Disease Proof

When Restaurant Critics Talk Nutrition

In this morning's Week in Review section of The New York Times, restaurant critic Frank Bruni expounds on the relative merits of being careful about what you eat. He's a man who has essentially dedicated his life to eating richly, so his conclusions are hardly surprising. For instance:

It's also hard to see the point of it. If living to 99 means forever cutting the porterhouse into eighths, swearing off the baked potato and putting the martini shaker into storage, then 85 sounds a whole lot better, and I'd ratchet that down to 79 to hold onto the Häagen-Dazs, along with a few shreds of spontaneity. It's a matter of priorities.

Personally, I'm happy to live in a world where Mr. Bruni has the right to eat whatever he likes. But in this article he veers wide of his core mission--to be an expert on food--and fumbles his temporary role as interpreter of scientific research.

His core failing is familiar to readers of this blog: he assumes that the Women's Health Initiative proved that a low fat does, essentially, nothing:

An eight-year, $415 million federal study of nearly 49,000 women found that those who maintained low-fat diets had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer and heart attacks as those who ate what they wanted.

As has been explained in much greater detail previously, that study compared two groups of post-menopausal women, and neither group ate what Dr. Fuhrman and lots of other doctors would consider to be healthy, or even low-fat, diets. Both groups, in fact, ate similarly unhealthy diets, so it's no wonder that the results were inconclusive. (Even in that setting, however, the women in the "low fat" group experienced 9% less breast cancer, contrary to what Mr. Bruni would tell you.)

The article also makes clear a sad and common assumption: that a life of healthy eating doesn't value happiness. Rich as Mr. Bruni's life of restaurant hopping must be, is he really correct to assume that Martina Navratilova's days of fruit, vegetables, basketball, hockey, and decades of championship tennis are really somehow less fun? I know, everyone has different priorities, but I wish he would acknowledge a real world example of someone eating healthily, rather than paint a lazy hypothetical about how terrible it must be not to have ice cream at will.

Bruni's idea that he'd rather die at 79 with ice cream that at 99 without--I'd be interested to get a reaction to that theory from people in hospices. I suspect most of them would not be so cavalier.

And even if we accept that there is nothing more important than moment to moment quality of life--what about the minor and major disabilities that come with aging without concern for your health? The smoker might love the feeling of smoking, but is a life with cigarettes really of higher quality in the waning years, when ailing lungs keep you from playing with grandchildren, or joining the family on the beach for a picnic? I'm not a doctor, and I can't even cite research to prove this particular point, but anecdotally I can tell you that those people I know who are aging with broccoli, salads, and exercise in the routine are by and large having more fun than those who are stuck on the couch with this or that obesity-related health complaint.

Finally, Bruni throws up his hands at all the conflicting medical news, jokingly referring to the Journal of the American Medical Association as "the Journal of Utterly Mixed Signals." I sympathize in theory, but in practice, this is coming from the paper whose pages are filled with Utterly Mixed Signals.

One minute the Times calls T. Colin Campbell's China Study the "Grand Prix of epidemiology" and the "most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease." Then, when discussing the relationship between diet and disease in subsequent articles, they abandon the lessons of the study entirely without even a passing mention.

Similarly, the Times prints a convincing 2003 Michael Pollan book review explaining, essentially, that our national obesity epidemic is attributable in large part to a deliberate, sustained, and successful effort on the part of food companies to drive profits by getting us to eat more. There is talk of eating less and exercising in hundreds of Times articles. Yet (echoing his colleague Gina Kolata) Mr. Bruni follows up with the conclusion that "given the contradictory medical advice, it may be better to enjoy life."

Who's sending mixed signals now?

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Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Sarah - April 9, 2006 3:37 PM

Fabulously written. You should submit this to the editor of the times, or better yet - as a guest columnist.

anet - April 9, 2006 6:08 PM

I'd like to see some dieticians go to restaurants to evaluate meals on their REAL nutritional merits.
Or how about toxicologists going to seafood houses and evaluating various dishes based on their toxicology tests

it might go "....while the poached salmon tasted good it had far too many PPM PCBs to be cosidered safe for most...
....the shrimp platter was beautiful, fanned out so nicely and tasted okay...but the level of chlorimphinocol was so high, I could feel my bone marrow being suppressed..."
...turnabout is fair play....

Robin K - April 11, 2006 5:12 PM

I read a lot of fitness and health magazines available on the newstand and everyone seems to be quoting that darn nurses study. It seems so valid unless you comb through the data and assumptions to see the fallacies and who's going to do that--no one! It appears that the one study's conclusions is going to do more to damage progress on the nutritional front than anything. Then, we have food critics from the NY Times or G. Kolata from the same influential paper, and all in all, it will be hard to undo the damage of their proclamations. Experts like Dr. F and Dr. Cambell and the PCRM need to be extra vigilent about getting a voice on the nutritional front in major media to combat the conflicting info and stop the downward spiral. Here--it's wonderful to read--don't get me wrong--but you're preaching to the choir!!

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