Science, advocacy, and quackery in nutritional books: an analysis of conflicting advice and purported claims of nutritional best-sellers

Rebecca M. Marton, Xindi Wang, Albert-László Barabási & John P. A. Ioannidis


Nutritional decisions may be important for health, and yet identifying trustworthy sources of advice can be difficult to achieve. Many people turn to books for nutritional advice, making the contents of these books and the expertise of their authors relevant to public health. Here, the top 100 best-selling books were identified and assessed for both the claims they make in their summaries and the credentials of the authors. Weight loss was a common theme in the summaries of nutritional best-selling books. In addition to weight loss, 31 of the books promised to cure or prevent a host of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia; however, the nutritional advice given to achieve these outcomes varied widely in terms of which types of foods should be consumed or avoided and this information was often contradictory between books. Recommendations regarding the consumption of carbohydrates, dairy, proteins, and fat in particular differed greatly between books. To determine the qualifications of each author in making nutritional claims, the highest earned degree and listed occupations of each author was researched and analyzed. Out of 83 unique authors, 33 had an M.D. or Ph.D degree. Twenty-eight of the authors were physicians, three were dietitians, and other authors held a wide range of jobs, including personal trainers, bloggers, and actors. Of 20 authors who had or claimed university affiliations, seven had a current university appointment that could be verified online in university directories. This study illuminates the range of the incongruous information being dispersed to the public and emphasizes the need for future efforts to improve the dissemination of sound nutritional advice.

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