Almost everyone is looking for ways to improve their health. But nutrition is one of the most frustrating sciences – it is arguably the most important to our daily lives, but we barely know anything about it. Knowing what foods are good for us and which ones will kill us instantly seems like the type of thing we’d invest more energy into decoding, but “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods trade places more often than pro wrestlers in a tag-team match. Take coffee for example: First, it was good for you, then it was bad, then it was good again, then it caused cancer, and then it cured cancer.
And coffee is far from the only example, which makes it impossible to take health news seriously. If you’re wondering why nutrition is such a tough nut for us to crack, and why people have no idea what to think about obesity, it’s because …
5. All Diets Sort Of Work (As Long As You Stick With Them)
If you grew up in the 1980s, you remember hearing that sugar that makes you fat, which is why suddenly artificial sweeteners were in everything. Then in the ’90s, it was decided that fat was making you fat – thus the “stop the insanity” diet, which was all about fat grams and nothing else. That gave birth to a wave of “fat-free” snacks marketed as healthy foods despite being filled with sugar, carbs, and calories.
Shockingly, a chocolate cake is still bad for you.
In the 2000s, carbs were the bad guy. That brought us the Atkins diet and millions of people telling restaurants to replace their hamburger bun with extra bacon.
The fact that they had to release an improved edition of a revolutionary diet should have been a red flag.
These days, you’re starting to hear about sugar again, and we’re right back to where we were 30 years ago.
Were any of them right? Well, let’s look at the still-raging war between low-fat vs. low-carb diets. Countless books and articles have been written passionately arguing one over the other because it is apparently unthinkable that both could have merit. Researchers finally put both theories to the test in a huge meta-analysis and found that after 12 months, the difference in average weight loss between those on low-carb diets and those on low-fat diets was a tiny fraction of a pound in favor of low-carb (which isn’t exactly grounds for a culture war, but blood has definitely been spilled for less). Other types of diets were also tested, and while they scored worse than the low-fat/low-carb ones, the differences in weight loss between them were barely noticeable.
What does this mean? For one, it means that the Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, and Tapeworm diets all work to almost the exact same degree and that the best kind of diet for you is simply the one that you won’t quit two days after starting. For some people, giving up carbs might be a walk in the park, while with others, it will make them hallucinate that their friends and loved ones have turned into giant plates of cartoon hamburgers.
There’s a more subtle effect at play too. Let’s say you decide to cut back on sodium, and after a few months you’ve lost weight, you feel more energetic, and your blood pressure has gone way down. But before you go recommending it to everyone else, consider all the other changes you’ve indirectly made. Cutting back on sodium means most fast food is no longer an option. The same goes for most processed food. You’ve probably also started cooking more of your own meals, and they’ve probably included more fruits and veggies than you used to eat because, again, your options are a lot more limited now.
It’s kind of similar to the gluten-free craze, in which millions of people convinced themselves that gluten was making them sick, despite probably not knowing what gluten even is (do you?). Sure enough, they feel better after making a concerted effort to cut it out. But is it because they cut down on gluten, or because they cut down on the kind of foods that happen to have gluten in them – such as pasta, cookies, cakes, beer, etc.? “I feel so much better now!” Of course you do.
Just getting people to stop and examine the contents of what they’re eating is a huge accomplishment. If somebody’s handing out snacks at a party, you’re less likely to just absent-mindedly cram something into your mouth because it looks good if you think you’ve got an allergy to some invisible ingredient. Even if you almost certainly don’t.
4. We Ignore Nutritional Experts in Favor of People with No Academic Knowledge or Training
The truth is that there are legitimate scientists out there who can tell you what food will allow you to live long enough to see that fourth season of Sherlock. Unfortunately, we generally decide to ignore them, because they tend to babble on about things like “vegetables” and “moderation,” while callously leaving no room for Bloomin’ Onions or mozzarella sticks.
Then there is Vani Hari, who forced corporate giants like General Mills and Kellogg’s to change their products, wrote a best-selling book on nutrition, and was named one of Time magazine’s 30 Most Influential People On The Internet, despite having absolutely no education in the field of nutrition whatsoever. Instead of drawing from any actual academic training, every ounce of her advice is based on the idea that all chemicals are bad for you, without exception.
We might scoff at the idea of Rihanna writing a neuroscience textbook or asking Mel Gibson’s opinion on how to find the Higgs boson. But, when Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow endorsed a “cleanse” diet, loads of people were more than happy to listen, trying extreme diets invented by attractive celebrities in an attempt to “detox” their body of scary toxins that can’t be identified by any kind of medical testing.
That said, it is admittedly a bit confusing to figure out whose nutritional advice you should listen to because the terminology is weirdly muddled. To wit, a “dietician” is a legally recognized expert who went to school to learn how to tell you to stop eating like a frightened goblin.
3. Our Methods for Studying Nutrition are Terrible
To know how different foods affect different people, we first have to know exactly what food people eat, and in what quantities, combinations, positions, etc. If this sounds like the sort of thing that is impossible to accurately observe without planting hidden cameras everywhere in the world, that’s because it is. Fortunately, scientists devised something called “memory-based dietary assessment methods” (M-BMs), which is another way of saying, “We ask people about their diet and then take them at their word.”
Unsurprisingly, when the scientists over at the Mayo Clinic looked into the M-BM, they found that the method was “fundamentally and fatally flawed” when it came to studying nutrition. They tried to be tactful and diplomatic about their findings by attributing the failings of the M-BM to the unreliable nature of human memory, but as anyone who has ever eaten anything in their lives can tell you, it isn’t hard to remember whether you eat steamed vegetables or Taco Bell on a regular basis. No, the reason the M-BM doesn’t work as an accurate representation of people’s diets is because people tend to lie.
We lie all the time, which is why a review of nutrition surveys found that 67.3 percent of women and 58.7 percent of men report calorie intakes that are “not physiologically plausible.” And this is the data on which we base all of our food policy and dietary guidelines.
With such shoddy information, you can find studies linking almost any nutrient to almost any affliction you can imagine. So what we’re really saying is: Remember that study that linked eating processed meat to cancer? We wouldn’t let that stop you from eating bacon just yet. Speaking of which …
2. The Media Constantly Bombards Us with Bogus Food Studies and Contradicting Research
If some terrible blog reports that the world leaders are secretly robot lizard people from another dimension’s future, chances are whoever wrote it is either a crazy lunatic or is pretending to be a crazy lunatic, which is basically the same thing. But when a respectable organization like the BBC reports that breastfeeding prevents obesity, the story is immediately credible in our minds. We assume that they conducted thorough independent research, and aren’t just blindly repeating the results of slipshod studies that drew a questionable conclusion.
Between 1999 and 2006, the BBC has changed their minds about the benefits of breast milk more times than a vegan, first-time parent. Of course, you might say: “Duh, they’re just reporting on the progress of science,” but the thing is, they’re not. At all. Three out of the four studies covered by the BBC were based on surveys, making them as scientifically reliable as horoscopes. And when another site reports three conflicting studies about the effect of sodium on the human body within the same year, you have to start wondering if mass media isn’t just playing with us at this point.
Things have gotten so bad that the same news outlet will now report on how red wine might make radiation treatment more effective, fight cavities, and even make your kids grow up to be more attentive and better behaved, which of course it can’t, because it’s grape juice, not angel tears.
A group of researchers recently highlighted how bad the problem has become when they released a study showing that dark chocolate could help you lose weight. The study was blasted across the Internet, made front-page headlines in major newspapers, and was discussed on TV news networks. The study, however, was intentionally flawed and was written by a lead author from an institute that didn’t actually exist. The researchers behind it wanted to see how many outlets would engage in basic journalism – you know, to vet the story before breathlessly reporting it. Depressingly, not many of them did, so we’re not sure how stoked the researchers were that their fake study was such a success.
That’s why you should get all of your diet advice from your doctor, right? Yeah, about that …
1. Doctors Get Almost No Nutritional Training Whatsoever
The one thing you should have taken away from this article by now is that it’s impossible to make sweeping generalizations about nutrition, so you should probably just do what the commercials say and ask your doctor which diet is best for you. Unfortunately, it turns out that during their entire stint in med school, the average doctor only spends about 19.6 contact hours learning about nutrition, which is less time than it takes to beat Final Fantasy XII.
In 2003, a survey found that 84 percent of cardiologists didn’t know that a low-fat diet could actually increase your levels of triglycerides, which can lead to heart disease. This seems like something that heart doctors should probably be taught, right? But modern medicine is apparently more concerned with the treatment of cardiovascular disease than the prevention.
Even scarier, less than 25 percent of doctors surveyed said they feel qualified to talk about diet with a patient. The study also found that doctors are less likely to talk with their patients about nutrition if they happen to be overweight themselves.