Why is Nutrition so Confusing?
May 15, 2014
V.P. of Culinary Nutrition Andrea Canada writes on why there are so many conflicting studies and misleading headlines in the world of nutrition.
As dietitians, we often field questions about food and health from family, friends, colleagues and even strangers looking for the prescription for better health. The questions begin very broadly, such as ‘What is the healthiest or unhealthiest food?’
As the conversation continues, the questions grow more specific: “Should I stop eating gluten?” “What is the best way to lose weight?” Sometimes the questions are based on personal experiences or advice from friends: “My friend lost so much weight on the paleo diet. Will that work for me?”
The media and food industry consistently add to the untrained public’s confusion on what to eat with exaggerated headlines and nutriwashed foods. Even scientific research contradicts itself, so how do you know which information to trust?
Why is there so much conflicting information?
Nutrition research is very difficult to conduct. While studies about a nutrient’s impact on health can be conducted in a highly controlled environment, the isolation of a laboratory with set meals, supplements and controlled activity is a far cry from life in the real world.
Conducting studies with subjects eating, working and playing in the real world presents an array of issues, including fluctuations in behavior or misremembered accounts of intake or physical activity. Statisticians help researchers to tease out the confounding factors to determine the significance of a study’s outcomes and interpret the results. However, for these reasons and more, nutrition research must repeated until a large enough body of evidence exists that the broader scientific community agrees on a nutrient's relationship to health. Even then, there could be special exceptions to the rule.
Food is also very complex -- how a nutrient behaves in isolation is not necessarily indicative of what happens when it is consumed in food. Researchers may study how a nutrient affects the body, but these nutrients are never in isolation in our foods or in a meal. While we know about many of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and macronutrients in foods, there are even more compounds we haven't yet identified.
When we eat, digest and absorb a meal, all these components interact and -- while some of these interactions are well understood -- others are only now being researched.
Moreover, we need to consider that people are unique and that the human body is complex. We also know that genetics play a huge role, and that foods can actually alter our gene expression. With the individual choices we make every day that contribute to overall intake, it’s quite easy to see why nutrition advice isn’t always black and white.
Without your own personal R.D. hotline, how can you sort through all the noise?
- Be cautious about what you read in the media and read well beyond the headline. If you have time, find the original research article to see what the researchers actually concluded. You can also Google search to see if other reputable sources are commenting or debating the interpretation of the results.
- Don’t treat anecdotal evidence as consensus science. Just about everyone knows of someone that lived to a ripe age breaking every health rule. It’s likely you also know of someone that died prematurely of a massive heart attack from the same regimen. Trust the consensus when it comes to saturated fat, omega-3 fats and refined carbohydrates.
- Be mindful of the way you feel during and after you eat. I like to trust my body and the positive feeling I have when I eat a balanced, minimally processed diet, with plenty of plant-based foods and desserts in moderation (for my sweet tooth!).
Do you find nutrition to be confusing? Here are some great, trusted resources for further information:
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