FoodPolitik: When Celebrity Nutritionists Gut Their Own Credibility

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Sometimes celebrity idiocy is subtle, but it’s usually memorable. Take Jillian Michaels, for example. She’s the fitness masochist whose fame started with the “Biggest Loser” weight-loss reality show. Years of suspense-filled Tuesday night weigh-ins have made Michaels’ health advice the pop-culture “flavor of the month.”

But Michaels is a personal trainer (a full-time gym rat), not a nutritionist or medical doctor. She’s already been sued four times this year over her lucrative diet supplements. So it was just a matter of time before she made a mess of something food-related.

Last month, Michaels told her half-million Facebook fans that she had to “start cutting out the tuna” because a physical revealed her “mercury level is twice what it should be.”

That sounds like a big deal, right? The GNC store doesn’t sell mercury as a health supplement, after all.

But before you start throwing out those cans of albacore, there’s a catch.

What most lab reports say your mercury levels “should be” corresponds to a hyper-cautionary level set by the EPA, called a “Reference Dose.” This is one of those government numbers that sounds harmless until you begin to take it seriously.

The EPA’s Reference Dose for mercury is a threshold set 10 times lower than the lowest level at which mercury is believed to cause harm in people over a lifetime.

Talk about a safety buffer. Jillian’s “twice what it should be” level is still a fraction of what might be worth worrying about over an entire lifetime.

Don’t believe me? Try the seafood calculator at http://howmuchfish.com (transparency: it was assembled from USDA, EPA, and FDA data by our company). The 120-pound Michaels would have to eat 22 cans of chunk light tuna every week — that’s one can at every meal, every single day — before she would reach a real risk level from mercury. A 185-pound man would be safe eating up to five cans a day.

And here comes the irony: Most Americans actually aren’t eating enough fish. Don’t take my word for it: Harvard Medical School professor Dariush Mozaffarian warns that “the dangers of not eating fish outweigh the small possible dangers from mercury.”

He’s right. A single can of tuna gives you three quarters of the recommended daily intake of heart-healthy omega-3s. (That’s from the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids.) A dinner serving of halibut contains an entire day’s supply of protein. Having tilapia for lunch supplies half of your daily requirement of vitamin B12.

It turns out that there are a host of reasons why you should eat more seafood, and just one (incredibly weak) health argument for eating less.

Someone should tell Jillian Michaels.

And Jeremy Piven.

Remember the “Entourage” star’s phony-baloney mercury poisoning story? He claimed his levels were 6 times what was “normal” — and that he simply couldn’t go on acting.

Good Morning America brought out the director of toxicology at the UC Irvine Medical Center, who said: “It is very easy to have mercury levels 5-6 times the upper limit of normal by eating lots of fish, and this does not result in any objective evidence of mercury poisoning.”

Piven’s weak reply? “I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV.”
If he were a doctor, he might know that the medical literature doesn’t contain a single American case of mercury poisoning related to commercial seafood. But there’s a wealth of studies showing how all those omega-3s can help prevent heart attacks.

And there’s emerging research that documents the negative impacts (on IQ and motor skills) for children whose mothers didn’t get enough omega-3s during their pregnancies.

Ask yourself: Who’s the most paranoid about eating seafood? If you answered “pregnant women,” give yourself a gold star. And heed the advice of National Institutes of Health physician Dr. Joseph Hibblen. He says that the government’s seafood advice “apparently causes the harm that it was intended to prevent.”

It may be unrealistic to expect celebrities to stop acting like they know something when they don’t. Actors get paid for pretending, after all, and reality shows have been known to hide the ball. But if we get our information about food and health from celebrities who know more about cue cards than chemistry, we’re not doing ourselves — or our families — any favors.

It’s good that Jillian Michaels is helping Americans slim down. But if she ate a little more seafood, she might be a lot smarter.

Fish is brain food, you know.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.