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Nutrition science

Nutrition science; the good, bad, and ludicrous.

The thing about nutrition science – as with all sciences for that matter – is that there are no absolutes. The closest you can get is consensus. What that means is, if a majority of scientific experts in a particular field agree that evidence supports a particular theory, then that is the theory everyone is going with – at least until sufficient newer evidence proves otherwise. And new evidence doesn’t necessarily mean what we understood to be true before is totally wrong; a lot of the time, science research is tweaking around the edges, and so knowledge advances by baby steps, not by lunar leaps.

Take cholesterol and the egg. At one point, it was thought that the cholesterol in our diet was directly responsible for cholesterol in our bodies, and the more cholesterol we ate, the greater the risk of developing high cholesterol, and by default, heart attacks and stroke. Given the amount of cholesterol in eggs, they were demonised.
Time went by, and diligent researchers began to increase the body of knowledge relating to how cholesterol levels in our bodies were caused. Eventually, it was realised that dietary cholesterol was not a primary cause of high blood cholesterol, and that other foods played a much greater part; some in increasing cholesterol levels, but some others acting to decrease cholesterol levels. In other words, cholesterol and what causes it, turned out to be a lot more nuanced than originally thought, and eggs were exonerated.

Which is not to say that you should eat eggs 24/7. Eggs can play a valuable, and nutritious role in our diet, but only as a PART of our diet. Like everything else we eat and drink, the rule of moderation applies.

The media, and self-appointed nutrition gurus, must also shoulder their fair share of blame, as both frequently misinterpret new scientific findings, and start publishing outrageous claims, based on their unique interpretations. Hence, one day coffee, is ok, the next it is bad, the next it is good again, and so on. If these would be arbiters of nutrition truths could understand the concept that one scientific study does not a consensus make, we would all be a lot better off. Which is to say, that when a scientist writes “…these findings may have implications in the study of XYZ…” the key word is “may”.

Definition of may
auxiliary verb
\ ˈmā \
past might\ ˈmīt \; present singular and plural may
(Entry 1 of 4)
1a—used to indicate possibility or probability – you may be right – things you may need—sometimes used interchangeably with can – one of those slipups that may happen from time to time— Jessica Mitford—sometimes used where might would be expected- you may think from a little distance that the country was solid woods— Robert Frost

So, when you read yet another dramatic claim about a scientific discovery relating to nutrition, ask yourself these questions:
• Is this based on just one study?
• Is/are the scientist(s) who wrote the study interviewed directly (look for proper quotes)?
• Have other nutrition scientists been cited, who agree with this study (again, proper quotes)?
• Do the facts in the article agree with the headline (often a big giveaway)?
• Did the writer(s) of the article get feedback from any dietitians (hint: we tend to keep track of new scientific discoveries relating to nutrition!)?
• Does the article link to the actual scientific study (i.e. name of study, where and when published, perhaps even a hyperlink)?

There is a lot more that can be said about reading and interpreting nutrition studies, but the points above are a good start to determine whether or not you are being presented with trumped out headlines – and please don’t blame science or scientists for being misinterpreted!

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