The most common complaint when it comes to nutrition information is how confusing and contradictory all of the messages and recommendations are that we get presented with on a daily basis. Putting aside the very real problem of the media and the easy accessibility of information online that can further complicate things; nutrition science is really only in its infancy when compared to other disciplines. And as we learn more about the body and how food interacts with it, nutrition recommendations for the greater population are inevitably going to change.
The best example I can think of is the humble egg. Once demonised for raising cholesterol and being planted firmly in the ‘bad food’ camp, newer research has found that eggs don’t actually raise the cholesterol linked with heart disease and as a result they are now well accepted as part of a balanced diet. It is actually OK to have up to six eggs a week, if you are following a balanced diet!
There are a few reasons why it is so difficult to get consistent results when it comes to nutrition science.
Nutrients don’t work in isolation of one another
There are complex interrelationships between nutrients that we may never understand. Then add in varying ways in which the nutrients are available in the food we eat and how cooking can change these, and it becomes quite clear that we can’t just say that eliminating sugar is the answer to obesity.
We are all inherently different, so how is it possible that we all digest, absorb and metabolise our food in the exact same way, or that food has the exact same effect on our bodies? I know of a family who have one sibling with irritable bowel syndrome, one with a food allergy and one with no dietary problems. That is three people, with three different dietary requirements right there!
When conducting nutrition research it is extremely difficult to collect accurate food data from people. People can’t remember what they ate, or they underreport what they ate to make themselves look like they have a better diet, or if they eat out they don’t know what ingredients went in to their meal, or if they are assigned to a particular diet for the study, they may cheat!
Having said all of that though, I think people forget that when nutritionists and dietitians provide comment to the media, or write a blog post or an article, we do try to pitch the information to ‘an otherwise healthy adult’ with information that is evidence based. This approach aims to act as a catch-all to benefit the majority of the population. And if the advice or information is tailored for a specific population e.g. those that are overweight, or have coeliac disease or a heart condition, then it is generally specified. The reason why I say that I think people forget this, is because they can be quite venomous in their comments when a nutritionist or dietitian looks to even out the playing field when it comes to fad diets or unsubstantiated health claims.
Now I am sure most nutritionists and dietitians would tell you they enjoy a healthy discussion about food and diets but that there is a line where the discussion becomes just plain mean. If you have found a method of eating that makes you feel energised and healthy or helps you maintain the weight your want, then that is fantastic – for you – as an individual. But it doesn’t mean that your method suits everyone, or that you should sling mud at nutrition professionals who are presenting generalised information to try and bring about an improvement in population health.
It would be like me trolling all of the news sites that have published articles about recent research that has found eating nuts is correlated with a longer lifespan and leaving comments about how ridiculous the research is because I personally would drop dead if I followed the advice due to a nut allergy. OBVIOUSLY, the dietary recommendations that can be taken from this research doesn’t apply to me but the health benefits of eating nuts DO apply to the majority of the population.
So, regardless of your personal food philosophy and the flaws in nutrition research, there is no question about the value of a balanced diet on our overall health and wellbeing. This is one of the fundamental principles that nutrition professionals prescribe to and fad diets, media hype, radical research and food trends will always ebb and flow around the periphery of this.