What a Junk Food Diet Tells Us About the Dismal State of Nutrition Science

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 3:45 PM EST

In an attempt to test a theory that losing or gaining weight is all about calories, Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, went on a 10 week, calorie-controlled diet of mostly convenience store food, and actually lost weight, some 27 pounds. This will no doubt be hailed by food manufacturers as great news since it supports the idea that obesity isn't really their fault -- everyone's just stuffing their face with too many calories.

But Haub's attention-getting experiment is much more notable for what it says about how little the nutrition field has to say about the way food, particularly processed food, interacts with the many biological systems in our bodies. When his blood tests revealed that 1800 calories a day or less of Little Debbies, Cool Ranch Doritos and Corn Pops had improved his cholesterol profile and lowered his triglycerides, Haub confessed that he was at a complete loss to explain it:

Does that mean I'm healthier? Or does it mean how we define health from a biology standpoint, that we're missing something?..... I'm not geared to say this is a good thing to do. I'm stuck in the middle. I guess that's the frustrating part. I can't give a concrete answer. There's not enough information to do that.
Part of the problem with nutrition science is that researchers haven't done what Haub did -- test the idea that a calorie from a Baby Ruth is no different than one from a carrot. For the most part, nutritionists have chosen not to single out processed food for specific research, preferring instead to view all food as a sum of its known components, such as fats, protein, carbohydrates, sodium and vitamins and minerals.

Last week, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil chided fellow nutrition scientists for this. In the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, Carlos Monteiro, a member of the WHO Nutrition Expert Advisory Group, argued that the effects of processing and food technology, or what he calls "ultra-processing," on the nutritional quality of food are being overlooked:

....evidence presented on the association between industrially processed food and disease is restricted to that from studies examining the role of just a few products, such as sugared drinks (in the case of obesity) and processed meats (in the case of certain types of cancer).. nutrition scientists continue to depend on conceptual framework of their disciplines elaborated from the discoveries of biochemists between the early 19th and early 20th century, which has diminishing relevance.
Michael Pollan, writer and food industry nemesis, offers a similar view:
As I see it, nutrition science is kind of where surgery was in the year 1650, which is to say very interesting and promising, but do you really want to get on the table yet?
Monteiro and Pollan probably aren't suggesting that scientists subject lots of people to Haub's diet. But it's possible, though rarely done, to test the effects of processed food on rats. An editorial accompanying Monteiro's article challenges nutritionists to look deeper at food and find "bioactive compounds" that aren't currently known. Because only when scientists understand more about how processed food is different from the fresh, whole versions that we assume are healthier and better for weight control will we be able to understand why Haub got the results he did.

Image by Flckr user graciepoo
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