July 25, 2024

“Nutrition science appears to be in a crisis and is currently confronted with a public reluctance to trust nutritional insights. Though deflating trust is a general phenomenon surrounding the scientific community, its impact on nutrition science is particularly strong because of the crucial role of nutrition in everyone’s daily life.”

This quote is taken directly from the abstract of Capable and credible? Challenging nutrition science, a multi-authored study by Nutrition in Transition, a group of Dutch scientists, published in the European Journal of Nutrition. The study has 14 authors including nutritionists, medical doctors, philosophers and sociologists of science. Fred Brouns’ resume provides an example of the multiple accreditations of each: Department of Human Biology and Movement Sciences, Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism (NUTRIM), Maastricht University.

The group’s study was designed to prove that this erosion of trust in nutritional science as a category was harming the ability of unique, verifiable nutritional science findings to break through the morass and provide worthwhile benefits to people, and find a solution to said problem.

Yet even with all this transparency and high-priced help, an exasperated voice buried deep in my non-specialized brain still asks — can I trust this? Is their information credible, up-to-date, and unbiased?

The purpose of this column is to assist us non-experts understand why nutritional science is convoluted and an easy target for skeptics, and to offer some simple suggestions for determining the credibility of the information we receive.

An oft-cited reason is that nutrition science is extremely new. Sure, in 1500 BCE the Egyptians thought goose fat and honey were medicinal foods, and in the 5th century BCE Hippocrates was beginning to draw food and health connections. Scottish surgeon James Lind determined that citrus cured scurvy in 1747, but Vitamin C wasn’t actually discovered until 1911. Connections were made centuries ago, but the proof, or science, lagged far behind for many reasons.

A huge number of inherent variables, and the difficulty of reliably measuring outcomes, are impediments to “proving” nutritional facts.

Much of nutritional data is gathered through observational methodology rather than using evidence provided by controlled studies. Surveys that ask participants already suffering from chronic diseases about how much and how often they ate something, for the extended length of time it took the disease to develop, are simply not reliable. Without controlled experiments designed to decipher whether outcomes are causal or coincidental correlations, nutritional connections frequently remain conjecture rather than fact.

Yet, finding participants for controlled nutritional studies is understandably extremely difficult. Imagine being approached with this offer:

“Hi, Mr. Jones, we believe that eating ice cream for long periods can be harmful, and want to test the hypothesis in a controlled scientific study over 25 years. We need 6,000 participants divided into three cohorts: one that never ever tastes ice cream again for 25 years, one that eats two scoops per day every day, and one group that eats one litre per day for 25 years and will almost certainly develop a chronic disease of some variety? Would you be interested in volunteering for our third group?”

There are so many factors and biological relationships that nutritional scientists don’t fully understand yet

Our physiology as humans is incredibly diverse. In attempting to study the effects of any specific nutrient on our species how do scientists control for pre- or partially existing conditions, natural metabolic differences, diverse abilities to absorb nutrients, mental rigor, age, gender and pre-existing level of fitness to name a few. There are so many factors and biological relationships that nutritional scientists don’t fully understand yet.

Funding for nutritional science is relatively scarce. It is an age-old question —should funding go to fighting and finding cures for existing diseases, or be spent on preventative research and public education? If one is looking for quick results in the short range, whether for political success or financial profits, preventative and educational spending is a non-starter. John Berardi (PhD, CSCS) of Precision Nutrition, reports that in 2016 just 0.2 percent of medical research funding by the U.S. National Institute of Health Funding went to optimal nutrition studies.

Outright deception and fraud, from Kellog’s claiming Frosted Mini-Wheats were clinically proven to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent (the FDA found the claim was based on a 4 percent improvement compared to drinking water); to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s claim that one of its Original Recipe chicken breasts has only 11 grams of carbohydrates and 40 grams of protein (KFC forgot to mention that customers would have to throw away the breading and skin before eating the chicken breast to achieve that result) are well known.

How can we determine if the information we’re getting is credible and scientifically sound?

This is not an easy task, but thankfully not every information source has nefarious motives. As journals and scientific periodicals and websites face increasing scrutiny, many appear to be working harder to review what they publish and be transparent as to its origin.

BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health’s online journal is a random example. On its “About” page, it lists Scope and Aim, Editorial Board, Ownership, Journal Information, Author Information and Business Affiliates. Also provided are acceptance rate for submitted articles (35 percent) and the average time spent to review those articles (88 days).

Upon opening a published BMJ article, a reader then learns of the study’s authors and their qualifications, the abstract’s details including materials and methods in this case, and a data availability statement that asserts, “all data relevant to the study are included in the article or are uploaded as supplementary information.” One never knows for certain, but at this point I’m personally feeling comfortable that I’ll get fairly solid info from this particular BMJ article.

Don’t take the results of any single study as definitive. Official-sounding organization names don’t necessarily confer accuracy. Compare your findings to similar studies from other potentially reputable sources. If the consensus is consistent you may be on the right track.

Look for disclosure and be wary of vested interests in all aspects of the information: who paid for the research, who owns or sponsors the publishing company, who benefits commercially from the findings, are there peer reviewers and are they independent? A pinch of cynicism can help.

Look for the date of the information. Slow-moving as nutritional science may be, it still changes regularly. Treatment for severe acute pancreatitis was redefined in 2012 when it was proven that enteral nutritional therapy (tube feeding) was safe and beneficial.

Be wary of columns like the one you area reading now. The complete, detailed pros and cons of any subject or theory can seldom be fully elaborated upon in 1000 words or less. If their content inspires you to seek a better understanding of foods, diet, health and quality of life, consider them as an alert or inspiration to pursue more information— not a definitive answer to your questions or concerns.

After you’ve done your research and decided you’re going to make changes to your nutritional inputs, speak with a knowledgeable and qualified professional to confirm your plan. Then cross your fingers and go for it.

 


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