Nutrition In A Digital Age

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on July 24, 2013 · 0 comments

You are what you eat. Most of us accept this. The problem is, exactly which foods should we be eating to achieve good health? Nutrition experts appear to change their minds often about the advice they give. Does this information flip-flop mean nutrition science is wrong?

Actually no. Science evolves one plodding step after another. Discarding information that has been proven wrong is a scientific strength not a weakness. That is exactly what nutrition science does – it translates the latest scientific findings into advice about what to eat, discarding along the way eating advice that is no longer accurate.

Fat is a good example. We’ve evolved as knowledge expanded from eat less fat to eat less saturated and trans fat, while at the same time suggesting that you should be eating more good fats from fish, olive oil and nuts. This is not an information flip-flop but an information evolution. Or more precisely, it is a knowledge refinement that happens over time. We’ve progressed from a broad knowledge of fats in general to a more specific understanding of the positive and negative effects of specific fats on your health.

Fiber is another good example. When I was in graduate school, we were taught fiber had no calories and its primary function was to prevent constipation. Today, we understand that fiber does yield a few calories, acts as a major prebiotic promoting the health of friendly bacteria, and helps to reduce inflammation. All of these functions are vitally important to your well-being. It wasn’t wrong to say fiber prevented constipation. It still does, but it also does a whole lot more we didn’t understand until more research was done.

When solid nutrition research delivers new information the science is doing just what it should, using that information to make new eating recommendations, even if the new recommendations differ from previous ones. Initially this information shift can be disruptive, but ultimately it is providing the most effective health advice based on proven facts.

These facts, however, stand only until new information is discovered – the essence of scientific progress. Eating advice will change in the future because scientific inquiries are continuous and therefore, new findings are inevitable. There are more scientists working today than have existed in total throughout history making scientific studies more prolific.

What muddies this process is publicity. In today’s information age new scientific findings are available to the public faster than ever before. In the past, scientists talked to scientists, papers were eventually published and in time reported to the public through reputable outlets. Occasionally there would be a TV news story, but for the longest time health was not covered on hard news programs. Today, it is very different.

Scientific journals now hire public relations firms to promote studies with the hope of getting more publicity, subscriptions and advertisements. Google nutrition and you’ll get over 249,000,000 hits. Every major media outlet covers health and nutrition, demonstrating its importance. Nutrition intrigues people, because their individual food choices are something they can control and do something about.

The benefit of media exposure is that it offers a larger audience for scientists than just their professional counterparts and may even result in funding for more research. The drawbacks are that early publicity is often sensational and may appear contradictory to previous knowledge before the entire picture becomes clear. And, findings may be sensationalized or simplified to the point where they offer you no practical or helpful information.

Where does all this leave you? Embrace the changing information as it is released. Nothing in life is more constant than change. Understand that scientific information must change, or more correctly evolve; it is inevitable. With that evolution of scientific information, policies and eating advice need to evolve as well. Understand that the first study is always newsworthy. But, what really counts is confirmation of those findings which often doesn’t happen for years. Confirmation and reconfirmation of findings is what builds policy. Don’t change your diet because of the latest newscast, but consider changing when a reputable group like the American Heart Association promotes new guidelines. These guidelines were developed from the consensus of findings of many studies which points to information that will benefit the public at large.

And, probably, most important, don’t agonize over every mouthful you eat. Good health and good eating are not based on one bite, one meal, or even one day. It is based on making good choices most of the time.

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