Who is Seth Yoder? And Where Has He Been?
Welcome to the Nutrition Wonk Profile - where we find and interview the finest nutrition wonks. If you enjoy, be sure to check out featured wonks' websites.
The website, TheScienceofNutrition.wordpress.com has stood dormant for over a year. It’s likely that few people who aren’t true nutrition-internet nerds even noticed.
But on April 8, 2016, the site hosted its first blog post in about 14 months. The topic? Chapter 24 of Good Calories, Bad Calories.
The blog The Science of Nutrition is the research-heavy brainchild of Seth Yoder, a blogger with an MS in Nutrition Science, and consists primarily of this: Seth reads a chapter of the colossal nutrition pop-science opus, Good Calories Bad Calories, he finds the sources from the bibliography (that are available in English) and he fact checks. And there are a lot of facts to be checked. The book was published in 2007, but Yoder’s initial review first went up on his blog in 2012, full of scientific citations that countered Taubes' theses. In 2014, he decided one review wasn’t enough. Seven years after the book’s publication, he was going to launch a chapter-by-chapter analysis.
For someone who puts all his effort into creating the blog’s content and little into promoting or updating the actual site – his posts get plenty of attention. Last year, Marion Nestle linked to his two-part critique of the book Big Fat Surprise on her blog, Food Politics. It created quite a stir in the comments section.
The critiques, whether you agree with Seth or not, are extremely thorough and should make anyone think twice about the pop-science book they are currently reading. They’d make great supplemental materials for anyone reading GCBC or BFS in book clubs and definitely spark conversation.
But what drives Seth, who makes no money from the site, to continue plugging away at critiques? Why is he driven to fight the current tide of public opinion, which has been convinced by numerous books and viral articles that all nutrition science should be looked at with side-eye?
It’s not easy to explain. It is a combination of a desire for the truth and a sense of disappointment in the science publishing industry. Frustration and anger, it turns out, are strong motivators.
I’ve been interested in Seth’s work since I first read his critiques of GCBC (he has completed 8 of the book’s 24 chapters). GCBC, like it or not, is a work of impressive scholarship. It has roughly a billion citations. So, as a nutrition student, it was fascinating to encounter someone motivated enough to track down each citation, read it, and compare the actual content to the way it was portrayed in the book.
I had the good fortune to catch up with Seth last week and I finally got to ask him – why are you doing this?
Interview edited for clarity & brevity
** How Seth got into nutrition **
I was reading a lot of pop-science books on nutrition. I think Michael Pollan put me over the edge. I remember when Omnivore's Dilemma came out, that was pretty influential to me and I just thought it was really cool. So I thought why don't I just major in it?
I ended up going to Colorado State University and majored in food science and human nutrition with a concentration in dietetics over there. I worked part time at a plant genetics lab studying various staple crops; corn, rice, wheat, that sort of thing -and I really dug research and thought I wanted to devote my life to research.
I graduated from there in about 2010 and then I worked for a few months in this food chemistry lab that was called the “Bioactive Compounds for Health Lab” for a little while and then I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. So I applied to a couple places and got in at University of Washington and then studied nutrition science there.
I did my Master's thesis on gut bacteria as it relates to flax seed compounds - how flax seeds compounds affect gut bacteria and what the health effects of that were.
**But disaster struck in 2013 with the government shut down and research jobs were hard to come by.**
Sequester spending went into effect and that had the consequence of pretty austere cuts in science funding, science research. It cut the National Science Foundation pretty significantly, National Institutes of Health pretty significantly, and a lot of people were getting laid off, a lot of scientists. So I graduated at like the worst time to get a job in scientific research. I ended up, well, for a while I was selling parking permits at the University of Washington alongside other PhDs and people that were just laid off so it was kind of interesting.
** So, Seth found himself with some free time… And then his wife told him about a movie. **
I guess it all started several years ago I first got interested in kind of the low-carb "cult.” My wife came and told me one day, "Oh hey I watched this documentary and it's called ‘Fat Head’ you should really check it out. It’s about nutrition and how animal fat is really good for you and fast food is really good for you.’
And I thought, huh, you know I do think that fats probably get a bad rap, but this is the first I've heard of fast food being good for you. And so I ended up watching that documentary and that's when I started getting interested in this low carb, I guess I would call it a cult - I'll put it out there.
So I watched that and then I guess part of me was curious - I never learned any of this stuff in school; the professors never taught us any of this stuff, but it was also like--even if it was all true—it [Fathead] didn't make sense in it's own universe, it wasn't internally coherent.
-- Some Context: The movie Fathead starts by claiming that the obesity epidemic isn’t truly happening; an effect of the inaccuracy of the BMI measurement. But then later it blames the dietary guidelines for “starting” the obesity epidemic. The narrator starts the movie by saying calories aren’t important, but then goes on a calorie restricted diet to “prove” fast food isn’t so bad. Hence, Seth’s reference to poor internal coherence -- I made a podcast on [Fat Head] and did some research on that and did a blog post and it was interesting. And in that Fathead documentary there's a lot of talk of Gary Taubes and Good Calories, Bad Calories. That was the first I had heard of him and his book.
So I decided to pick it up and read through it and I remember coming to the point, kind of early on when he was talking about Keys and the Seven Country Study and how there was this withering critique by Yerushalmy and Hillaboe published in the New York State Journal of Medicine - and I was like, oh I've heard a lot about this study and about this critique and I want to investigate it. It was really difficult for me to get ahold of the study, because I had to order it from the university of British Columbia, it was ridiculous.
But I looked at it and I was like, "This is not at all how Taubes represents it to be" and actually- This paper - although Taubes claims that it's evidence against Keys, I thought it was really devastating to Taubes' overall thesis.
I was kind of surprised that he would just completely misrepresent that study. And then I started doing some other spot fact-checking and nearly every time I did that, I would find that he was completely uncharitable to someone or just completely misrepresented the results, or misquoted them or taken them out of context.
So that just started kind of peeling the onion or going down the rabbit hole; obviously I'm still doing that.
**When he couldn’t find a study, he reached out to Gary Taubes**
I was kind of overwhelmed, to be honest, by the amount of publications that he cited and that I was having to unearth. I mean it was a ridiculous amount, just ridiculous.
I was going through everything and it was taking me so much time to try and find all these texts, and textbooks, and articles. And a lot of them are really obscure.
So I wrote to him [Taubes]. I thought, I'm gonna take a shot in the dark here, and I emailed him. I found his email address said “Hey, I'm a graduate student at the University of Washington and I'm working on a critique of your book.”
I put it as plainly as I could, you know. I said, "I'm deeply skeptical of a lot of your claims- I've found some of your claims [to be] what I would consider misrepresentations and I was just wondering if you could help me out with finding some of these publications.” And he wrote back and he... to his credit he was completely civil and cordial and he was not nasty to me at all despite the fact that I wasn't nasty to him, but I said, “I don't really like your book” in so many words.
I had figured out a few of the things that I thought were kind of egregious on his part. And he just said, well, you know, here's how I would answer that… [For] some of them [Taubes said] “they're just errors in scholarship,” or, “there's a lot to do, there was a lot of publications to go through... you know, obviously some things kind of got lost.”
** But Seth remained skeptical **
I think that if these were just innocent mistakes then us you would find mistakes running the gamut, so to speak. But it's pretty clear that all these mistakes, these quote-unquote “mistakes” are in favor of his overall thesis.
**Where was Seth finding the time? AKA, How to be productive during unemployment **
I was unemployed and I didn't really have a lot else going on to do so that kind of gave me the time at least to
do it, and what else am I gonna do? I'm gonna watch TV or something? It just felt like such a waste of time.
And so I would go to the library and look up these things and write.
I don't really know what is motivating me really other than, I really - I place honesty at a premium and it really bothers me - I think it probably bothers me more than most people when someone is really dishonest. I think that's part of what motivated me.
I thought I was… I [was in a] position where I have this knowledge of nutrition, and the skills to do research, and I'm pretty skilled at finding things and interpreting nutrition science texts, whether they be textbooks or New England Journal of Medicine or JAMA or whatever.
I have that capability and this really bothers me on kind of a personal level that the lies [in the book] are just so egregious in my opinion.
I guess that's what motivated me. I mean I wish I could say I was being paid by Big Vegetable or something to do it but I was not.
**Does he think he’ll finish Good Calories Bad Calories? **
That’s a good question. I would like to. There's been kind of like a gnawing, it's kind of like an itch I gotta scratch. I feel like I have to complete it for some reason but who knows when that will be exactly, I’ll probably just dribble out chapters until I finally get it done but that could be like 2018 for all I know.
** On reader reactions to his posts **
The main reactions would come in the form of comments and it seems to be split kind of evenly. Some of them think that I'm just a stupid hack, that like I’m an angry vegan or that I'm just extraordinarily biased and then some of them are like “oh yeah this is good work.”
** Is Seth an angry vegan? **
I'm not an angry vegan. I am angry. (laughs) I don't know what you'd call my diet; I try to eat a plant-based diet I guess. But I'm not really vegan and I'm not really vegetarian because I'll have salmon or tuna or something once or twice a month but I try to... based on all the evidence I think that a plant based diet probably is the best way to go.
I don't really begrudge people for eating meat. I think some meat is fine as long as you don't have it at every single meal, you know? But you know, people can eat what they want to eat.
** Could there be a book in the works? **
A year and a half ago when I started in the bottling industry…
- - Seth got a job in quality assurance at a bottling plant that ran 24 hours-a-day. Suddenly his free time dried up and he would be on call even on evenings and weekends to solve problems when they came up. Posts to the blog halted. – -
There was a guy that contacted me and said he really liked my blog and said "oh I'm a big fan of your blogs” and said he was a literary agent and he'd like me to write a book and I was like [laughs] "oh my god all my dreams." All my dreams have come true, you know.
Because you hear all the time about like people who start blogs and they get kind of famous and then they get a book deal. And I was like "this is it, this is it," so I talked to him for a little while. I looked him up and he was legit, he wasn't just pulling my leg, he was a legit literary agent and he said "I'd love to represent you and I think you write really well and I think we could make a lot of money with a nutrition book.”
So we kind of go back and forth a little bit on what he's looking for. I was like, “I just took a job but I'm gonna definitely work on this on the evenings and weekends and I'll have something to you and then it just like it never happened because I never had any free time at all.
In this position [at Seth’s current job] I'm looking forward to evenings and weekends again and maybe he would be interested or maybe someone else would be interested, I don't know.
** What would be the premise of the book? **
I don't know - the agent was saying that he thought it would be really cool if there was a nutrition book that was like Great Myths of Nutrition or the biggest nutrition myths just - and each chapter would be like a different nutrition myth and then I would either substantiate it or I would debunk it in some fashion or maybe say "it's a little more complicated than the black and white portrayal" but I thought that would be kind of cool.
** It can be really frustrating to see science taken out of context **
That's one of the effects it had on me when I went and actually looked at these references.
It made me kind of angry but it also just made me really sad.
Because like I said, I loved reading pop science books like crazy when I was younger, like late teens early 20s, and I thought they were great and then never once did it occur to me to question anything that was in those books or to be skeptical, you know? Rightly or wrongly I would read them and be like wow that's really cool. And then, after going through Good Calories, Bad Calories or Big Fat Surprise or something like that and realizing that people can evidently just make stuff up or completely misrepresent science and the publisher doesn't really care as long as it sells…
I mean I don't know that much about the publishing industry but evidently they don't do a ton of fact checking, if any. It just threw into doubt all those books that I used to love. Wow, I wonder how much of that was bogus?
And then you just get to thinking; I don't have the energy. I don't have the energy to go and look at everybody's references. Sometimes I just want to read a good book and I don't want to have to constantly question every single claim but I guess if you want to be… I guess I don't know, (sighs)
It's just really disappointing.
--Perhaps Seth's work is summed up best by the intro he adds to each of his GCBC chapter reviews--
Follow Seth’s progress as he travels through Good Calories, Bad Calories here.