Nutrition Advice: Take It With a Grain of Salt
Updated: Mar 24
Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | July 29,2021
Nutrition news is always changing. One week "fats are bad," the next week “put butter in your coffee!” And there always seems to be some new super food or product that we “should” be eating every day. Even as a Registered Dietitian, I sometimes find myself reading a too-good-to-be-true headline thinking, “Wait, really?!” Then I come back to reality: No, you probably can't detox or reverse the 3 margaritas you had last night with this special tea. Typically if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
I’ve always found it helpful to take nutrition tips with a grain of salt. We usually do not know all of the details of the one study a blog or magazine article is based on. For instance, a headline might read: “Sugar Intake Linked to Weight Gain and Heart Disease.” OK, what type of sugar? Added sugars, the ones not naturally found in foods (hint all carbs: starches, grains, fruits, and vegetables contain sugar), have been getting a bad rep lately so let's assume it's those. Did this study say how much sugar people were having that allegedly led them to higher weights and heart disease? And how did they determine these results? Did they compare these added-sugar-eaters to a group of non-added-sugar-eaters? Did they also check to see if those sugar-eaters exercised as much as the non-sugar-eaters? Or if more of the sugar-eaters were also cigarette smokers (which would increase their risk for heart disease)? Or what if the sugar-eaters ate less fruits and vegetables or had a greater family history of heart disease than the non-sugar-eaters?
These are questions we often don't ask ourselves. We could read that article and think — shoot, I need to stop eating dessert or else I'm putting myself at risk for heart disease! When in reality, there is more to the story. There are a TON of factors that go into our health like diet, exercise, self-care, socioeconomic status, stress management, mental health, and so on. It is really hard for experimenters to control for ALL of these factors when conducting a study, which is why we often aren’t seeing the whole picture. Also, cutting out one specific food or food group, or drinking some special concoction is never going to be a cure-all.
There are a ton of factors that go into our health like diet, exercise, self-care, socioeconomic status, stress management, mental health, and so on. Cutting out one specific food or food group, or drinking some special concoction is never going to be a cure-all.
Not to mention, some nutrition advice may not even apply to us! Maybe your heart is in tip-top shape with your current lifestyle that includes enjoying dessert. Do you now need to restrict yourself of the foods you love because of this one study mentioned in a blog?
Another question to ask yourself is what about moderation? Eating all food groups in moderation is rarely mentioned because its a little boring compared to a “Why You Should Cut Out Sugar Now!” headline. Often times nutrition studies look at extremes — what would happen if we ate a ton of sugar every day? Also, these experiments are sometimes done on mice, so when you convert the amount of sugar to what a human would have to eat or drink daily it would be nearly impossible to achieve.
What about moderation?
The truth about added sugars is that they are problematic when they displace nutrient-rich foods in the diet. Meaning when we fill up on sweets, we miss out on other eating opportunities that could provide important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and so on (found in foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc). This is why it's recommended that added sugars make up 10% or less of our total caloric intake (i.e., be eaten in moderation) so that we cab get enough of those nutrient-rich foods in our diets, too.
OK, but what if the nutrition advice is coming from someone who had success?
Still be wary. This is even harder nowadays with social media. When we see someone with "ideal" skin, hair, weight, muscle tone, etc. promoting something that "helped" them achieve these results, of course we're interested to learn more. But remember that we don't have their whole story, either. They may be promoting a diet or supplement that "cleared their skin and helped them lose 15 pounds" but what if they've always been thin and are one of God's favorites blessed with clear skin? Or what if they're actually partaking in very dangerous, disordered behaviors to achieve their physique?
Remember that we don't have the whole story.
If we don’t question the headlines we read or advice we receive, we can end up trying to keep up with every (often conflicting) diet tip out there — leaving us hungry and confused. Perhaps the first and maybe most important question to ask is: do I even want to eat these foods or live my life the way this person or study suggests? Do I never want to have my favorite dessert again because of this one study?
Next, see if the advice suggests adding or taking away foods from your diet. If it is limiting your food choices, it is a fad diet, which is never designed to work long-term. If it is suggesting you incorporate more nutrients, like omega-3s for brain health/mood, or fiber for heart health, that may be worth looking into. And if it is trying to sell you something like a meal replacement smoothie, juice cleanse, or daily supplement, be wary.
If the advice is limiting your food choices, it is a fad diet, which is never designed to work long-term.
First and foremost, try not to forget about your own preferences when hearing about all of these things we “should” be doing, and remember that you are the best judge of what works well for you and your body.
So next time you read a too-good-to-be-true headline, don't be afraid to question its validity and potential place in your life. If it is something that interests you, do your research, reach out to an RDN, and always, always, always take it with a grain of salt. And for the really troubling headlines, maybe with a wedge of lime and shot of tequila, too!
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