Nutritionists Know Best? Not Always

Women's mags are notorious for extreme dieting advice -- as this month's Marie Claire demonstrates

The interweb is abuzz about "What Nutritionists Really Eat," a new piece online and in the current issue of Marie Claire, in which elite nutritionists reveal what they eat every day. As you might expect, kale smoothies and raw salads feature prominently on these menus -- along with a few food rules that are, ahem, quirky at best. Such as: 

*"I believe that we take our vitality predominantly from the air, sunlight, and clean water, so I don't take anything but this 'life force energy' until the sun goes down, then I enjoy nutrient-rich foods..."

-- Natalia Rose, nutritionist to Frédéric Fekkai, Robin Quivers

*"My approach is rooted in digestion, so I look at the order and the combination of the foods themselves. For example, I never eat fruit after eating protein or starches. I also don't drink water while I'm eating because I believe that it slows down the digestion of food in my system."

-- Kimberly Snyder, nutritionist to Owen Wilson, Drew Barrymore, Olivia Wilde

*"I cleanse at least twice a year with the Optimal Cleanse by East West Essentials and have 10 days of food prepared for me via a program I work with called Paleta This is my way of taking care of myself and releasing toxins."

-- Haylie Pomroy, nutritionist to Grammy and Oscar winners, Super Bowl champs and Olympic athletes

Gosh. All of these nutritionists sure sound like they're giving weight loss advice based in science. But the key phase (as used by both Rose and Snyder)? "I believe!" And believing doesn't make it so, whether "it" refers to Rose's "eat via photosynthesis" theory, Snyder's faith in her "no water with meals" plan, or Pomroy's allegiance to cleanses (as sold by a company that employs her). These nutritionists aren't talking science. Like far too many health "gurus" today, they're talking religious doctrine.

Marie Claire presents these nutritionists and their food diaries without much comment, so it's not clear whether its editors have joined each nutritionist's cult of personality, or are snorting quietly to themselves about the wacky diets. The story emphasizes each nutritionist's credentials, includes detailed food diaries with calorie counts, and features a piece of "core advice" from each participant -- in women's magazine land, this clearly translates to a "service story," as in the kind of article that editors hope you'll rip out and tape to your fridge so you can live by its doctrine. In not framing the piece as sheer entertainment, the magazine gives these so-called "top food experts" a pretty big endorsement.

As someone who writes a lot of service stories (and yes, even weight loss service stories), I have a lot of respect for the genre when done well. I really do rip out those pieces and save them forever. And I know lots of women and girls who do the same. Which is why this kind of (dis)service story -- unfortunately, all too common in the nutrition sections of women's magazines -- makes me so nervous. Editors are drawn to nuggets of advice that feel "fresh" and specific, but sometimes, in that quest, we forget to also consider whether such tips are responsible, useful, or actually beneficial to the health of our readers.

Before you decide to follow any article's diet advice to the letter, check the piece for qualifying phrases like "I believe" (a sure sign that an expert's tip didn't hold up to fact-checking). And if anyone suggests subsisting on sunlight, it's probably safe to assume hunger has made them crazy.



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