"The New Nutritionist: Your Grocer" A great concept that misses the mark entirely

The Leonard Lopate Show. “The New Nutritionist: Your Grocer”, Friday August 6, 2010

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of Leonard Lopate and not having a tremendous amount of time to read for pleasure, his show The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC has helped to educate, enlighten and intrigue me and beyond that has gotten me through any number of long multi-hour runs by listening to his podcasts. Every now and then, I come across an interview that really just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Last week’s episode entitled “The New Nutritionist: Your Grocer” was just such an episode. Leonard, I’ll chalk it up to having a bad day because there is no way you would have let your guest, The Wall Street Journal’s Timothy Martin get off of the hook so easily for any other reason. It was clear that he had no idea what he was talking about on the topic of nutrition or healthy and active lifestyles. Now having spent the past ten years directly involved in the fight against youth obesity, I feel that this is one of those public discussions that I just can’t let slide.

Just to bring everyone up to speed, the episode highlights one of a number of new nutritional ranking systems that are being put into place at grocery store chains designed to provide shoppers with simple and necessary information to make healthier choices when shopping. In this instance, this system combines all of the factors such as sugar content, fiber, sodium levels, fat , etc and runs them through an algorithm to arrive at a single score between 1 and 100 with the higher number being associated with the healthiest foods available.  I really like the concept, but I found two obvious flaws in the author’s argument that Leonard in any other situation would have not let him slide on.

The first is that this system is being funded by a grocery store chain and a hospital and led by a nutritionist at Yale. Sounds great, right? The problem is that nutritional guidance is hardly a science and the prevailing winds seem to change what the public is told to do with regard to the factors listed above. Eat high carbs for fuel, don’t eat carbs, look at net carbs. eat fiber, but not too much, take fat out of your diet, fat is good in your diet, use portion control but don’t eat too little or you’ll trigger starvation responses,only eat low glycemic, eat all protein, don’t eat protein, and on and on and on. So what does this mean with respect to my first issue of controversy? We didn’t cover any of the aspects of how the algorithm is created or the philosophy that the founders adhere to.  Personally, I’m not going to take anyone’s judgment as an authority on this subject just because they teach at Yale.

The second issue is the one that made me accelerate the pace of my run yesterday because I was just hopping mad. The statement was that this system is not designed to drive people to eating better in a way that would really make a difference. It’s not to make people stop eating potato chips or other crappy food, rather it is designed so that people can select the healthiest choice within each category. So you can choose the healthiest potato chip, or the healthiest diet soda and feel good about making those selections. This statement was reinforced throughout the interview and I couldn’t figure out why the guest and even Leonard seemed to be acting defensive about wanting to help people make real choices that can help, like helping people to make real healthy choices is a bad thing. In one example, they suggested that a shopper was observed buying one brand of breakfast sausages over another because of this scoring system. The honest truth is that he shouldn’t have bought either brand and I would just bet that this system provided support to this guy to feel like he is justified and actually doing something healthy by buying this brand of artery clogging, heart stopping, stroke creating wannabe food. Didn’t we just get past all of this with the whole fat free generation of manufactured foods where we saw obesity increase even further because people inaccurately rationalized that since it’s fat free they can eat as much of it as they want?

Leonard, your show does a service to so many and to not call out this obvious flaw in the author’s logic only reinforced bad messages to an already confused population, and unfortunately one that seems committed to data mine for any evidence they can find to continue their bad behaviors which cost our country billions of dollars each year, all of which are preventable.

I hope you invite the author back to challenge him in your traditional thoughtful and objective way, and provide your listeners with real guidance on how they can use these new technologies to make a measurable difference in their lives and the lives of those who they love.