They Blinded Me With Science!
Does it seem like you’re always hearing about a new study that reports the opposite of what another study recently reported? When you hear where the research was conducted, or who funded it, does it influence you one way or the other? Where can you turn to make sense of what might seem like a lot of nonsense?
You’re not alone. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ “Nutrition and You” public opinion surveys show that the percentage of people who actively seek information about nutrition and healthful eating has more than doubled since 2000 from 19 percent to 46 percent in 2011. But at the same time, nutrition, and the science behind it, seems to be getting more complicated from farm to fork.
The devil is in the details. Let’s take a deeper dive into some challenges and solutions.
Distilling the science into soundbites.
Food For Thought:
It’s nearly impossible to take all the findings from a research study and boil it down into concise, meaningful messages that can be easily communicated to the public. Invariably, some of the details are lost in translation. That’s even before you consider the limitations inherent in scientific research, such as: claims of causation are not made from a single research study, animal study conclusions are typically not applicable to humans, and the population size studied has a significant impact on the interpretation of the results.
Everyone has an agenda. Even you.
Food For Thought:
While it’s important to ask questions about the research, we seem to focus less on the quality of the science and more on the funding sources or institutions where the research was conducted. We understand that the food industry wants to make a profit, and has a vested interest in conducting research and sharing positive results. But just because they funded the research doesn’t mean they also funded the results. Doesn’t that discount the role and the ethics of the researchers themselves? Most researchers want to protect their integrity and career. Even the perception of a conflict of interest can be an issue for consideration. In reality, a study is likely to be of the lowest quality if there’s no funding at all. And we cannot rely on limited government funds to support all the research that needs to be done. In addition, it shouldn’t matter if the study was done at Harvard or any other institution because the science should be the same.
And what about our own biases? Philosopher Francis Bacon, who said “knowledge is power,” was also quoted as saying “men prefer to believe what they prefer to be true.” Our own assumptions and labels can be far more influential than a marketing campaign, especially if we are unaware of them. If we allow these biases to influence our opinions, we are limiting our own ability to look at the facts as clearly as possible.
Who can you trust to provide credible information?
Food For Thought:
Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the media are not always the most credible. Inflammatory language like “pink slime” can drown out technical (and perhaps consumer-unfriendly) terms such as “lean finely textured beef.” Even terms like “nutritionist” can be misleading and misunderstood.
Also, since everyone eats food, many people understandably feel they are “experts” in food. But let’s face it, seeking the advice of a professional can help you whether it is for lawn care, childcare or healthcare.
Registered Dietitians (RD) are reliable sources of nutrition information. They are food and nutrition experts who have met the minimum academic and professional requirements to qualify for the credential "RD." In addition to RD credentialing, many states have regulatory laws for dietitians and nutrition practitioners. RDs are not the “food police.” I always say that RDs are more like coaches than referees when it comes to helping people make changes toward healthier eating.
Likewise, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. The Academy is committed to improving the nation's health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy. The Academy is committed to providing accurate, science-based information to the public, and does not endorse any companies, products or services. They closely evaluate all potential sponsorships to ensure they are consistent with the Academy’s science-based positions and messages.
Putting it all into Perspective:
1. Remember that science is evolutionary, not revolutionary. One study simply cannot translate into dietary recommendations for the public, but instead needs to be put into context of the larger body of evidence.
2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Look at the quality of the research, not just the funding source or institution.
3. Seek the advice of a registered dietitian for sorting out the science and making lifestyle changes for better health. You can find food and nutrition information from RDs wherever you look – on TV, online, in magazines and books. To find an RD near you, go to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website at www.eatright.org.
1. The International Food Information Council has resources for both the public and health professionals. They provide a variety of nutrition information, food safety information, and research on consumer insights on a variety of topics. I love their materials and their “no nonsense” approach to communicating scientific information. I especially like the “From Farm to Fork” resources for consumers and the “Understanding Our Food Communications Tool Kit” for professionals.
2. The Academy’s Evidence Analysis Library (EAL) was developed to provide members with advanced research information, including evidence-based nutrition practice guidelines, toolkits and educator modules. Some of the EAL information is also available to the general public. Academy members, be sure to register and log in for full access.
Find out more about the EAL here, including 3 online modules that are easy to follow and provide a great overview of the EAL. I highly recommend starting there and then diving in.
3. The Academy's new NutriGuides App provides over 300 evidence-based nutrition recommendations from the EAL. It's available on the iTunes Store for the iPhone and iPad, and also the Google Store for Android products.
4. Academy Practice Paper: Communicating Accurate Food and Nutrition Information
This paper, authored by RDs Diane Quagliani and Mindy Hermann, and reviewed by numerous other RDs (see page 8), is an excellent article addressing many important aspects of nutrition communication. A must read for all RDs. Note – this paper is only available to Academy members.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Please share your comments below!
For more on this topic and to continue the discussion visit my Food for Thought Perpetual Post!
If you liked this post, check out my podcast A Grain of Salt: A Closer Look at Nutrition News with co-host Rachel Begun.