February 25, 2012

It’s not diet ideas we’re short of

You will have noticed the Herald’s ‘Fat list’ of foods yesterday.  University of Otago researchers have come up with another idea for helping people lose weight; a list of foods that are high in calories and low in other nutrients, which aren’t necessary and can be trimmed from your diet. It’s a plausible approach, and while you might have thought the items on the list were obvious, the Herald article makes it clear that they aren’t.

For example, Honey NZ manager Greig Duncan was quoted as saying that honey was “a healthier alternative, and had many other health benefits important for a balanced diet” and that “Because honey is such a natural product, it has a lot of bioactivity which is all part of a natural diet.”   At times like these it is important to remember the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

The only problem with the NEEDNT list is that we are given no evidence that it actually works as a health intervention.  That is, does handing out copies of this food list to people actually lead to weight loss? Does it work better than giving them a copy of the Atkins diet books, or the CSIRO Prudent Diet, or the South Beach diet?  Or making them take photos of all their food? Or sending them text messages about exercise?  Or any of the other thirteen bazillion weight loss strategies that have been published over the past half-century? This is exactly the sort of public health intervention that needs a randomized trial. It’s more work and less fun than coming up with creative weight-loss ideas, but it has the advantage of actually being useful.

In the mid-70s, the British comedy duet Flanders & Swann wrote a song about dietary fads, called “Food for Thought”.  It’s depressing how little it has dated.

The secret is, think white fish. You can gorge until it hurts.
But just one piece of shortcake and you’ll get your just desserts.



Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar

    a blog which references Flanders & Swann is to be treasured.

    6 years ago

  • avatar
    Ben Brooks

    How can you possibly argue with someone who uses ‘bioactivity’ and ‘natural’ to defend their business interests?

    6 years ago