Food & Drink

Nutritionist finds Food Babe book to be a mixed bag

Vani Hari, the Food Babe blogger.
Vani Hari, the Food Babe blogger. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

There were times while reading this book that I wanted to say out loud, “You go, girl.” There were others that made me say, “Stop being such a drama queen.”

“The Food Babe Way,” which is on The New York Times’ list of best-selling health books, grew out of Vani Hari’s work on her Charlotte-based website, thefoodbabe.com. She has attracted a national following for her posts on food products and her campaigns to get companies to label ingredients with health implications. She also has attracted criticism for the accuracy of her research.

I give Hari credit for pushing the food industry to create a healthier food supply. Goodness knows, we all want that. But some of the so-called “facts” in this book are cherry-picked to support her point.

On just about every other page, I found myself underlining statements that were not supported by the total body of existing scientific evidence.

While some studies can link a certain chemical or food ingredient to an outcome, that doesn’t prove that it causes that outcome. That is why consensus reports, used by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Medicine, to name a few, require scientists to examine all of the literature from the highest-quality studies to make diet and health recommendations for the public.

As experienced by the author herself, our dependence on processed foods has grown over the last several decades. That’s mainly as a consequence (not all bad, mind you) of women entering the workforce and obtaining higher levels of education, migration away from the nuclear family, and hectic family routines. As a result, we now have a society that has less time and minimal skills for cooking.

In response to these trends, the food industry has produced thousands of food products that require little skill, time and preparation.

Are all these foods “good” for you? No. It’s up to you to choose the foods that are best for your family. I wholeheartedly agree with Hari that we need to read food labels. That’s why the FDA requires a food label with nutrient content and an ingredient list.

This label should guide you in making wise food choices that meet the dietary guidelines for Americans. That is what nutritionists have been encouraging us to do for years. If we don’t buy the foods the food industry produces, the industry will make something else, maybe something healthier. That’s supply and demand.

It was this part of the book that had me calling out, “You go, girl.”

However, it’s also important to realize that we have come a long way in food science and public health to help create a safe food supply. So Hari’s recommendation that everyone should drink raw milk should really not be followed from a public health perspective.

Raw milk, which means unpasteurized, can carry dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, which are responsible for numerous foodborne illnesses, especially among people with weak or developing immune systems, young children, pregnant women and older adults. It would not be wise to take a step back on some of our public-health accomplishments.

The 21 tips that Hari recommends to transform your weight, your health and your life in 21 days are not new. They are what nutritionists and public-health professionals have been saying for years, but not in such a trendy or sensational way.

They won’t harm you. But I seriously doubt you will have a major transformation in just 21 days, based on the scientific evidence from sound intervention studies. These tips include making positive changes to your lifestyle one day at a time, eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, avoiding processed foods, reading labels and planning what you are going to eat at home, in restaurants and at work.

However, as described in the book, the tips and recipes that follow are mostly applicable for affluent people. A lower-income person would probably have to modify the recipes and shopping style as well as purchase less-expensive equipment to follow her advice.

The reader should keep in mind that Hari is not a scientist, nor does she claim to be one. Just read the book for what it is worth – one person’s reaction to how she was brought up and her fight to get in better health. Then I would say kudos to the Food Babe for writing a book that others may enjoy reading and then hopefully start to pay attention to what they are eating.

Dr. Anna Maria Siega-Riz is a professor of epidemiology and nutrition and associate dean for academic affairs at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. She also is a former member of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. As an academic, she wants to make clear that she was not paid for her review and her views are her own.

The Food Babe Way: Break Free From the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days

by Vani Hari (Little, Brown, $27).

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