Nutrition can be confusing. I’ve sat around many dinner parties discussing the latest nutrition ‘discoveries’ with friends and family, and everyone has an opinion. One person will have read something by a renowned nutrition expert, while someone else will have read conflicting results by some other renowned expert. Have you experienced something similar? Newspapers, magazines, talkback radio and TV all have a vested interest in broadcasting dietary opinions, and rarely is everyone on the same page.
Is it any wonder the Western World is getting more obese every year, and we don’t seem to have a consensus on how to reverse the trend? When the experts can’t agree on anything, how is it possible for regular people to find the answers to address their own bodyweight issues? What direction should you take? Which advice should you use?
Commonly, people try something for a few weeks, it doesn’t work, so they decide to move onto something else. Bodyweight fluctuations happen, people get angry, upset and disheartened, throw their arms in the air and eventually give up. They then blame their weight loss/gain fluctuations on a ‘broken’ metabolism or those nasty food companies, or simply decide to live with being overweight for the rest of their lives.
Why doesn’t nutrition have its act together like other branches of science?
Science has been in our lives since the dawn of time in one way or another. And specific, studied fields have been around for thousands of years. For example, Aristotle’s first biological discoveries took place in the mid-300’s BC, while Hippocrates developed modern medicine in the early-400’s BC. Relatively recent discoveries include Galileo’s modern physics in the late 1500’s, and Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics in the late 1600’s. These areas of science have had hundreds, if not thousands of years to butt heads, clash, argue and finally settle on agreed principles based on repeated experimentation and consistent findings.
By comparison, we only really discovered and understood these strange new things call ‘vitamins’ in the early 20th century! Even that took the combined efforts of epidemiologists, physicians, physiologists and chemists. And remember, it was only a couple of decades ago that we thought fats were to be avoided like that plague, while sugar was given a free pass. It’s only now we understand that most fats are good for us, sugar in excess can literally kill us, and a well-balanced diet is the way to go. We’ve come a long way in 20 years, to the point where there are some fundamental principles of a healthy diet that most people can agree on (You can find these at the bottom of the article).
9 reasons why nutrition science can be confusing
Living in this era has its positives and negatives when it comes to nutrition. We’re living in a time of great discovery, and giant leaps are happening at a rapid pace. It seems like every week scientific breakthroughs are taking place that we can use to improve our health and well-being almost immediately.
On the flip side, we still have a long, long way to go to understand everything. Imagine if we could hibernate for 100 years, and wake up with a century’s worth of nutrition science to live by. How will we look, feel and move in the 22nd century? Will we be fitter, healthier and leaner? Or will we still be on our current path of getting sicker and fatter?
To give you some idea of what is going on right now, here are nine reasons why nutrition science is so confusing:
- Nutrition science is so young. I’ve already mentioned it above, but other fields of science have had a head start of hundreds, if not thousands of years. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
- Most research funding, both governmental and private, goes towards reactive rather than proactive research. How much funding do you think has gone towards cancer, heart and lung disease, and diabetes research, just to name a few (by the way, these are all very worthwhile)? Now, how much funding do you think is funnelled towards optimal nutrition practices?
- There’s only so much government money to fund research projects, so scientists often have to source funding from private companies. Who knows how many deals take place where a private company will fund their passion project, as long as they conduct a second research project that finds favourable results for the company? This often leads to ‘interesting’ findings. It seems slightly odd that an independent study can find sugary drinks to cause weight gain, while a Coca-Cola funded study finds the exact opposite.
- The effects of nutrition do not take place in a vacuum. There are hundreds of reasons why a nutrition plan might work for one person, yet the exact opposite will work for someone else. Genetics, sleep, allergies, heritage, ethnicity, disease, age, socio-economics, kids and dietary history are just some of the factors that can influence nutrition from one person to the next.
- Most nutrition studies are observational. You wouldn’t get many volunteers if, after eating a banana, they were sliced up on the operating room table to see what the reactions were. As such we’re relying on people remembering how much they ate, what they ate, how it made them feel, etc.; then trying to relate that to an illness or disease such as autism or dementia.
- It’s virtually impossible to measure how many calories we eat, and how they affect our individual bodies. Labels are almost always wrong, we can only guess how many calories we burn during activity, and everyone absorbs different amounts of the food we eat. These are just three of the hundreds of factors we have to make sense of when eating food and calculating their effects on the body.
- Want to conduct a study to determine if a food causes an illness or disease? Great! You’ll need to find around a hundred people who are willing to be part of the process for the next 20, 30 or 40+ years. Good luck with that!
- Even if you could find 100 people to live in a bubble for decades, cut off from the outside world, the results won’t apply to everyone anyway. There are just too many different types of people, i.e. young and old and everyone in between, ultra-fit to couch potatoes and everyone in between, men and women, etc.
- Journalists are not scientists, so believing almost anything that you hear or read in the media is crazy. Instead, they take a huge study report and cherry pick the best bits that will sell newspapers and magazines, or increase TV and radio ratings. And even if they were trying to report the reality of the findings, they aren’t scientists. So their understanding of the findings may not always be correct.
So what should I believe?
While there seem to be thousands of diets in the marketplace for people to try, the best and most successful have some very similar guiding principles to help you lose weight, such as:
- whole, minimally processed foods
- lots of plants
- enough protein to meet your needs
- a healthy mix of different fats
- plenty of water
- enough carbohydrates based on your activity levels
If you get this mix right, you’ll have the body you want. But it’s not always that simple. While a diet plan can tell you what food to eat and when to eat it, that is only a small part of the problem if you’re struggling to shed unwanted body fat. Diet plans don’t give you the skills you need to keep eating nutritious food for the rest of your life. These skills include:
- eating slowly and mindfully
- tapping into your hunger and appetite cues
- planning your trips to the supermarket
- buying the right foods
- preparing healthy meals and storing food properly
- avoiding certain foods
- making wiser choices when eating at restaurants
At the end of the day, when you eventually say goodbye to your diet plan (it’s impossible to stay on a diet plan forever), you are generally back to square one having learnt no new skills at all.
How can I improve my nutrition skills and eating habits?
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