Conversation with Timothy Caulfield

Health law and policy expert Timothy Caulfield has spent almost 20 years analyzing scientific issues related to health policy.

At the University of Alberta, Canada, he teaches biotechnology in the Faculty of Law and is the editor for the Health Law Journal and Health Law Review. He has published close to 300 peer-reviewed articles.

Diet Detective: You're a law professor, so how on earth did you get involved in dispelling health myths?

Timothy Caulfield: I have long been fascinated with how evidence is used to inform health policy. And it always drives me crazy when something is out of sync with what the science says. Also, I am a bit of a fitness nut. So it seemed a perfect combo.

Diet Detective: How are health messages "twisted by researchers, the media and industry" making it hard for the average person to live a healthy lifestyle?

Timothy Caulfield: Researchers are under tremendous pressure to make their work sound both sexy and immediately applicable. And there is a natural tendency to be excited about your research. The research institutions often amplify this enthusiasm. University press releases, for example, will take an animal study and speculate how it applies in humans. Some basic science study done on a mouse is portrayed as a potential cure for cancer! The media take the hype a step further by simplifying the message to make it an easily digestible news story. And once industry is involved, the marketing machines kick in. It really is a cycle of hype. The key is to not get fooled by it. True scientific breakthroughs are tremendously rare.

Diet Detective: Based on your research, what do you recommend people should do to lose weight? How do we delude ourselves about diet and fitness?

Timothy Caulfield: First, don't concentrate on losing weight! Concentrate on adopting a healthy lifestyle. I know it is a clich that people are probably sick of hearing, but, as they say, it is a clich for a reason. You must be able to find a healthy and nutritious diet you can sustain forever. To be honest, taking weight off isn't the big challenge. The true challenge is keeping it off. So, lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle. That said, there are a few practices associated with successful weight loss and maintenance, such as keeping a diet diary, eating lots of fruits and veggies (I argue 50 percent of your diet), eating a good breakfast, eating home-prepared meals and, of course, avoiding junk food (soda is evil!) and big restaurant meals. Ignore all gimmick diets. They do not work. Indeed, research tells us that all diets, over the long term, perform about the same which is poorly.

We delude ourselves in so many ways. I deluded myself about my calorie intake and weight. And I am not alone. Research has shown, for example, that few of us have a good sense of how many calories we need or how many calories are in our favorite foods. Some studies suggest that we underestimate calories by100 percent! So, if you think a meal is 500 calories, it is probably 1,000 which is likely half the calories you need in a day.

Diet Detective: What's the scariest thing you've learned about health, fitness and/or happiness?

Timothy Caulfield: On a personal level it was the amount of calories I was eating. I have always worked out a ton, so I thought I didn't have to worry about how many calories I consumed. Wrong. On a social level I'd say the scariest thing is how few people eat a balanced diet or exercise enough. The statistics are grim. Part of the problem, of course, it that we live in a society that is permeated by market forces that are trying to get us to eat, eat and eat. And so many of our social institutions make it tough to remain active. So we look for simple and quick fitness solutions most of which are marketed on promises of unattainable aesthetic goals (sexy abs!) rather than sensible and sustainable lifestyle changes. Other scary facts include obesity rates and the fact that so many people still smoke.

Diet Detective: What's wrong and right about "alternative therapies"?

Timothy Caulfield: Alternative medicine is so darn popular that it is obviously fulfilling a social need. I think people respond to the personal attention and holistic approach so often associated with alternative practices. Plus, there is a big distrust of "corporate" medicine, especially Big Pharma. So I understand why people seek out alternative therapies. But there are very few therapies that are supported by good scientific evidence. Let's be honest, if these therapies (such as homeopathy) had a strong effect, we could detect it in scientific studies and we wouldn't be arguing about the efficacy of these therapies. Health policy shouldn't be built around anecdotal evidence and personal testimonials. Let's use good science to find the best and most effective therapies, regardless of whether they flow from the alternative or conventional health community.

Diet Detective: For those who have not read your book what is the "Blueprint to Perfect Health and Happiness" in a nutshell?

Timothy Caulfield: The blueprint is actually pretty simple! When I started researching my book, I thought I might find some great health secret some magical approach that wasn't widely known. But, in fact, the secret is that there is no secret. Eat a healthy and balanced diet (e.g., fruits and veggies, whole grains, protein, a bit of dairy), watch your calorie intake (most of us should aim for around 1,800 to 2,200), stay active, get some vigorous exercise (both resistance training and aerobic exercise), drink in moderation (if at all) and, of course, don't smoke! Everything else supplements, fancy diets, trendy exercise routines, etc., etc. is just fiddling at the margins. I hope this reality is liberating. You can ignore most of the noise that surrounds health and fitness. Focus on the simple, long-known and evidence-based basics. But if I were forced to add something "new" to my blueprint it would likely be: Get lots of sleep and stay active all day long (e.g., avoid sitting for long periods). Emerging evidence suggests that both these practices are associated with good health.

Diet Detective: Can you describe your experience training with a Hollywood fitness guru? What did you learn (that the rest of us are missing)?

Timothy Caulfield: This was a terrific experience. Several people from the academic community recommended Gina Lombardi to me. What surprised me the most was the intensity. No fooling around! It was genuinely tough. And keep in mind that I thought I was pretty fit. The message and this is one I've heard again and again is that you get the most fitness benefit from real effort. Work hard! Yes, all activity is great, but if you are looking for exercise efficiency and real gains, moderation isn't the answer.

In Five words or less

Diet/nutrition vs. fitness: Not versus. Together. A lifestyle.

Organic and locally grown foods: Neither. Either. Real food.

Artificial sweeteners: Fine, but necessary?

Food additives and preservatives: Markers for junk food!

Nutritional supplements: Waste of money. Eat well.

Veganism: An understandable position.

Dairy: I eat too much!

Colon cleanse: Ridiculous. Dangerous. Scam.

Diet Detective: What's always in your fridge and pantry? And what's never there?

Timothy Caulfield: Always there: a huge amount of fruit. Luckily, I love fruit. The whole family loves fruit. So it is always there. Sometimes it seems like half our fridge is full of fruits and berries. Also always present: almonds and other nuts. My default snack! Never there: soda. OK, sometimes it will show up for a kid's birthday party (I am such a hypocrite).

Diet Detective: Your breakfast routine?

Timothy Caulfield: That is easy. It is my absolute favorite meal! I have a huge bowl of muesli (real whole-grain muesli) with plain low-fat yogurt and a mountain of blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. I wash it down with black coffee or a few shots of espresso. Perfect.

Diet Detective: Favorite "junk food"?

Timothy Caulfield: Chocolate! It used to come in the form of M&Ms, which are, truly, junk food. Now I usually eat good dark chocolate, which isn't really junk. Sometimes I get a craving for an ice-cold Diet Coke. And sometimes I give in. Sigh.

Diet Detective: Daily workout routine?

Timothy Caulfield: I do weights (free weights including dead lifts, squats, chin-ups, bench, etc.) two to three times a week, and various kinds of interval training two to three times a week. In addition, I try to stay active all day. I commute to work on my bike and try to walk and stand as often as possible. Do I sound like a nut?


CHARLES PLATKIN, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of Copyright 2012 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at