Is sugar a poison and does fat actually make us fat? Should we avoid fruit juice or drink it exclusively? Are we lacking meat in our diet or should we all be turning vegan?
You could certainly be forgiven for not knowing the honest answers to these questions, as well as to a number of other food related mysteries.
From what we read in the media, it seems not even the experts are sure. The ‘experts’ (whether qualified or not) often have diverse opinions, all based on a mass of research of course, and it’s sometimes hard to know where to turn to find the truth.
However it’s important to point out that scientific research IS confusing, especially when it comes to our diet.
Firstly, a lot of the research is carried out, not on human beings, but on human cells or even animals. This leads to generalised conclusions, which may or may not be applicable to human populations.
Secondly, it’s very hard to conduct scientific research on humans for a number of reasons:
Self-reported food intake is underreported by around 20%-40% (1) so often researchers are getting erroneous information on what we are actually eating.
Studies are also very hard to control i.e. if you change one thing in your diet, (for example increasing fat) then you are likely to have a change elsewhere (a decrease in carbs).
In addition our attitudes to food aren’t black and white and there are numerous factors which contribute to our decisions of what, when and how to eat – and these can’t always be accounted for in the studies.
There is also the factor that individuals may respond to similar foods in completely different ways dependent on their own genetic make up.
Studies looking at an ‘effect’ of a food will likely need long-term follow-ups, which lead to prolonged intervals before results are published.
Finally research is incredibly expensive to conduct – hence the food industry paying for a number of studies, which then adds in another problematic element; research bias.
As if that weren’t bad enough, we also have industry and other benefactors marketing their own ‘miracle’ and ‘super’ foods and using loopholes to promote the scientific ‘benefits’ of their products.
However, the EU has stepped up and has a list of very specific health claims that can be made for foods, meaning that industry has to be careful about the terminology they are using on their food packets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that other individuals, websites and blogs won’t be able to make unsubstantiated claims about the ‘miracle’ properties of certain foods. On top of this, the media often call on ‘experts’ to comment. These ‘experts’ may not even be registered in their field and in this way inaccurate messages get spread to a wider audience.
So, what’s the answer?
- First and foremost DON’T believe everything you read!!! Just because someone says that detoxing will reduce your risk of cancer, it doesn’t mean there is any evidence to back this claim up.
- Always be wary of advice that seems too good to be true or to has a ‘miracle’ answer – if it worked, everyone would be using it. For example the idea that a new miracle food can help you lose weight or that certain diets cure cancer is not only false, but potentially dangerous – so stay away from it.
- Check out reputable sources such as NHS choices, BDA, EUFIC or, if you’re even more savvy, check out the research yourself using search engine such as ‘Google scholar’.
- ALWAYS get advice from someone registered (I’m talking to you too journalists!) – registered nutritionsts and dietitians work by a code of ethics that ensures that their information is always evidence-based
- Remember that there are no super foods, only super diets and the age old, boring messages still stand:
Eat a diet full of plenty of vegetables and fruits
Choose wholemeal (not refined) carbohydrates whenever possible
Eat plenty or proteins from nuts, seeds and pulses
Only eat small amounts of highly processed foods, including processed meats, ready-meals and takeaways
Limit intakes of foods such as sweets, cakes and biscuits
Sorry, we know it’s just a bit more boring than a ‘miracle superfood detox diet’ but the sensible messages will always win out with the real experts:
“Eat foods, not too much, mostly plants” M.Pollen