence for the stated claims or by walking us through the study design of certain clinical trials that are often used to make those dubious claims.
Unlike online influencers and their various outright claims of right and wrong, Dr Wolrich's approach is grey. As he claims, "Nutrition isn't black and white. Belief systems are though." So a lot of the time, when dealing with claims such as "sugar makes you fat" or "Vegan diets are always healthier than ones with animal products", we are walked through the nuance that is often left out by these straightforward claims.
For instance, when dealing with the claim about the correlation between sugar and fat, Dr Wolrich looks into a meta-analysis of 12 different studies that have assessed weight gain in individuals by swapping dietary sugars with either protein or fat and controlling the calorie intake in both groups, to find that the participants had no difference in weight. It was also found that without controlling the amount of calorie intake, sugar did contribute to a higher weight gain. He explains this situation and debunks the claim that sugar is the causal factor of weight gain by discussing that perhaps the highly palatable and less filling nature of sugar results in higher consumption of food when a person has a high-sugar diet. But, it's not exactly the sugar that causes the fatness and the other food groups have the same capacity of inducing weight gain.
As for the second claim, he shares a simple point, "A diet that consists of fries, pizza, baked beans and crisps would be considered vegan as well. I'm not sure that many people would argue in favour of that being more nutritious than the typical diet."
Most often, fad diets are hidden behind a dark veil of healthy eating. And, what all the fad diets, be it keto, intermittent fasting, or protein diet, have in common is they all introduce some sort of food restriction. "Diet culture has a habit of normalising eating disorder behaviours. It takes things that are objectively harmful and repackages them as perfectly valid methods of weight loss. It's been lying to you. Both the excessive restriction of entire food groups and skipping whole meals are bad for your health," concludes Dr Wolrich.
He is also quick to point out how none of the diets were ever about healthy eating to begin with, with this one simple question, "If you had to choose between being healthy and fat, or unhealthy and thin, which would it be?" When you remove the thick veil of celery juices and alkaline water, you realise that it was just fat bias all along.
Then, to circle back to the start: what does the claim "food isn't medicine" really entail? The sentiment challenges the belief of how we're frequently led to believe that we have absolute control over our health. If only we ate correctly, we would not be sick, right? Promoting the idea of using food as medicine only perpetuates the notion of individual accountability. It's essential to refrain from blaming individuals for their dietary choices or insinuating that an illness is solely the result of not making optimal decisions.
So, what do you do? The author is incredibly understanding of how it must feel to have one's whole belief system broken and hence after the debunking, the book doesn't end there to leave the readers contemplating on their own. He walks them through the path of acceptance by being candid about his own struggle with food as well. He emphasises looking at food through a lens of inclusion and not through restriction.
"Moderation through freedom is a healthy aim. Remember here that I'm talking about moderating less nutritious food, not moderating calories to prevent weight gain. That's not health either."
Reading this, you might think that this is a science book and it's not for you. But it's the exact opposite. The language used throughout the book is very accessible and I particularly wished the author had delved a little deeper into some of the scientific claims. Some of his debunking will seem too simple but that was perhaps the intention of the author to allow the readers to do their own research after finishing the book.
"Eat carbs, don't eat carbs; eat fat, don't eat fat; go vegan, or is it carnivore?! They promise weight loss and disease cures. We've reached a point now where both traditional and social media are awash with so much nonsense that it's almost impossible for anyone to figure out what's actually true."
The book is essentially for anyone who wants to build a healthier relationship with food and their own body
Tasnim Odrika is a biochemist by day and a writer by night. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.