Even though my work involves a lot of nutrition science, I admit to having been somewhat bewildered about food in the past. I certainly would not think less of someone who claimed to be confused about what to eat and what not to eat, given how the media continue to write contradicting messages to the point where I almost think they deliberately want to confuse us. I have a few points to get across here and if you can grasp them, I hope that you will find food less of a challenge in the future, and actually something to give you joy and not anxiety.
My first point is that the science of nutrition is not very robust. It is certainly a lot less robust compared to the science surrounding the health effects of exercise. Good science relies on good data, the building blocks of science. In terms of understanding how food affects our health, we as scientists need research participants to tell us about their eating habits in a very accurate way. This is the core problem: people are not very good at accurately reporting what they are eating, how much, and so on. Moreover, people often change their food habits, which further weakens the science and our ability to find notable associations. The building blocks of nutrition science are definitely lacking in quality, and this is the number one reason why this field of science is hard to understand. You therefore need to be a little careful in how you interpret food studies.
My second point is that there is so much food marketing and lobbying from the food and drink industry that consumers are in reality rarely told a straight story by the de facto producers. Moreover, journalists seldom have the time, competence or interest to accurately paint a balanced picture and they end up pushing angles that makes everything extreme, i.e. something is either very harmful or very beneficial one week and the next week it’s the other way around.
Academics can also be pretty confusing about what they go on record with, often using too much jargon or overly complicating the messages. The end result is often too complex for regular people to understand. Academics also tend to focus too much on the details, with more or less endless debates about the role of, say, sugars vs fat for weight gain (oh yeah, this debate is still on-going).
In short, I totally understand why people are confused about food. The good thing is that food really doesn’t have to be very complicated at all. Here are my two cents on what to eat and what we need to do differently:
Instead of breaking down food into molecules, which gets us close to nowhere, we need to focus more on the overall quality of the food we are eating. For example, is is loaded with pesticides and preservatives, or is it organic? Has it been deep-fried or just pulled out of the ground in your own back yard? Does it contain healthy nutrients or is it just empty calories? We don’t actually need a lot of calories, but we do need nutritious and natural food. Many people in affluent countries are now in a state of malnutrition these days as a result of eating junk food.
So, in theory it’s actually pretty simple and not complicated at all. Good food is something that has been growing in the ground without pesticides, preservatives and other harmful chemicals, and is free of industrial ultra processing. Basically think organic fruit and veg, nuts, beans and whole grains and drink plenty of water. It’s not that complicated, is it?
By now it should also be pretty clear what to avoid. That’s right, ignore the large-scale ultra-processed junk food that has gradually taken over our diets, especially in poorer areas. You will also do well to avoid meat where the animals lived in cramped spaces under appalling conditions and fed all kinds of junk and antibiotics – where do you think it’s going to end up?
If you want a bit of science behind this go ahead and read this new study by Wang et al. in the BMJ on the very powerful role of fruit and vegetables in giving us longer and healthier lives (http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g4490).