Weekend Musings: Be a Nutrition Skeptic

My personal nutrition journey began in 2009 when I saw Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Food, Inc. I suddenly learned the value of an apple and the implications of high-fructose corn syrup. I became obsessed, and I loved the adventure. I enjoyed reading more about how the body processes food, the politics behind agriculture, and the historical evolution of America’s food culture. And most of all, I loved trying new foods and learning to cook and prepare from-scratch dishes.

But along the way, I encountered many “charismatic” nutritionists (to put it nicely). It seems every nutritionist in the media holds the elusive key to how to be THE healthiest human, or how to CURE all your illnesses, or how to FINALLY lose that weight. Some of them seemed a bit too crazy for me, and I scoffed immediately and moved on. Others, however, enticed me with their messages and lured me into worshiping their advice like scripture.

Why is this problematic?

Traditionally, nutritionists work with clients individually and¬†create an action plan that responds to the client’s needs, wants, and limitations. It’s not a place for “THIS IS THE ANSWER YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR” advice. Instead, working with a nutritionist is more of a dialogue. A “this is working, this isn’t.” A place to set goals and reflect on how they are going. A “how could I do this better?” A place free from shaming, but also a place to learn about the impact of your choices.

Nobody could write a book for a mass audience that could handle the dietary nuances of each reader. Thus, nutritional advice is simplified and made palatable to readers desperate to try something new for their health and wellness. And, to outsell the competition in a capitalist market, these nutritionists package their books (and themselves) with some “simple” diet plan, usually marketed as a “Don’t.”

Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat bread. Don’t eat refined flour. Don’t eat sugar. Don’t eat dairy. Don’t eat starch. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t eat empty calories. Don’t eat egg yolks. Don’t eat fruit. Don’t eat processed food. Don’t eat meat. Don’t drink soda.

And boom, just like that, they’ve created an easy action plan that thousands of readers can easily adopt. Imagine if all you had to do to be healthier was to stop eating egg yolks. Simple!

The food we eat involves so much: what is accesible to us (consider food deserts), our food cultures, our budget, and even our likes and dislikes. It should strike you as suspicious that someone wants to tell you what to eat (and make you feel ashamed, scared, or in danger for not following their advice) despite not knowing anything about you.

That applies to all of us. How many times have you heard a classmate, coworker, aunt, or random stranger recommend that you “drink more milk” or “use low-fat dressing” or “eat more protein”? I am not immune to this tendency, either. While I try not to dish out nutritional advice on my blog, I’m sure I have slipped up from time to time as well (especially in my older posts). So yes, be skeptical of me. There is no single truth when it comes to nutrition. But you should critique that sentence, too.¬†ūüėá

Let’s consider this: many book-selling nutritionists are currently (and understandably) catering to people affected by Type II Diabetes, heart disease, and other lifestyle-related illnesses. It’s the biggest (and most dangerous) problem in the health industry, so many people are eager to “solve the crisis.” Everyone dreams of curing cancer, but what if you could be the person that figured out how to prevent it from ever happening? (If you want to be pessimistic, you could also make the case that they are exploiting the fear and desperation of this audience, or simply taking advantage of the fact that it’s a large target audience.)

Do you think nutritionists give the same advice to someone who is underweight as they do to someone who is obese and dealing with diabetes? No. Definitely not.

Do you think they would give the same advice to a “healthy,” non-picky eater with a comfortable budget as they would to someone recovering from their second heart attack in a food desert? No. No way.

One size does not fit all. Especially when that “size” has been measured to fit the needs of a health crisis.¬†

Let’s discuss a specific example. There is a certain semi-famous food blogger and cookbook author whom I have previously worshipped. I will not name her specifically because I respect her too much to publicly slander her, so let’s call her Broccoli.¬†However, no matter how much I respected her and appreciated her quick, easy, and tasty recipes, I remained skeptical. Broccoli¬†is very vocal against oil, and she even avoids “too much” nut butters, nuts, and avocado.

Look, I’m not saying you should fry all your food or douse everything in truffle oil, but doesn’t this seem a little strange to you? Avocado is a whole food. Nuts are a whole food. Yes, they are high in fat and calories–but those are both nutrients we need! And when you’re on a whole foods, plant-based diet, getting enough calories can be tough if you cut out foods like that. In fact,¬†I became pretty obsessed with Broccoli’s¬†advice for a while and stopped buying oil and ate as little peanut butter as possible, and I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough calories (and my stomach isn’t big enough to eat bigger portions of such fiber-packed food). That’s what actually led me to seeing a nutritionist in the first place–to undo that physical and mental damage.

When I analyze Broccoli’s message, it usually has a foundation in curing¬†diabetes and heart-related illnesses (a la¬†Forks Over Knives). That’s super–the same diet that can cure such an illness can also prevent one.¬†But once again, one size does not fit all.¬†(Imagine if everyone adopted Michael Phelps’ 10 billion-calories-a-day diet!!!)

Recently, Broccoli¬†publicly announced her daily calorie allotment (spoiler: it’s freakishly¬†low) and published before/after photos of herself. Naturally, people commented with horror and concern, but she defended herself staunchly and acted as though the nay-sayers were simply ignorant of real nutrition. She acted as though she possessed the truth–that all we had to do was buy into¬†(literally) her message via meal plans and cookbooks, and we could possess the truth as well.

Her actions had little regard for the specific needs of the individuals in her mass audience, and worse, could have dangerously affected readers vulnerable to disordered eating habits. This made me completely question any authority I had previously granted her. I’m glad I had been always skeptical of her, and I wish my skepticism had been stronger to prevent me from getting too wrapped up in the “lifestyle” she was marketing.

But guess what? I still use her recipes. Why? Because Broccoli makes some dang good recipes, and unlike many plant-based cookbook authors, Broccoli uses ingredients that are simple and easy to find in most stores. I can make most of her meals in 15-30 minutes, and many of them are easy enough to be memorized and incorporated into my regular recipe cycle. But I top them with avocado or cook the veggies in coconut oil when I want to. Because guess what? Lauren walks lots of stairs in NYC and needs plenty of calories to do it.

Give me all the peanut butter.

Pineapple Kiwi Oatmeal with Coconut-Peanut Butter

The sad part is, I could list a dozen more examples of “nutritionists” whom I’ve had this experience with. But this should suffice.

Am I Still Vegan?

YES! And I’m 99.999999% sure that will never change.

I love eating a vegan diet, and it loves me back. I chose to eat this way for my health and for the environment, and I believe strongly that it benefits those two causes. While there are plenty “charismatic nutritionists” out there touting vegan diets as the “cure-all,” I am confident and comfortable in my decision to eschew meat, eggs, and dairy based on the very real fact that my digestive system problems, acne, and PCOS greatly subsided and/or disappeared after making the switch. And, just as importantly, the environmental impact of animal agriculture is enough reason for me to live a healthful life¬†sans¬†bacon and gouda.

Latergram from the #PeoplesClimate march. Certified #vegan. #nyc

A photo posted by Lauren Smith (@oatmealartist) on

That being said, there are plant-based nutritionists out there trying to generalize dietary advice for the masses to sell their books, so be careful. Look out for people who mock others for having differing opinions. Look out for people who ridicule commenters who disagree with their posts. Look out for people who pretend that THEIR way is the ONLY way. Look out for people who are regularly marketing their books, their speeches, etc.

It doesn’t mean you can’t read them or follow them. It means you should approach them with caution because they are marketing. You have money, and they have a business that likes to earn money. Go ahead and read the book. I’ve read tons, and I love them all. But don’t treat it like your own dietary bible. Read critically. Ask questions.

Be a skeptic.

About Lauren Smith

Lauren is a herbivore, Slytherin, and connoisseur of oats. She is a former teacher who is currently studying to earn a master's degree in curriculum development. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.

10 Responses to Weekend Musings: Be a Nutrition Skeptic

  1. Kiki says:

    Now I’m soo curious who Broccoli is…especially when you said she makes dang good recipes!
    Email me her name in private? But only if you want to of course!

  2. Well said, Lauren! I’m very interested in becoming a Certified Holistic Health Coach after graduation because I want to end the “one size fits all” diet mentality FOR GOOD. I was one of those people who bought into that nonsense, but I believe that you should eat whatever makes your body feel good. If that means plant-based? Go for it! If not, that’s great too! I’m so annoyed with our society’s obsession for achieving the “perfect” body.

  3. As a nutritional science student, you touched upon all the burning questions that keep me up at night. I aspire to be a nutrition counselor because I want to also provide emotional support to my clients seeking nutrition therapy for reasons closely tied to emotions such as eating disorders and endocrine disorders (diabetes, thyroid issues, and pcos). Following a meal plan is not easy because there is all sorts of obstacles such as availability and the fear certain foods induce. Eating heathy does not mean elimination. A balanced diet consists of variety to get all the essential nutrients. And what’s a healthy diet without treats? Not a way to live. The advice I give people, when they find out I’m studying food science, is to know your body. Know your limits. Know what causes adverse reactions. And know what makes you happy.

    • Lauren Smith says:

      Truth, my nutritionist has been encouraging me to allow myself to eat more sugar (within reason, of course), but it’s bringing my acne back. ūüôĀ I do not like that at all. So we’re working together to find something that allows me to enjoy sweets from time to time without causing me harm.

  4. Kat says:

    Awesome post! The “nutrition” world played a huge part in leading me to being severely underweight, and I am still trying to relearn what works for my body. I have to admit, I am jealous that you can eat vegan (I have tried, and my body hated me), but I am also thankful for how we are all different.

  5. Cassie says:

    I actually read this article about what nutritionists never eat on Women’s Health, and I was so shocked to find grapes on the list! Like, a FRUIT?! I know that some people have fructose intolerances and that too much of anything is a bad thing, but why would you eliminate something that comes from nature and is perfectly healthy in a reasonable amount? I totally agree that it’s fine to have a baseline, but you also need to have some freedom in what you eat!

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