Ernährung 22.02.2022

The trouble with nutritional science

Author: Vanessa Craig

Nutrition has become a minefield of confusion. Is sugar evil? Is meat good or bad? Is dairy problematic? Should we all avoid carbohydrates? Will eating a vegan diet result in a longer disease-free life?

Getting reliable, accurate information is a challenge, especially as the narrative is shaped by influences that may not have your best interests at heart.

Why is nutrition so confusing?

The field of nutrition and what we consider ‘normal’ eating patterns are pretty new. Vitamin C was first identified in the 1920s and dietary fibre was only discovered in the 1970s. The idea of snacking was invented in the 1950s and started booming in the 1980s.

Nutrition as a science is highly abused and we have a long way to go before we understand the role of what and how we eat in our overall health. Understanding the impact of what we eat is a difficult field of study and our approaches are often flawed or incomplete.

Trials vs observation

The complexities of nutrition mean animal models or test tube approaches don’t see the full picture. The optimal way to understand nutrition is randomised controlled trials, which involve some participants receiving treatment and a control group who do not. But these studies are incredibly expensive and often have issues with compliance, duration, sample sizes, and conflicts of interest.

Most nutrition research is based on observational studies instead, in which researchers attempt to link dietary intake to health issues. They rely on participants reporting on their diets through food frequency questionnaires, which usually contain imprecise questions. Questions like “How often have you eaten biscuits over the past 12 months?” or “How frequently do you eat meat?”. The surveys don’t usually track quantities with any precision or record food quality. And they’re certainly limited by what respondents remember.

Do you know what you had for lunch two days ago? Most people can’t recall their food intake from a couple days earlier, much less accurately say what they have had to eat over several months.

People also understate, exaggerate, or consciously omit what they eat.

Normal human fallibilities mean that observational studies are largely non-scientific, but these studies form the heart of nutrition research and dietary guidelines are based on their imprecise findings.

While observational studies can be good for generating hypotheses and drawing correlations, their results can’t show causality. In fact, more than 90% of hypotheses generated from observational studies are later proved wrong in clinical trials—a pretty dismal track record.

Attention-grabbing headlines

Nutrition studies tend to disproportionately attract attention when compared to other scientific studies and the media often point to causality when reporting on observational studies.

As an example, a few years ago a headline proclaimed: “Italian study finds pasta makes you thinner.” The article in The Telegraph read: “Eating pasta is not fattening and actually decreases the chances of becoming obese, a new Italian study has found…feel free to tuck into as much pasta as you like, safe in the knowledge that a plate of spaghetti in and of itself is not going to cause you to balloon. Buon appetito!”

Looking a little closer, we see it was an observational study unworthy of the claims of causation. The study asked around 23,500 men and women of varying ages and social backgrounds across Italy about their dietary habits and recorded their body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio. The researchers didn’t look at portion sizes, which is notable as Mediterranean diets typically serve pasta and bread in smaller servings and not as the main course. And let’s remember that obese subjects have been found to underreport their caloric intake by up to half, and, in particular, understate consumption of fat and carbs.

Perhaps most tellingly, the study was sponsored by Barilla, a pasta company with a clear interest in selling more of their product.

Industry influence

The force of the food industry is the next major problem with nutrition science. Instead of science and health policy informing nutrition policy, corporations have a lot of impact on what we eat.

Big food companies not only fund studies, they also sponsor nutrition conferences (the American Dietetic Association conference, for example, was sponsored by McDonalds and Coca Cola) and public health and professional associations (like the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which are sponsored by Coca Cola, Kelloggs, and PepsiCo, or the American Society of Nutrition, which is sponsored by Coca Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, McDonalds, and the Sugar Association).

Is it any wonder the World Health Organisation (WHO) faced intense resistance when attempting to reduce the recommended intake of sugar? The US sugar industry went as far as pressuring the administration at the time to cut their funding to WHO if the recommendations went through.

In another example, the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to downplay the harmful effects of sugar in the 1950s and 1960s. Scientists at Harvard were compensated for criticising papers linking sugar and heart disease and encouraged to blame cholesterol and saturated fat for heart disease. This caused a paradigm shift against fat, kicking off the low-fat diet craze in the 1970s and informing public policy for decades. Coincidentally, obesity rates around the world started to shoot up beginning in the 1970s.

The business of nutrition

It’s not just large food corporations who make money from murky nutritional science. All kinds of so-called experts write books, make documentaries, and create social media posts about nutrition, but there’s no regulation behind their claims.

Writing a book is not the same as publishing in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Authors, filmmakers, and social media influencers are not subject to the time-consuming review standards of scientific researchers. Platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok continue to spark dangerous nutrition trends based on misinformation. And it gets harder to spot nutritional myths.

You can’t optimize what you can’t measure and our functional lab tests allow us to analyze an individualized panel of important health and longevity biomarkers in your blood. Together with a robust DNA analysis, we help you make informed decisions about your health—and implement sustainable changes to reach your goals.

Stay tuned for the next blog busting some really established food myths.

Would you like to learn more?

Are you interested in a personalised nutrition counseling, we will be happy to assist you as objective consultants. It is important for us to give you a comprehensive picture of the treatment. In a non-committing consultation, we discuss the possibilities and personal approach. This discussion provides you with a serious basis on which to make a fundamental decision.

Get in touch with us.

Arrange a non-binding appointment online here.

Sign Up for our Newsletter