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alex beam

That diet book won’t work

Kooky diet book authors have one thing in mind: Selling books

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

Is there anybody here who is not on a kooky diet?

A few months ago, I sat down to lunch with a friend, who, frankly, looked terrific. He had shed that trunk flab that men my age (tail-end Baby Boomers) wear like a lardy life vest around their midsection. He owed it all to “Wheat Belly,” he explained to me, a wildly successful diet book by cardiologist Dr. William Davis.

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I Googled the book when I got home, and a devastating critique from Canadian blogger Dr. Yoni Freedhoff popped up high in my results. Davis makes some extravagant suggestions about wheat consumption, at one point linking it to schizophrenia, but Freedhoff chose to critique Davis’s diet rather than his science.

“Given that at the end of the day [Davis’s] admonition is to cut out not only wheat, but also pretty much every other source of carbohydrate . . . truly this is just Atkins minus cured meats, repackaged with a scary, theoretical narrative and a great book title,” Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, wrote.

Davis has plenty of defenders, and oodles of books sold to “prove” his claims. I was amused to see that Davis’s outriders claim that his Canadian critics, such as Freedhoff and the newsweekly Maclean’s magazine, were more interested in defending their domestic grain trade than in public health.

I recently encountered this saved-by-the-diet scenario yet again. I sat down to lunch with a couple in the prime of life: healthy, happy, employed, and so on. In minute one of our encounter, they announced that they were now eating gluten-free. They had just read “Grain Brain,” by self-described “renowned neurologist” Dr. David Perlmutter.

This guy gets right to the point: “Even healthy [carbohydrates] like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and much more.” Perlmutter wants us to “take control of our ‘smart genes’ through specific dietary choices and lifestyle habits, demonstrating how to remedy our most feared maladies without drugs.”

I cruelly mocked my friends’ ridiculous new gluten-free lifestyle (yes, I am aware that avoiding gluten is a medical necessity for many Americans, but not these lifestyle lemmings) while they gabbed on about their conversion experience. The husband interrupted me in mid-rave: “Read the book, Alex. Then we might take your comments more seriously.”

Forget it. I’ve read the book. About 20 years ago, my wife and I fell under the influence of a diet svengali who convinced us to adopt the “Fit for Life” diet. We stuck with it for a few weeks, then of course the bizarre regimen (only fruit before noon; no water with meals) became difficult to swallow. Diet book authors are superb at one thing: convincing you, with tendentious use of carefully selected medical data, that their way is the best way.

A certain kind of person might think that nice Dr. Atkins and nice Dr. Barry Sears (The Zone!) and nice Dr. Tarnower (Scarsdale!) consider your well-being to be their paramount concern. I am not that person. I think these doctors have one thing in mind, and one thing only: selling books.

Not so long ago I was galley-slaving on a rowing machine at the YMCA — yes, I have my own compulsions — when a TED talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt queued up on my iPhone. I’ve since seen the video; Aamodt is a normal-looking human being, not fat, not thin, perhaps just right. Three years ago, she swore off dieting for good.

For one thing, Aamodt explained, your evolved body doesn’t want you to lose weight; “Over the course of human history, starvation has been a much bigger problem than overeating.” A statistics nerd, she asserts with confidence “that the typical outcome of dieting is that you’re more likely to gain weight in the long run than to lose it.”

“Let’s face it,” she concluded, “If diets worked, we’d all be thin already.” Aamodt isn’t peddling a diet plan. Like many men and women, she’s working a little harder to eat when she’s hungry and push away from the table when she’s not.

Eat a little bread; indulge in the occasional dessert. Observe moderation in all things. It worked for Aristotle. It can work for you.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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