In this blog I’ll occasionally discuss nutritional advantages or disadvantages of certain foods, but I’d like you to take those types of statements with a grain of salt. In fact, I think you should avoid taking any matters about nutrition too seriously, even if it comes from a doctor, scientist, or other professional.
The more I learn about nutrition, the more I feel that nobody really knows how good or bad things are for your body. That includes both long- and short-term effects, such as the chance of developing diseases or living longer as a result of a certain diet.
I’ll give a few of the reasons I feel this way. See if you agree.
To begin with, our understanding of the human body is still in its early stages and very limited. This is evident by the innumerable number of medical cases where the cause of the malady is unknown and a process of trial-and-error is used for treatment. This sometimes results in the patient being cured, but other times it ends in failure, or even worse, harm to the patient. This is true even for relatively simple physical systems such as the heart and lungs, but when it comes to the brain our knowledge is even more limited to the point we are just beginning to understand the secrets of the inner workings of this magnificent organ.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to disparage doctors or the medical community at large. On the contrary, I think every one of them is doing an amazing job, trying their best to make each and every patient’s life that much better. Even acknowledging that some doctors enter the field because of its potential for a high income, I’m impressed by anyone who can withstand the mental and physical challenges of this honorable job.
Another reason I don’t take nutritional information too seriously is that there is too many contradictory studies. Taking wine as an example, it has been shown to be linked to higher good cholesterol, help the heart, fight obesity, and help prevent stroke. At the same time it has also been connected to ailments such as migraine headaches, breast cancer, reflux, and chronic liver disease. Is wine good for the body or not? Even assuming every one of these studies is valid, it is unclear if my overall chances to live longer are better or worse as a result of drinking wine. Who is going to want to help their heart if it also increases their chances of liver disease?
Cholesterol is another matter where there is very differing opinions in the community on whether it causes heart disease or not. Blue food coloring, which was previously banned in many countries, is now legal in most of those same countries. Even for something as simple as everyday table salt, there are still debates raging on whether it really causes heart disease or not. And these few cases are just a tip of the iceberg of indecisive nutrition science.
It’s also very instructive to take a detailed look at some of the studies that claim a certain food is either bad or good for the body. Take an example I researched recently, the sweetener Sucralose, better known as Splenda. There are many articles online stating this product is bad because (among other things) a experiment on rabbit babies caused many more of them to die when compared to a control group that wasn’t given Splenda. On the surface this sounds horrible and can make the casual reader vow to never touch this product again.
But if you look deeper into the actual experiment, you find this news reports are very misleading. First, the rabbits were given roughly 450 times the recommended daily intake of Splenda. Clearly if a rabbit (or human) was given the recommended daily intake (450 times less) the effects would be much less, if present at all. Second, the experimenters noted that several of the deaths were caused by complications of the tubes used to feed the subjects. Furthermore, they found many of the negative reactions only occurred with only rabbits, not with mice, dogs, or rats. I’m not trying to say I’m convinced that Splenda is safe for consumption after all, but rather that there is still much room for debate on both sides.
How about vitamin C? Something that is touted to have a major effect on preventing colds and is added to so many products must have a strong scientific foundation, right? Not quite – a recent meta analysis of 72 studies on vitamin C’s effect on the prevention and reduction in length of the common cold determined that “The failure of vitamin C supplementation to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population indicates that routine vitamin C supplementation is not justified”. The study did find some scenarios where vitamin C’s effects were more apparent, such as subjects who were exposed to short periods of extreme stress, but that alone doesn’t warrant recommending it for everyone. So much for all those products which proudly announce “100% of daily value of Vitamin C!”
So what is the reason for all this indecisiveness? Besides the fact that the human body is such a complex thing and that all bodies are not made alike, in modern capitalist societies nearly everyone has an agenda. Food and drink producers want to make money, so they fund researchers to help ‘prove’ their product, or some ingredient used within, is healthy. If the results of the research are positive, they publish them and improve their chances of convincing the public to buy the product. But if things don’t turn out in their favor, they simply don’t release the information outside of their company. This is called the “file drawer effect” and adds a major bias to research without anyone outright lying.
What about those research results that prove a certain food is unhealthy? Surely, those are published by more morally minded, fair sources.
I doubt it.
The companies producing health foods without certain ingredients benefit from studies which prove those substances are unhealthy. Health-oriented supermarkets, such as Whole Foods Market, also have a stake in the game. There is also a plethora of health magazines, books, and news outlets which make money off any interesting or dramatic research. Note I didn’t include “accurate” here as a condition. Of course, I can’t speak comprehensively for all researchers, but I’m sure there is a great deal of bias on both sides of the nutritional debates.
Another example that had me fooled until recently was “evaporated cane juice”. I had seen this listed on several “health foods” in place of normal sugar and for quite some time I felt great that I was putting healthy, natural sugar in my body, as opposed to the evil, unprocessed stuff. But I happened to stumble on some articles that discussed how this ingredient was nearly the same thing, with negligible nutrients. In spite of a recommendation of FDA for companies to not using this misleading term, Chobani did so and was apparently sued by several people in California. Again, I’m not saying this is clear cut one way or the other – feel free to investigate yourself and see what evidence you can find.
The difficult of measuring long-term effects further complicates things. Even assuming a study is ideally designed and carried out, it would take at least 20 to 30 years to find out true long term effects. Nobody wants to wait that long to find of whether their favorite candy has detrimental long-term effects on the body. Also, for a study of that scale it must be very challenging to keep the number of variables small and the amount of data from getting out of hand. Do you think it would be easy to force two groups of people over several decades to eat the exact same diet with just one difference (i.e. use added salt or not)? That would be the only way to know for certain the effects of that change, notwithstanding various statistical methods used to extract the influence of a single variable when many are present.
To be fair, there are some things that have been proven conclusively to have major negative effects on the body – hard drugs, tabacco, and alcohol to name a few. But even in some of those cases (alcohol being one), there don’t appear to be any drastic effects if done in moderation. The bigger problem with all these substances is that they can be addictive, and the more frequent your intake is the higher your chances of damaging your body (or worse).
But most nutrition just isn’t that black or white – especially for small doses. So if you plan to enjoy an occasional pint of ice cream, don’t feel like you need to stress out over the ingredients. Its only for those that are addicted to sweets where it makes more sense to carefully analyze what your eating.
Did you learn anything? Feel a little different about nutrition? I hope if nothing else you have been motivated to call into question your fundamental stance on nutrition.
If you are convinced about the uncertainty of modern nutrition, the next question is what do do about it? Some may decide to just give up caring at all, and eat whatever they want. Others could try and read every published study, analyzing them and making their own decisions about nutrition – but doing that exhaustively would take an insane amount of time, and require some heavy scientific and medical background knowledge. Finally, you can just pick sources to trust, Dr. Oz or whomever that may be, and make nutritional decisions based on that information.
Just like other life decisions where things aren’t black or white, you’ll probably make decisions partially on emotion, partially on logic, and partially on logic. You’ll believe in your own way.
So – after saying all this, why do I even focus on nutrition in this blog? Shouldn’t I just give it up completely due to lack of clear direction on nutritional guidelines?
As I mentioned in my first post, my background is such that I like to think through things logically like a scientist, and enjoy very much picking apart a dessert ingredient by ingredient, looking up studies and opinions on each. Regardless of what you happen to believe about nutrition, I feel that nutritional transparency is very important. If consumers are not aware of what is in the food they are eating they can’t even begin the debate on whether those are healthy or not. That’s why I still am vehemently against “natural flavors” and anything that is not well-defined. I may choose to munch on some particularly (supposedly) unhealthy sweets, but I want to do it with full knowledge of what I’m putting into my body.
The process of learning about nutrition, and most other topics for that matter, is never ending. I’m still discovering new things day by day, inputting new information and always ready to change my beliefs.