Why Is Nutrition so Confusing?

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Headlines, labels, news stories, and even research studies overwhelm us with conflicting nutrition information. As a dietitian, I often take for granted that I have studied this science for several years. I roll my eyes and move on. But recently, I got to thinking about how these sources impact those who truly want to do better for their bodies. For example, I was listening to a podcast that advertised a product that fit into the category of “clean” eating: free from sugar, soy, dairy, and whatever else was deemed unacceptable for human consumption (by this company, I should add). Shortly after, I noticed the label on almond milk claimed something similar, followed by the statement “no bad stuff”. So now health isn’t just about eating more vegetables and taking it easy on the fast food, but it’s about combing through these arbitrary claims that mean nothing, while simultaneously trying to figure out who to believe. It’s a full-time job (seriously, I made it one).

What is the reason for the back and forth? And why are some foods bad on one site, but wear a health halo on another? Let’s dive into a few thoughts.

1. First, nutrition is a young science. Compared to other sciences, nutrition hasn’t been around too long. It may take hundreds of years to establish a solid foundation. We are still figuring it out. That being said…

2. Nutrition is hard to control and isolate. A randomized, controlled trial is the gold standard in nutrition research. Unfortunately, it is impossible to control all factors in a nutrition experiment, especially when working with individuals with free will to eat at any time. If you want to study a low-carb diet, you are trusting your subjects to stick to the prescribed diet. Furthermore, there are so many individual and genetic factors that may influence a response to a given nutrient. This is part of the reason that one study will get one outcome, and the follow-up gets conflicting results.

3. Nutrition headlines are flashy. Good nutrition advice, generally, is not. Which article are you more likely to click on?

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Furthermore, journalists reporting on research outcomes are not necessarily experts in nutrition. By the time the research reaches the mainstream, the statements are often extremely exaggerated or completely made up. The media wants new, surprising, and conflicting results. Readers do not want to read the same story every day. One study finds a small group of individuals who went to happy hour everyday had slightly lower rates of cancer*? Everyone wants to read that story! What the media might not report is that individuals who go to happy hour every day probably have a solid group of friends and/or have higher income than those who do not go to happy hour. These are two confounding factors that have been shown to influence disease risk. But no, it must be the happy hour.

*Not a real research study, to my knowledge. But maybe.

4. Food and nutrition marketing is often based in fear. Remember the story from the beginning? The claim “no bad stuff” scares us into buying their product! The FDA does regulate label claims to a degree, but manufacturers have a smart legal team working behind them to find the loopholes. This happens a lot in supplement sales. For instance:

Did you know vitamin x is important in over 200 body functions? Researchers found a link between low levels and of this compound and a number of ailments, including weight gain, cancer, hormone imbalance, and even early death. Recent studies show that over 95% of Americans are deficient in this vitamin! But don’t waste your money at the drugstore; unfortunately, most supplements on the market are not effectively used by your body. But our proprietary blend is research-backed and guaranteed to be the most bioavailable compound on the market. Don’t delay! Enjoy better health today.*


*Not a real supplement. I made this up.

5. Finally, eating patterns are very personal and can be deceptive. What works for one will not work for all. For example:
a) Your body is your body and will not look like anyone else’s no matter how many sit ups you do, miles you run, coconut oil you eat, or pounds you can lift.
b) Abs do not come from saran wrap and protein shakes. The guy/girl on social media is genetically predisposed to that body shape, working really hard, editing their photos, following a super restrictive diet, dehydrated, and/or getting paid if you buy their product.
c) Your friend had great results on a given diet. That is cool and interesting, but it is anecdotal and means nothing for the rest of us.
d) Celebrities are not nutrition experts. However, they have a big following and widespread influence. Remember that their opinion is not expert medical advice.

So how do you navigate the muddy waters of nutrition headlines? Go see a registered dietitian. We’re a tight network of type-A, research-obsessed people who love to talk about food. If you are not ready for that, then remember to keep the big picture in mind. Restrictive diets do not work. The best diet is the one you can stick to and makes you feel good.

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