A California physician has ventured into the field of nutrition to propose to a nation of dieters that certain ''super foods'' are the keys to health and weight control.
Steven Pratt recommends eating a diet rich in spinach, tomatoes, blueberries, broccoli, oats, wild salmon, turkey, soy and walnuts in his new best-selling book SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life (William Morrow, $24.95), written with Kathy Matthews. It's No. 64 on the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books List.
Not everyone agrees with Pratt's ideas. Several leading nutrition scientists question the evidence on some of his claims about foods, and, in fact, the entire concept of super foods.
But Pratt, 58, an ophthalmologist and plastic surgeon in private practice in La Jolla, Calif., and assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of California-San Diego, says his ideas are based on science.
He says that as he treated patients over the years, he came to believe that many of their chronic diseases could be prevented if they ate healthier and exercised faithfully.
He studied the scientific literature to come up with his list of super foods, which are really 14 classes of foods that add up to more than 105 choices. For example, under the blueberry heading, he lists purple grapes, cranberries, raspberries and other fruits.
He narrowed his list to 14 because ''when you are trying to make people aware of something and change their habits, you need to give them something they can grasp.''
Under each category, Pratt describes studies done on that food. He writes about research suggesting that the lycopene found in tomatoes may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. The section on blueberries includes studies in which research showed the fruit helped improve brain function and motor movement in aging rats.
Several national nutrition experts who reviewed Pratt's super foods list for USA TODAY say his recommendations are generally good, but they say some of the health claims he makes for individual foods are overstated.
''These are healthy foods that are good to include in our diet. However, some of this is overly hyped, and some of the claims are really hypotheses not supported by any direct evidence,'' says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. ''Depicting some foods as super foods could lead to overconsumption and an imbalance in diets.''
Jeffrey Blumberg, nutrition professor at Tufts University in Boston, agrees. He says that although ''the scientific evidence he (Pratt) presents is not exactly wrong, it tends to be a little misleading because he doesn't differentiate between definitive evidence and stuff that is pretty speculative.''
''For instance, while the research on blueberries (and brain function) is very exciting, to date this work has only been conducted in rats and there are no data that comparable results are found in people.''
Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society, says the foods on Pratt's list ''have to be part of an overall healthy diet. If you eat these foods and the rest of your diet is Twinkies and Big Macs, it's not going to work.''
No food is a miracle bullet, she says. ''It's a good idea to eat tomatoes because they are full of nutrients, but we can't guarantee that people who eat them are not going to get prostate cancer.''
Pratt says his book provides ''timeless advice.'' No one will be harmed, he says, by eating these foods ''in reasonable amounts.''
He believes that if people eat the foods on his list they'll be better able to control their weight. ''How much oatmeal and brown rice can you eat at one time?'' he says. ''You are going to get full long before you eat too many calories.''
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