Nutrition myths are bad science!
It’s been an ‘interesting’ year! A dawning realization of the powerful role social media is playing in sharing information and opinions. Sadly, this information is open to bias and manipulation and the responsibility falls on each of us to develop the ability to critically analyse and assess the ‘evidence’ we are given.
We have particularly seen the impact of this in politics and I am also seeing this increasingly in the field of nutrition. We are flooded with ‘clean, raw, detox, juicing, low carb and paleo diets’. There’s an army of ‘experts’ quick to share there their stories on what we should be eating to experience a life changing transformation, have a squeaky clean digestive system and the ‘ripped’ body of a professional athlete.
‘Foodoo’ definition – ‘the inappropriate promotion of diet and nutrition myths’
I am passionate about the role nutrition can play in promoting health but this white magic or ‘foodoo’ overload makes me despair. It is full of rules and contradictions. It is humourless, bullying and smug. It promotes restriction, pain, hunger and guilt. It confuses people so much that they are no longer know what ‘a balanced and healthy diet is’. Above all, it is based on myths and ‘foodoo’ and not based on research or evidence. A juicing diet might have enabled Joe Bloggs to lose 30 kgs, but is possibly not an appropriate diet for an athletic young adult or an elderly person. However, nothing stops Joe Bloggs from vblogging and tweeting about his incredible diet and why everyone should follow it.
So, how can you distinguish between the fact and fiction when it comes to nutrition?!
Choose your experts carefully
We do need experts! I’ve also overheard people saying the ‘the advice keeps changing’. What I would argue here is that from a public health perspective, the advice has never really changed – eat a balanced diet, moderate your fats, eat as many vegetables and fruits as you can and watch the amount of sugar and alcohol you consume. The issue is that the definition of ‘nutrition expert’ is very loosely applied, and people who are n’t experts are muddying the waters with their personal opinions and thoughts on nutrition and healthy eating. My definition of an expert? Someone who is qualified, trained and experienced. Someone who can assess, measure and balance the evidence and produce clear, accurate and effective recommendations. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist as it is not a protected title unlike dietitians who are on a statutory register and have a title which is protected by law. You should ideally look for evidence of a degree, check whether they are insured to give nutrition advice and whether they regulated and registered with a healthcare authority.
Choose evidence based nutrition information
Ideally the advice you are given should be based on evidence. This means that it refers to studies which have been performed demonstrating that the advice works! It should not be based on opinion or personal experience!
Types of nutrition research
Here’s a bit of useful background information. Most nutrition studies are observational studies which means that groups of people are followed and observed over a set period by noting their intake of particular foods and food groups. These types of studies are used to find associations which can form a basis for nutrition advice, although you need to be aware of the difference between ‘associative and causal’.
For example, a study might show an association or link between eating breakfast and vegetable consumption, but it does not mean that this is a causal factor so we cannot say that ‘eating breakfast makes people eat more vegetables’. There may be several other reasons which contribute to the increased vegetable consumption. Breakfast eaters might be more health conscious in general, they might be more likely to cook meals from scratch etc. etc.
Other studies you might find are on animals (in vivo) or performed on cells (in vitro) and again it’s important to underline that cells or animals might react very differently to humans, so again these types of studies are not conclusive and should not be used to set nutrition public health policy until further research is performed.
Randomized controlled trials are really the only types of studies which can demonstrate a causal effect. In these types of studies, you allocate people to random groups where everything is kept the same bar one factor and then measure the different results between the groups. They are expensive to control and monitor and ideally should also be performed ‘blind’ to eliminate any possible placebo effort.
Look for balance and perspective
A real nutrition expert should give you balanced and measured nutrition advice and spend time finding out about your preferences and concerns. They should not be promoting one particular diet or a way of eating which eliminates certain food groups or has a complicated set of rules, such as, for example: Avoid eating carbohydrates and protein together/don’t eat after 4 pm at night/make sure 75% of your diet is raw etc etc. The role of an expert is to give you support and guidance in applying healthy evidence based nutrition principles.
Be wary of anyone trying to sell you nutrition supplements, tests or weight loss products
If anyone if getting a percentage or margin on selling you nutritional supplements, tests or powdered shakes and diet products, there is a huge risk that their advice may not be completely ‘impartial’! Anything which sounds too good to be true, is likely not to work and spending huge amounts on supplements and diet products is as a general rule, not necessary. Be very, very wary of anyone pushing you to buy these products and develop a healthy sense of scepticism.
There are two saying that I come back to every time. The first by Frank Zappa: ‘A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” yet according to Lawrence Ferlinghetti “If you’re too open-minded; your brains will fall out.”. The ‘foodoo’ movement has nothing to do with science and everything to do with pushing personal opinions and beliefs. It’s bad science or ‘post science’!
A healthy and varied diet is not about restrictions and rules. It should be fun, pleasurable and simple to follow. It can certainly help us to stay healthy but getting constantly stressed about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is not good for us either. We don’t need perfection or magic! It is time to fight back against the food fads and apply some common sense. Let’s get rid of the foodoo!