Nutrition information you can swallow: on avoiding food fads and bad advice

We live in an amazing technological age with access to information and education unprecedented in human history. The internet in particular is such an important vehicle in information sharing: in most places it is open to all to explore and it provides a platform for anyone, including me and this blog, to discuss and publish nearly anything they like. With a few words typed into a search bar the average human is presented with thousands of items to peruse; if there is a question, there is also an answer or a thousand. The abundance of information with accompanying lack of vetting is often a double-edged sword, and the world of nutrition and lifestyle information is no exception. On one side it is wonderful to see some many people interested in eating well; the more people who get as excited as me about nutrition and food, the better. The other side is innumerable claims that lack evidence, plausibility, and good science. I would wager that nutrition has it worse that many other topics for a couple of reasons. First, every human needs to eat in one way or another to survive (sorry breatharians), so we all have a stake in food and nutrition, while we don’t all, for example, have a stake in astrophysics or small engine repair. Second, we westerners tend to judge ourselves and others by the foods that we choose, thus the focus on eating well and choosing the “right” foods. All told, there is still a lot of great nutrition info written by dietitians, health professionals, scientists, and health enthusiasts alike, the trouble is figuring out what is advice worthy of following, what is questionable, and what is downright dangerous.

Below is a list of 5 questions to ask when consuming nutrition information, adapted from this resource.

  1. Is the person or product promising a quick fix like fast weight-loss or a miracle cure? If it sounds too good to be true, then it likely is. If there’s one thing we know about being healthy, it’s that there’s no magic pill that will get you there. If there’s two things we know about being healthy, it’s that a person’s health is the outcome of the interactions of hundreds of different factors in both their body and their environment. It is anything but simple. Simple solutions are not going to “fix” systemic problems. Accredited health professionals don’t make these kinds of promises because we know they’re false, and we’re legally not allowed to do that.
  2. Are they trying to sell you products such as special foods or supplements? Do they make claims that sound something like “you can’t be healthy without this herb/supplement/etc.? Do their claims make you feel as though you’re failing for not already using this product? Beware the salesperson (whether you are aware that that’s what they are or not) who pitches your ailment and miraculously also sells the “cure”.
  3. Do they provide information based on personal stories (i.e. testimonials) rather than on facts? Although it’s nice to hear about a success story from a celebrity, it’s not proof that something works or is true. Always keep in mind: the plural of anecdotes IS NOT data. One hundred “it worked for me” stories without credible evaluation tell us nothing about a products/program’s efficacy or safety. Paid testimonials need to be taken with a large rock of salt because these people have a vested interest in making the product look good. Finally, never underestimate the power of investment bias. The more a person has to lost from using a product/service, the more likely they are to give that thing a positive review, deserved or not.
  4. Is their claim based on a single study or a few research studies? A single study is not sufficient evidence on which to base treatment recommendations (in the vast majority of cases). Were the studies with animals or humans? Many of the most appealing and attention-grabbing headlines refer to studies conducted in vitro and/or in animals. These types of studies are important and fascinating but score low applicability points. Are you similar to the humans that were studied (age, sex etc.)? If not, you may not experience the same or any effect as claimed. The stronger the study design (blinded, more participants, proper controls in place) and the more studies available that draw the same conclusions, the stronger the evidence that something it true.
  5. What are the person’s qualifications? Remember that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, a nutrition expert, a culinary guru, a nutrient savant, and any other official-sounding title you can think of. Their education in human nutrition can range from non-existant to university training. Some may even be non-nutrition health providers. Only dietitians have accredited degrees and practical experience specifically in nutrition. Calling one’s self a “nutritionist”, having a medical degree, or adding a fruit or vegetable to one’s name does not bestow the authority of nutrition advice provision on that person. Make sure whoever the source, their training is science-based and from a reputable and accredited source.

Asking these 5 questions before absorbing nutrition advice can help steer clear of money grabs, lies, and potentially harmful practices, all of which go a lot further to keeping you well than many foods fads.

 

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