Sigh Inducing Marketing Buzzwords & Nutrition Philosophies – the Blog

*This blog is a companion piece to The Nutrition Grouch’s podcast on the same topic.

Functional nutrition, healing, gut health, natural health, nourishing, intuitive eating, holistic, superfoods.  What the hell does any of this mean?

Recently I made the mistake of Googling “Top 100 Nutrition Blogs”, hoping that I could find some nutritionists that I liked, respected, and potentially could collaborate with.  I basically struck out (again, for the 1,000th time) but what I did find was a pretty consistent pattern of marketing buzzwords used to describe these bloggers’ nutrition philosophies.

While there were some minor differences between profiles, they all typically promoted themselves over any nutritional science as their “brand” and used many of the same cliché buzzwords to describe their philosophies.  This gave me an idea.  I wanted to see what the most prominently used buzzwords were and to make a list of them.  I didn’t tally their frequency, but I have categorized them into three tiers. 

  1. Turn Offs/Trigger Words
  2. Gray Areas
  3. Thumbs Up

The Turn Offs/Trigger Words are the worst of the three categories and primarily contain “made up” words that don’t really mean anything.  They are red flags that the individual doesn’t know what they are talking about, or is a little too passionate, evangelistic, or overzealous about the supposed god-like powers of nutrition. 

These individuals tend to not be too grounded in nutritional science (or severely misuse it) and are more likely to be too positive and optimistic about what nutrition can do.  There is very little to no mention about what nutrition cannot do.  The words tend to be focused on the food and what it can do in the body more than it is on the individual.  The turn offs/trigger words also tend to focus on individual foods rather than holistic dietary patterns.

Table 1: Turn Offs/Trigger Words

The Gray Areas of nutrition have some merit and at their core are probably good principles but have been slightly exaggerated or misrepresented.  Whereas the Turn Offs/Triggers are almost entirely focused on the positive aspects of food (what you can get by eating them), the gray areas of nutrition are a little more focused on some of the “bad” aspects of food and what you can do to fix them.  They are also focused on the food AND the individual. The words in this category actually really exist and can be found in the academic literature.

Table 2: Gray Areas of Nutrition Buzzwords

The Thumbs Up category of nutrition is barely mentioned in the top 100 profiles, yet is the most important.  The Thumbs Up category barely mentions food or the individual and instead is more focused on THE PROCESS of eating healthy.  What do you have to do to eat healthy?  While there is a plethora of nutrition information out there and people like the concept of individualization (this is America baby), the day-to-day planning and execution of a diet, whether it be for health or weight loss is far more important than the diet or how the individual reacts to the diet.

Table 3: The Thumbs Up Category of Nutrition Buzzwords

To me, I don’t want to have anything to do with the individuals who belong to category 1, Turn Offs/Triggers.  To each their own, but they’re likely pedaling junk and have a limited understanding of nutrition or greatly exaggerate nutrition’s benefits.

The gray areas of nutrition individuals are worth talking to and you can learn something from them.  They are likely “on the same side” and just have different viewpoints, viewpoints worthy of discussion.

What I’m looking for, but can’t find, are the people who belong to category 3, Thumbs Up.  These individuals “get it”, they know nutritional science and are more likely to give pragmatic advice based on food, the individual, the science, and the process.  These individuals are not confined to one discipline (i.e., nutrition or fitness), they are multi-disciplinarians.

These are my three tiers.  What am I missing?  Should certain words be moved up or down in the tiers?  I’m not tied to them forever.  This is just what I currently think.

For A More Thorough Explanation of My Nutrition Buzzword Categorization Thought Process – Please Read Ahead

Nutrition science has been hijacked by buzzwords and marketing.  Many of these terms don’t actually mean anything.  They are made up. 

Nutrition is no longer about meeting your body’s needs for growth, maintenance, repair, reproduction, and survival.  It’s about getting an “extra”, added benefit, above and beyond your body’s needs.  It’s about getting “unlimited rewards” by eating organic, vitamin packed, antioxidant rich, fruits and vegetables. 

But here’s the thing.  Your body isn’t a credit card.  You don’t get “unlimited rewards”.  The law of diminishing returns holds true in nutrition.  Once the body’s needs and demands are met, you can’t store this “extra” goodness for later like credit card points or a bank account.  It’s almost like pouring water on an already saturated towel.  It’s not going to get any wetter.

For example, in terms of mortality (death), it doesn’t seem to matter if you consume 5 servings of fruits and vegetables/day or 15, you’ll likely get the same protection against disease.  I realize I’m mixing apples and oranges here (mortality/death versus morbidity/disease) but hear me out.

Too much of and too little of anything will cause the body harm.  Your body has preferred set points for basically each and every nutrient (with the exception of body fat).  Too little calcium intake and you’ll develop osteoporosis, too much and you might calcify tissues that aren’t supposed to be (i.e. muscle and organs), too little sodium, hyponatremia, too much sodium, high blood pressure, too little potassium, hypokalemia, too much potassium, heart arrythmia, too little blood glucose, death, too much blood glucose, diabetes.  The list goes on and on and on.

This is why your body, through absorption (the intestines), breakdown (the liver), and filtration (the kidneys) so tightly control the levels of nutrients in the blood (plasma), along with a whole host of organs and hormones to control blood glucose.  To think that you can consume additional vitamins and minerals to improve your health beyond whatever genetic capacity your levels of these nutrients are set at is misguided.

But what about phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other nutraceuticals?  You know those elements found in foods that aren’t macronutrients (i.e., fats, carbs, protein) or micronutrients (i.e., vitamins and minerals) that can affect your health.  Won’t they improve my health? 

Yes, again, to a certain point.  But by how much and maybe more importantly through what mechanism?  Many of the compounds are thought to work through the free radical theory of aging, which is basically a fancy way of saying inflammation is at the center of or the cause of aging and disease.  If you take phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other nutraceuticals to suppress inflammation, you will also suppress disease development and progression.

But inflammation also plays a positive role in cell signaling, healing, and I’m sure a host of other normal bodily processes.  While chronic inflammation is at the center of various chronic diseases, trying to suppress inflammation through eating certain “healthy” foods, seems like a coarse and relatively ineffective tool.  And besides, you may be able to slightly suppress inflammation immediately after eating but the magnitude of the effect is small and transient.

The best way to mitigating inflammation might actually be the opposite of adding “healthy” foods to your diet or replacing “unhealthy” foods with “healthy” foods.  The best way to mitigate inflammation might actually be to not eat.  Yes, that’s right.  In the absence of malnutrition — fasting, intermittent fasting, and caloric restriction (i.e. a negative energy balance; calories in < calories out) might actually be the most prudent method of reducing inflammation.

But in general, NOT EATING, is not in the interest of the nutrition world.  Nutrition counseling, nutrition products, nutrition services, nutrition business, and the nutrition industry as a whole benefit WAY MORE and depend upon you wanting to improve your health through eating.  There is SO MUCH MORE money to be made in eating to improve health than eating less.  This is why so many economic analysts are worried about the GLP-1 agonist weight loss and appetite suppressing drugs.  If people eat less, a whole host of businesses and industries will suffer lost revenues.  And furthermore, what would be the point of nutrition research if there weren’t some potential health benefits worth exploring?

The entire nutrition industry is based upon the potential health benefits of consuming food, not abstaining from it.

People don’t want to stop eating and it’s way easier to tell people that they can improve their health by eating healthier.  By essentially “adding on” the good stuff on top of the bad stuff or replacing the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Obviously, nutrition is important to health.  People eating Mediterranean diets, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) whole food diets, and plant-based diets tend to have lower incidences of metabolic disease and lower levels of inflammation.  Not only can diets reduce the prevalence of cardiometabolic disease, but they can also stall its progression and to a small degree, reverse it. 

I don’t dispute the fact that nutrition is important to health.  It is.  But what gets me grumbling is the evangelizing the god like power of nutrition, the exaggerated benefits, and the ability to change lives.

There are tons of studies showing the “health” benefits of Atkins, the Mediterranean diet, DASH, low-fat, low-carb, Paleo, intermittent fasting, time restricted feeding, alternate day fasting, low calorie diets, very low-calorie diets, high fruit and vegetable, high fiber, and pretty much any diet you can dream up or imagine.

But what does this really tell you?

If the complete opposite dietary patterns: low fat versus low carb or Atkins versus high fiber provide you with health benefits, what’s this really say about the importance of diet?

To me, it says that diet type doesn’t matter.  That as long as you’re not eating too many calories, that as long as you’re not eating complete shit, you’re going to be much better off than you are eating the Standard American Diet (SAD).

It seems to me that as long as you’re making some positive changes in the right direction (and don’t consume more calories than you need (i.e., a positive energy balance), you are going to gain health benefits.  But the more you improve your diet, the less “health” you’re going to get in return.  There isn’t unlimited benefits or unlimited health.

For most people, if you get enough calories and enough protein, take a multivitamin, and eat fortified cereal, it would seem that you are meeting your nutrient needs (macro and micro speaking) especially when considering the very low prevalence of vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the United States.  Can you improve your diet further by consuming more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables?  Absolutely.  But by how much really?

All the diet gurus and other people passionate about nutrition are failing to see the point.  In a world in which 75% of the United States population is overweight or obese, we shouldn’t be so focused on the “added benefits” of a healthy diet and instead focus on simply eating less, not more.  You can argue that by eating lower calorie, healthier items that we will kill two birds with one stone, that is, eat healthier and lose weight.  But I don’t think people are very good at that and that eating healthier and losing weight should probably be done in separate phases.

People in the nutrition world have an extreme passion for nutrition.  It is their everything.  They’ve built it up to be more than it can ever possibly be.  Their framework for how the world works is built upon their nutrition fantasies.  Nutrition makes them feel good.  It is their security blanket.  The one thing they can count on.

And just like so many pleasure providers in life, the more you take of something, the more of it you need to get the same high.  Nutrition providers have built up a tolerance to the benefits of nutrition and therefore need to extol its benefits higher and higher to get the same effect and to motivate/inspire people to purchase products, services, and garner website clicks.

Their identity is so wrapped up in nutrition and the importance of nutrition that it is impossible for them to see that…..maybe nutrition isn’t as important as they think it is.

At the end of the day, there are a couple of reasons why I feel the way I do about nutrition.  One of which is that I’ve never been blown away by the results of nutrition research.  Yes, changing your diet patterns to be healthier by incorporating more whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy is a good thing.  But it can only improve your health by so much and


For the life of me I can’t understand why we need to sell people some fantasy land, Zen like life of eating healthier.  It’s important, you’ll feel better, just do it.

Ultimately, I think that we are all trying to defend or rationalize the way we eat.  The nutrition zealot has convinced himself or herself that eating a certain way will bring them many benefits and is worth it.  They spend their time trying to convince others that their way is worth it.  But I don’t think that clean eating or nutrition purity is worth it.

I like beer, Doritos, cheese, cream cheese, pizza, and other processed food stuffs and I want to be able to eat them.  I don’t want someone telling me that I can’t.  I think it is reasonable for me to eat them.

Clearly, a majority of Americans don’t eat as well as they should as evidenced by the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and other cardiometabolic disease.  But when you start talking about how food should be medicine (functional nutrition), healing, gut health, natural health, nourishing, superfoods, and other flowery imaginative, fantasy land, overly optimistic, tips, tricks, and hacks to oversell the power of nutrition and how it is going to drastically improve your life….you lost me.

Life is short.  I’m going to enjoy beer, Doritos, cheese, cream cheese, pizza, and other processed foods as much as I can for as long as I can.  They can be incorporated into and part of a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle.  Food is fuel, food is pleasure, nutrients are needed, but my god, stop it with all the hyperbole.  Food is a lot of things but it’s not as big and important as you make it to be.

*In my next post I’m going to cover each of the words listed in tables 1-3 in more detail.

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