Cherry Picking: “How Not to Diet” by Dr. Michael Greger: A Critical Review

Cherry Picking: “How Not to Diet” by Dr. Michael Greger: A Critical Review

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A month ago I was in my doctor’s office and there was a brief mention of a book a staff member had recently read titled “How Not to Diet“. I decided to read the book.

The basic thesis of the book is that (a) most nutrition books and fads are based on flimsy evidence, even cherry picking anecdotes and evidence,(b) people eat to much because of evil corporate food marketing, and (c) we should all eat a plant-based diet.

In about the first sentence of the book, the author says the diet promoted by Nathan Pritikin saved a family members life. Which thus started with an anecdote linked to some one (Pritikin) who committed suicide while suffering from leukemia.

The author says this single event changed his own life. As you know, “Is anecdotal evidence reliable? One man says yes” sums up this odd introduction, while the author then trashes the use of anecdotes and lack of evidence.  Very odd intro.

As I read the book, I saw inconsistencies and an agenda – and the methods of a propaganda used to have us adopt his agenda.

There is much good information inside the book, albeit, wrapped in politics, cherry picking and appeals to authority.

I decided to see what other reviewers had to say and found this critique in Healthline (the author is herself critical of many dietary approaches).

Cherry-Picked Evidence

Throughout How Not to Die, Greger distills a vast body of literature into a simple, black-and-white narrative — a feat only possible through cherry picking, one of the nutrition world’s most gainfully employed fallacies.

Cherry picking is the act of selectively choosing or suppressing evidence to fit a predefined framework. In Greger’s case, that means presenting research when it supports plant-based eating and ignoring it (or creatively spinning it) when it doesn’t.

In many cases, spotting Greger’s picked cherries is as simple as checking the book’s claims against their cited references. These foibles are small but frequent.

Source: How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger: A Critical Review

Consequently the book in some ways fall prey to other diet books he criticizes, albeit, this one with a massive number of references (over 5,000). Yet there is good information with the pages – best to read with an open mind – after getting past the first chapter.

The agenda is unloaded in the first chapter, blaming business, “Big Food”, “Big Pharma” (my words) for most of our problems. This comes across as a political rant and isn’t needed to make the important points – that is, evidence-based choices of how we eat.

He correctly notes how we often medicalize solutions – that is drugs or surgery are offered instead of meaningful lifestyle changes. There is much in the book that is reasonable – too bad about some of the odd and questionable sections.

For the record, I follow the modern DASH diet or the late Dr. Peter Gott’s incredibly simple idea: No flour, no sugar. (That does not mean avoidance of grains – but that by reducing ground flour-based products, and added sugar, about 4 out of 5 such eaters will lose weight gradually, over time.) By reducing refined flour and sugar, you naturally avoid many high calorie dense foods, eat more vegetables, whole grains and plant fiber. It’s also simple to follow – there are no complicated rules or food selection methods. Simply avoid foods with refined grain and added sugar.

Either of these approaches encourages greater consumption of vegetables, whole grains, fruits and less or modest consumption of meat.

I expect to incorporate ideas from “How Not to Diet” into my own eating.

I posted this here because the book illustrated – unintentionally – the use of cherry picking, appeals to authority and promoting someone’s agenda – within the pages of a dietary advice book.

Afterward

We live in a modern era where most of us are fortunate to be able to make choices in our food selections. Throughout history, these choices have been unusual – we ate what was available, when and where it was available. Food storage was mostly drying, and root cellars, until the 19th century when canning was invented. Frozen foods came about primarily as a result of WW II (to ship food to soldiers) and became popular in supermarkets after WW II. Meat, kept alive on the hoof, was one of the few items that could be obtained fresh, in the middle of winter.

Today, we get to choose fresh fruit and vegetables year round. Rather than a 4-6 month season in the late summer, we can now purchase most items year round thanks to a global food growing and distribution business. Is this environmentally friendly? Probably not. Yet those who advocate eating less meat or even eating only vegetarian, for eco-friendly reasons, generally ignore the environmental impact of making those choices. (Or similarly, I’ve dealt with people in mild climates and 10 month growing seasons who don’t understand that those of us in northerly latitudes have very short growing seasons!)

I’ve seen many here in the U.S. argue that we should not farm meat and should turn the land over to growing crops instead. This is naive. I live in the high desert environment of the western U.S. The land was created from massive volcanic lava flows long ago. The top soil is nil. Water resources are low. This land grows grass and little else. Animals are an efficient way to convert grass, that people cannot consume, into calories that we can consume. If we did not grow animals on this land, then no food crops would be grown here. This land cannot be converted to growing wheat, corn or vegetables – not possible.

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