Why is there so much confusion about health and wellness?
Are eggs good or bad for you?
Does saturated fat actually cause heart diseases?
Grains, should we eat them or should we skip them?
Does milk wreak havoc in your body or help you keep your bones strong?
If you find yourself asking any of the questions above, you’re not to be blamed. The health and nutrition industry is a maze where everyone claims to be able to maneuver, but no one actually knows the way.
A couple of weeks ago, we read a well-researched article on Lifehacker.com entitled “Why There’s So Much Confusion Over Health and Nutrition“, and it was truly enlightening. Because it’s a superbly long piece, we’ve plucked out the choice bits for you (you’re welcome!):
The Good Bits from the Article
1. People like magical shortcuts to health (like vitamins, supplements, diets etc)
Humans like things easy, this is why when there’s a cure-all fix that requires no effort, we pounce on it. An easy example would be multi-vitamins. Maybe we don’t like to eat our veggies, so we believe multi-vitamins can replace that. And the health “experts” know that, and use half-truths to sell their products.
Marketing: Vitamins are magical substances that will make you more healthy!
Reality: Vitamins are magical substances that will make you more healthy only if you are deficient.
2. The food industry thrives on confusion
When there’s so many conflicting data about something, you obviously try to search for a “reliable” source to find the truth. Food companies know this, and they set up institutes that claim their products to be healthful.
Examples include Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, General Mills’ Bell Institute. These institutes have doctors, cardiologist, and dietitians running it. When this happens, the information you get from the “health experts” is skewed to help the company sell more products.
3. The government is influenced by big corporations
- The dietary guidelines and food pyramid are influenced by the food industry. Representatives from the food industry are present when writing trade agreements while nutrition scientists are not.
- The huge size of the supplement industry and the food lobby comes into play here as well. Unilever, General Mills etc have much more power than farmers. This has made packaged food and supplements a normal thing, while whole foods lose out.
- Grains were originally 2-3 servings per day until food companies complained and they more than doubled the recommendation.
- The person in charge of the first pyramid, Louise Light, wrote a book about how screwed up the process was. She said the grain-based pyramid would cause obesity and diabetes, and it did. The people in charge told her that fruits and veggies are kind of interchangeable with grains, plus grains are cheaper for food stamps.
4. Nutritional guidelines now focuses more on nutrients and less on food
This means we become more obsessed about individual nutrients than the food itself. We get worried about salt, eggs causing heart disease, and we turn our noses on anything that mentions fat. These have largely been refuted (with special cases excepted).
5. Science does not have all the answers yet
- There are many old beliefs that are being corrected. An example is saturated fat. Is it good or bad? Nobody knows yet. Experts have not come to a consensus, but we have been told for decades that saturated fats are bad so that’s what we preach.
- Epidemiology (the study of the patterns and causees of disease) is not a piece of cake. It’s much harder than other areas of health to study.
- Kamal Patel, director at Examine.com (a site that aims to bring relevant studies to nutrition topics) reveals that nutrients are complex and difficult. Everybody’s body is different and thus even if a research reaches a consensus, it might not apply to all people.
6. There is no one size fits all diet
- Patel, who reads article and grades their study quality, reveals that even after reading copious amount of studies, he doesn’t know what is correct for sure when it comes to health and nutrition.
- Gluten and wheat is bad for some people, but normal for others.
- Low carb could help some types of diabetes, but can also cause some side effects in some people.
- Some people live long lives eating healthy diets while others live equally long eating milk chocolate and fried chicken everyday.
- There haven’t been many long-term randomised trials of low carb, high carb, etc etc as it would be too expensive, unethical and not logistically feasible for compliance.
7. The media blows everything out of proportion
The media takes preliminary findings of researchers and markets them as cure-alls. They take a research done on rats and claim that it’ll work on humans in the future. This gives the public a false sense of hope that every cure is just a few trials away, which is not the case.
8. We are gullible
Our eyes light up at the word “natural” and we scamper away when we hear the word “processed”. Both words don’t really mean anything without context. Natural doesn’t mean it’s 100% good for you, while processed carrots can mean carrots that have been chopped up (read: not bad at all).
The same applies to everything else. We get easily scared over “evil” ingredients when they are in fact harmless if taken in proper context We fall victim to hypes and are poorly educated when it comes to nutritional science.
What Should We Do?
1. We should always seek multiple trustworthy resources
Where should we search for legitimate advice? The best thing is to find multiple trustworthy sources that all points to the same conclusion. If there’s conflicting data, it means there is no common consensus yet.
Asking your doctor or nutritionist might not be the best idea as physicians get minimal nutrition training at medical school. Nutritionists can earn certifications in months without proper training in science study or knowledge. And even registered dietitians may follow the government line as it’s easy and the closest thing to evidence-backed recommendation, although far from perfect.
2. Learn about nutrition science
Take a free online course from Udemy, Khan Academy, MIT, etc that teaches you basic nutrition science. Talk to objective, intelligent people and discuss things. Don’t rely on Mayo Clinic, WebMD, etc as they are conservative and follow whatever the government says.
3. Be critical
When faced with a study that claims something, go read the actual study or find someone who understands it to explain it to you. Sometimes, a study like “X food lowers diabetes risk by 35%” is based on a study where you need to eat preposterous servings of the food, and does not actually apply when you eat regular amounts of it.
Don’t just read headlines, have common sense and be open-minded when it comes to nutrition claims.
HealthWorks’ Take on This
When we read this article, we couldn’t help but agree on most of the points.
We love looking for shortcuts and cure-alls when it comes to health and fitness. Do a 2-day detox and your body will magically function better! Do this butt exercise and in 3 weeks you’ll have a perky beach butt! We think that if we go on a gluten-free diet our health will miraculously level up. We pop supplement pills so we can live longer, have dewy perfect skin, and never have to see a wrinkle.
However, it’s best to no longer believe what’s being fed to us. Stop believing that there is an easy way out by avoiding certain foods or only eating certain foods, by taking this or that pill, by sleeping certain hours of a day. Short-term fixes will not pave the way to a healthier body in the long run.
What’s best is to do your own research, learn to read scientific journals, and amp up your nutritional knowledge. Cook your own food, and think critically before jumping on a new diet or lifestyle, or subscribing to fear-mongering.
Most importantly, remember that what works for you might not work for someone else. There’s no one-size-fits-all in nutrition science.
What beliefs on nutrition have you always had that have been debunked? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page!