Dialectics of a healthy diet

According to Dr. Christopher Labos, there is no one right way to eat. In his first book, Does Coffee Cause Cancer?, the cardiologist, epidemiologist and health commentator challenges readers to part ways with black-or-white thinking: “We tend to dichotomize food. We think of something as either healthy or unhealthy. But that’s not how food works."
Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour.

You may remember 60 Minutes and the so-called French Paradox. 

In 1991, the American TV newsmagazine visited Lyon, France, to produce what would prove to be one of the most popular segments in the show’s long history. Its message, in a nutshell: people in France consume more fats and have a lower incidence of heart disease than Americans do, and French people drink a lot of red wine, ergo red wine is good for your heart. Despite having little to no solid basis in science, the notion took hold of the popular imagination far beyond France, and even three decades later refuses to let go. Dr. Christopher Labos (MDCM’06, PGME’14, MSc’14) has some thoughts as to why. 

“An idea can be very tenacious if it’s an idea that justifies what people already want to do,” says the author of the new book, Does Coffee Cause Cancer? (And 8 More Myths About the Food We Eat). “‘Red wine? Chocolate? These things that I enjoy are actually good for me? I don’t have to give them up? That’s great!’ This can easily stretch into denialism. There’s an old joke that says, ‘People are not rational animals. They’re rationalizing animals.’”

Labos’s first book represents the logical outgrowth of a popularizing instinct that was honed at McGill, where the native Montrealer completed his undergraduate medical education, a residency in cardiology, and a master’s degree in epidemiology. During a hiatus in Toronto, he obtained a journalism certificate. He is a contributor to the Montreal Gazette and talk radio station CJAD, appears on CBC Radio and CBC Television, and co-hosts a podcast, The Body of Evidence.

“The combination of doing medicine and epidemiology, and developing the ability to critique studies, has served me very well,” he says. “Not all university programs deliver that combination in the same way. Some are very much about specific branches of knowledge and not so much about methodology. Had I not done the training I did at McGill, I couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination have done the variety of things that I’ve done.” 

The root desire in writing the new book, says Labos, was to provide a corrective to the fact that, in his words, “we tend to dichotomize food. We think of something as either healthy or unhealthy. But that’s not how food works. Foods are complex bags of different chemicals and different nutrients. They are not inherently good or bad. When it comes to what we eat, dietary patterns matter more than the particular food items we choose.” 

Seeking an effective and accessible way to convey his ideas in book form—to make something that would encourage critical thinking and not be “a case of the author handing down wisdom from on high”—Labos hit upon the idea of structuring the book as series of encounters between fictional people whose paths cross at an airport. It’s an unconventional strategy, but it works. Serious points arise organically out of relatable, and at times even humorous, conversations; the book takes on the narrative momentum and readability of a novel without compromising the science at its core.  

“The advantage of having dialogues is that you can have different characters espouse different points of view, with none of them actually being correct, because ultimately there is no right answer,” says Labos. “The chapter doesn’t have to end with them coming to an agreement. Different people are coming from different value sets. Someone who cares about animals and worries about their ethical treatment and wants to espouse vegetarianism... well, there is a scientific backing to that. But someone who’s willing to accept the risk and is willing to live with the ethical consequences of eating animals, that’s okay, too.” 

If it’s not already obvious, Labos stresses that he has not written a diet book. He has no interest in issuing edicts on what foodstuffs people should and shouldn’t consume. 

“You can drink alcohol if you want, just don’t convince yourself that it’s good for your heart, because it isn’t. You can eat chocolate if you want, but don’t go around thinking it’s healthy. If you want to eat red meat, you should understand that it increases your risk of colonic cancer by a very small amount, so if you’re okay with that risk, go ahead. In general, just understand that there are consequences. There’s a reason we say ‘beer belly’ and not ‘celery belly.’” 

Ultimately, says Labos, his message is a simple one.   

“There is no ‘right’ way to eat. The 60 Minutes case, where the popular belief has long outlived the popular memory of the original story, is a perfect example of how a lot of things we believe are based on very shaky foundations. The things that make the biggest difference are actually pretty straightforward. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Eat very little processed food. As a general rule, just eat less.” 

Simple as those principles might look in black and white, it’s very useful to have a book like Labos’s that explores the nuances behind them. There are bonus benefits, too. Readers of Does Coffee Cause Cancer? may well find themselves sharpening their dialectical and conversational skills regarding food and drink, which in turn may bring some unanticipated social benefits.  

“Yes,” says Labos. “Just think: you can be the person at the cocktail party who says, ‘Well, you know, the thing about alcohol is that it’s prone to reverse causation.’”  

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