Conflicting nutrition advice – how to separate fact from fiction

Conflicting nutrition advice – how to separate fact from fiction

Written by Hannah Eva, Eating Disorder Recovery Coach and Accredited Clinical Hypnotherapist 

Would you believe us if we told you that eating 3 anchovies every night after dinner is the key to mega gains?

No? 

Great. We hope not.

But hold on a minute. How about if I tantalised you with an advertising campaign displaying a smiling model doing so – lifting the tiny fillet into his or her mouth – if he or she had arms like Schwarzenegger? 

Still not at all

Or, despite your doubts, might you be ever so slightly curious? Could it really be that eating after dinner anchovies could more swiftly give you the physique you were expecting would take months to attain? 

Couldn’t hurt to try it out, could it? And, what’s better, Schwarzenegger-arms 2.0 has a handy 75% off discount code. Perfect! 

Advice on how, what, and when to eat is ubiquitous nowadays, and many of us have grown used to the wildly contradictory claims emanating from the field of nutrition science as a matter of course. This has resulted in more than 55% of us experiencing uncertainty of what to believe, and what to ignore.

You know the sort of thing I mean: will a daily glass of wine keep you healthy to 100, or, will it cause you to kick the bucket 10 years early? Does the fasting diet have ‘the ability to ‘reverse diabetes’? or might it actually do the exact opposite?

Are eggs a cholesterol bomb that risks the likelihood of a heart attack? Or, do they increase satiety and promote a healthy cholesterol balance?

Do you find yourself needing a blood pressure-decreasing, coffee just to get you through the stress of reading the morning paper that’s dripping with emerging science? Not so fast. Caffeine’s stimulative effects can actually directly cause an irregular heartbeat and higher blood pressure, apparently.

Anyway, you get my point. So, what’s the deal with all of this information, misinformation and lack of clarity? This blog post seeks to address why these contradictions occur and what you can do to make sure you are getting the most accurate information possible.

Nutritional science: a baby

Firstly, some background is useful. In comparison to other sciences, such as geology or astrology, modern nutritional science is in its infancy. It was less than 100 years ago – in 1926 - that the first vitamin was isolated and chemically defined. Being an emerging scientific field, then, inevitably brings both positives and negatives. Whilst, on one hand, there is a wealth of modern technology and intelligence that can figure out patterns and produce theories, the filtered conclusions we as consumers receive may be inaccurate. More specifically, these ‘inaccuracies’ could be that the results are unrepresentative (e.g., due to a limited cohort of participants), unreproducible (e.g., due to uncontrolled variables), exaggerated, and biased. Take the study we referenced earlier about the benefits of eggs as an example. This report generated headlines in three national newspapers. However, the results were based on findings from an 11-week study of fifty healthy individuals between the ages of 18-30. Not only could the duration of this study only ever provide insights into the short-term impacts of consuming eggs, but the study population was extremely limited. What about those of us who are a different age and who have a varying health level?

In this light, on the next occasion you come across an article with nutritional information, we urge you to consider the following:

The Motive of the Media

Studies have shown that the majority of us obtain our nutrition knowledge from media sources such as television programmes, radio programmes and newspaper articles. However, whilst our agenda is to acquire knowledge, the motive for the media outlets producing the information is to engage an audience. And, when it comes to getting views and clicks, the more sensational the headline, the better. Honestly, who is clicking on an article that says: “study shows 50 individuals report feeling more satiated after 3 months of eating eggs…”? Not me. We want hyperbole in my headlines. And that’s exactly what the news outlets provide when reporting on scientific studies. You might remember when the NY Times magazine released a headline reading, “Butter is Back!” as a result of a study founding that butter had a neutral effect on cardiovascular disease risk.

When the media overstates the results of studies, it lends to the confusion that we as consumers experience. One day finding butter will kill us, and the next day it will save us. In reality, when we read the actual studies in our headlines, there is a considerable amount of nuance and caution. The authors of the studies, who aren’t writing to generate immediate attention, are much more reserved in their analyses.

The motive of the media

The Nature of Evidence-Based Advice

As was displayed in the example of the eggs, it is often the case that the media will take one small study and run the result as though it is absolute fact. However, the way that good evidence-based advice is formed takes time and a multitude of studies.

The types of studies carried out are also really important for us to consider. In short, a randomized clinical trial holds much more weight than a case study. This is referred to as the “hierarchy of scientific evidence” and basically classifies which study designs are strongest. Newspaper articles will very, very rarely mention this.

Finally, due to the relative newness of the interest in dietetics, we must recognize that nutritional science is constantly evolving. Evidence builds upon itself and nutrition advice sometimes needs to be clarified, modified or completely changed based on the progression of evidence.

Bias

Bias exists in almost all situations, especially when there is so much money riding on an outcome, as could be the case with a newly discovered ‘superfood’. It’s really, really important to check on ‘who wins’ at the outcome of the study, and, if any results may have been influenced by a funding source. A 2007 review of 206 studies that looked at the health benefits of varying drinks found that those studies which were sponsored entirely by a food or beverage company were up to eight times more likely to show positive health effects from consuming that beverage.

In addition, most of us have some level of individual “confirmation bias.” This basically means that we tend to favour evidence that upholds our pre-existing beliefs and reject evidence that contradicts them. An example of this might be if we strongly believe eggs are good but read an article saying they may have negative impacts on health, we are more likely to view the new information through a sceptical lens and investigate its source. On the other hand, if we read an article that supports our belief – one that states and confirms that eggs are inherently good for us – we are less likely to be curious about the article’s source.

So, what do we actually do? 

Like you, we are tired of nutrition info feeling like an everchanging minefield that is hard to keep up with. What we believe to be most important for us all focusing our attention on is discovering a way of moving and eating that makes us - as individuals - feel good. When we eat and move in ways that make our bodies feel good, which allows incorporating in the foods that we enjoy, it’s be effortless to sustain. From experience, we’ve realised no emerging ‘health hack’ or elixir serves us better than this approach. (Not even a trio of anchovies).

Instead of only focusing on removing things from your life, focus on adding in health-promoting behaviours. Namely, this involves consuming a sustainably varied diet that you enjoy and makes your body feel great, whilst maintaining an active lifestyle. Not only does this focus improve genuine markers of health (blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol and body fat percentage) as a by-product, it allows you to pay attention to your Bio-individuality – your body’s own unique needs.

In addition to this, rather than using rapid weight loss products, following fads or fixating on seeing the number on the scale reduce, focus your attention on your own long-term personal health improvement markers. In addition to how doctors agree that yo-yo dieting (or weight cycling) is actually detrimental for health., there’s far more to fulfilling health goals than weight loss alone.

In order to create a sustainable relationship with food, focus on creating a long-term and enjoyable eating plan that contains high-quality ingredients that support your body’s functioning, as you gradually learn what works best for you. Rather than looking for that quick fix and focusing on flashy new details, try your best to resist craving novelty. In truth, we have no right to dismiss the standard advice as boring if we haven’t implemented it yet. Rather than being a “side-issue specialists”, focus on the advice from reputable sources that you can effortlessly sustain logistically, economically, socially and mentally long-term! As the NHS website states, it may just be as simple as focusing on the following:

  • Eat more fibre. 
  • Eat sensible proportions of other macronutrients. 
  • Keep physically active. 
  • Cut down on sugar. 
  • Reduce salt intake. 
  • Eat lots of fruit and veg. 
  • Hydrate.
  • And most importantly, do not skip breakfast.

A bowl of Superzeros anyone?

Superzeros

About the author: Hannah is a mental health coach whose area of interest lies primarily in nutrition and movement. Hannah also delivers workshops in the community and workplaces, with a goal to advocate for the achievement of long-term and sustainable wellbeing.