the grand diet pagent

When did diets become fashion pageants?

I’ve been reading through the latest Health Ratings at the USNews health website.  Here:

‘A panel of experts rated each diet on a scale of 1 to 5 on seven measures: short- and long-term weight loss, ease of following, nutrition, safety and performance as a diabetes and heart diet. U.S. News factored in each diet’s score on all seven measures to compute its overall score’

34 different diets including branded diets such as ‘Weight Watchers’ to traditional Vegetarian Diets and some that have evolved such as the Eco-Atkins Diet. These are rated across dimensions such as short-term weight loss, long-term weight loss, easy to follow, nutrient, safety, diabetes, heart health.

Of course, this helpful ranking only really matters if we, as readers, have the same qualitative understanding of what their terms mean.  Ikea for some people is easy to follow, for others it’s a Swedish torture lesson against needless furniture purchasing.

You can then balance out how you feel about losing 0.1 point from measure to measure.  Pressure builds as you try to work out if you need safety over diabetes concerns.

rating numbers

But the overall rankings manage to dumb things down for those that just want to go with the ‘best’ or that Number 1 suggests some sense of popularity.  If you get really lost you can just go to the thematic section (show below) – which is counterintuitive because the point of a total ratings system is surely to show the relative strengths?   Isn’t the reason for the ratings to disambiguate the diets from their ‘labels’ to show which are best on health grounds?


My personal experience is that nearly all the doctors I’ve been to have acculturated bias and scepticism against vegan diets.  To be fair to them, they’ve grown up with meat, dairy, etc and they have never had to think about nutrition outside of this scope.  Hence they generally display a lack of understanding about nutritional diversity.  How many times do you get the utterly inane question of ‘where do you get your protein from’ from doctors? To which you can answer sensibly or with a riposte of ‘what do elephants or gorillas’ eat?  Although, when you’re sensible, they start to look panicky when you explain the different protein merits of a variety of legumes or explain other more produced options like Tofu, Tempeh, etc.

Rating the Vegan Diet

If we look at the Vegan diet it is ranked Number 19 between the South Beach Diet and the Eco-Atkins Diet. The top rated are branded-diets in the DASH diet, TLC Diet and Mayo Clinic Diet which isn’t suspicious at all.

In the plant-based diets section, there is a degree of a lack-of-understanding by the ‘experts’ that is immediately apparent:

‘Plant-based diets are good for the environment, your heart, your weight and your overall health. U.S. News defines plant-based as an approach that emphasizes minimally processed foods from plants, with modest amounts of fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy, and red meat only sparingly’

If they think a plant-based diet allows for any part of an animal they really do not understand what plant-based means.  An old flatmate used to rib me with the oft-repeated joke that he was a vegan because he only ate grain-fed steaks.  Never mind that you don’t feed a steak, you feed a living breathing cow.  What they are describing is a Flexitarian Diet – which is the second best rated diet.

Of course, I could just be jumping to conclusions about how they understand? (their understanding of) a vegan or plant-based diet:

The experts were lukewarm on veganism, despite giving it fairly high marks as a diabetes or heart disease diet. It’s more restrictive than other plant-based options, offers no built-in social support, and may skimp on important nutrients.

So let’s break this down:

  • ‘Lukewarm’ – the experts had an emotional response to the diet? – isn’t that a subjective view?  Medicine is emotionally agnostic I believed when dealing with science
  • ‘It’s more restrictive than other plant-based options’ – the positive way of saying this is the diet is more focused and less ambiguous.
  • No built-in social support – it’s not a Facebook app?  Have they ever googled vegans – they’re multiplying faster than rabbits online.
  • ‘May skimp on important nutrients.’ – Okay this is a good point; some vegans need better education on eating in a balanced way.

Diet Fashions make us ‘macroneurotic’

In looking at human behaviour, Choice Psychology shows that the increasing diversity of choices doesn’t make us happier; it actually makes us less-satisfied with our choices.

choice anxiety psychology

In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2004), Barry Schwartz makes the point that less if more.  We are happier when there is less choice.

When the medical industry starts to endorse this variety by ratings systems, they are participating in driving the perpetuating fashions of eating which leads to unhealthy eating practices.  Establishing a yearly rating drives the idea for people that there will be a magic bullet over the horizon, since fashions always change and some suit us personally better.

Furthermore, their ratings appear based on some subject criterion which is also misleading.  Their use of categories appears to be creative from a plant-based diet perspective. Perhaps their disclaimer sums up the true value of this ratings system:

Please note that the information provided on about doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, diets and health products should be used only as a guide and should not be the only determining factor for selecting a doctor, hospital, nursing home, diet or health product. There are many factors which are important in selecting a medical provider or health product, many of which are not reflected in the information provided on


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