Nearly every person wants to improve his or her health. Nearly every person is also terribly confused about nutrition. It is critically important, but frustratingly unknown. Why don’t we know which foods are healthy and which ones will result in instant death? Why do “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods trade places more often than a chameleon changes colors? Consider the opinion of coffee. It was good for you, then it could kill you. Then it was good again. Soon it caused cancer, and then it cured cancer.
Coffee is just one example. This makes one suspect all health news. So why is this so difficult? You have to consider some hidden truths about the food industry as a whole.
4. We prefer self-proclaimed experts to people with real training and knowledge
Yes, true scientists that can coach you on how to live until the last season of Sherlock do exist. But since they usually endlessly bloviate about “vegetables” and “moderation,” we pay little attention to them. They are so cruel to condemn wonderful foods like mozzarella sticks and Bloomin’ Onions!
Vani Hari had exactly zero nutrition education or experience. But she wrote a best-selling nutrition book, forced Kellogg’s and General Mills to alter their products, and was recognised as one of Time magazine’s “30 Most Influential People on The Internet.” What was her ground-breaking discovery? That every single chemical in existence is bad for you.
Imagine Lady Gaga writing a neuroscience textbook or asking Johnny Depp how to find the Higgs boson. No one would do that, right? Well, Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow endorsed a “cleanse” diet. Despite them only being attractive celebrities that decided to “detox” their bodies because they were scared of toxins that no kind of medical testing could detect, people followed them in droves.
Another problem with deciphering nutrition is that the terminology is weirdly muddled. For example, a “dietician” is a legally recognized expert who went to school to learn how to tell you to stop eating like an idiot. But a “nutritionist” is a bogus title that bogus organizations like The American Association of Nutritional Consultants once gave to a dead cat. Seriously.
3. Our Methods for Studying Nutrition are Terrible
How do different foods affect different people? It depends on what is eaten, in what combinations, positions and quantities, among other factors. To get truly accurate information, every person would have to be spied on at all times, at a level that would make the most ardent conspiracy theorist wet the bed.
So scientists created “memory-based dietary assessment methods” (M-BMs). In other words, they’ll ask you what you eat. Whatever you tell them, they will accept. Even if you don’t pinky-swear.
Being a little suspicious, some scientists at the Mayo Clinic looked into the M-BM. Amazingly enough, they found the method was “fundamentally and fatally flawed”. They tried to be diplomatic and tactful about the unreliable nature of human memory. Of course it isn’t hard to remember whether you eat celery or Burger King on a regular basis. More bluntly, the M-BM doesn’t work because we as a people are compulsive liars.
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.” There they go, trying to be nice again. And this is what dietary guidelines and food policy are based on. Perhaps Whoppers are considered unhealthy because depressed people who are considering killing themselves are the only people that will admit they eat them.
This means you can link any nutrient to any affliction if the shoddy data is manipulated properly. Did you see the study that promised you will get cancer from eating processed meats? That doesn’t mean you need to stop eating bacon by yesterday.
2. Bogus studies and contradicting research are the media’s weapons
Some lunatic may write in his blog that all world leaders are lizard robots from the future. Those claims are easy to dismiss. But when an organization like the BBC reports that breastfeeding prevents obesity, we believe it because we think the BBC is credible. We assume the report is based on independent research, not the blathering of some blogger in his mother’s basement.
However, the BBC changed their minds about breast milk more times than a vegan, first-time parent from 1999 through 2006. You might be tempted to say, “science changes, and they report the changes.” But they’re not. At all. The BBC reported on four studies. Three of them were based on surveys. And surveys are about as scientifically reliable as horoscopes. Then three conflicting studies about the effect of sodium on the human body surface within one calendar year. Now you wonder if mass media isn’t just playing with us like George Lucas.
The same news outlet will now report on how red wine could fight cavities, make radiation treatment more effective, and make your kids grow up to be more attentive and better behaved. But since wine is grape juice, not angel tears, none of that is truly possible.
Let’s consider a study showing that dark chocolate could help you lose weight. The study was discussed on TV news, made front-page headlines, and was crushed by Internet criticism. But the joke was on everyone. The study was written by a lead author from an institute that didn’t exist and was intentionally flawed. The researchers wanted to see how many outlets would engage in actual journalism – you know, vetting the story and then reporting it, without throwing in a ton of sensationalism. Depressingly, not many of them did. It’s not clear how happy the researchers were that their fake study was such a success.
So we can’t trust the media. But we can trust our doctor, right? Well…
1. Doctors aren’t as well-trained as you think.
If nothing else, you should know now that sweeping generalizations about nutrition are inaccurate at best and practically criminal at worst. And the commercials say to ask your doctor what is best for you. But there is bad news to report. The average doctor only spends about 19.6 contact hours learning about nutrition during medical school.
How untrained are they? A 2003 survey found that 84 percent of cardiologists didn’t know that a low-fat diet could actually increase your levels of triglycerides. Those little buggers can lead to heart disease. Why is that? Modern medicine is more interested in the treatment of cardiovascular disease instead of prevention. Lots more money in that.
Further, not even 25 percent of doctors surveyed said they feel qualified to discuss diet with a patient. Also, if a doctor happens to be overweight, that doctor is less likely to talk with patients about nutrition. So if your doctor has a formidably powerful physique, go ahead and pick that brain. Otherwise, so much for getting medical advice from the medical professional.