It's as tempting as an open bag of Mallomars on the kitchen counter at midnight:
A brand-new issue of Men's Health -- or Mademoiselle, or Shape, or Self, or Muscle and Fitness -- promising to divulge, once and for all, the ultimate secrets of not just nutrition, but SUPER ULTIMATE MEGA-ENERGIZING NUTRITION, if you'll just . . . buy . . . this . . . one . . . issue.
Your hands -- still dusted with crumbs from last night's Mallomar marathon -- flash out and grab not one but all five issues, plus several more.
After all, you reason, the truth is in there. Somewhere. Isn't it?
Not according to the New York City-based American Council on Science and Health.
The industry-funded group, directed and advised by hundreds of noted physicians and scientists around the nation, has once again graded the accuracy of magazine nutritional information.
And some best-selling magazines are getting grades as low as the fiber content in marshmallow fluff.
What are their sins? Advising "crazy dieting, liquid diets and low-cal eating," as well as promoting "a lot of misinformation that was way, way oversimplified," says Dr. Ruth Kava, who coordinated the project. It blasted magazines like Fitness, Mademoiselle and Self for "potentially dangerous" reporting on nutrition issues.
"Consumers should be suspicious, as a rule. Many of these magazines do not fact-check or note when information is preliminary. In some cases, they just plain reach for conclusions," she adds during a phone interview.
What exactly did these popular magazines state -- and how did they rate?
Tried and true
You might think that magazines with words like "fitness," "muscle" or "body" in the title
would rate highest when it comes to explaining how to fuel human beings properly.
But it was actually the rather stolid Consumer Reports, Better Homes and Gardens, and Good Housekeeping (in that order) that got top honors for sound nutritional reporting.
"Really?" says a surprised-sounding Pam Hess, a registered dietitian for Sheehan Memorial Hospital and the Women's Wellness Center in Williamsville. "Obviously, I would never go near Cosmo for advice, but those winners do surprise me."
Nonetheless, says the American Council on Science and Health, these three magazines' reporting is consistently "thorough, balanced and scientifically sound," especially when it comes to urging real food intake instead of vitamin pill-popping, and when it comes to spelling out complex information.
In fourth place was Glamour, followed by Parents, Health, Reader's Digest, Prevention, Woman's Day, Cooking Light, McCall's, Redbook, Runner's World, Shape and Men's Health.
Anything in common, in this somewhat diverse lot? Sure, says Dr. Kava.
"In general, these tend to be older magazines, with larger staffs that can devote more time toward fact-checking and balancing stories. Many of these names we recognize because their people often call us for sources or references. They don't like unattributed data (about vitamin use or diets), and they generally will not report it."
Who will? Twentysomething women might not like the answer.
'That magazine is a joke'
According to Advertising Age magazine, Cosmopolitan, New Woman, Mademoiselle and Vogue are among the Top 65 circulating magazines in the nation, with Cosmo landing in the Top 25.
It's easy to see why. Their pages are full of luscious ideas about what to put on your body.
However, says the science and health council, their suggestions on what to put into it often are appalling.
During the two-year study, Vogue so rarely ran nutritional information and articles that it was ultimately excluded from the survey. Mademoiselle was noted for poor accuracy, fad diets and an abundant "frivolous" treatment of nutrition. Cosmopolitan was blasted for continually "trying to tie science in to beauty" and for reporting as fact things that were "simply and plainly not true," says Dr. Kava.
And New Woman, said the council bluntly, literally "struggles to present anything on nutrition. It needs a nutritional makeover from head to toe."
Men's magazines weren't spared the sharp editing pencil of the council, either.
Fitness ranked second-worst of all health magazines, while Muscle and Fitness was dismissed thusly: "nutrition reporting at its worst; most advice completely unreliable."
All of which seems to confirm what Chuck Pelittera, the strength and conditioning coach at Canisius College, has long believed about magazines as a source for smart eating tips:
"They're big advocates of dieting, which, we should all know by now, does not work," says Pelittera, who also teaches nutrition and wellness courses.
"If I see students list certain magazines like Muscle and Fitness as a resource in a paper, they get crossed off. That magazine is a joke. It's by and for steroid-heads. Period."
As for the survey itself . . .
Mindful of the saying about "lies, damned lies and statistics," the council takes great pains to ensure that its survey -- which is repeated every two years or so -- is airtight, and its 1995 to 1997 study was no exception.
The group worked off Ad Age's February 1997 list of the Top 200 magazines (by circulation) in the nation and extracted from it a list of consumer, homemaking, health and women's magazines.
"Each magazine had to have, over a two-year period, at least eight half-page articles dealing solely with nutrition," explains Dr. Kava.
Then, for two years, those articles were electronically scanned, reformatted and reprinted so that a panel of judges would not recognize familiar typefaces or layout styles.
Four experts in food science and nutrition then studied 168 articles and rated them using various point systems.
The results, says Dr. Kava, should make it easier for consumers to identify magazines offering bad nutritional information.
In fact, she notes, readers often can decide whether to purchase or "pass" on a magazine simply by glancing at its cover.
The poorest-rated magazines tend to rely on fad diets and "miracle-bullet" ideas for weight loss, using words like "fast" or "quick" in headlines. They also tend toward headlines that promise certain foods can control or elevate moods, "which is a very popular belief and article topic right now," says Dr. Kava.
Ms. Hess agrees.
"I stay with medical journals, clinical studies, things like that," she says. "Any magazine that says on the cover that you can lose X amount of weight in 30 days, I wouldn't even bother to thumb."
Pelittera (who also relies chiefly on conditioning and wellness journals, obtainable from trainers or clinics) says he wouldn't bother with them, either. And he hopes women -- especially young, active women -- stay away from them, too.
"Women college athletes are just notorious for poor nutritional habits. They really go to extremes," he says.
"Luckily, they tend to do the most reading about nutrition. Men won't. They think they know everything. But women will read about it. Hopefully, the survey will help them figure out what they should be reading."