Brierley Wright – Meet EatingWell Magazine’s Nutrition Editor
Jonathan Bailor: Hey everyone, Jonathon Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim Podcast. Truly a treat to share with you today, we have a wonderful author and nutrition editor today. She is the nutrition editor at Eating Well, the magazine as well as eatingwell.com. She is a registered dietician who holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition Communication-that’s cool, I didn’t know you could get a degree in nutrition communication-from the (?) school of science and policy at (Tupps) University. Brierley Wright, welcome to the show.
Brierley Wright: Great, thank you so much for having me and for that really wonderful introduction. I’m honored.
Jonathan Bailor: My pleasure. Nutrition Communication, that’s a cool degree. Tell me about Nutrition Communication. I might want to go get me one of those degrees.
Brierley Wright: I know, right? It’s pretty cool. They just teach you how to communicate about nutrition. Maybe that sounds a little dry, but for us science nerds it’s really fun to take those super technical studies and learn how to talk about them in language that the average person can understand or turn it into cocktail party trivia. I have a lot of colleagues who do totally different things with it. They work in marketing or advertising. I ended up at Eating Well magazine and eatingwell.com and I spend my time delivering nutrition and health news that you can use.
Jonathan Bailor: News that you can use. That is the news I like. Speaking of news, this just came out I believe in the past 24 hours. Given your history with nutrition communication, this seems to happen often-I haven’t read the full study, but I’ve seen a couple headlines and scanned the articles-there appears to have been a recent study that came out which is being talked about in the media that vegetarians are healthy, but when you actually read this it is saying that people who eat more vegetables are getting these benefits. There’s obviously a conflation there. Saying you’re a vegetarian, you could eat nothing but sugar and still say that you’re a vegetarian. What this study is actually showing is that people who eat more vegetables are healthier. Are you familiar with this study and have you seen other things like this in the media?
Brierley Wright: Is the one you’re talking about the one that came out at (School Name) University?
Jonathan Bailor: It’s the 73,000 members of the Seventh Day Advent Church study that just came out.
Brierley Wright: Yes. It says that vegetarians live longer or something along those lines.
Jonathan Bailor: Yea.
Brierley Wright: They have done a ton of research out of there. There are a lot of great benefits to being vegetarian and I say that as an omnivore here. I want to be very clear about what it is that I do and don’t eat. There are a lot of health benefits to being a vegetarian, and obviously this new study says they live longer, which is awesome. Who doesn’t want to live longer as long as they are living longer and healthier? There is some other research about how vegetarians are leaner than meat eater or carnivores, but you’re dead on that it really is all about what is in your vegetarian diet. If we’re talking about white box pasta and refined cabs and candy, that might be a vegetarian, but it’s not any healthier. You’re right, it is about eating more vegetables, healthy vegetables, good plant based sources of protein, eating nuts, healthy fats, and that’s what this population of people in this study and other research that has come out of this body of people has really found. It is the composition of their diet of good-for-you vegetarian foods that deliver the payoff.
Jonathan Bailor: Brierley, that is a great example of excellent nutrition communication there, because it seems like this conflation happens so frequently. One way to look at the way this study is being presented to the media is when you look at a group of people that go out of their way to make deliberate, healthier choices about their diet, they seem to benefit more than people who don’t do that. The way people read these articles is “clearly my moral stance to not eat meat is the right thing to do now”, which I’m not knocking, but this is not necessarily a testament to not eating meat, but what the study is showing is that if you have a group of people that actually go out of their way to eat more nutrient dense food and you compare them to a group of people that doesn’t do that, well of course the former is going to have more health benefits than the latter. That’s a totally different point than saying “vegetarians live longer than meat eaters”, isn’t it?
Brierley Wright: Yea, well it is, you’re right. It really is about what the composition of the diet is and the fact that this one group of people, being vegetarians in this example, have all these health benefits including living longer. You’re right, it isn’t necessarily fair. You could have someone who is a meat eater and also eats an enormous salad every day for lunch and they only use meat as a tasty flavor addition on top of their salad. Or they eat an appropriate, healthy portion size of meat or fish or poultry or something along those lines and then they have delicious vegetables and fresh fruits and that sort of thing. They can be far healthier than someone who classifies themselves as a vegetarian but predominantly eats nothing but white carbohydrates.
Jonathan Bailor: It’s just fascinating, Brierley, and I’m curious about your insight here because of obviously what you do at Eating Well magazine and also your formal training. There seems to be such a shortage of what I would call “reasonableness”. A good example of reasonableness is Dr. Joel Furman. Some people call him a vegetarian. He is actually not. He is just an advocate of a plant based diet. He wrote an article called “What You Need To Know About Vegetarian or Vegan Diets” in which he concluded “you can achieve the benefits of a vegetarian diet without being a vegetarian or a vegan”. The key here is eating more nutrient dense foods. If you were to say “liver is a phenomenon. It is one of the most nutrient dense foods calorie for calorie”, and certainly wild caught Alaskan salmon. Often times in the media we conflate all animal products. It seems odd. Pink slime is obviously not the same as organic grass fed beef liver, just like we wouldn’t conflate sugar with spinach. Why is there always so much mud slinging and why is this almost a moral-political debate rather than just talking about nutrition and how to maximize it?
Brierley Wright: I think you make a really great point. I think there are two big problems. One is that everyone wants to get their information in quick, easy to understand snippets. The fact of the matter is that even though that’s what I spend my day doing, you kind of need to take it with a grain of salt and look at the bigger picture. You could say the same thing about the Mediterranean diet, honestly. If you eat like a Mediterranean, if you eat a vegetarian diet, you’re going to be healthier for all of these reasons. The reality in the matter is that you can still incorporate those core principles into your diet and not necessarily be a vegetarian or be a Mediterranean diet follower. I think that’s the thing, people understand their information in snippets, and so the people that are delivering it are delivering it in a way where they can categorize it. They need something they can latch onto and run with. Vegetarian. It’s easy to say “this is what a vegetarian eats”. Mediterranean. It’s really easy to say “this is what a Mediterranean eats”. It’s a lot harder to say “well, if you take these core principles and incorporate them into your diet, you can achieve these same results. People don’t really hear that very well. They attach to “okay, this is the healthy way to do it. I need to do this”. The other thing is, as you were talking about some of the different types of protein sources, a lot of times there just isn’t the research around it. You were talking about grass fed beef vs. pink slime. The problem is that when we talk about meats and poultry-now there is more research coming out that helps classify which types you might go for from a health perspective. I am completely not going anywhere near the ethical, environmental here. We’re just going to ignore that, which is hard to say. Just for a minute. There isn’t a lot of research that compares conventionally raised poultry to organically raised poultry. There’s more stuff coming out about grass fed beef than wild Alaskan salmon, but there just isn’t a lot. The research just supports categorizing that together, so meat vs. vegetables or poultry vs. beef. It’s those kinds of comparisons rather than breaking it out and saying “here’s what those different types of beef or poultry offer nutritionally”.
Jonathan Bailor: I love that you brought up, Brierley, what the research has to say because on of the things that has been most shocking to me-and I’m curious to get your take on this. I appreciate you saying “let’s put the moral and environmental issues on the side” because that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about nutritional science here and that’s a separate subject. Let’s even put vegetarianism on the side and pull out this corollary of a plant based diet, which sometimes is the focus on eating a low fat diet diet. Eating a low fat diet has been “proven” to be healthy for you, but it seems that in my research, there is about a billion dollars worth of research that we’ve done that has tried to prove that a low fat diet is healthier and in fact has failed to do so. Is it safe to say that we are at a bit of a loss to say that any particular lifestyle has been clinically proven to be the healthiest way of eating?
Brierley Wright: That’s a tough question. I think it really is hard to say that one particular eating pattern is the best way to go because it’s always based on a comparison and to what does that comparison points. If you are looking at vegetarianism, what are you comparing vegetarians to? Meat eaters? Omnivores? Well what does their diet look like? When you’re talking about the Mediterranean diet being healthy, well what’s the comparison point? Often times-and this is getting really technical here, stop me if I go too far-in the Mediterranean diet studies they’ve compared it to a low fat diet. There are definitely experts out there who have looked at that “low fat diet” and have said “well actually, that’s not really a low fat diet that you’re comparing it to. You’re calling it a low fat diet in your study, but in reality the percentage is very similar to what the average American eats”, so we’re talking 30% fat, not terribly low fat. The whole point that I’m getting at here-if I can step back and look at the bigger picture-is that to say that one way of eating is the healthiest way of eating always has to have a comparison point. It’s healthier than (blank). And what is that way that we are eating? Yes, I think you’re right that to say that something that is clinically proven to be the healthiest way to eat is really not fair because it always has that comparison point to it. We also have to consider what it is that people are actually eating. If you take people in a research study, you have two ways of looking at them; either by what they tell you they are eating or what you force them to eat in a lab. A lot of the studies that are done with ten of thousands of people over many years are the studies that ask people what they are eating. I don’t want to assume that people are lying, but people often has a misperception of what they are eating. They don’t necessarily have the best memory and frankly, I fall victim to that. Please don’t ask me what I ate this weekend for dinner. The devil is in the details here, and the problem in general is that the research can only be so perfect. It can’t be perfect. It can be as good as it an be to get the right information to then deliver the final results and conclusions that the rest of us need and want to hear moving forward.
Jonathan Bailor: It’s certainly a sticky web. Nutrition communication, that’s got to be a burgeoning field, because this is a tough area because as you mention, these epidemiological studies, these studies which ask large populations of people what they do, Brierley, there is so much straight up conflicting “research” on how you slice that data. A simple example is the China, Cornell, Oxford project that the book The China Study was based upon. That book is very much “you should eat only plants. You should not eat any animals” but then the chair of the Harvard School of public health, Walter Wilitz comment on the China, Cornell, Oxford Project was “a survey of 65 countries in rural China, however, did not find a clear association between animal product consumption and the risk of heart disease or major cancers”. T. Collin Campbell, whom I respect very much and had on the show recently, wrote in a paper that came out two years after his China Study book “it is largely vegetarian inland communities who have the greatest all-risk for mortality and morbidities”. Both of those are like “wait, what?!”
Brierley Wright: Yeah, so the question is what is it that these inland communities are eating versus their coastal counterparts that all of a sudden makes their coastal counterparts so much healthier, apparently? That is my assumption. The comparison point would be if you are talking about inland versus coastal.
Jonathan Bailor: I also think sometimes we pass up the-I think-the obvious underlying cause. I don’t care if your diet is plant based or animal based. If you eliminate non-food that will do so much more. Saying “eat a vegetarian diet or eat a carnivorous diet” misses the point entirely. The point is to eat foods that provide you with the most of the stuff you must have and the least of the stuff you don’t. Those come from both plants and animals, so why are we having this political debate? I don’t understand.
Brierley Wright: Yes, well I’m a really firm believer of everything in moderation and really focusing on nutrient dense foods. You need to do what work for you, and some people choose not to eat meat, poultry, or fish for any ethical or environmental reason. They still have to get some of those nutrients from somewehre else.
Jonathan Bailor: I think it’s funny sometimes. Maybe it’s human nature to just conflate things. The way I advocate living a sane lifestyle is plant based. The vast majority of what you eat is coming from plants, vegetables, and whole food fats like cocoa, coconut, avocado, flax, and chia, but it also has a great proportion of the calories coming from nutrient dense proteins. What I’m saying here is that often times you have individuals advocating a plant based diet-of which I am also an advocate, just a different kind of plant based diet-say things like “you should eat a plant based diet because it is low in fat”. That’s not true. For example, cocoa, coconut, avocado, flax, and chia are wonderfully healthy sources of fat, and technically you could be eating a plant based diet if you ate nothing other than coconut. This would give you about 90% of your calories from saturated fat. Would they consider that to be a healthy diet? I know we can’t get into all of this nuance, but sometimes making these absolute claims seems to polarize people rather than helping anyone, what do you think?
Brierley Wright: Well, I think you’re right if you’re saying “eat a plant based diet because it’s low in fat”…sure, if your plant based diet is predominantly fruits and vegetables, yes, that’s going to be low in fats, bearing in mind you’re not dowsing them in oil or butter.
Jonathan Bailor: Or coconut oil. It’s a saturated fat! It’s gonna kill us!
Brierley Wright: Yes! That’s the thing! If you are saying “coconut oil is plant based, so I can eat as much of it as I want”, there is a lot of saturated fat in there. I think that even when you are eating a plant based diet, it’s still about variety. No matter what your diet is it’s about variety. I agree with you that people tend to conflate the benefits of these different diet eating patterns and there ends up being a lot of misinformation.
Jonathan Bailor: Brierley, I often make the analogy that we have to simplify things. That’s what you are so good at and hopefully what I add a little bit of value to as well, but I joked-and my editor cut this out of my book-that in some ways some of these statements we make about plant based diets versus omnivorous diets are simplified, but they are simplified in a way like saying that the sum of any two numbers is thirteen. That simplifies things, but it’s wrong. The sum of any two numbers isn’t thirteen, and to say that is not helpful to anyone.
Brierley Wright: Right, no, it’s true. It’s very true. I think that’s one of the challenges that I have and struggle with mentally. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I do spend a fair amount of my time trying to set the record straight. There is a ton of misinformation, and people love to promote misinformation. They really do. I don’t get it. I really don’t; but they do. They hear it in their brain, and sometimes is just starts out as well intentioned good advice with good information, as it travels down from person to person or website to website or source to source, it all of a sudden becomes complete information, and people just latch on to this misinformation and run with it.
Jonathan Bailor: Speaking of misinformation and getting variety, one of your articles which I really like is entitled “Are Natural Sweeteners Really Any Healthier Than Sugar?”, the irony of course being that sugar, if you squint and pass it through the grapevine, is technically natural. It comes from a plant, but you process it. We hear so much about Agave Nectar and that it’s healthy because it’s natural. Of course snake venom is also natural, so I’m not sure saying that something being natural makes it healthy. Tobacco is pretty natural too, and we don’t give that to our kids. What are your thoughts on these natural sweeteners?
Brierley Wright: You know, I’m going to start getting a lot of hate emails after this call here. People get so riled up about sugar. Here’s the thing: from my two cents and what I’ve read and researched, when it comes to sugar we typically are eating too much. I say “we typically” because I know there are a lot of people out there who have very consorted efforts to cut back on their sugar intake. As a population, as a whole, we eat too much sugar, and “going natural” doesn’t really make it any healthier. It is still sugar. It is extra calories that we don’t need, and depending on the type of sweetener that you are choosing, there might be more fructose in it than there is in another sweetener. Really what it comes down to is that the fructose is the problem ingredient. I am not a big advocate of saying “that’s fine that you’re adding that sweetener to it because it is natural”. Whether it’s straight up granulated sugar or something else that you consider more natural, the point is that you are still supposed to eat it in moderation.
Jonathan Bailor: I completely support what you just said in the sense that your body isn’t like “oh, bees made this, okay, I’m not going to give you fatty liver disease if you eat too much of this because this came from bees”. Your body does not go through that thought process, but that’s not what the food manufacturers would lead us to believe. They’ve got the little bees on that container of honey and they tell us it’s all natural and they try to make us think that it is even healthy for us because it is natural, correct?
Brierley Wright: Yes, yes. And a lot of it is in the packaging. They make it look a heck of a lot better than that bag of granulated sugar that you find in the bottom shelf of the baking aisle. It just looks better for you by the way that it is packaged, so people are naturally drawn to it. They’re like “oh, right, this is a better choice, yea!”. No, it’s not.
Jonathan Bailor: It spans both plant and animal products, right? You see with some of these dairy products this picture of a farm with happy cows walking around in their wild grasslands, when in reality that is the worst friggin’ factory farm. It happens with both plant foods and animal foods that this industrialized food complex is not being above board with us in terms of how we are getting our food. Is that accurate?
Brierley Wright: Yea, I mean, I’m very fortunate in that I live in Vermont and it is very easy for me to follow the advice of “get to know your local farmer”. The reality is that that is not easy for the majority of America, so you are right, the images of beautiful, rolling hills with cows frolicking and they all look like they’re smiling on the packages? Uh-uh. Yes, you want it to happen, and yes, you can find farms and you can find milk that comes from that kind of environment. On a large scale, it is not where we are getting most of our food. Frankly, as much as I love the local farm movement, it’s not fair to tell the general American public that that’s what they should do because there aren’t enough small farms out there to support our food needs. There just aren’t. I think it’s important to support them-here I am going on an ethical tangent-and if you can, you absolutely should; but it’s not a fair message to tell the general public because it’s just not easy.
Jonathan Bailor: Brierley, I think that is a critical point because so often if our message is one of perfection-again, we’ll do this polarization thing-if we say the only way to be right and good is to do local, organic, blah blah blah blah blah, and people say “well I can’t do that so I’m just going to drink Coke and eat McDonald’s because it’s either I’m good or bad and if I can’t achieve that which is good then I might as well be bad”. It sounds like you have to come to people where they’re at rather than just saying “this is perfect and other than perfect you’re a failure”.
Brierley Wright: Yes, exactly, I could not agree with you more. I can’t even remember what the piece was that I was working on for the magazine a couple years ago, anyway, I was having this communication with this researcher and it was about organic versus conventional and whether you should really try so hard to eat only organic. What he said was-and I’m paraphrasing since it was a couple years ago I don’t really remember his exact words-if you chose not to eat that fruit or vegetable because it is not organic, you are still missing out on all of these great vitamins and minerals and (phyto)-chemicals. If you can’t find or afford the organic version, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat it. Just eat it, because you’re still going to get it. Another day or at another store or another time of year try for the organic if it is important to you. Don’t say “no” to a whole class of fruits or vegetables because you can’t find or afford them organic because the fact of the matter is that there are still great vitamins and minerals and (phyto)-chemicals in there that are awesome to add to your diet.
Jonathan Bailor: Brierley, that is excellent advice and I really can’t agree with it any higher. Because of that, I’m going to close our interview on that point. I think we’ve hit an apex. Is that okay?
Brierley Wright: Sure, sure.
Jonathan Bailor: Well Brierley, thank you so much for joining us. The time has just flown by because we’ve had a wonderful discussion about how we can communicate nutrition like your degree. Brierley, again, thank you for joining us. Folks, we have been talking to Brierley Wright, she is the nutrition editor at both eatingwell.com and the magazine and she is awesome. If you want to learn more about her, just check out eatingwell.com and do a quick search. She’s a blogger, and you just find Brierley Wright to read all of her wonderful articles. Brierley thank you so much for joining us!
Brierley Wright: Thank you for having me, it’s been really fun.
Jonathan Bailor: Oh, my pleasure, and listeners, I hope you enjoyed the show as much as I did, and remember: this week and every week after; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.