When I first started studying nutrition, I didn’t know what to believe. I would read one theory in nutrition that was proven and then read the exact opposite — that was totally proven. This article serves to help you understand why there is so much conflicting information.
Why is nutrition so confusing?! Should I do Paleo or go vegetarian? What is the best diet to lose weight? What supplements should I take and which brands are best? Low fat used to be the buzzword, but now it’s all about low carb. Don’t use sugar and then don’t use artificial sweeteners. Now fruit has too much sugar to be healthy. It’s enough to make you crazy!
In my years of study, I have fallen victim to a lot of wrong ideas about diet. A lot of information on nutrition is misguided, outdated, and outright lies. Some books I read were merely a pitch for an author’s supplements or biased toward a diet that worked for the author, which will not work for everyone. Many books promoted diets that current research show to be dangerous or unhealthy. With so much wrong information, you need to arm yourself with a little knowledge so you can decipher BS when you read it.
We Are All Different
Many people dramatically improve their health by adopting a Paleo diet. Some can go without animal protein. Some people get the best results eating 6 small meals a day. Others swear by a ‘warrior diet’ of only one large meal per day or favor periodic fasting. For some people, being a ‘raw foodie’ for a time is beneficial. There are people who feel best eating 70-80% of their diet from fat. Some eat low-carb; others eat high-carb or practice ‘carb backloading’. Some avoid gluten or dairy or eggs or soy or nuts or fish. Others eat anything all day long. These people, I believe, are universally despised. In truth, everything works. There are people getting incredible results with each of the above eating styles.
Why? Because we are all different. We have varying degrees of health. We have different levels of hormones and metabolism; different body composition or body type; different genetic predispositions and different responses to foods. We live different lifestyles in different environments, and we endure different stress levels. We have different ethnic backgrounds. For instance, those with Japanese heritage or who come from coastal people will need more fish and fish oil. These wide differences account for so many different diets.
Beyond some basic fundamentals that more or less everyone can agree on (eat whole foods, vegetables are good) blindly following some nutrition plan — especially of the more ‘extreme’ variety — without listening to your own body and paying attention to how you feel will likely lead to poor health. Avoid any diet that is ALL raw food or ALL protein or where you only eat one food, for example. Our bodies need balance and variety. Extreme diets do not support health in the long-term. Take responsibility and find out what works for you.
If you feel awful on a given diet, don’t give up so soon. There are some exceptions where you’ll be feeling bad on some diets initially. For instance, excluding gluten will make you feel like crap for a bit due to withdrawals from their heroin-like effects on the brain. Some people feel better initially on a vegetarian or vegan diet only because their digestion is screwed up and they don’t produce enough stomach acid to digest animal protein. Many that begin water or juice fasting get headaches and other symptoms due to detoxification. However, in the end, if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. Forget the dogma and nutrition tribalism and move on.
Books are Very Convincing
Any book can make a convincing argument for their case with research to back it up. The nature of writing is to convince readers of your point of view. Every book I’ve read on nutrition has swayed my convictions by the end of the book. After reading The Ph miracle, I began drinking alkaline water and eating big salads every day. After reading the Atkins Diet, I ate 25g of carbs a day and began eating processed low-carb bars and pepperoni sticks.
After reading The China Study, I was disgusted with meat and dairy for two years. Its theories are based on a 30-year study convincing us that meat and dairy may cause cancer and other diseases of western affluence. Though this study shows this correlation, there has NEVER been a culture or tribe in the history of the world that was vegan. This is because this diet does not support health and reproduction in the long-term. Big study or no, this theory of not eating animal protein does not resonate with me for this reason. Oh, and the fact that I developed adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems and numerous vitamin and mineral deficiencies on the diet. This little problem is left out of the book. However, another person may fare better than I did on the vegan diet.
After reading the Paleo diet, I finally found my holy grail. All the health problems I developed on the vegan diet are slowly resolving on this diet. The moral of the story is…There is no cookie cutter diet for everyone. So, avoid books telling you this is the case. Don’t believe everything you read, but take bits and pieces that make sense within the context of everything else you’ve read. Some books are backed by solid science. Most are not, even if they quote research studies left and right. As we’ll discuss in a minute, there is a lot of poorly done food research out there.
Question Nutrition Advice from Your Doctor
Many people trust their doctor and the medical establishment without question. This can be a fatal mistake. Physicians are trained in diagnosing disease and prescribing medications. This is a valuable contribution to health when you are sick, but what about prevention or healing with food?
Some doctors have limited nutrition training as elective courses at medical school, while even fewer have post-graduate nutrition training. More than appalling, a full one-quarter of medical schools do not even offer courses in nutrition. It seems that since health is very much determined by your diet that doctors should be required to learn about nutrition. What do you think? Perhaps they’re overloaded with information already. Maybe this job should be left to nutritionists and health coaches. I’m personally more comfortable trusting my health with a physician that knows the relationship of food and its ability to cause or heal illness.
There are a few gifted doctors who know what they’re talking about when it comes to nutrition, but I’ve had so many of my clients with heart problems or high cholesterol be told by their doctors to eat margarine with trans fats! Trans fats were proven since the year 2000 to contribute to heart disease and high cholesterol. Sadly, a doctor may have learned a ‘proven fact’ at a convention or training he attended a decade ago and continues to dispense outdated information. Question and research everything your doctor advises you to do. I do.
Do Not Get Your Health Info from the News
The media can provide us with important information. Yet, much of the information on health and diet you are fed on CNN or other major news outlets and newspapers is usually wrong or false. Headlines are meant to catch the consumer’s attention, not necessarily inform. The media does not dare report unbiased information that would cast their advertisers — food manufacturers or growers — or their products in an unfavorable light. Therefore, a lot of what you hear in the news cannot be relied upon.
Frequently, news claims are made based on a single study — or a brand new study. You can’t take a new single study and report it as an absolute fact. But this is exactly what happens when a new study is dispersed in the news. People take it as a fact, and still have it in their heads as a fact a decade or more later. This is what the researchers, the funders of the research, and the benefactors of the research want! Keep in mind that research results must be proven over and over before they can be considered relevant. So, pause and think for a minute before believing everything you hear in the news. Media outlets are desperate for info and want to be the first to report the latest research — whether the findings are valid or not.
Nutrition science is one of the only sciences in the world where two polar opposite theories can be totally proven. This can mainly be attributed to BAD science and BAD food scientists. Food science does not have to be as rigorous as, say, nuclear physics. It is also due to the fact that people, including scientists, are loath to change their stance on existing paradigms, say the calories in, calories out theory of thermodynamics that has been debunked as too simplistic and outdated by many.
Gary Taubes, a noted food journalist, began his career as a science journalist, mainly reporting about glaringly bad science research. His attention turned to food science because it has some of the worst science being conducted of all the sciences. He found that food science just doesn’t have the rigorous checks and balances necessary to discover reliable knowledge. After interviewing countless scientists, he found that bad scientists never get the right answers.
In the course of his investigative journalism, Gary has uncovered many bogus commonly held nutritional beliefs that began life as the result of bad science. I agree with his findings that salt does not cause high blood pressure, eggs do not contribute to high cholesterol, low-fat diets are unhealthy, etc. Most notably, he is a champion of trying to convince people that the calories in, calories out theory of diet is bogus. Clearly, a hundred calories of Coke has a very different metabolic and hormonal effect on your body than 100 calories of broccoli. Read his incredibly well-researched book Why We Get Fat.
Another problem with nutrition science is its habit of measuring individual ingredient’s effects on health outcomes, i.e. consumption of saturated fat causing heart disease (which is more accurately linked to wheat flour, sugar, and trans fat consumption). Michael Pollan does a persuasive takedown of “nutrionism,” which he defines as an ideology built around “the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient.” This approach involves breaking whole foods apart, until a chicken breast is nothing but an assemblage of different nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins. These individual components are studied for their effects on health. This is not how food works in the body. Nutrients in foods work in synergistic ways — many nutrients of which we have not even discovered. Nutrionism all too often depends upon shoddy science, and ends up causing Americans to indulge in poor diets.
So why does nutrionism endure? Pollan blames the scientific process:
Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.
Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result.
Needless to say, Pollan takes issue with this reductionist approach and shows, in study after study, that nutrient-based nutrition is bad science. It relies on medical oversimplifications and faulty longitudinal studies. It has helped to create a food industry that is making us fatter, sicker and less satisfied with our food. For those interested in the shoddiness of nutrionism, you might also want to check out his fantastic book Food Rules.
A Word on Research Methods
There are lots of different research methods, with some being far superior to others. No study is perfect and the evaluation of results must take into account the design and execution of the study together with the analytic methods used. I mention a few methods and their weaknesses to illustrate how poorly most diet research is conducted and why incorrect results and conclusions are the norm, leaving nutrition buffs and dieters very confused.
Epidemiological studies compare populations of people who are alike except for one factor, such as exposure to a food and the presence of a health effect (i.e. cancer). The investigators try to determine if any factor is associated with the health effect. These studies of diet, though they provide a valuable tool for the investigation of the causes of disease, are fraught with difficulty, and subject to mistaken interpretation.
Some of the problems that can cause epidemiological research results to be wrong include the specification of the data collected, accuracy of information, end point definition, study size and the way results are presented. There are a lot of critics of epidemiology and its usefulness in research. Some say epidemiology is completely bogus, but does have some value. It seems to be good for hypothesis generation. Many believe it is almost worthless for finding the truth. Adding to these problems, many researchers take the freedom to selectively reference only research which supports their case, rather than the totality of the evidence.
A study like the China Study, that urges you to stop eating all animal protein and go vegan, is an epidemiological study. However, such studies alone do not prove cause, but merely a correlation. This means The China Study can only conclude that there is a mere correlation between eating meat and dairy and getting cancer and other diseases. This means nothing. There is also a strong correlation between heart attacks and how many televisions one owns. The more televisions, the greater the chance of heart attacks. Not exactly strong evidence that one causes the other.
There are many confounding variables that can cause epidemiological study results to be wrong. For instance, the China Study concluded that populations that eat meat and dairy have higher rates of cancer. However, these same urban populations also consume large amounts of flour and sugar — other known contributors to cancer (as cancer feeds on insulin and sugar). So, it cannot be reliably concluded that meat and dairy, by themselves, cause cancer from this study.
Unless studies are evaluated and interpreted with care, they may result in more harm than good. Dairy we can live without, but I believe that telling people they must essentially go vegan by not eating meat and dairy or they are going to get cancer and other diseases defies logic and common sense. It completely ignores the nutritional needs of humans — we need cholesterol and animal protein in our diet to be mentally and physically healthy — though in limited amounts. We need iron, B12 and zinc, most frequently present in red meat. We need animal protein to make our hormones and the neurotransmitters on our brains. There are countless populations in history that survived solely on meat or had it as the main staple of their diet and suffered almost NO diseases of any kind. See the work of Weston A. Price.
I’m not going to take advice from a single study, albeit a seemingly good 30-year study like The China Study, given our several million year history as meat-gorging humanoids. It should also be noted that heart attacks, cancer, etcetera were almost unheard of prior to 1900, not nearly approaching the numbers we see today, albeit meat consumption was lower than it is today. This uptick in the diseases of western affluence, like heart disease and cancer, directly correlate to our progressively increasing consumption of factory-farmed meat, flour, sugar, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, toxic medications, and food additives since 1900. It is difficult for epidemiological studies to take all these confounding factors into account.
The gold standard of studies, the double-blind study, which produce the most reliable results, cannot be used in most nutrition research. For example, in double-blind standard study protocols, individuals are given either a placebo or a drug treatment. The test subjects and the administering physicians are unaware of which subjects receive which (double-blind). These aspects of double-blind studies are essentially impossible in food research, except for isolating minor nutrients (i.e. the effects of vitamin E). People are usually aware of what they are eating. Diet studies are almost never done under such controlled conditions. They are often retrospective or prospective.
Retrospective and Prospective Studies
In retrospective studies, the investigators ask a group of people about dietary intakes for some period of time in the past, and look for correlations between these intakes and their current health. Already we have our first problem. People’s recollection of what they eat is not uniformly trustworthy. Such studies are almost worthless.
Prospective studies of diets are less common due to their expense, but the results are more trustworthy than retrospective studies. Prospective studies find the relationship over time between characteristics (dairy consumption) shared by some members of a group (i.e. perimenopausal females) and a health condition (i.e. breast cancer). The researcher follows the population group over a period of time, noting the rate at which a condition, such as breast cancer, occurs in the dairy consumers and in the subjects that don’t consume dairy.
A typical longitudinal study, like retrospective and prospective studies, will look for correlations between diet and conditions. The investigators collect retrospective dietary and health information from the subjects. The investigators then comb the data looking for correlations between particular dietary characteristics and particular health conditions, either positive or negative. Any significant correlations are then hailed as the next dietary solution to some disease, syndrome or symptom.
Most studies are done for a short period and, therefore, are not necessarily applicable to our health in the long-term. There are so many confounding variables that can screw up the results of short and long-term studies. A diet study, on low-fat diets for instance, is typically only studied for a period of 2 weeks to a year, sometimes longer. Longer studies are rare due to expense. So, you see healthy changes in the subjects, with reduced arterial plaque or lowered cholesterol due to eating a low-fat diet. What you don’t see are the nutritional deficiencies and other health consequences most subjects will eventually suffer if they continue a low-fat diet for extended periods of time.
Many studies use animals as their test subjects. This is done because of cost and the fact that many studies done on animals would be unethical or illegal to perform on humans. People seem to automatically think that animal study results can be generalized to humans. While this is sometimes the case, results in animal studies are usually NOT attributable to humans or duplicated in human trials. Obvious and subtle differences between humans and animals in terms of our physiology, anatomy, and metabolism make it difficult to apply data derived from animal studies to human conditions. According to researchers Hackam and Redelmeier, “patients and physicians should remain cautious about extrapolating the findings of prominent animal research to the care of human disease.” So, be very careful when reading or hearing of animal studies and thinking that the results apply to you.
A Lot of Food Research is Bought and Paid For
The majority of research done by major universities is paid for by big biotechs, like Monsanto, or food growers and manufacturers. Not surprisingly, the research results are usually favorable to their funder. For many scientists and researchers, their work depends on pleasing granting agencies or state legislators responsible for funding. It is difficult to decipher if what you are reading is real science conducted by unbiased scientists looking for honest answers.
The food industry supports food science research if it will help them reap a greater profit, not in finding if a food is healthy for you. For instance, a ton of research has been conducted on soy showing its health benefits. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Soy is unhealthy for you on so many levels. For more information, see my article Little Known Dangers of Soy. Soy is one of the most profitable foods, generating billions for Big Agra. This is why you hear so much positive news and research about soy.
When I read research studies involving specific foods or nutrients, I immediately look to see who paid for the study. Sponsorship almost invariably predicts the results of research. David Ludwig and his colleagues demonstrated this phenomenon in studies of the effects of soft drinks on childhood obesity. Independent studies almost invariably find an association between obesity and consumption of soda. By contrast, industry-sponsored studies almost never show this link.
In food research, as in research on drugs or cigarettes, results are highly likely to favor the sponsor’s interest. The companies are not buying the results, although it sometimes seems that way. Instead, it seems that researchers who are willing to accept grants from food companies tend to be less critical about the way they design their studies. Sponsored studies tend to lack appropriately rigorous controls and the results suffer.
Take research on the health benefits of pomegranates, for example. Pomegranates are fruits. All fruits contain antioxidants. Yet the producer of POM pomegranate juice has spent millions of dollars to pay researchers to demonstrate that pomegranate juice has healthful antioxidants. Of course pomegranates produce antioxidant effects, but compared to what? I have yet to see a study that compares the antioxidant effects of pomegranates to those of oranges or other antioxidant-rich fruits. I can’t imagine that an independent scientist would want to bother comparing pomegranates to oranges. Both are worth eating. As a rule, corporate funding discourages critical thinking—or promotes uncritical thinking—about the importance of individual foods or nutrients in healthful diets. Sponsored studies have only one purpose—to establish a basis for marketing claims. They are not carried out to promote public health.
Falsification of data is rife today in science, adding to all the problems in research mentioned above. There are little or no consequences for scientists that falsify data — only a retraction in small print years later in the scientific journal in which the study was originally published. By then, it’s common knowledge in society. They do not go to bad science jail. However, there is much to be gained by a scientist for data or result falsification. They are celebrated for new discoveries, receive promotions, tenured college positions, continued or increased research funding, and increased pay or lucrative book deals.
Not only can research not be trusted, but there is a lot of fantastic research that is prevented from being conducted due to corporate interests. Many powerful companies simply buy up research firms that are producing unfavorable research about their products. For instance, Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically modified seeds and pesticides, bought up a research firm that was showing that bees (vital to food pollination and production) are dying due to neonicotinoid pesticides (manufactured by Monsanto). This is quite common.
Monsanto has even blocked research on the safety of genetically modified foods. This is exactly why there is so much confusion concerning the safety of genetically modified food. This is no accident. Multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta, have restricted independent research on their genetically engineered crops. They have refused to provide independent scientists with seeds, or they’ve set restrictive conditions that severely limit research options. This is not how science should operate. Given these facts, it is no surprise that these companies can claim their GMO products are safe — there is very little evidence and research to the contrary!
Not that many natural supplements have research to back up health claims, and are therefore dismissed as dangerous or not useful. I would not be so quick to jump to conclusions. Research studies cost millions of dollars. The only way a company is going to do this is if they can get a lucrative patent on a substance, supplement, or medication so they can make millions of dollars being the sole holder of that patent. Many companies that sell supplements would love to prove the efficacy of their product but cannot afford the research. Some supplement manufacturers conduct their own studies, but I fear some results are biased. Another scenario entails a supplement getting a lot of attention and the government or an independent research company paying to do the research.
This leaves the majority of supplements without scientific merit. This is the position many drug companies and physicians take when advising a patient to use or not use a supplement. However, just because a supplement does not have clinical research behind it does not mean it doesn’t work or that it’s dangerous. Many herbs and supplements have been used safely for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine. Do your research, try supplements out, and make your own decision.
Don’t get worked up about a study you hear in the news. Know that many headlines are generated to produce ratings and sell magazines. Don’t take diet and health advice from your doctor without doing a little research unless they are versed in nutrition. Don’t take advice from the results of a new research study. Wait until there are many, many studies proving the same thing. No matter how well developed and executed, study results can be wrong, inconclusive and even falsified. Take in everything with a healthy amount of skepticism.
No matter what book you read, keep in mind that you have to eat the diet that works for you. Don’t substitute anyone else’s judgment for your own. It takes years of trial and error while listening to your body and its reactions to foods to figure out the best diet suited to you (i.e. the amount of protein you need). Then once you get it figured out, your needs change due to age and health status! This is a lifelong journey. So, read books with an open beginner’s mind, honor the fact that nutrition science will constantly change, and enjoy the journey that is your path to health. After several failed diets, I have settled on one conclusion. There are many ways to eat healthy, but you have to do the one that is sustainable for YOU.
After finding out I had health problems on the vegetarian and vegan diet, I urge anyone wishing to try a new diet to get medical and nutrient testing to gauge their health before starting a diet and revisiting the same testing methods six months into a diet. Test hormones, vitamins, minerals, fats, cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation markers, etc, etc. Metametrix has great tests. However, I realize his is not feasible for all. I recommend learning to listen to your body. If your body is craving a food (NOT sugar or flour) or you dream about a food not on your diet — this means you need that food nutritionally. The body is a brilliant microcomputer that urges you to eat foods it needs nutritionally at a given moment.
If you have food cravings for healthy foods (that are not on your diet), have low energy, become depressed or unlike yourself mentally, develop a chronic illness, or just don’t feel like you used to, DO NOT IGNORE YOUR BODY’S CRIES FOR HELP. It is all too easy to attribute subtle changes in mood, energy levels, pain or illness to other things besides diet. Additionally, many fanatical about their diet get stuck on the idea of a diet or the ideology or lifestyle while their body is falling apart. I urge you to switch gears and listen to your body. The fact of the matter is that people who eat a diet that is right for them are generally mentally healthy, have a healthy weight, radiant eyes and skin, are free of health problems and get straight A’s on their medical tests. The proof is in the pudding.
Have you ever felt confused and overwhelmed reading about nutrition? Have I left anything out of this argument? Please leave a comment and let me know. I want to hear your story!
Click Here for References+
1. Bloom, Jeremy. Monsanto Blocks GMO Research. February 14, 2011.
2. Campbell, Colin T. The China Study. First BenBella Books, 2005.
3. Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet Revised. 2nd Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
4. Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. 2nd Edition. New Trends Publishing, 2001.
5. Hackam, D.G. and Redelmeier, D.A. (2006). Translation of Research Evidence From Animals to Humans. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296(14): 1731-1732.
6. Keith, Lierre. The Vegetarian Myth. Flashpoint Press, 2009.
7. Kurt, Harris, MD. The China Study: Polish a Turd and Find a Diamond?
8. Lesser, Lenard, et al. Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles.
9. Matthews, R.A.J. (2008). Medical Progress Depends on Animal Models — Doesn’t It? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 101: 95-98.
10. Minger, Denise. The China Study: Fact or Fallacy.
11. Pollan, Micheal. Food Rules. Penguin Books, 2009.
12. Pollan, Micheal. Farmer in Chief. Time Magazine. October 9, 2008.
13. Robbins, Christopher. Junk Food Companies Pay For Junk Science. June 22, 2011.
14. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat. Anchor Books, 2011.
15. Taubes, Gary. Abel James, The Fat-burning Man Podcast. February 15, 2013.