Smoking cigarettes

That’s a really bad idea, wouldn’t you agree?

I’m talking about an example I’ve used over the years to illustrate a basic flaw in nutritional thinking: Less bad does not necessarily equate with good. 

Let’s use the cigarette example. If full-tar, unfiltered cigarettes cause lung cancer and heart disease, but smoking low-tar, filtered cigarettes causes slightly less lung cancer and heart disease, should we then conclude that smoking low-tar filtered cigarettes is therefore good? Of course not.

Let’s try another from the world of toxic heavy metals. Arsenic and mercury are highly toxic to humans. Aluminum is less toxic and less likely to yield fatal or crippling outcomes on exposure. Should you therefore seek out aluminum pots and pans, use plenty of aluminum foil, and expose yourself to this metal in other ways? Of course not.

Murder is a very bad crime. Shoplifting is a lesser crime. Should we therefore conclude that stuffing clothing and cosmetics into your purse and sneaking out the store is therefore a good practice?

As absurd as these examples are, you would be shocked at how often this flawed sequence of logic is used in nutritional thinking. I can’t think of any examples in physics, astronomy, mathematics, or other sciences. But it is used commonly in nutrition.

In the world of wheat and grains, here are some examples of violations of the “less bad does not necessarily equate with good” thinking:

  • Replace white flour products with whole grain products—and you will indeed witness less type 2 diabetes, less obesity, less cardiovascular disease, less colon cancer. But you will still witness all those conditions in abundance, along with autoimmune diseases triggered by the gliadin protein of wheat, high blood sugars due to amylopectin A content, mineral deficiencies due to phytates, gastrointestinal toxicity due to wheat germ agglutinin, among others. This blundering sequence of logic is the basis for U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as well as many of the careers at the Harvard School of Public Health (that, after all, got its start with the likes of Dr. Fred Stare).
  • If high-glycemic index foods raise blood sugar to high levels, and low-glycemic index foods raise blood sugars to less high levels (but still quite high), should we conclude that eating plenty of low-glycemic index foods is therefore good, as many dietitians advise? No, absolutely not—blood sugar and insulin are still provoked to unacceptable levels. (This has to do with the flawed definitions of “high” and “low” glycemic index, as I discuss in this previous Wheat Belly Blog post.)
  • If people who drink diet soft drinks (sweetened with aspartame) are more overweight than people who drink soft drinks sweetened with sugar, then drinking soft drinks sweetened with sugar must therefore be good.
  • This issue came up on a recent Facebook post I made about phytates and mineral binding: “In sourdough, the lactic acid bacteria produce an enzyme called phytase, which effectively ‘pre-digests’ the phytic acid during the extended fermentation. This partially neutralises the effects of the phytic acid and makes the bread easy for us to digest.” You can immediate see the flaw in logic: Phytates are less, but they are still there to bind minerals and prevent their absorption, as are wheat germ agglutinin, gliadin, amylopectin A, and other unhealthy components of wheat and grains. Can you still become diabetic or develop rheumatoid arthritis eating sourdough bread? Absolutely.

Just understand that less bad does not equate with good and you are better informed than the masses of people who offer dietary opinions. There are indeed instances in which less bad can indeed be good, but always question the conclusions drawn by such comparisons and you will avoid the many pitfalls that plague nutritional advice.