I think we can all agree, nutrition is the most relevant yet most confusing science. Everybody eats, but in the 19 years I’ve been an RD, I’ve seen complete 180-degree shifts in what we know. And trust me, I’ve been as frustrated as the average person. Even knowing that nutrition is a relatively new science that is constantly evolving, I have wondered what to eat and what to feed my family.
Further complicating matters, nutrition science isn’t just about the foods we eat. It’s about so much more–our genetics, our emotional relationship with food, and our social connections with each other, to name a few. Actually, many of the things that confound our understanding of nutrition are the things that fascinate me the most!
But frankly, nutrition is also about the politics and economics of those invested in it–and it this fact that most makes me critically (sometimes cynically!) question all health-related information I come across.
We can’t change any of these factors, try as we might. But what we can do is approach each piece of nutrition news with a plan to get to the real bottom line–and I do not mean the economic one.
To do this, we should ask ourselves questions that analyze the news and help us make the most sense out of it. It is my goal to do that through my blog posts, but in case you are wondering how I approach nutrition news, here are the very questions I ask myself. I hope you will ask these same questions the next time you hear some nutrition news, whether it’s from government sources, the media, or even your multi-level-marketing friend. And when still in doubt, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
5 Questions This RD Wants You To Ask About Nutrition News:
1. What is the primary source of the information?
Knowing the source is important because you can consider bias when assessing new information and comparing it with other sources of related information. The information’s source is only one piece of the puzzle to assessing the validity of the information because you cannot eliminate bias, only minimize it.
Is the information coming from a company who stands to benefit financially? Or conversely, is it coming from a researcher at an institution who stands to lose a lot (for example, funding or their job) if the research doesn’t support their life’s work? Is it coming from an organization with a political and economic agenda (for example, the USDA with agricultural ties)? Is it coming from a blogger who is paid to promote a product?
But even when there is not an obvious economic or political investment, sometimes the source’s preconceived notions are a form of bias. I frequently find that many RDs have a judgmental almost angry tone when presenting information from their “soap box” and this is a bias that I really try to keep in check.
2. Is it a quick fix or does it sound too good to be true?
If it sounds easy, look deeper. Particularly in the case of weight loss, I’m sorry to say there is no easy fix. In fact, many proprietary herbal blend supplements can actually be dangerous, especially because many companies don’t list the amounts consumed of each ingredient, but rather lump them all together as a blend.
But even if a product doesn’t contain questionably harmful ingredients, there’s the very real possibility it is a waste of money. One reason is that dietary supplements are not regulated well (thanks to the Dietary Supplements and Health Education Act of 1994), so companies don’t always include the ingredients or full amounts that are listed on their labels because no one is checking up on them.
Plus many people experience a “placebo effect” when they begin using dietary products; that is, they unknowingly (or even knowingly) change how they are eating and experience desired results that can’t be attributed solely to the product they are taking. If you’re like me, you may even see this with your own friends; your Facebook feed may be full of pictures of really healthy meals your friends are eating while they are taking one dietary supplement or another. If you eat real, lower sugar, lower refined-carb food that replaces processed foods, you can lose weight without expensive products.
3. Do you need a subscription, membership or salesperson “dealer” as a gateway to the product, information or service?
If and when there is a truly effective weight loss supplement, there will be no more overweight people and no weight-loss industry. Until then, most companies are trying to make money, not trying to help you lose weight safely and permanently (which is another whole topic…)
When multi-level marketing companies use social networks to sell nutrition-related products among friends, I find it particularly scary because you are more likely to try a potentially harmful or wasteful product just because your trusted friend is swearing its safety and efficacy to you. And sometimes you are even made to feel unsupportive if you don’t buy it.
But fundamentally, I’d stand firm if I were you. There is no way to extract all the compounds that work together in real, whole food to make it the most nourishing to our bodies and as a result, there is no proprietary product on the market that will revolutionize your nutrition. And don’t forget to consider what will happen when you stop taking the product. You may be worse off than before you started.
4. Is there scientific, peer-reviewed, journal-published data to review?
This is the gold standard of scientific data: scientific articles published in a well-respected journal that is reviewed by experts in the field. In particular, the only way to prove causation is the randomized controlled clinical trial, although it’s difficult to do these studies when it comes to nutrition. You have to force people to eat a certain way and it’s hard to be sure they are doing so unless in a lab, and if they’re in a lab, it’s not “real life.”
So, observational studies are frequently done to look for associations to provide hypotheses to be further tested; however, they only show correlation not causation. Unfortunately, most people forget this, including many study authors. And the media is notorious for publishing stories stating results of observational studies as fact. If it’s an observational study, or a short clinical trial, take the results with a big grain of salt.
In addition, scientific articles are not free of bias. Only certain articles are selected for publication. Even the ones that are published can be poorly designed with confounding factors. Review articles can creatively select certain studies to include and others to leave out, which influences the conclusions.
And if the research available is only done by the company itself and reported on their own website, do they give you access to read beyond the abstract? Frequently scientific language is used to make claims that are not supported by the study’s actual design. Scientific-sounding information may sound convincing, but it’s important to look at the study details to determine the methods used and whether the conclusions are applicable and reasonable.
5. What Should I Do With This Information?
This is the most important question to ask yourself. When a headline suggests a particular food has health benefit, many Americans tend to run out and add it to their usual diet. But in most cases, you have to analyze your overall diet and see how the food can fit in and make adjustments to the foods you already eat.
For example, olive oil is a very heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. But if you simply start adding it to your diet, without giving up anything else, such as sugar and refined carbs that contribute to obesity and heart disease, you will not see the health benefits and may actually end up worse off. Radical changes to your diet based on one new study are likely to leave you even more frustrated–and potentially unhealthier–than ever.
When reading about nutrition news, remember to have respect for your body. It is an incredible, complicated machine that is capable of far more than we may ever know. There is no need to detox or cleanse your body. The best thing you can do for your health is to eat easy, real foods and avoid processed foods as much as possible. Please, consider this if you consider nothing else when you read nutrition news.