How Not to Die, How Not to Diet

What if Diet Books Had to Be Truthful?

Some things, it seems, never change. Even, and perhaps especially, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, magical thinking about nutrition and diets persist. So publishers feed us a steady diet of diet books. More than most, Dr. Michael Greger has captured the purest essence of this genre in his bestselling book: How Not to Die.

Not Dying: A Beautiful Promise

We must admit, the promise is elegant and powerful. Greger is a true believer in lifestyle medicine and the promotional copy for his book conveys this orientation:

History of prostate cancer in your family? Put down that glass of milk and add flaxseed to your diet. Have high blood pressure? Hibiscus tea can work better than a leading hypertensive drug – and without the side effects. What about liver disease? Drinking coffee can reduce liver inflammation. Battling breast cancer? Consuming soy is associated with prolonged survival.

It all sounds quite miraculous. However, the science to back up these claims is skimpy. Evidence for flaxseed to prevent prostate cancer is thin at best. Hibiscus tea might have a favorable effect on blood pressure, but the evidence is lacking to say that it works better than blood pressure medicines. Coffee can indeed help with liver health, but don’t count on it to reduce liver inflammation if you have a real disease like NASH. Soy is perfectly safe for breast cancer survivors, but definitive proof of a therapeutic effect for breast cancer survivors is lacking. Correlation with survival is not the same thing as causality.

If diet books had to be completely truthful, they would have a tough time generating much buzz.

Nutrition and Weight Loss Puffery

This sort of puffery about nutrition and weight loss envelopes us. It leads people to assume that we know precisely how to prevent chronic disease with diets. It leads otherwise sensible people to think that weight loss is a viable strategy for dealing with the coronavirus. For example, Janice Turner writes in The Times of London:

Many factors which reduce survival chances [for COVID-19] – age, sex or respiratory illnesses – are immutable. But we can change our weight.

But in fact, the track record for self-help diets is quite spotty. So for people who are disillusioned with diets, Greger has an anti-diet diet book, How Not to Diet.

Most people with significant obesity who try to lose weight discover that the physiology of obesity is quite powerful. For lasting improvements in obesity, real medical care is necessary. Often, bariatric surgery turns out to be the most effective option.

Yes, a better diet helps. But it’s not the secret of how not to die.

For more on puffery in nutrition claims, click here.

How Not to Die, How Not to Diet, books © by Michael Greger

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May 24, 2020

2 Responses to “What if Diet Books Had to Be Truthful?”

  1. May 24, 2020 at 10:09 am, David Brown said:

    If one were to Google – Michael Greger arachidonic acid, one would find that Greger is one of the few weight loss book authors to connect the dots where omega-6 consumption is concerned.

  2. May 24, 2020 at 11:04 am, Allen Browne said:


    The title made Nancy and me laugh out loud.

    Thanks for saying things that need to be said.

    Have a good Memorial Day weekend!