How much would you say you know about nutrition? Would you say you understand nutrition better than the average person?
That may be true, but the average person tends to overestimate their knowledge on the subject. This isn’t because what they know is wrong, per se, but instead is because nutrition is a much more complicated field than people tend to admit. In fact, even professionals often disagree with each other, and it’s hard to find any straightforward conclusion that doesn’t have at least some contradicting evidence.
Why is it that nutrition science is so tricky? And why are misconceptions so common?
The Complexities of Human Nutrition
If you want to become a professional in the field of clinical nutrition, you’ll ideally want a Master’s degree. Because the term “nutritionist” requires no formal training, it’s possible to call yourself a nutritionist with no education; but if you want to help patients achieve better health outcomes and land yourself a career at a respected healthcare establishment, you’ll need to become a professional dietician or a certified nutrition specialist (CNS).
This level of education is necessary because nutrition is such a complex field. But why is it so complex?
- The sheer number of variables. First, there are a ton of variables to consider when evaluating nutrition. The calorie count, macronutrient composition (i.e., breakdown of carbs, fats, and proteins), micronutrient composition (i.e., breakdown of vitamins and minerals), and origin of the food all matter—and humans rarely eat foods by themselves. We also have to take into account meal composition, meal timing, number of meals throughout the day, and how diets change from day to day and week to week. It’s impossible to track all these variables consistently, and nearly impossible to isolate those variables.
- Participant availability and control. Researchers also don’t have as much access to research subjects as they need to draw firm conclusions. In an ideal world, researchers would be able to control every variable for every participant, over the course of a decade or longer. In the real world, it’s extremely hard to control what people eat, and monitoring usually relies on journal entries—which can be horribly inaccurate.
- Individual differences. Nutrition scientists also need to account for individual differences that might make them respond to variables differently. As a simple example, food allergies can drastically alter how a person responds to different ingredients. As a more complex example, the human microbiome might play a massive role in how we process and absorb nutrients—and it’s an area that’s largely unexplored by scientists.
- Conflicts of interest. We also need to consider the role that the food industry has played in our understanding of nutrition science. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that the sugar industry spent a lot of money making sure that the general public blamed fats for the rise in obesity, rather than sugar. Nutritional researchers need money to conduct effective research, but if that money’s coming from food and beverage companies, can we really trust their findings?
Why Misconceptions Are So Common
It also doesn’t help that misconceptions are so common among the general public. There are several factors for the ease of spreading misinformation on nutrition, including:
- Marketing stunts. In many cases, companies work to skew public perceptions in order to make them purchase something or conduct themselves in a specific way. For example, a company trying to push a fad diet that requires you to only eat their special brand of food products would likely exhaust their budget to find and popularize evidence that the fad diet works.
- Media imprecision. The mass media also plays a negative role in our understanding of nutrition science. News outlets love to jump on and sensationalize any story that would surprise their readership or offer a fast weight loss solution—hence why you often see headlines that suggest chocolate or wine could be “good for you.” These widely circulated articles are, at best, misleading and at worst, outright lies.
- Anecdotal evidence. Of course, there’s also the cascading wave of anecdotal evidence that we’ve all encountered in the past. If a neighbor tells you they lost 20 pounds after eating one new food, you might be inclined to believe it—even without accounting for all the other variables that are likely influencing that outcome.
Even the most knowledgeable people in the field of nutrition admit their knowledge base is complex and likely imprecise. Knowing what you now know, take all the nutrition advice you get with a grain of salt, and read every new scientific study a bit more carefully than you might have otherwise. The more aware you are about the complexities of human nutrition, the better you’ll be able to direct your own eating habits.