On Nutrition

If you like your nutrition information straight up with a side of sass, look no further than Toronto dietitian Abby Langer. Langer is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with promoters of nutrition information, whether she’s calling out collagen powder and lemon water on Twitter, dissecting the (lack of) evidence behind the fad diet du jour on her blog, or dishing about the downsides of mushroom tea on YouTube.

In her new book, “Good Food, Bad Diet,” Langer sets her sights on helping readers see through the lies that diet culture tells us — she calls diet a Band-Aid for what really ails us — and get back to a way of eating that’s based on both enjoyment and real nutrition science. She starts on the cover of her book — literally.

“The title of the book means simply, all food is ‘good,’ and all diets are bad,” Langer said. “In recent years, there has been such a run on morality-based language around food, such as ‘clean’ and ‘bad.’ My book title is a play on that.”

As Langer takes on diet culture — including the idea that worthiness is equivalent to thinness, and that thinner is happier — she also makes the important observation that diet culture has infiltrated aging. In other words, the acceleration of society’s messages, especially toward women, that we have to be not just thin, but youthful.

“If you look at female celebrities who are over 50, many of them look decades younger than their chronological age. These women are becoming the standard to which women their age are held to, and it’s unfair,” Langer said. She gives the example of Rue McClanahan, who was 51 when she began playing Blanche Devereaux on “The Golden Girls” in the 1980s, compared with Jennifer Lopez, who was 50 when she performed in the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show. “The difference in their appearances couldn’t be greater, and this is a testament to where our culture has taken us — into a place where aging and mortality are becoming unacceptable and unattractive, and where women are supposed to look young forever. Of course, this isn’t reality for most of us, but seeing these images in the media does tend society’s expectations of us, not to mention our own expectations for ourselves.”

On social media, I’ve never seen Langer mince words about “wellness culture,” and she doesn’t hold back in her book either. This time of year (and maybe especially this year), many people are looking for ways to increase wellness, so I asked Langer her view of why the wellness industry doesn’t offer the solutions that people are really looking for.

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“In my mind, wellness culture is a different entity than wellness,” she said. “Wellness is something we all hopefully aspire to. But wellness culture carries a set of beliefs that encourage not only thinness at all costs, but also that youthfulness is preferable and more acceptable than aging naturally. The wellness industry, very simply, preys off of our insecurities to make money.” 

Langer draws on her more than 21 years as a registered dietitian to help readers dig deep into the psychology of eating, including examining — and maybe challenging — their core beliefs, before offering evidence-based, no-nonsense, practical nutrition information, laying the groundwork for her philosophy of “high-value eating.” In other words, eating a diet of food that nourishes you physically and emotionally, satisfies you, makes you happy and has zero tolerance for guilt and shame.  

“High-value eating is essentially what I’d call ‘normal eating,’ put into practice,” she said. “It’s a set of guidelines to help readers integrate a healthy relationship with food and eating into their everyday life and their food choices.”

The first tenet of high-value eating is “Be A Pencil, Not an Eraser” — adding foods back into our diets instead of taking them out. “There are so many of us who remove foods unnecessarily from our diets with no evidence to support doing so. For example, maybe a ‘nutrition guru’ or celebrity has said that gluten is toxic. Or that dairy is inflammatory, and we shouldn’t be eating those things. But the advice coming from those people usually isn’t based in science, and definitely doesn’t apply to everyone. I tell readers to add foods back into their diet if there is no medical reason for these foods to be removed. It makes eating so much more pleasurable.” 

Langer regularly swats down nutrition myths on social media, and she continues to fight the good fight in her book. Even with my nutrition science expertise, I know how challenging it can be to sort nutrition myths from facts, especially when the myths are presented with the sheen of authority. And I remember all too well how easily I fell for those myths before I had a master’s degree in nutrition (my long-ago high school science classes were zero help). I asked Langer what sage bit of wisdom she had for readers who consume a lot of nutrition information and want to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“Any time you see a nutrition headline or see something about nutrition online that’s not from a dietitian, take a step back. Nutrition science is dynamic, most definitely, but the vast majority of nutrition headlines about studies and new research are overblown,” she said. “As far as taking nutrition advice from celebrities, influencers, celebrity doctors and wellness professionals, be careful. In my experience, much of what they promote is a kernel of truth, puffed up with misinformation. All in all, you’ll never go wrong with a varied diet that contains all foods, and a relaxed attitude toward food and eating.” 

‘Good Food, Bad Diet’

Abby Langer, Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $16