Q: Why don’t I write much about nutrition?
A: I barely believe anything I read about it.
After spending the last decade with my head in the ‘health and fitness’ industry, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism – literally. It’s probably because I’ve seen so many fads come and go, myths busted, and contradictory research. Now, I take most of what I read with a grain of salt – and I’m probably healthier because of it.
Don’t believe the hype
Most fads in the world of nutrition are based on pseudoscience, and not really supported by any solid research. They may be based on preliminary research, or an interesting observation in some basic science study, but they usually haven’t been tested by rigorous studies. And when they are, they usually don’t pan out. For example…
Anti-oxidants are an archetypal example, so we’ll discuss them the most. The supposed benefits of anti-oxidant rich foods were in vogue since my teenage years reading muscle magazines. That was back when I wanted big muscles and six-pack abs – before I discovered that I was much better at (and more interested in) making my body move in impressive ways, rather than look an impressive way. But I digress…
Anti-oxidant foods are supposed to neutralize “free radicals”. Free radicals are chemicals that naturally occur in your body, and are involved in some very important things – like killing infections and cleaning up by-products, and much more. However, they are also thought to be one of the things responsible for aging, and perhaps cancer. The idea is that free radicals can sometimes go a little too far in their clean up job. Kind of like how dad would throw out perfectly good cardboard for making crafts when you were a kid. Eating more anti-oxidants is thought to keep those pesky free radicals from going to far. Interesting theory, and sounds sciencey enough right?
Does eating more anti-oxidants actually work to prevent cancer? Unfortunately, after substantial research over the last few decades, the answer is a resounding no 1, 2, 3 (with the exception of vitamin D – maybe). 4, 5 In fact, many anti-oxidants that have been studied actually appear to slightly increase risk of death!
There are lots of potential reasons why things didn’t work out so well. For one thing, free radicals do important things (as mentioned) – so perhaps neutralizing them is a bad idea. 3 Secondly, maybe anti-oxidants are only good in small doses? Maybe too many of them actually do something harmful? As Dr. Ben Goldacre says “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.
This isn’t new information either… studies like this have been around since the 90’s. 6, 7 One of the earliest studies even had to be stopped early because of the apparent harm it was causing. Interestingly, however, in that particular study, it turned out that the people who ate more vegetables but did not take the anti-oxidants, actually did have lower rates of cancer. 8 Now that’s interesting.
The value of anti-inflammatory foods (not to be confused with anti-oxidants) is a similar health food idea. Inflammation is an important biochemical process whereby your body fights infections and repairs damage. If you’ve ever rolled an ankle, you’ve known the effects of inflammation all too well when your ankle swells up! On a smaller scale, it’s also responsible for the redness around your pimples. Gross!
Inflammation is also highly associated with many chronic diseases. 9 For instance, it’s thought to cause atherosclerosis (leading to heart attacks and stroke), diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. Inflammation is thought to “trigger” auto-immune disorders (when the immune system essentially attacks normal things) like Multiple Sclerosis too. This is usually thought because inflammation blood levels are usually elevated in these conditions, and are associated with more severe disease states. Because of this association, inflammation is often targeted when treating everything from serious disease to minor injuries. You’ve probably heard of anti-inflammatory medications.
As you might have guessed, the idea is that we should be eating foods that are shown to lower inflammation. Furthermore, “pro-inflammatory” chemicals in foods are to be avoided. I’ve seen people focus on specific components of a food to the point of absurdity. For example, I’ve seen claims that because omega-3 fatty acids are “anti-inflammatory” while omega-6’s are “pro-inflammatory”, foods like nuts which have a low ratio of omega-3’s to 6’s should be avoided. However, it turns out that nuts actually have a generally anti-inflammatory effect. 10 Turns out things are more complicated, as usual.
But does it even work? Do people who eat anti-inflammatory foods have lower instances of chronic diseases? Personally, I am not aware of any research that has established this definitively.
Furthermore, is lowering inflammation even a good idea? There are serious side effects to anti-inflammatory drugs, (read: Anti-Inflammatories) so why not foods as well? After all, aren’t we slowing down the natural healing process? Perhaps it’s harmful.
And one final point: even the association with chronic disease is being called into question. Is inflammation the cause, or consequence of disease? For instance, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is thought to be an auto-immune, inflammatory disease of the nervous system. Recently however, researchers propose that MS is actually an auto-immune, degenerative disease. The increased inflammation seen during flare-ups may simply be due to the bodys effort to fight or recover from the disease, rather than causing it! 11
Medical science is now focusing it’s efforts on understanding the delicate balance of inflammation and how to optimize it, rather than simply fighting it. 9 Should we be trying to eat more anti-inflammatory foods? For now, I’m skeptical.
Natural and Organic
Whole, “real” or “natural” foods are often purported to be more healthful than processed foods. For the most part, this is probably true – packaged and processed foods are often unhealthy. Furthermore, it is also true that medications often have harmful side-effects.
However, it does not follow that you should eat only organic food, and take only “natural” remedies.
Let’s take organic foods for instance. In one of the most headlining research studies of 2012, a systematic review concluded that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods”. 12 If you want to eat organic to avoid pesticides and antibiotics, or because you are protesting the conditions of factory farms, then I think you have a good argument. But if you say organic foods are “healthier” because they have more nutrients, you’re wrong!
What about “natural” or “herbal” supplements? Shouldn’t they be better than medications because they have less side effects? Maybe. However, that’s assuming these supplements actually work. While some remedies appear to be promising, the general consensus is that they lack quality research support. Furthermore, what research already exists isn’t impressive. Instead of listing references here, just go to the Cochrane library, click “browse reviews”, and search “herbal”, and read any of the summaries. There’s no miracle cures there.
As usual, there’s no easy solutions here.
Fitness Fads and Nutrition Myths
It shouldn’t surprise you to know that the fitness industry has birthed a lot of myths. As a young male, I’ve fallen for many of these myths myself. “Bro-science” specifically refers to the non-sense you hear in gyms from people who gain their nutritional knowledge from bodybuilding magazines, websites, and that guy they know who is “jacked” (so he must know what he’s talking about). Then there are the fitness magazines aimed at women, with headlines like: “top ten foods that melt belly fat”. Everywhere you look on the internet, someone has some sort of nutrition tip or “fact”. How many are actually true? I’d suspect not many.
A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reviewed myths, presumptions (unproven right or wrong), and facts about weight loss by simply searching the internet for frequent ideas, and then contrasting them with the available scientific evidence. 15 Here’s some of the things they found:
Myths about weight loss:
- Small sustained changes produce big long term weight change.
- You must lose weight slowly for long term success.
- You must set realistic goals or you will get frustrated.
- You must be “ready” mentally for change.
- Sex burns 100-300 calories for each participant.
Presumptions (not proven right or wrong):
- Regularly eating breakfast prevents obesity.
- Eat more fruit and veggies will always cause you to lose weight.
- Yo-yo dieting causes shorter life-spans.
- Snacking causes weight gain.
Facts about weight loss:
- Genetics are important, but not destiny.
- Diets do work!
- Physical activity helps.
- Physical activity makes you healthier, weight loss or not.
- Structured plans help.
Much of the conventional knowledge on weight loss would have you believing many of these myths, and rejecting the facts. As a physical therapist, I’m unavoidably surrounded by the fitness industry. Almost every day of my life I hear something to the effect of: “diets don’t work! Just eat more vegetables and go for a walk and you’ll lose weight!” (three myths in all in one statement). Fitness and weight loss is just not that simple.
Whenever I read a “diet tip” – I try not to let it sink into my brain. Some of them may be true – but if they are, I’ll probably see them again and again, with a credible source attached. I suggest you set the same standard.
The biggest trend in healthy eating right now is probably the “paleo” diet. For a long time, I was all about it. I thought it just made so much sense – eating like our ancestors must be the right way! And there is some evidence that gluten sensitivity may be more common than once thought. 16
However, after reading and thinking a lot more, I’ve realized that there is a lot wrong with paleo-diet reasoning. First of all, it’s one big “appeal to nature” logical fallacy. I won’t get into it here, but here’s some interesting blog posts that might be of interest to you: one from the Slate.com, and another from TakePart.com. Also read the “rationale” and “research” sections of the wikipedia article on the diet. I’m certainly not saying these are authoritative sources of information, but it’s important to realize that not everyone agrees to this current trend. In fact, there are some very good arguments against it.
Personally, I’m still waiting for definitive research. While it’s based on evolution – one of the most successful theories in biology – the paleo diet is not as scientific as it sounds. There still isn’t any large scale studies that I’m aware of. For now, I’m skeptical.
As you can see, nutrition is a complicated subject, and the public is generally misinformed.
And yet, almost daily, I see nonsense about “super foods” and “cancer fighting foods” that are “rich in anti-oxidants” on social and mainstream media. Even more frequent are the “fat burning foods” and diet tips that promise to make you look a particular way – “thin” for women and “shredded” for men.
Aside from simply being wrong, these myths can be dangerous. Furthermore, the frequency of health information in general may foster an obsession with diet and exercise that can lead to a negative body-image and/or potential eating disorders. 17, 18 And at the very least, it’s a stressful overload of contradictory and confusing information.
It’s much less stressful being skeptical. Trust me!
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying ignore healthy eating, or even information pertaining to it. I keep my ear to the ground and pay attention (to the best sources I can). I’m just very skeptical of everything now.
I wrote a quick and dirty blog post on “how to eat healthy“, which I’ll continue to edit and update as I learn more. However, you might notice that it’s vague. That was deliberate. My post is simply meant to be a list of simple, fundamental ideas that I currently believe.
If you really want to know more about nutrition, please talk to a registered Dietitian. Note that (at least where I live) Nutritionist is not a regulated term – anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Dieticians are educated and licensed (which is probably why you don’t see many dieticians become “gurus” – they know better). Here’s a nice website from the Dietitians of Canada: 39 Popular Food and Nutrition Myths. Read and learn.
Eating more vegetables and watching your calories is not easy work, and sports nutrition to optimize your performance can be quite complicated. This is why it’s easy to get distracted by shortcuts, which leads to believing in myths and fads. Hopefully, you now understand that it’s much better to ignore information thats either too simple and/or sounds too good to be true. In fact, believing in such misinformation routinely turns out to be harmful.
Skepticism is healthy! Think critically.
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