The Truth About Nutrition Science
Kelly Boaz, CNP
You're scrolling through your Facebook feed, liking photos of cats and babies when WHAM! You're hit with an article that is absolutely terrifying. It has a title like, "How This One Food In Your Fridge Is Killing You" or "Ha! You Thought This Food Was Healthy And Ate It At Every Meal But It's Actually The Worst Thing In The World". Okay, so maybe that last one wouldn't make a good title, but you get what I mean. Scientific studies about food can strike fear into the heart of the bravest of humans. So what do you do when confronted with one in recovery?
There are 3 factors that come into play that make these studies truly terrifying: 1) the study itself, 2) the media coverage of said study, and 3) trying to determine what it means for you. Let's start with where it all begins: the science.
Understanding The Science
One of my favorite classes at nutrition school was all about understanding scientific studies. There are so many statistics, and so much scientific jargon that they seem a lot more intimidating than they actually are. Here's a little secret I learned in that class: just because a study is published doesn't mean it's 100% correct.
For example, in that class, we had an assignment. We were instructed to find two studies on the same topic, compare them, and evaluate how well they were done. I found two studies on St. John's Wort, a popular herbal antidepressant. Both seemed pretty well executed: they accounted for all the variables, they studied a wide variety of people, and their process was sound. But, the two studies arrived at different conclusions! How could that be?
I did some further digging, and found another article. This one determined that it was the hyperforin content in St. John's Wort that determined whether or not it was effective in treating depression. Neither one of the other articles even mentioned the amount of hyperforin in the SJW they were using for the study. As a result, neither of these studies could be deemed scientifically sound anymore.
So, what this teaches us is that we should take scientific studies with a grain of salt. You'll notice that most scientists will report that "the findings suggest" rather than "this is irrefutable proof" because science is constantly evolving as we learn new information. So, when a study comes out having reached a scary conclusion, take a breath. It's a suggestion, not a law.
How The Media Plays A Part
The media definitely doesn't play by the "suggestion" rule. They love to take a study and declare it to be irrefutable proof. The more dramatic the headline, the more clicks, right? A good example of this came a few years ago, when the media reported that PROBIOTICS AREN'T EFFECTIVE!!! A lot of very scientifically-minded friends of mine shared this article on their social media. But, it quickly became clear that the reporter either hadn't read the study or didn't understand it.
What the article reported was that scientists had supplemented their test subjects with probiotics, and noticed no difference in gut flora over those who hadn't been supplemented. But, what they didn't report was the dosage the researchers had used. If you looked up the actual study, you'd see that they had supplemented their subjects with about 1 million CFU of probiotics. That sounds like a lot . . . if you've never looked at a bottle of probiotics before. Even the lowest dose of probiotic supplements starts at around 5 BILLION CFU. Even a cup of yogurt must have at least 100 million CFU per gram. So, yeah. Most people wouldn't be surprised to find that 1 million CFU didn't do much, even without the study.
If a headline makes your anxiety spike, take a deep breath. They're preying on your anxieties to get the clicks. Don't take the bait. Instead, ask your team what they think about the research. They'll let you know if you're in any danger, without the click bait.
What it means for you
Let's say that a study does find out something new about a food. What should you do with that information? Well, there are a few considerations to consider, before taking any action.
How does this food make you feel? Our bodies aren't all the same. Each of us will react to different foods differently. Even if a lot of people react badly to including a certain food in their diet, the same may not be true for you. Just because a large percentage of the population is lactose intolerant doesn't mean you can't eat that cheese. If it's working for you, there's no reason to exclude it.
Are you eating this food all day every day? With the exception of water, there's nothing we should be consuming all the time (and even water has its limits). When kale was proclaimed king, people started eating it exclusively - spinach and lettuce be damned! But that's not healthy either. We need a variety of nutrients from a variety of foods. Chances are, eating any food once every few days isn't going to drastically affect our health (as long as there are no health reasons for excluding it). Most studies look for what happens in the extremes. If you live in the grey area, you're usually okay.
What about once in a while? There are some foods we know aren't great for us. Trans fats, for example. But there are some incredibly delicious foods that contain trans fats. Having those foods on occasion is more beneficial for our mental health than cutting them out entirely is for our physical health. Breathe, and enjoy.
But, I'm still scared!
At the end of the day, yeah, you're probably going to get spooked by some headlines. I'd be surprised if you didn't! But take them with a grain of salt, reach out to your team, and keep doing the work. Then, make sure to go out and eat the scary food, before the fear gets out of control. At the end of the day, the only scientific study that is 100% geared to you is your ongoing relationship with your body.
Kelly Boaz, CNP is a Toronto-based Holistic Nutritionist (CNP), specializing in eating disorder recovery and food freedom. After winning her 17-year battle with anorexia, Kelly Boaz turned her life’s focus to helping others do the same. She is also a writer and speaker (TEDx, TDSB), raising eating disorder awareness, and helping people heal their relationship with food and their bodies. You can find out more about Kelly, or get in touch via her website.