The internet has propelled us forward in many ways, but it’s also created mass confusion with so much information. It’s a free-for-all of bloggers (most with good intentions) and media sources and corporations with agendas. People ask me all the time how they’re supposed to know what to believe about nutrition. What’s healthy and what’s not?
There are a lot of people claiming facts out there. You shouldn’t just blindly believe any of them. That includes me. I am a huge advocate for each person educating themselves. Please don’t just follow someone who seems to know what they’re talking about. There are so many educated people who I have come to disagree with adamantly on nutrition (among other things). This is because I’ve reviewed large bodies of evidence, seen other sides to their arguments, and decided for myself what I believe. You should do the same.
Myth: Science is facts
Nutrition science (science in general) is not facts. There are some things science has told us for sure about nutrition, such as what nutrients we have to have to stay alive. There are basic, foundational, irrefutable facts about nutrition. But for the most part, nutrition science is a dynamic body of information. It’s a process of discovery and those discoveries are always changing, always broadening, and always going deeper to find more and more information. We cannot know most things with absolute certainty.
Mostly, science finds convincing patterns or correlations, with only a little causation thrown in there. We have far too many human lives with far too many different circumstances and far too complicated human bodies. We couldn’t possibly say (for the most part) for an irrefutable fact that one thing is one way across the board. There are some very large-scale studies that give us much better insight and more reliable findings. Even those usually cannot be considered irrefutable facts.
Often people take studies that have not been duplicated or don’t have a lot of other supporting studies (among other criteria for credible science) and throw them out there for the whole world to see with a striking headline and misleading article. Or even articles that cite credible studies but the articles don’t tell you all the facts of the studies. These are typically people who are looking to justify their point of view or people with an agenda to promote something like a product, program, or entire industry. Many authors of these articles conveniently leave out the context of the study and imply that the findings are blanket facts. The specifics they omit would completely change the way the information is applied to the lives of a large number of people reading it.
How to decide what is best for you
There are at least a few studies out there that point to almost anything you want to believe in nutrition. We can all find something to support, however loosely, what we want to believe. That’s one issue with not looking deeper. Our human tendency is to look for justification for our beliefs rather than contradictions. Contradictions are uncomfortable. But can two (or more) conflicting things actually be true? Well, yes…and no. Sort of, I guess.
Most studies in nutrition science find correlation rather than causation. Meaning, the thing is clearly related to the outcome but so are other things. So who knows if it’s the specific thing causing the outcome or a combination of several things. Does that make sense? I’ve used this example many times before, but I’ll use it again. If a study finds a correlation between obese people and drinking soda, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the soda alone is the thing that made them obese. It just confirms that it’s contributory or related to obesity in some way.
The only way to know that you are doing the “right” thing is for you, yourself, to actually look at the evidence that has been compiled. Not what someone wrote about it, but the actual studies themselves. Then look at other studies related to that study, views from both sides. Decide, based on the information you find, what you think is most likely true. Apply what you believe is most beneficial to your life. Then don’t feel like you have to die on that hill, so to speak. Be open to the “facts” changing, because the information is and always will be dynamic. That’s all any of us can do.
Questions to ask when reviewing studies
Research is not something most people want to do. More often than not, people tell me that they just want someone to give them the “facts.” They want to be told what to do and not have to think about it too much. I understand where they’re coming from, life is busy. The amount of information is overwhelming. But when it comes to this, especially in the world we live in today where plenty of people are willing to tell you what they think is true and so many people with an agenda that isn’t always in our best interests, I hope more and more people will start taking their health into their own hands.
Your health pretty much dictates how everything else goes in your life. Your lifestyle choices shape your own life and your children’s lives. They influence your friends and family, they affect your ability to work and contribute to society, they impact your financial health, and more. Aside from your spiritual health, I would argue that your physical health is the most important part of your life and one of the greatest predictors of your quality of life in general.
Consider the source
Is the study published in a peer-reviewed journal? Peer-reviewed means other credible researchers, dieticians, or doctors have reviewed and concluded that it was well-conducted research. Well-conducted means the study used widely accepted models of research/study. Look up the words double-blind, placebo-controlled, and randomized to learn how good studies are structured.
Was the study done on humans or animals?
Animal studies are a poor predictor of human response to pharmaceuticals and are highly unreliable for nutritional information considering our biological differences. Not only are results skewed by the animal’s high-stress situations, but many other factors also lead to the production of misleading safety and efficacy data in animal testing.
Even though animal studies are not a good predictor of human response, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t raise flags for us. We have many biological differences from animals, but we also have many commonalities. So when those flags are raised, it’s an indication to scientists that they need to do further research and it should be (if it’s safe to do so) with humans. For you, it’s an indication that you need to look to see if more studies were conducted. It’s not just something to toss away, but it isn’t necessarily something to rely on either.
How many subjects were included in the study?
Was there a handful of subjects or thousands of subjects? Larger studies are more likely to show meaningful patterns or results. The sample size plays a major role in the outcome. It needs to be large enough to reflect the population it’s trying to learn about. Smaller studies are more likely to develop results by chance alone.
How long was the study?
Was the study conducted for a matter of weeks or months or years? The longer the study, the more accurate the findings will be. When observed over a longer period of time, patterns can be conclusive.
Did the study find correlation or causation?
Most studies only point out a correlation without proving causation. Think back to my soda and obesity example. Does the study prove the specific culprit or just a correlation? Only finding a correlation doesn’t discredit the study, but knowing that allows you to know how to apply the information to your life.
Have the results been replicated?
If the results cannot be reproduced, the study hasn’t proven anything. That’s why it’s so important to know that there is a large body of evidence supporting what you’re applying to your life. I’m not talking about a lot of blog posts on the internet or a lot of other people trying it. Look for other peer-reviewed research that has been cited with each study to find out if the same results were found in other studies. Anecdotal results are important in the right context, but they aren’t a good reason to apply something to your life.
Bonus tip: find out who funded the study
Often times you’ll find interested parties providing funding for research. When a study finds in favor of an interested party who also provided funding, it’s definitely worth a very close and in-depth look at other related studies from a variety of sources. Unfortunately, big corporations and lots of money often decide the kind of nutrition information that is funneled to the masses. Being slow to trust information will work in your favor. Always, always, always ask questions.
Watch out for this language:
There are specific words or phrases that are often used to catch your attention and make you feel like an idea is bigger or more important than it is. These words that sound all scientific-y often convince us that they’re profound and deserve attention. Let’s take a look at some of the most common:
Breakthrough: true breakthroughs in nutrition science don’t happen very often. The word is overused to sell ideas and products. Doubles/triples the risk: what was the risk to begin with? If the risk was one in 100 and doubles, that’s a big increase. If it was one in a million and you double it, that’s still only one in 500,000. Not as big of a deal as it feels just reading the phrase.
Significant: statistical significance is a little different than your average use of the word significance. Statistical significance just means the association between two factors is greater than would occur at random. It can mean major or important, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Out of the full context of the study, these terms/phrases should not be taken too seriously. That’s why it’s so important to do your own research!
Other important words/phrases to understand:
My nutrition information resource suggestions:
This is where I have to be careful to be objective because I have fairly strong convictions and beliefs about what I eat and why I eat the way I do. With that said, I also do not believe that every person has to agree with me in order to be healthy. Nutrition is a science, not a belief system. The way I choose to eat is a decision made on the basis of not just health, but also ethics, longevity, and disease prevention. I eat a primarily plant-based diet. I don’t stick to that perfectly and I don’t believe a person has to be 100% plant-based to be healthy. But I do strongly believe, based on scientific evidence, that plant-based eating is the most beneficial way of eating.
With all that said, below are a few resources for nutrition information that I recommend, both plant-based and non-plant-based. These are just places for you to start! I recommend you branch out and continue to learn and form your own opinions. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a fight with yourself or other people. You don’t have to make the opinions you form about nutrition into a hill you would die on. Nutrition science is discovering more and more every single day. As long as you’re interested in caring for your health, you can keep discovering new things about food too. Take your time, enjoy learning, and keep an open mind.
Plant-based nutrition science resources:
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Colin T. Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Non-plant-based nutrition science resources:
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics