Why the heck can’t scientists agree on what is good to eat?
Updated: Jul 21
I'm honoured to present a guest blog post by Dr. Scott Lear, Professor in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. He tackles an extremely important issue within the field of nutrition: why is it that we're constantly being bombarded by conflicting information about which foods are good for us and which ones aren't?
Make sure you check out his blog, Feeling Healthy with Dr. Scott Lear for a wealth of actionable information on preventing and managing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer; healthy nutrition; physical activity; and how patients can get the most out of the health care system.
With each passing week, we’re inundated with information regarding what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat and the latest diet trends. Do we aim for macronutrients, calories or food patterns? New studies come out either telling us what we know or that we’ve had it wrong all this time. Take the controversy around fat. For decades we were told to avoid eating fats, now, we’re not so sure if eating fats is good or bad.
If we add in commercial motives of the food industry it gets even more confusing (what is gluten-free water anyway?) and stealth marketing (there’s a reason why sugary cereals are on the lower and middle selves of grocery stores), and it’s enough to make us give up. My wife’s a dietitian and I’ve been researching healthy living for decades and my head still spins thinking about it.
It’s not that scientists (like me) are trying to pull the wool over everybody’s heads (although studying something in which it is hard to ever come to a definitive conclusion is a great way for a scientist to continue to have work). It’s just that studying nutrition is extremely difficult.
A number of things make it difficult to understand what ideal nutrition is.
Probably the number one complexity that we can’t change is that we need food to live. It’s not like smoking in which the ideal number of cigarettes smoked is zero. So we can’t just tell people what not to eat (which unfortunately happens). In addition, we need a variety of foods to live and thrive. We can’t survive for very long on one type of food.
Another issue is trying to find out what a person eats. Of course we can ask people what they eat, and people are usually pretty good but not exact. Last night our family had hamburgers for dinner; my burger had cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and ketchup and my son’s had cheese, ketchup and BBQ sauce. But it’s quite possible that people may just say they had a hamburger. It’s also hard to know how much a person ate. Most mornings I have a bowl of cereal, but I don’t know what size it is.
Some studies ask participants to measure out their food, which can help, although most people when measuring out their foods will actually change how much they eat (usually eating less).
The dilemma in nutrition research is that the more accurate we get in measuring a person’s usual diet (using measuring cups, scales, portion samples), the more likely they are to change their diet.
There might be some improvement in accuracy by using mobile phones but just asking people to record what they eat can change what a person eats. When I was doing a food diary, I would be lazy and not have a snack because I didn’t want to write it down.
Some studies look at adding or removing a certain food to a diet and how that relates to health outcomes like heart disease and death. For example, studies of fish intake suggest a lower risk of heart disease. But does it? When people eat fish, they may be eating less of something else to accommodate it (most often people eat less red meat when eating fish). So is it eating the fish that’s good, or not eating something else, or a bit of both?
A good example of this is the recent excitement around saturated fats with some studies saying they aren’t as bad as we thought. But really, it matters what we replace the fat with that is as important. If someone reduces their saturated fat and replaces it with sugars, this is an unhealthy change. However, if saturated fat is replaced with unsaturated fat, this could be a healthier choice.
Studying a new diet that requires people to change what they are eating is equally if not more challenging; change is hard, so adherence to a new diet is usually low.
For most people, taste and cost are the two biggest reasons to eat what they eat. Layer onto that cultural and social meanings of food, and nutrition is quite low on the list. Sometimes researchers will provide participants with foods, which can help minimize barriers to dietary changes and control what people eat. These studies are great at telling us how diets work but don’t really reflect real-world conditions where one has to buy and prepare their own food.
It is unlikely that science will ever provide the answer to: What is the ideal diet?
There are too many factors and many more that I haven’t mentioned (for example: getting vitamins as a supplement compared to in its natural food state, and do foods act differently in certain combinations?). Add the fact that we are all individuals and what may be ideal for one person, may not be for another.
Despite the possibly confusing and contradictory diet and nutrition advice, life expectancies around the globe continue to increase, and a key reason for that is increased access to healthy foods. Even though we aren’t all nutrition scientists, we do have a pretty good understanding of what healthy foods are, and our bodies are pretty good at metabolising the foods we eat.
Where nutrition science comes in, regarding individual diet and nutrition, is it can help to delay the onset of disease and potentially add a few more quality years to our lives that might not otherwise happen.
This is a good thing, and we need to encourage health care professionals and scientists to provide this information in a way that makes it easily digestible (bad pun!).
Dr. Scott Lear is a Professor in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital.
He is living with heart disease and writes the blog Feeling Healthy with Dr. Scott Lear from his experience as both a researcher and patient.
He's also an upcoming expert guest on the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast - make sure you've subscribed so you don't miss his episode!
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