Nutrition – Why is it so hard to study?
Eat less sugar! Eat more protein! Don’t eat too much fat! Fat is fine, eat less carbs! Every day we are confronted with messages about our diets and how they affect our health.
Often the advice is contradictory and confusing, making it difficult for us to know where to begin.
It’s not just consumers – understanding the effects of diet on our health is difficult for researchers and medical professionals too. Understanding this difficulty and the complexity that underlies it is a helpful step towards making healthy decisions for ourselves. Our bodies are incredibly complex and the choices of foods we consume to fuel them are almost limitless. This makes it difficult to understand whether particular foods and food groups are ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ choices.
While specific links have been found in many instances – vitamin C prevents scurvy, vitamin D deficiency causes rickets – in many cases there are multiple factors to consider. Obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes are examples of conditions where diet plays a role but a clear-cut solution is not available.
The difficulty in studying the role of nutrition in conditions like these is in part due to the huge number of variables. To study nutritional impacts, it is simply not possible to place thousands of people on exactly the same diet for an extended period, with exactly the same exercise regimen and exactly the same exposure to other health factors such as water and air quality.
Instead, researchers must use other methods such as observational studies, which as the name suggests, rely on observation of people’s habits, largely through self-reporting.
Observational studies are useful but have serious limitations.
Confusing the issue is the role of industry in influencing not just the conversation about food and health, but the research itself. Often when you read about a new study suggesting that a particular food is better or worse for you than was previously believed, the research was instigated or funded by an industry group or a specific company. While the research itself is often accurate, the way it is presented to and published by the media can be highly misleading.
Added to all of this is the fact that people are all different. We respond to different nutrients in different ways. What might be fine for one person could be damaging to another.
So, what can we do? The main thing we can do as consumers is to take advice from qualified professionals. Be wary of news headlines that shout about superfoods and dietary matters. Journalists are not trained to understand scientific papers and often rely solely on the PR spin presented to them. As a general rule, an article saying a specific food or drink will make you live longer or prevent a disease is not accurately reflecting the science. It just isn’t that simple!
At PIM, we consider diet and nutrition to be vital to good health, and we devise personalised nutrition plans for patients with a variety of health conditions. Click here to learn more.