Nutrition is one of those mysterious “sciences” that leaves people perplexed, bewildered, confused and bamboozled. What we read in newspapers or see on TV can leave the public unsure from one day to the next what is healthy and what isn’t, what is safe and not so, and what solid nutrition recommendations we should follow. It can leave a person frustrated and disconnected.
Nutrition, and the science and research of it seems easy enough, at least in theory, or at least, when Michael Pollan breaks it down into three basic phrases: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But the realities of dissecting the research on the metabolic and physiological responses of the body to diet, is a meticulous, lengthy process to get at “the truth” of what could be considered healthy recommendations.
I think there are several reasons for this and why it can be so difficult at getting to the facts:
Number one: nutrition is a wide open field. Within nutritional sciences there are many sub-studies and if you ask a nutritionist what “nutrition” itself is, you won’t get a straight answer. What you will often get is a response such as, “It depends, are you talking about…”
- Overnutrition or undernutrition?
- Community nutrition or clinical nutrition?
- Dietetics or nutrigenomics?
- Health behaviors and choices or public health?
- Micronutrients or macronutrients?
- Anti-nutrients or non-nutrient factors?
- Dietary diversity or quality?
- Food safety or functional foods?
The list goes on and on and on. Shhhnooozefest. Go on, ask a nutritionist what area they work in. I dare you.
Number two. There is a lot of lousy science out there. Just because 10 people were studied in a controlled laboratory environment, writing down everything they ate and pooped, and lost 10 pounds over three weeks eating bistecca, doesn’t provide a lot of information on population wide dietary patterns. We don’t live in a laboratory. Furthermore, studies done on animals do not always lead to the same conclusions for human populations. Assumptions from rat to human are often made. (Side note: I have met a few rodential-like human beings that bear a striking resemblance in mind and body to our Norwegian New York underground friends). Understanding the science overall, what would constitute good science and what science needs further evidence before jumping to conclusions, is important. But not easy unless you want to sift through some dry scientific articles that often, the general public cannot get access to unless you want to pay $500 for a subscription to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Number three. Nutritionists don’t agree on the science. Even if you ask a nutritionist, “what should I eat to be healthy?” You will get a different answer depending on who you ask, or at least not a very straight answer, depending on the day and the latest “science”. I promise you, it will be difficult to get an answer. I’ll bet ya 10 bucks you won’t. The media does not help – a lot of flip flopping from one study to the next happens too frequently, leaving people confused about what is and is not good for them.
Number four. Nutritionists are combative buggers. Not only do they not agree but do so with a passionate fervor, sometimes for fun! There are camps, clicks, and wars within the nutrition community, so, hide your kids, hide your wife. It ain’t no Switzerland.
Number five. Nutrition is a relatively new field. It wasn’t until 1912 that the word “vitamin” was coined. For years and years, often until the 1990s, the science of nutrition was often lumped in with home economic courses and cooking classes at universities and high schools. Remember ladies? Preparing us for our “duties” at home. It is often in some places and within some fields, not even considered a science. Medical students don’t even take a course on nutrition during med school. Why would they? They won’t be seeing any obese patients in their lifetime…
Number six. Nutritional science is not an easy undertaking. Studying what people eat, how they eat it, and what happens thereafter (from farm to flush as I say), is a complicated endeavor and takes time, with many environmental and genetic influences. It is hard to get at the truth of what type of diet wreaks havoc on mankind, and to demonstrate that eating too many twinkies will make you crazy, and kill Harvey Milk. Good luck demonstrating that.
Number seven. Nutrition usually takes a reductionist approach. Much of the research done in wealthy nations has focused on nutritional elements of foods, understanding food as “nutrients”. This the “reductionist” approach to nutrition – breaking down a food, understanding its chemical composition, classifying the nutrients within and figuring out which ones can cure cancer, reduce heart disease and make you look younger. Often certain foods, based on having a specific nutrient like high levels of antioxidants, or vitamin C or omega 3s become “super foods”. You’ve seen the lists. Other foods have become “bad” for you like eggs for their cholesterol, steak for their saturated fat and the list goes on. What has happened as a result is mass confusion on the part of consumers.
Number eight. Nutrition is a money maker. Many get involved in teaching the public what they should eat, or what supplements to take, because at the end of the day, selling acai berry power juice is a huge money maker. Just look at the story of POM, the pomegranate juice. It was promoted as incredibly nutritious with lots of anti-oxidants that are heart protective. A bottle of the juice cost almost 9 US dollars when it first came out in NY. No matter how you slice it or dice it, people will pay good money to be healthy. Or at least, pay a lot to “correct” years of not eating healthy.
Number nine. Some languages spoken throughout the world don’t even have a word for “nutrition.” Isn’t that interesting? It is often just equated as food. That can get a bit complicated when you are trying to educate about the US food pyramid…but who the hell talks about that. Oh yeah, now we have the plate. But some cultures don’t use plates when they eat. Won’t even go there…
So what is the solution? Well, there isn’t one really. And as a cynic, I am providing many excuses as to why it is so hard for the public to get the right information from nutritionists. What I do know is that nutrition, and its science is a sometimes thorny, complicated beast, but an interesting one at that. And one that impacts everyone of us. We all eat “food” that gives us nutrients. So, take an interest and dig deeper into what you read, what you are advised, and what you hear, even if you don’t get a straight answer.