In Defense of Nutrition

Nutrition can be summed up by five words: round and round we go.  At least that's the prevailing thought for many of my fellow Americans. And for good reason.  

The past few weeks have been a great example of flip-flopping nutrition headlines.  We learned three weeks ago that processed meats cause cancer and red meat probably does too.  Last week we also learned that "junk food" doesn't cause obesity, only the amount we consume (which is complete BS, but I'll bite my tongue until later).

Which begs the question: if we ditch our Italian subs for Big Macs, are we better off? Of course not.  But I can't blame you for thinking that way.

It's easy to get lost in nutrition with it's ever-changing status.  In fact, if the field of nutrition were a 2016 Presidential nominee I'm pretty sure it would say "I was for and against saturated fats before I was for them again." (<---a joke only a cynical, political science major would make)

The title of this post is more than paying homage to one of my favorite books,  In Defense of Food - it's a defense of a much maligned science. And that's unfortunate because we've known the staples of a healthy diet for several decades: fruits and vegetables, minimally processed carbohydrates, lean proteins and plenty of unsaturated fats (olive oils, nuts, fish, etc.) What's been confusing isn't the science, it's the failure to properly communicate it.

For example, only recently have we realized that if you tell the general population to stop eating something, you need to tell them what to replace it with.  That's why the low-fat recommendations of the 90's failed horribly and made us fatter and sicker.  Total fat was never the enemy and a blanket recommendation to stop eating "fat" - without saying what to replace it with - led to Snackwells, I Can't Believe it's Not Butter, and other processed foods.  The original recommendation was meant to shift us towards more fruits and vegetables, but that's not what was conveyed.

 Let's remember: butter still isn't "healthy." &nbsp;But it alone won't kill you.

Let's remember: butter still isn't "healthy."  But it alone won't kill you.

That's why we were astounded when we had another seismic shift in nutrition (read: another communication failure) in March 2014.  Citing this study, the cover of Time told us in big bold letters to "Eat Butter." It contradicted what we had heard for years and led us to consume more meat and adding butter anywhere we could - even our coffee. Yes, our coffee.

But when you read the study itself, you'll notice that it didn't claim that butter was good for us, only that it had a neutral effect on cardiovascular health.  Translation: "eating butter and steak is not going to help you live longer. But we now think it may not kill you like we once did." Whether it was our need for a simplified message or someone's need for attention, it doesn't matter.  Yet we learned another important message: reducing a nuanced and complex topic is going to lose our overall message.

Sadly, we haven't learned. The recent junk food study is a prime example and doesn't pass the sniff test for a variety of reasons.  The first being that junk food is so prevalent in America that it's going to be tough to find a representative sample that doesn't have "candy, soda, or fast food" in their diet at all.  It's akin to finding a portion of the United States that didn't have any exposure to cigarette smoke back in the 1960's, yet all the studies claiming that smoking wasn't harmful.  Of course we'd be better without junk food at all, and just as logically, those that eat more of it are going to be more sick.  

But the worst part?  It doesn't tell us what to replace junk food with if we eat a lot of it, and it fails to communicate a very complex message.  After all, junk food is scientifically engineered to make us want more.

Lest I be thought a true Debbie Downer, I will say that I'm optimistic about the future.  The recent recommendations about avoiding processed meat were communicated very well.  It put the warnings in proper perspective without going overboard - bacon once a week probably won't hurt, but bacon every day probably will.  It also gently nudged people towards more fruits, more vegetables, and lean proteins.  

Hm, sound familiar?