Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nutrition Is (Not) Killing Us

Helen Frost (who EoR likes to think of as the incarnation of the Poo Fairy, though apparently having no qualifications in the field of nutrition, nonetheless runs regular and popular seminars on the subject.

She regularly lectures children in primary schools on her beliefs.

She lectures the Western Australian Practice Nurses Association though she appears to have no qualifications to provide medical advice:

A Nutritional Update on Protein needs and how to calculate our needs when ill and for varying situations.

She gives presentations to Therapy Focus, an association dealing with disabled children:

"For the first time ever, children have a lower life expectancy than their parents," said nutrition educator Helen Frost. "It’s what you put in your mouth that makes you feel good or bad." "We’ve got choices to make. We can choose either live food that gives us energy or dead processed food that takes our energy. You can only build healthy cells, bodies & brains with live foods."

She gives presentations for the Kids Health Alliance along with fellow "food is killing us" promoters, Dr Peter Dingle and Julie Eady.

She is praised by parents.

You can read a flyer for her seminars ("Great for 1st timers, or as a review for 2nd & 3rd timers") where some scary, and amazing, factoids are offered:

* 2 out of 3 adults are dieing of cancer or heart disease. Diabetes is epidemic.
* Over 60% adults & kids are overweight
* Some Pharmacists report that every 2nd script is an Anti Depressant
* Children are at risk of dieing faster than their parents

Many of Ms Frost's statements are bizarre and unprovable. "Some" pharmacists means how many? Are these pharmacists located near psychiatrists who might prescribe more antidepressants than other doctors? And, surely, it is as equally valid to say "Some Pharmacists report that every 2nd script is not an Anti Depressant"? The statement Ms Frost makes is intended to scare, without actually containing any relevant or logical information.

Where are the "2 out of 3 adults" who are "dieing of cancer or heart disease"? Ms Frost apparently has trouble with expressing herself clearly, since there is no evidence that two thirds of everyone you see on the street is presently dying. EoR suspects she might mean that cancer and heart disease are the eventual causes of death in two thirds of the population but, again, that is not the same thing as the intentionally frightening statement Ms Frost makes.

"Children are at risk of dieing faster than their parents"? also is meaningless. "At risk"? How much risk? And what, exactly, is "dying faster"? Personally, EoR would prefer to die faster than suffer a slow lingering expiry. Ms Frost yet again makes a frightening statement that doesn't actually contain any clear meaning. Does she mean that life expectancy is lower? Perhaps she does, but that would require EoR making an interpretation that isn't supported by the actual threatening statement. As noted earlier, she does state that children's life expectancies are "lower than their parents". This is true, but only iff you happen to live in AIDS/HIV riddled Sub-Saharan Africa (from the wikipedia article on life expectancy). Everywhere else, life expectancy is on a fairly steady upward incline. Wikipedia states:

In recent years, obesity-related diseases have become a major public health issue in many countries. The prevalence of obesity is thought to have reduced life expectancy by contributing to the rise of cancers, heart disease and diabetes in the developed world.

Note: "thought" to have reduced (the statement is not supported, at least in the US, by the US Department of Health and Human Services' Health, United States, 2006 (page 60 forward - there is also a graph showing declining rates of death from heart disease, and a fairly steady rate from cancer at page 67). Wikipedia also provides a map of the world showing life expectancies by country from -50 to 80+ years (also available as tabular data). Very few countries rate in the 80+ category. Among them are Sweden, Iceland, Switzerland, Japan. And Australia. The land of doom and death, according to Ms Frost. Australia rates 8th in terms of life expectancy. The US rates 45th. Ms Frost (and the earlier mentioned Ms Eady) hold up the US as the paragon of side-effect-inducing additive banning, in contrast to the only subtly implied government poisoning of people in Australia. Yet, Australians are living longer!

What Ms Frost is really doing is heavily promoting a fundamentalist view. Evidence that antioxidants (something that have a job to do, and do it when in the required amounts but which may be harmful if in excess) might cause problems will not change her view, since her views are a matter of faith (supported by science when it can be cherry picked, otherwise supported by vaguely unprovable scare statements). Coffee is the drink of the devil, if Ms Frost's diktats are to be believed. Evidence that coffee might help prevent gout is unlikely to change her faith-based commandments. Ms Frost lectures in the superfood world where, if something is good, more of it must be better.

None of this is helped by the media reporting early studies and scientific "breakthroughs". Or the general population's ability to decide which foods are good and which are not:

The modern health media as well as the food and diet industries praise certain foods and food nutrients as being healthful while at the same time criticizing other foods and nutrients as promoters of obesity and disease. Do the categorical messages that much of the general public has assimilated concerning food influence judgements of the weight-enhancing properties of foods? In the present study a sample of adult participants (mostly middle-aged) rated the weight-enhancing characteristics of a group of snack names that possess positive health reputations (e.g. a banana) along with snack names that were more disreputable in terms of wholesomeness (e.g. bacon). The results indicated that lower-calorie (and in some cases lower-fat) disreputable snacks were generally perceived to promote greater weight gain than much higher-calorie (and in some cases higher-fat) reputable snacks. Beliefs about particular foods' goodness or badness as well as fat content were most often emphasized. The good versus bad message that Americans have assimilated concerning foods may be contributing to tendencies toward obesity.

Sandy Szwarc also addresses how this "eat better and exercise" message is unnecessary and ineffective.


  1. There was a study recently (last 12 months ago) showing that coffee drinkers had a reduced risk of developing type II diabetes. Bet she'd love that one.

    People like this make real nutritionists look like cranks- it pisses me off no end. I couldn't find any information on her qualifications but FFS, she appears alongside clairvoyants- if that's not an indicator of how much credibility she has, I don't know what is.

  2. I apologise for being off-topic, but do you mind if I steal that "Best Viewed with a Brain" button?

  3. Feel free. EoR found the graphic at the Any Browser Campaign website.

  4. I agree, Sarah. Presumably Helen Frost is beyond professional conduct. She can enjoy being a media-darling know-it-all without wearing any errors or failures. I'd guess registered dieticians would be answerable to a professional board if they spouted misinformation.

    She adds to the confusion of obesity advice and makes a guilt-ridden misery out pleasures of food. At least she's not a sex educator.

    I am fine about encouraging people to eat fruit and veges, but really we should be damn grateful we have food at all. It happens this generation of Australians suffers from excess. The next may not be so lucky.

    BTW good news on coffee is always welcome.

  5. I am one parent that doesn't praise her. I did a mad search for info on Helen Frost (and no, I couldn't find a qualification) after my son came home from school stating that eating a packet of chips was worse than smoking a cigarette! The only thing I found worth reading was your blog. The bit that alarms me is that someone, presumably the education department, is handing out grants for schools to employ her services. Annoyingly, her melodramatic techniques strike a chord with the kids and she actually gets some good messages across, but surely this could be done in a more responsible way.

  6. She's a traffic hazard. I heard her "chips are worst than a cigarette" line on the car radio and almost ran off the road. I'm not sure if she is endorsed by the Education Dept or who would have called her into your school - but I'd complain to them and/or the P&C. Will she be handing out cigarettes to stop kids getting hooked on junk food?

  7. Wow, what are the chances that all the people who commented on this article are nit picking. What's your real agenda? Food industry, Health department or Pharmaceuticals. Kidding.

    I've heard what Helen has to say and it is all good and everyone can take something worth while from it.

    Well done though Sarah, you've managed to give someone another reason to drink Coffee. He he.

    Lucy and Meegs, I'm sure you will agree that getting across the dangers of smoking is an easy task compared to junk food. You should commend Helen for giving your child a head start in putting the dangers of food into perspective. I still see your point though. Worth a thought still, is Helen saying smoking is OK or are you putting words in her mouth? Hope your son didn't miss the point as a result.

    Keep up the good work Helen.

  8. I just sat through one of Helen's seminars. I agree that I think she takes it to the abosolute extreme but I guess we can get caught up in the nitty gritty of the things she says. The reality is that regardless of how dedicated one might be to following any healthy or even extreme eating regime, very few, if any, would be able to maintain it 365 days of the year. Helen herself admits that she is not doing the right thing every day.

    However, I think she attempts to present the information in such a manner as to really drill it into kids (and adults) that eating healthy is imperative for a healthy, happy life and if her extreme methods of presenting the information mean that a few more people eat even an extra cup of veggies per day and one less packet of chips or one less can of coke and one more bottle of water- can it really be that bad?

    At the very least, the presentation was entertaining and adding a liberal dose of common sense into the mix, the message is fundamentally the same as any "nutritionist" would provide. 2 fruit, 5 veg every day, junk food and alcohol in small to moderate amounts. Only, perhaps with Helen's method of presentation- you are more likely to remember it when you reach for that second or third biscuit, and maybe that might be enough for you to just say you've had enough and put the packet away?

    We didnt get the cigarette comment so maybe she has since taken it out of the presentation. Needless to say I agree it is not a great comparison to teach to children but in no way do I think any child would come out of a seminar thinking that she was *endorsing* smoking over eating a packet of crisps.

    I think at the end of the day, the basic message is a good one, but people need to use their own common sense and determine what is a right balance for them and not get too wound up about the way its presented. Personally, I know quite a few people who might benefit from a few hours in her lecture, given that we seem to be surrounded by people who whine about being overweight and feeling terrible just as they are lighting their next cigarette and sipping on their coke and lounging around on their overused couches flipping channels...

    By all means criticize the more ridiculous teachings, criticism leads to growth and progress, but at the end of the day, I would rather have her out there presenting to the children of our obese nation than, not.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.