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Aaron Carroll’s new book asks: Can “bad food” be good for you?

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

When I was a kid, there was a seasoning called Accent. Both its TV commercials and its canisters featured a little horn with the slogan: “Wake up the flavor.” We poured that stuff on everything (except for our Captain Crunch), often accompanying our culinary adventures by making little horn sounds.

It turns out Accent was pure MSG. Who knew? And yet we lived to tell the tale. Neither me nor my siblings ever got headaches as kids. Or ever get headaches as adults. Indeed, we seem to have acquired some headache immunity from using this stuff. (Correlation, not causation, a good researcher would say.)

The reason, as you’ll learn in The Bad Food Bible, is that MSG isn’t bad for you, even apparently in the quantities we devoured.  (Yes, we know – you get a headache when you go to a Chinese restaurant. That could be your imagination, or you may be one of the few people with a sensitivity to it, just like a few people have sensitivities to other foods.)

MSG isn’t the only maligned food. Is butter good for you or bad? Milk? Artificial sweeteners? Organic foods? Sugar? Meat? Red meat? Tuna? Coffee? Wine? Eggs? Salt?

Oh, and don’t forget gluten. Turns out, virtually every one of these foods has been studied in depth…and here the studies in both directions are summarized and sourced.

How does this apply to wellness vendors?

Wellness vendors – and I’m looking at you, Interactive Health – want to micromanage our diet in so many ways that most employees just tune their advice out.  This book reveals that tuning vendor wellness advice out is probably the right response in most cases. Not all, but most.

We’ve shown repeatedly that wellness vendors, once they move beyond eat-more-broccoli-olive oil-nuts-and-fruit, are usually peddling very controversial or decidedly incorrect unsolicited dietary advice. Not that they care, because they show huge savings no matter what they do. One study – so seminal that it became part of Kate Baicker’s infamous “Harvard study” meta-analysis – found massive short-term savings by advising diabetics to swap out fats in favor of carbs. Not surprisingly, that study qualified the author for a coveted spot on the Koop Award Committee. Apparently bad advice is part of the Koop Award’s DNA.

What that study did and what Interactive Health does should not be called “dietary micromanagement.” Rather, it should be termed “dietary micromismanagement.”  Interactive Health’s advice to non-hypertensive diabetics and people at risk for diabetes is exactly that: swap out the whole milk for skim milk and cut way back on the salt. As a previous column noted, that turns out to be exactly the opposite of what they should do.

So what should we eat…and what shouldn’t we?

The great philosopher Dan Quayle once uttered the immortal words:  “The role of the Vice President can be summed up in one word: to be prepared.” Likewise, with the exception of sugar and soon-to-be-extinct artificial trans fats, the book can be summed up one word: chill out.

Author Aaron Carroll, part of The Incidental Economist (the country’s leading health economics blog), lays out the case for OK-in-moderation for most controversial foods. This guy doesn’t have an ax to grind – except when it comes to skewering people who have an ax to grind. He goes after faddists, extremists, and people who ignore research with a zeal approaching ours in exposing dishonest wellness vendors (and I’m looking at you, Interactive Health…and Wellsteps and Fitbit and about 50 others).

Since The Incidental Economist’s positioning is that of arbiter, not advocate – the go-to place for evidence-based answers no matter what the evidence shows – their answers on these topics are highly credible and carefully sourced. (Hence their smackdowns of the Koop Award Committee and wellness vendors are even more credible than mine.)

The answers boil down to: stop knocking yourselves out trying to be perfect. You are probably stressing more over your diet than you are gaining from fine-tuning your diet. Yes, there are a few things to avoid, like added sugars (but you knew that, or if not you would as soon as you play a round of Quizzify). Or, if you have a predisposition to hypertension due to history or ethnicity, you might want to go easy on the salt. (Most people needn’t – there is a reason your taste buds welcome the flavor).

So live a little, let your employees live a little, and know there are really only a few things that all the evidence says you truly need to avoid: trans fats, added sugars, and Koop Award-winning wellness vendors.



  1. Dr. Jon says:

    Good stuff! As one very smart pediatrician recently commented – “If there’s one thing you should cut from your diet, it’s fear.” – Dr. Jon


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