Why Nutrition Is Hard and What You Can Do About It

If there’s one thing the internet thinks it knows a lot about (other than celebrities), it’s nutrition. It’s practically impossible to spend more than a few minutes online without encountering some form of article, advertisement, or post talking about weight loss or food and what you should eat when and how. All this information can easily be overwhelming, and it’s hard to separate the scientific facts from the latest fads and trends.

As past of my efforts to both lose weight and get proper fuel for my runs, I’ve done quite a bit of research to this end – finding out the real, hard, scientifically supported facts of nutrition. And I’ll get to those throughout a (probably long) series of posts about nutrition fact and fiction. But first, I want to address why there’s so much varying information out there and what you can do to try to separate the bad information from the good.

Why is it Hard?

One of nutrition’s most basic problems is that, like all of science, what we think we know is just that – what we think. Studies use the scientific method and are subject to scrutiny, but they’re still only the best of our knowledge for now. This is why the butter vs. margarine debate seems to go back and forth from year-to-year. When margarine first began to be touted as healthier than butter, it was believed that fats were the main source of problems in the American diet (specifically heart-related problems), and butter is high in fats. However, as additional research was done, it seemed to emerge that some fats are worse than others; since most margarine is (or used to be) high in trans fats, which are considered very bad, and butter is not, the scale tipped back in butter’s favor. But as you can see according to the link I used there, non-trans fat margarine may still be considered better than butter. The point is, science is, by nature, constantly changing. So what you were told about nutrition twenty, ten, or even five years ago may not match up with current science.

The next problem is that the food and weight loss industries are huge, multi-billion dollar endeavors. A large percentage of Americans, particularly adult Americans, would like to lose some weight. Or if not, they’d like to gain some muscle. Or maybe just eat healthier. Regardless of the reason, nearly everyone has at least some vested interest in better or proper nutrition, which is why it makes so much money. Diet pills or supplements and programs like Weight Watchers and books claiming to hold the “ultimate system” for fitness or weight loss attract countless people who are looking to achieve their goals. And while some of these products and systems do work, and a smaller number are based on actual science, many of them do not and are not. But since these sources are more interested in making money than in helping you to make the proper choices, effectiveness doesn’t matter. Marketing does.

The last problem is that nutrition information, accurate or not, is particularly susceptible to being spread by word-of-mouth. Think, “my sister became a vegetarian and lost ten pounds,” or “I heard that gluten makes you fat,” or even “check out this article I just read on GMOs (genetically modified organisms)!” Everyone has heard something or other and many people are very enthusiastic to share what they’ve heard, but most people don’t bother to do the research to support whatever they’re claiming. It’s possible that going vegetarian did result in your friend’s sister losing ten pounds, but that doesn’t mean that going vegetarian will cause everyone to lose ten pounds, or even that it was cutting out meat that made the difference for your friend’s sister in the first place.

So What Can I Do?

My first piece of advice is one you have likely heard before – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There is no “magic” solution to weight loss or fitness, so if whatever you’re hearing about doesn’t sound like hard work, it’s probably not legitimate. But even that will only get you so far. So how can you really tell?

Well for starters, bother to actually do the research. If you hear something about diet plans or exercise tips, take the time to do a quick Google search and find out whether or not what you heard seems to be true. But don’t stop there. You should also, and this part is very important, pay attention to the source that Google takes you to. If it’s something like the New York Times, you can probably expect that the information is at least somewhat unbiased. But if it’s a source like carbsareevil.com (not a real thing), you can pretty much assume that whoever runs that site has a vested interest in making carbs look bad. Therefore, I highly recommend you take anything you find on a site like that with a huge grain of salt. And if you must read it, then try to find at least something representing the alternative viewpoint as well.

Most importantly, what this all comes down to is having science literacy. Understand that science can, will, and does change, and know how to read science news and articles and search for truths versus whatever someone thought sounded good. Know that correlation does not equal causation, and that media often greatly simplifies scientific studies for the purpose of creating clickable headlines. Basically, don’t believe everything you hear or read, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

Throughout a series of future posts I’m going to do my best to lay out what I’ve learned so far, with links to articles/studies, but in the meantime, it’s never too soon to start doing your own research.

Note: One of my college professors had our class read a book called Lies, Damned Lies, and Science, which is a great resource for science literacy that I would highly recommend if you’re interested in the topic.

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