The Worst Nutrition Advice in History – a Dietitian’s Response (part 2)

Jessica Penner, RDSmarten Up18 Comments

the worst nutrition advice in history?

Last week I wrote about Kris Gunnars at Authority Nutrition, and his article, “Top 5 Contenders For The Worst Nutrition Advice in History,” which could alternately be titled “Top 5 Strawman Arguments to Attack Mainstream Nutrition Professionals.”

However, his nutrition advice is still pretty good, if a little incomplete.   Let’s take a closer look.

Claim #1: Whole eggs are pretty much nature’s perfect food

Cholesterol has always been the question when it comes to eggs.  The history of blood cholesterol and its association with cardiovascular health has had its fair share of controversy. Kris Gunnars is correct: the current body of research shows that the cholesterol we eat has very little impact on the cholesterol in our blood.  But our understanding of cholesterol is also still developing.  One aspect of cardiovascular health that’s emerging is the role of inflammation.  LDL in and of itself may not be harmful. If there’s inflammation present in the body, the walls of the arteries can become damaged. If a tear occurs, the LDL particles (which are small) can end up getting lodged in the wall, this creates further inflammation, more LDL particles accumulate, and a plaque results.

Regardless of how healthy eggs and their cholesterol turn out to be, you can overdo anything.  If you can consume too much of something as ubiquitously good as water, you can definitely do it for eggs.  Enjoy them, but enjoy other foods too!

Bottom line: Eggs are full of nutrients and high quality protein. They are cheap and very satiating. But eggs should be eaten in moderation, just like all foods.

Claim #2: It is time for the mainstream to retire the ridiculous low-fat fad

Sure!  It’s absolutely time for mainstream nutrition to do this.  Oh, and good news! We already have.

A big problem with these diets is that calling any diet “low” or “high” is subjective. The recommended range for carbs is 45-65% of calories. So what does high-carb mean… 65% or 90%?  In reality people tend to take these things to extremes.  saturated fats are bad - throw out all the fats

These days it’s “too much sugar is bad, so banish ALL THE SUGAR!” The sensible idea is to stick to moderation, but that’s so boring. You don’t make headlines by recommending moderation.

Another thing I don’t like about low-this and high-that diets is that I don’t find it particularly helpful to talk to the average person about food recommendations of carbs, fats, and proteins.  They don’t go to the fridge and pull out a container of leftover fat for dinner.  Why can’t we stick to talking about actual FOOD instead of individual food components?  These diets seem to me like they’re more about marketing than about getting people to actually eat healthy.

Here’s an achievable challenge that’s guaranteed to increase your health: forget about fats, carbs, and proteins, and eat more servings of fruits and veggies for each one of your meals and snacks.  I can’t make a million dollars writing a book about that, but you can be healthier doing it.

Sidenote: The Benefit of Hindsight

Gunnars states that there wasn’t any evidence decades ago to suggest recommending a decrease in saturated fats. There was.  This clinical trial, for example, showed a decrease in reoccurring heart attacks in men when following a diet where saturated fats from animal sources were replaced with vegetable fats.

You might argue that the research methods in the 60s don’t live up to today’s standards, and you’d probably be right. That’s why research studies should be continually reexamined and replicated with modern methods.  But how is it fair to criticize governing bodies for making recommendations based on the evidence available?  They made the best decision they could with the knowledge they had, which is the most we can expect of anybody in any field. I am sure that the next generation will have a good chuckle thinking back to what we think we know today.

Bottom line: we need a balance of calories from protein, fat, and carbohydrates but nutrition recommendations should be based on which foods to consume, not macronutrient percentages.

Claim #3: The idea that calories are more important than food quality is a huge mistake

Yes, the quality of our foods is indirectly more important than calories. Choosing high-nutrient, quality foods can help us stick to the amount of calories that is right for our metabolism. If you eat a bowl of Special K cereal one morning, and the next morning eat the same amount of calories in home cooked oats, you’ll feel full longer on the 2nd day. So typically the type of foods you choose will have an effect on the total calories you consume.

Gunnars focuses on what we eat but fails to address how food makes us feel. Instead of focusing on how many calories to eat, try to focus on how your body feels when you eat particular foods. Is the food satiating enough to last you to your next meal or snack? Does your energy crash shortly after eating a particular food? Listen to what your body is telling you and feed it accordingly!

Calorie counting relies on external cues for what/how much to eat instead of internal cues of hunger, fullness, and what will nourish your body. 

Bottom line: Listen to your internal cues and feed your body accordingly!

Claim #4 – Polyunsaturated vegetable oil, Omega-6 fatty acids, and trans fats are harmful

You can’t really call a vegetable oil polyunsaturated.  Most oils and fats contain an assortment of fats in different amounts.   In evaluating an oil, we need to focus on that ratio between poly or mono unsaturated, and saturated fats.

Gunnars points to one study that found trans fat in the range of 0.55-4.2% in canola or soybean oil found on the market shelves. Health Canada states that canola and soybean oil may contain up to 2.5% of trans fats due to commercial processing. These figures are hardly what I’d consider “loaded with trans fats” as Gunnars describes them.

But does even a small amount of possible trans fats equate to health effects? That’s hard to tell since there are numerous studies that show favourable outcomes of consuming canola oil, aside from improving cholesterol levels and ratios, such as improved blood sugar control and reduced colon cancer formation (in rats).

I haven’t been able to find a single study showing negative outcomes from consumption of canola oil.  Gunnars doesn’t link any.

Again, it’s so much more helpful to use words that actually apply to daily life in the kitchen.  When was the last time you wrote “polyunsaturated vegetable oil” on your grocery shopping list?  When you listen to folks like Kris Gunnars talk about the specific food components, you miss out on the benefits of actual canola oil.

Let’s focus on the food.

Bottom line: Vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, soy, peanut, and cottonseed are out. There’s a small amount of trans fat in canola, and we need to learn more about its effects, but the evidence at this point shows that the healthy fats outweigh the bad.

Claim #5: Nutrition professionals recommend margarine with trans fats

I agree with Gunnar’s stance on using butter but I honestly don’t believe there’s a single health professional out there who would still recommend margarine containing trans fats. There are several soft margarines on the market that are non-hydrogenated and thus, do not contain trans fats. If individuals prefer to purchase soft margarine over butter for its cost or texture, I wouldn’t stop them.

Bottom line: Don’t eat hard margarines or others that contain hydrogenated oil. Instead, choose butter or soft non-hydrogenated margarine as you prefer! And again, use fats in moderation!

Kris Gunnars, let’s be friends

Kris, I really want to like your article.  It’s mostly accurate, and it cites almost all of its claims with reputable sources.

What I don’t get is why you think you’re taking on mainstream nutrition.

You’re actually taking on outdated nutrition information.  As I’m sure you know, science is constantly improving on its knowledge of how things work.

I’d love it if you would join me and the rest of mainstream nutrition in battling the folks who spread nutrition misinformation around the world.

For Part 1 in this series:

worst nutrition advice in hisotry dietitian's response

*Update 2019: I recently received an email from Kris Gunnars explaining that he wrote this article (and a lot of others like it) in an attempt to go viral and gain attention. He since regrets writing many of them and deleted many of them before selling his website to Healthline. Kudos to him for reaching out to me with an explanation.

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18 Comments on “The Worst Nutrition Advice in History – a Dietitian’s Response (part 2)”

  1. I’m trying to move to a healthier diet and lifestyle. Thanks for providing reliable information.

    1. Way to go! Step one is always the awareness for the need to change (and everyone could probably use a little change towards a healthier lifestyle). I’m glad you appreciate the information. I hope you stick around the blog. I’d love to hear more feedback!

  2. Great article! Totally agree with you. I can not think of one dietitian that recommends a low-fat high carb diet to someone with diabetes, but I do know doctors that recommend “low-fat, low- carb diets” which is not even possible.
    I think most people in mainstream nutrition recognize that calories do matter, but the quality of food is equally important.

  3. Wonderful writing! Wonderful article! Love hearing what other fellow RDs have to say about these controversial topics! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I read one of Gunner’s articles also, which basically claimed that vegetarians are stupid. By the way, ethical vegetarian at the top of her class in grad school writing here. It really hurts that people would listen to this guy and let their health (and the animals) suffer.

    1. Tara, I have read all of Kris’ articles. Nowhere have I seen any sentence specifically calling vegetarians stupid. Please could you provide any links for what you say? This a serious assertion.

  5. I honestly find some of your article to be untrue. I also find that your information Polyunsaturated fats to be only part of the elephant and not the whole elephant, especially when you said I found not negative information on Canola. It is based on the facts that it does have unsaturated fats, but if you were to get your head out of the sand and actually look at all the facts, you will see that is not at all true. Please look at all the facts and stop blowing smoke up our butts canola oil. We deserve all of the truth.

  6. Fantastic response to this article. I love fellow RD’s who put factual evidence to other blogs, and correct indiviudals who think “nutritionists” (grrr) are wrong about everything.

  7. My elderly parents in law will only eat margarine as main stream nutritionists in hospitals here continue to push this as much better than butter. You might have changed but main stream nutritionalist in Australian hospitals are a joke.

  8. I hate that website Kris Gunnars owns and runs, authoritynutrition. I have blocked in on my computer.

  9. Not sure what this really adds to Gunnar’s article. I don’t think he claims to capture all of the subtleties, but he’s done a fair job of nailing down the important points.

    #1. “Regardless of how healthy eggs and their cholesterol turn out to be, you can overdo anything.”

    Possibly, but nothing you wrote in your response indicates where that “too much” line might occur and why. Is it one egg a day (as the experts once asserted)? Five? Ten? Once you get above five, how many people even WANT to eat that many? The observation that one might (theoretically) be able to eat too many eggs is meaningless.

    #2. “Oh, and good news! We already have.”

    This link repeats exactly the same tired old “saturated fats give you heart disease” stuff that Gunnar is railing against. So no, the Establishment has not changed anything. As some other comments suggest, there are still many nutritionists who stick to the orthodoxy. A diabetic acquaintance of mine is STILL being told (ordered, in fact) to eat lots of carbs, despite the fact this his blood glucose is completely out of control.

    “The recommended range for carbs is 45-65% of calories. So what does high-carb mean… 65% or 90%?”

    The answer to this question is obvious: “High carb” means “high enough to cause metabolic problems for the majority of the population”. This would be measured in grams, not a percentage of total calories, and experimentally it appears to be anywhere from 50g/day (for prediabetics) to 150g/day (for the average person). The threshold is a hard breakpoint: you can observe the patient’s lipid profile change radically as the limit is exceeded.

    #3 “Gunnars focuses on what we eat but fails to address how food makes us feel. ”

    He doesn’t. His entire comment focuses on satiety, ie., eating foods that get your appetite working again instead of counting calories (which is a pointless, stupid exercise).

    #4 ” You can’t really call a vegetable oil polyunsaturated. ”

    True, but most nutritionists genuinely don’t know the difference between a fat (triglyceride) and a fatty acid. He’s using the vernacular terminology.

    “When was the last time you wrote “polyunsaturated vegetable oil” on your grocery shopping list?”

    Quite, but his point was that all liquid oils are harmful, partly because they lack the correct ratio of essential (unsaturated) fatty acids, and partly because they polymerize into carcinogenic gunk at high temperatures. Or more accurately, they’re not the ultra-healthy substitute for saturated fats that they’re purported to be.

    #5. And again, use fats in moderation!

    Why? Weren’t you suggesting earlier that nutritionists have dropped this dogma entirely?

  10. I’m no authority on nutrition but have suffered at the hands of ill informed, “black-and-white-thinking” doctors and dietitians when it comes to diet and nutrition. I find Kris Gunnars’ articles clear, balanced and very helpful as I try to establish the diet that will work for ME. Perhaps most useful to we lay folk is his clear reminder that diet is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Incidentally re the vegetarian comment, I’ve just read one of his articles stating that some people do best on a high carb vegetarian diet. So I’m surprised that a poster here felt he was anti-vegetarian, or that the author sympathised with that post. There was nothing in this article that changed my views on Gunnars’ overall reliability and accessibility (he communicates well) as a source of information for someone like me.

  11. Kris Gunnar’s articles are awful. Perhaps if he extended his education and became an actual RDN he would delete his old material. He seems to have changed websites from Authority Nutrition to a different name. I cannot stand when people spread misinformation.

  12. Has this guy ever read any of the “fact” based evidence from Dr. Esselstyn? You know all the people that REVERSED their serious heart conditions with whole food plant based no oil/nut diets? From what I’ve read they’ve had something like 96.4 or 94.6 (sorry can’t remember)percent success reversing the disease?
    This has been researched, proven with before/after tests showing the improvement? How can this guy tote that eating meat etc… is a good thing?
    Others also like Dr. Micheal Greger & Dr. Joel Furhman have had proof also of the same disease reversing how does he refute all this data?
    Also on Facebook page Forks Over KnIves there are hundreds that tell their stories & post pictures before & after they started WFPB eating…..

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