The GOAT(’s) Fad Diet

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If you are like me, you wonder what the baserunner and first baseman talk about between pitches. When an athlete meets a peer, the dynamic is presumably different from an interaction with a fan that likely centers around adulation and an autograph.

When dietitians get together, chances are high that at some point we will touch on whatever nutrition-related fads and ridiculousness are currently hindering our work. We laugh, not because we are making fun of anybody, but because misinformation is so pervasive and challenging to our profession that sometimes all we can do is approach our upstream paddle with humor.

The deeper reality, which often goes unspoken but is silently understood, is how terribly harmful nutrition myths, bad information, half truths, and fear mongering are to our patients. All it takes is one meme, 140-character post, headline, hyperlink, or soundbite and the population is led astray in an instant. Just one celebrity endorsement carries more weight in the eyes of many than the educated stances of professionals who have dedicated their careers to the field of nutrition.

Consider Allen Campbell, personal chef for Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen, and the interview he recently gave to boston.com about his clients’ diets and their shared perspectives on nutrition. Initially I chuckled at the absurdity, but I quickly remembered that hundreds if not thousands of people are likely to risk their own health as they assume this, umm, information to be fact and internalize it.

Let’s look at some of the standout excerpts.

“My philosophy starts in my own life, and with my own lifestyle and eating habits. I make conscious decisions to buy local and organic, and to stay away from GMOs, and to think about the future of the planet and the future of humans.”

He hits on nearly every current nutrition buzz phrase except for farmers markets, raw, dairy free, gluten free, and no white foods, but don’t worry, he brings those up later.

“I took a plant-based nutrition course earlier this year. It was an online course through Cornell, and it’s taught by a doctor named T. Colin Campbell, who’s behind ‘The China Study.’ My philosophy is that a plant-based diet has the power to reverse and prevent disease.”

Four or five years ago, a patient came into my office touting “The China Study”which has been largely debunked, by the way – and told me, “A plant-based diet is the only one that heals.” She also stated, “The government puts rat poison in the water, but they just don’t tell us.” Sometimes, apparently, hyperbole and paranoia go hand in hand.

“So, 80 percent of what they [Brady and Bundchen] eat is vegetables. [I buy] the freshest vegetables. If it’s not organic, I don’t use it. And whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, beans. The other 20 percent is lean meats: grass-fed organic steak, duck every now and then, and chicken. As for fish, I mostly cook wild salmon. It’s very different than a traditional American diet. But if you just eat sugar and carbs – which a lot of people do – your body is so acidic, and that causes disease.”

Actually, most Americans get more than enough protein. Someone who ate just sugar and other carbohydrates would likely develop kwashiorkor, marasmus, or a similar problem related to protein malnutrition. We learned about these conditions in the first semester of actual nutrition school, but apparently they were never covered in Campbell’s online course.

If your body is acidic, your medical chart probably lists a diagnosis of metabolic acidosis, respiratory acidosis, or diabetic ketoacidosis – none of which are caused by overconsumption of sugar or other carbohydrates – and you are reading this blog from your hospital bed.

“Tom [Brady] recently outed Frosted Flakes and Coca-Cola on WEEI. I love that he did that. Sugar is the death of people.”

As it turns out, your brain runs on sugar, and without adequate glucose in your system, you risk a myriad of problems, including death. What Brady did was oversimplify a complex problem by scapegoating an ingredient, which plays into the fears that fuel disordered eating and eating disorders.

“No white sugar. No white flour. NO MSG. I’ll use raw olive oil, but I never cook with olive oil. I only cook with coconut oil. Fats like canola oil turn into trans fats.”

People continue to fear canola oil based on myths that run counter to actual science. Trans fats, which occur naturally in only trace amounts, are made in large quantities through a chemical process known as hydrogenation. This reaction, while not terribly complex, involves more than just sticking the substrate in the oven.

“[Tom] doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory. So no tomatoes, no peppers, mushrooms, or eggplants. Tomatoes trickle in every now and then, but just maybe once a month. I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation.”

The research supporting the notion that tomatoes cause inflammation is spotty at best, with some studies showing the exact opposite effect. The evidence is about as strong as that showing the positive impact that tomatoes might have on eyesight. Maybe if you ate more tomatoes, Tom, you would not have thrown that goal line interception against Philadelphia.

Do the kids eat the same things Tom and Gisele eat? “Yeah, I mean pretty much . . . . For snacks, I make fruit rolls from bananas, pineapple, and spirulina. Spirulina is an algae. It’s a super fruit. I dehydrate it. I dehydrate a lot of things. I have three dehydrators in their kitchen. I also make raw granola and raw chocolate chip cookies.”

I have no idea what a “super fruit” is, but I am assuming that being a fruit is a prerequisite for consideration, which excludes an algae like spirulina. Anyway, my colleagues and I consistently find that children raised in households where food is restricted tend to have significant overeating problems once they reach adulthood. Westgate SuperBooks declared Brady’s New England Patriots 9-2 co-favorites to win next month’s Super Bowl, while I will set the odds of Brady’s children bingeing on college dining hall pizza and soft serve much, much higher.

As the interview continues on, the topics turn away from general nutrition and instead touch upon examples of dishes the chef makes and his typical workday, neither of which are within the scope of this particular blog entry.

People look at Tom Brady, 38 years old and still at the top of his game, and figure his nutrition regimen must be at least partially responsible. That may be true, but as I have written before, both about Brady in particular and professional athletes in general, their upsides for rigidity are unlikely to exist for laymen, and the virtues they bestow upon their diets can be off base.

Consider Dave Scott, six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, who famously washed off his cottage cheese before consumption in order to remove as much fat as possible because he believed a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet gave him an edge over the competition. It strikes me as more than mere coincidence that Scott was doing this in the 1980s when fear of dietary fat was at its peak.

Similarly, while I have no doubt that Brady believes his diet enables him to perform his best, let us also recognize that his eating behaviors are reflections of nearly every single one of today’s nutrition fads.

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