A Dirty Little Secret About Nutrition Science

Nutrition ScienceIn my article this month for The Washington Post, “The totally unsexy path to healthy eating (and why we’re not following it),” I touch on an unfortunate fact about nutrition science. Namely, that more often than not it’s not exactly groundbreaking. It is unfortunately common for the importance of findings to be exaggerated, not just in press releases put out by the universities or other organizations that the researchers are part of, but often in the actual study abstracts.

This is why I will never cite a study if I can’t get my hands on the full text of the research paper and evaluate it for myself. There’s at least one research study that specifically looked at how often abstracts and press releases failed to accurately represent the full research article, and what the authors found was pretty pathetic. Part of the problem is that researchers need to justify their funding. “Hey, I’m going to spend all this money and time doing this study so I can basically discover nothing new,” said no researcher, ever!

The quest for the nutrition holy grail

That’s just one example of the desire to find the next new thing, the nutrition holy grail. It’s true for scientists, and it’s true for us. One of my patients was regularly getting so bogged down in her email and social media feeds that it was interfering with the time she intended to spend doing meaningful self-care activities like walking, yoga, journaling. (Note: she’s retired, so this was not work-related email.)

This went on for quite a while, before one day she admitted that she kept hoping that she would stumble upon some secret to perfect nutrition and health before any of her friends did, so she could be the one to bestow this knowledge. (Note: a lot of the email and social media posts she was getting bogged down in were health and nutrition-related.) After discussing how if something that was “secret” actually worked, it wouldn’t be a secret, we also agreed that she would unsubscribe from some of those nutrition/health emails.

Looking beyond the headlines

I read articles in the mainstream media (especially newspapers and websites, not so much in magazines, largely because they have longer lead times and so are more carefully edited) every single day that misrepresent the true findings of scientific research. When you get to blogs and email blasts, it can be even worse. Sometimes, it’s the headline that’s misrepresenting, while the article or post is actually fairly balanced, but since many people just skim headlines, this is still a problem (raise your hand if you sometimes never make it past the headline or maybe the first paragraph). This is one reason why people are so confused about how to eat! I have a file folder full of articles with headlines that want to make me bash my head against the wall, because they are so misleading. I see the fallout from this nearly every day with my patients.

Often, that fallout results not just in confusion, but it results in eating from a place of fear and judgment rather than from a place of nurturing and self-care. It results in making food choices based on thoughts and beliefs about what and how much to eat rather than from attunement with what, and how much, our bodies need at a particular meal. As I often say to my patients, why and how you eat is often more important than what you eat.

Where to put your nutrition efforts

The unsexy truth about nutrition is that cultivating a healthy relationship with food that allows for balance and moderation through self-awareness and mindfulness is the key. And like any relationship, it takes work. There’s no magic food, no magic number of calories, no magic macrontrutient ratio.

Additionally, it takes more than just nutrition to support health, it also takes regular enjoyable movement, adequate sleep (look for a future blog post on this), a toolbox for healthy ways of coping with and managing stress, social connections, and a purpose in life. So why do we keep wasting our time searching for a holy grail instead of investing that time in learning about ourselves and what we really need to feel well?

And…one more thing about nutrition science

If you like to read nutrition news, be careful about any story that claims that a single study changes everything we thought we knew about nutrition. If a study totally contradicts all previous research on a topic, it’s possible that the new study is flawed, it’s possible that the findings were uneventful but got exaggerated in the press release, or it’s possible that the researchers are on to something, but that we’ll need more research with similar findings to confirm it. That’s one rule about scientific research—other researchers must be able to replicate those findings. What we know about nutrition does change over time, as we ask scientific questions, seek answers through research, then use those answers to ask new questions, but this is a slow, gradual process. Nutrition science does not turn on a dime.