Nutrition Whiplash

Same image, same news source, completely contradictory commentary on coffee.

The media simplifies multi-page scientific studies into short soundbite-worthy headlines. While the intent is to communicate nutrition information quickly and clearly, the result is increased consumer confusion. The media and the food industry capitalize on our confusion and bait clicks by acting as though they know something the experts do not: the perfect way to eat for us all.

It’s not absolutely the fault of the media or the food industry — nutrition results can change on a dime due to scientific methodology, spurious associations, and unintended bias. Statistically, even without bias and faulty methodology, many studies remain incorrect due to statistical law of confidence intervals — a measurement of the likelihood of correctness that is never 100%. In some scientific fields such as psychology, the likelihood of studies being correct may exist as low as 40%.

As consumers, our already overloaded brains don’t want to grapple with probabilities that something is good or bad for us. (And more often than not, neither do reporters). We’re seeking definitive answers. Consequently, articles and publications that promote every new study as ‘absolute science’ inevitably promote non-truths –often citing studies that could be wrong, or studies only intended as part of the answer. In nutrition, we call the consequences of ‘absolute’ thinking — when single foods appear deemed ‘good’ one year, and ‘bad’ the next — Nutrition Whiplash.

Below is a brief and simple overview of some foods, nutrients, and labels illustrating headlines — ( #head-lies? ) — that use science to promote absolutes in nutrition.

Foods

Coffee:

It’s good for you —

http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/15/health/coffee-tea-hot-drinks-cancer-risk/

It’s bad for you —

Soy

It’s good for you —

“If you choose to include soy products in your routine, you’ll have science on your side.”

Settling the Soy Controversy

It’s bad for you —

Soy: Eating This “Healthy” Food? It Could Be Slowly and Silently Killing You

Butter

It’s good for you —

Butter not as bad as you thought, study suggests

It’s bad for you-

Butter is bad for you again as new study proves link between dairy and early death

Red Meat:

It’s bad for you —

Red meat is good for you? Baloney.

It’s good for you —

Red Meat? It Does the Body Good!

Vegetable Oil

It’s good for you -

Heart-Healthy Benefits Of Vegetable Oil Confirmed; Researchers Suggest Up To Four Tablespoons A Day

It’s bad for you -

When Vegetable Oil Isn’t as Healthy as You Think

Nutrients:

Saturated Fat

It’s good for you -

It’s bad for you -

Saturated Fats Linked To Heart Disease Once Again

Sodium

It’s good for you -

It’s Time to End the War on Salt

It’s bad for you -

Salt May Be Bad for More Than Your Blood Pressure

Carbohydrates

It’s good for you -

8 Reasons Why Carbs Help You Lose Weight

It’s bad for you -

Stop Eating So Many Carbs — They Make You Fat

Labels:

Organic

It’s good for you -

New study finds organic foods are healthier than conventionally grown foods

It’s bad for you -

Think organic food is better for you, animals and the planet? Think again

GMO

They’re good-

Unhealthy Fixation: The war against GMOs are full of fear mongering, errors and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer

They’re bad -

10 Scientific Studies Proving GMOs Can Be Harmful to Human Health

The Point

At Food + Future, we’ve learned to never look at a single food, nutrient, or label as absolutely good or bad. Instead, we entertain the nuance in each situation: ‘who is this good/bad for?’, ‘in what quantity is this good/bad?’, ‘in what combination of other foods is this good/bad’, ‘under what conditions is this good/bad’ etc.. We know that asking these questions will improve the quality of our scientific studies and that the answers will transform the way we navigate the complex journey towards a healthier life.

Core messages:

  1. Nutrition as a field is incomplete: we have more questions than answers
  2. Our overloaded brains crave simple answers, silver bullets, definitive guidance
  3. The media & food industry capitalize on this, delivering pithy headlines
  4. This is dangerous because it encourages laziness of thought and acting on misinformation