The Culture & Problems of Nutritional Science
Trying to figure out a diet that will keep us healthy and help us reach our wellness goals can be extremely frustrating. Low carb, no carb, sugar-free, fat-free, high-fat, ketogenic, paleo, low-sodium, organic, pesticide-free, hormone-free….
It’s a frustration we’ve all faced - what are we supposed to be eating now?
Nutrition is an ever-changing field of science that never seems to give anyone a straight answer about what’s good or bad for us. What’s worse is that the answers they try to give are always so conflicting; up until very recently, egg yolks were accused of causing high cholesterol - now they are lauded as a source of crucial fats and nutrients. In the 90’s especially, people were enthusiastic about low-fat diets - now the science says that eating fat doesn’t make you gain fat, eating carbs makes you gain fat, and eating (certain) fats are healthy. However, they specify it’s only the refined carbs that will make you gain unhealthy body mass and body fat, the rest are an important part of a balanced diet. Then there’s the theory that no food will make you fat or unhealthy; it’s the amount that impacts you. We’ve all been told that if you eat more calories than you burn, then you’ll gain fat; now they’re saying that if you eat too few calories then your metabolism will slow down and store more fat. Supposedly eating more calories will rev up your metabolism and make you burn more fat, so eating more calories could make you lose fat.
There’s an inordinate amount of conflicting nutritional advice floating around - it’s enough to make anyone want to give up and live on instant ramen until someone finally discovers concrete answers about what will and won’t kill us. The main problem at hand is that nutritional science is so new; the effects of certain nutrients and chemical additives have only been studied over the past couple of decades. New studies are constantly being released and their findings so often contradict each other because of the hundreds of variables that impact our health. Additional difficulty is caused by the nature of these studies - most of them are observational studies, since it’s difficult to create a long-term study in which you strictly control what hundreds of people eat. Since these studies are observational and uncontrolled, there are a lot of other variables that have to be taken into account, and the answers that these studies provide can be pretty vague. These answers are often gathered via surveys where their test subjects report what they eat with as much detail as possible - and they, like most people, tend to remember with inaccuracy.
Another problem within the nutritional science field is that the media outlets that distribute the information tend to oversimplify. I see multiple nutrition and health articles on my Facebook newsfeed every day and the titles are always something along the lines of “5 Foods You Should Eat To Lose Weight” or “Why Carbs Are Actually Bad/Good For You”. Nutritional science studies are published and backed up with pages of research and facts and figures - only to be condensed down to a listicle that readers can skim through in less than a minute. If they aren’t oversimplified, then they’re exaggerated and blown way out of proportion. Within the past year or so there have been studies showing a correlation between low-fat dairy products and Type 2 Diabetes. When people read headlines like “Low Fat Milk Linked to Possible Increased Risk of Diabetes”, it’s interpreted as “low fat milk causes diabetes”. Correlation and causation are frequently mixed up, and especially within the nutritional science field, the mixup tends to cause panic and misinformation.
Nutritional science is also put at a disadvantage because people’s nutritional needs are often so individualized as a result of allergies, lifestyle, and genetic history. The bottom line is take what you read in the news with a grain of salt and don’t panic when they release a new study saying that something you thought was healthy has possible negative effects - everything has potential negative effects. Practice moderation and listen to your body - eat what makes you feel healthy, and get your nutritional advice from a certified and trusted professional.