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Dr. Zoë Harcombe on the Mess: The Money Vs. the Evidence

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ByCrossFitSeptember 4, 2019

Zoë Harcombe, Ph.D., is an independent author, researcher, and speaker in the fields of diet, health, and nutrition. Over the years, research for her books and speaking engagements has made her an expert in the corruption and error plaguing the health sciences — a dire situation that she, like CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman, refers to as “The Mess.”

Harcombe defines “The Mess” as “the escalating disease (and) the escalating medical costs, which many people are profiting from but none are combatting effectively.” During a presentation delivered on July 31 at the 2019 CrossFit Health Conference, Harcombe outlined many factors that contribute to this growing problem — specifically, the role of dietitians and the food and beverage industry in influencing how and what we eat, accreditation that regulates who can offer dietary advice, and the disparity between what we are told to eat and what the evidence suggests we should eat.

Early in her talk, Harcombe shares her research on the dubious back-door maneuvers multibillion-dollar food companies use to promote their products, including paying for studies that tout their products’ health benefits and adding public health advisors to the payroll. She observes that the only thing that would make their marketing efforts easier would be if these paid advisors had a monopoly on doling out dietary advice — which is precisely what they have sought to do in many states in the U.S. by joining forces with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) and the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

Harcombe shares the story of Steve Cooksey to offer one telling example of how these organizations and others like them try to maintain a monopoly over nutrition advice. Cooksey was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, but rather than following the medical advice he received to eat a low-fat, high-carb diet, he ate the opposite way and lost 70 lb. He started a blog, sharing his story and offering free advice to others, and was promptly rebuked by the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition, which claimed he was “practicing without a license.” CrossFit and the Institute of Justice helped Cooksey with his case, developing a defense based upon the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. Cooksey won.

Nevertheless, industry-backed organizations continue to pursue sole rights to offering nutrition advice — advice that proves convenient for the companies that support the organizations financially. To demonstrate how problematic this system is, Harcombe compares the AND’s food recommendations to scientific research on nutrition.

Apart from the AND’s tendency to confuse macronutrients with food groups, Harcombe also points to its support of the overconsumption of carbohydrates. Citing a 2005 government panel on macronutrients, Harcombe notes, “The lower limit of dietary carbohydrate compatible with life apparently is zero, provided that adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed.” “There is no essential carbohydrate,” she explains. “There are essential proteins, and there are essential fats.”

Harcombe discusses how to evaluate the credibility of a scientific paper then brings this to bear on the nutrition recommendations promoted by the Evidence for Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and the AND. She finds their evidence entirely inadequate.

Nutrition advice provided by the AND, DGA, and CDR “is not evidence-informed, let alone evidence-based,” she argues. These credentialing organizations “need to be countered with an equal and opposite force.”

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