Why is it so hard to get a straight answer about nutrition?


Blog / Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

What single word turns a ho-hum BOOK into a bestseller? Yup, you got it – DIET. Every grocery checkout in the country seems to have racks of magazines, all promising “10 pounds in two weeks.” The best seller list is seldom without some new fad diet book. Newspapers run biweekly diet articles on their lifestyle pages. And yet overweight and outright obesity continue to be the number one underlying public health problem.

Why can’t scientists give us “the” answer? Why can’t the Center for Disease Control end this epidemic?

Sadly, there are a lot of very good reasons for the confusion, conflicting information, and sheer lack of information in some areas. Nutrition is a very young science. The technology to establish nutritional “fact” is a recent development. Funds for nutrition research are not as plentiful as funds for better-known causes such as breast cancer. A lot of the research relies on observation and self-report. Can you remember what you are yesterday – accurately? Guesstimates are no use! Then, too, the goal in constantly moving. As we grow our food in mono cultures and under increasing antibiotic and pesticide loads, the content and bioavailability of food is changing. Formulation of packaged foods changes according to cost of ingredients and developments in food technology. Regulation is also changing: just this week, restaurants were finally required to put calories on their menus.

Second big issue is an ethical one. The Nazis put children on sugar diets to see the effects. God forbid we should do anything that might harm patients/study participants. That rules out the double-blind, randomized studies needed to explore many interesting, important questions. Moreover, we’re often comparing one complex regime with another – the DASH diet vs. the Mediterranean diet, for example. It’s extremely hard to isolate any one factor or factors that “explain” the outcomes. Often, we’re just finding associations – not causation. Then, too, compliance is a huge problem with nutritional studies. It’s only human to say, “yes, I used the nasty meal replacement drink you gave me, and of course, I never went face down into a pizza.” We never can know that our results reflect people’s actual eating and exercise behavior.

Lastly, there is more agreement among experts than you might think, but it doesn’t filter down into popular sources. Part of the reason for this is conflict of interest. Monolithic food manufacturers like Coca-Cola are funding “research” and disseminating inaccurate findings, e.g., that sports drinks are better than water for you after exercise. The old saying, “buyer beware” has never been more true. The diet industry is not only selling health, it’s actively trying to undermine public trust in science. Why do you think the CSPI calls itself the Center for Science in the Public Interest?

I’d like to leave you with some advice. First, focus on big issues – e.g., eating fewer highly processed foods. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Second, adopt a regime that you know you can and will follow. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Lastly, pick some objective measures relevant to your own situation and use them to evaluate your progress. It doesn’t have to be your weight. Be your own researcher, like Tim Ferris.

Write and tell me about your experience. I’m always interested in sharing new sources with clients.