Good Sense and Humor

By Katherine Pett

Why Someone Should Give James Hamblin, MD, a TV Show

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Dr. James Hamblin poses with students at the 2015 Gershoff Symposium

“The formula is simple, to write a bestselling diet book.  I’ll tell you…if you promise not to do it.”

James Hamblin, MD, Senior Health Editor at The Atlantic, paces in front of a giant projection of a man’s head.  Dr. Hamblin is tall, slight, and—as is often noted in profiles of the doc—looks young.  The projected head is slightly orange, suggestive of a spray tan, and belongs to Dr. David Perlmutter, neurologist and bestselling author of the book, Grain Brain, which blames gluten for all chronic diseases.

Hamblin is giving a talk at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition as part of the annual Gershoff Symposium.  This year’s theme is “Nutrition Messages in the Media: Making Sense of the Chaos.” Despite the serious title of his talk, “Evolving Strategies for Effectively Conveying Nutrition Information,” Hamblin keeps the mood light.

A sense of foreboding enters his voice as he describes the recipe for a bestseller.  Starting slowly, voice low, he starts an alarmist “trouble in River City” style rant of a stereotypical Fad Diet Doctor:

“We’re in Danger,” he starts.

“There’s a Serious Problem.

It is threatening us all.

It is going to give us all everything you could possibly be scared of:

People are going to hate you,

You are going to get dementia,

You are going to be fat and have cancer,

AND have hypertension,

And be socially ostracized and every single thing!

You’re going to default on your mortgage!

And it is not your fault! You know it’s not your fault.

It’s the corporations and the government! They have lied to you!”

But luckily Dr. Hamblin’s fake diet book has the solution: a single, simple dietary switch that will save and your family from harm:

“Cut the gluten… You’re gonna see a lifespan triple!  You’re gonna go home and you’re gonna find a new car in your garage!”

The audience is laughing, but the topic is a pressing one. How do doctors, scientists, and nutritionists defend against sweeping assertions made by health gurus with fewer scruples about bending the truth? A headline saying that Mediterranean diets may or may not improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease is a lot less catchy than “one weird trick” that promises effortless weight loss.

Doctors like James Hamblin and David Perlmutter trade on their MDs; their medical content knowledge informs their prominent careers in media. While Perlmutter has leveraged his MD into a massive brand, fad diet book, and YouTube channel around his name and tagline, “empowering neurology” (draw Dr. Oz comparison here), Hamblin has taken what one could call a more measured approach. And though he isn’t interested in writing the next diet bestseller, his long-term aspirations are not modest.

Leaving his unfulfilling residency in radiology after year three of five years, Hamblin joined The Atlantic when the staff created a health segment for the online magazine. In the more creative essay style of The Atlantic, Hamblin uses his writing talent and self-deprecating sense of humor to take objective, approachable stances on divisive health issues. His work often requires him to interview the creators of fad diets and purveyors of pseudoscience, such as Vani Hari (The Food Babe) and Dr. David Perlmutter, who likens eating gluten to pouring gasoline on oneself.

Dr. Hamblin stars in The Atlantic’s popular video series “If Our Bodies Could Talk,” where he sheds light on awkward health situations like how to get a friend to quit smoking, or how to empower women to ask their doctors about orgasms. He’s also purchased (legal) THC laced candy…for science.

Hamblin’s accessible comedic style in “If Our Bodies Could Talk” make it easy to see him as a potential John Oliver or Stephen Colbert of health and nutrition, and Hamblin feels he’s headed in that direction.

“I want to entertain people, and I want it to be substantive; why don’t I do it about the thing I know and care about like health? John Oliver and Daily Show and Colbert, they set out primarily to entertain. And I really like that, I think that’s more my path.”

Blending health and comedy may be the ideal way to combat nonsense that floats around the Internet and daytime TV (Dr. Perlmutter has a 90-minute Grain Brain special that airs on PBS). And there’s no mistaking the powerful combination of common sense and jokes in YouTube clips that can easily be shared on Facebook, the major source of news for at least one third of Americans.

Perhaps getting people to laugh about the absurdity of gluten as the root of all evil, like a recent episode of South Park did, is the key to dispelling nutrition myths that can’t be combated through reasoning alone.

While Dr. James Hamblin doesn’t have any concrete plans yet, he’s open to the idea. As we spoke the day after his talk, he threw out the possibility.

“Yeah I’d love to have a TV show, and if you know anyone I could talk to…”

Katherine Pett is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program at The Friedman School.  She can be reached at katherine.docimo@tufts.edu.

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