As moms, we often bear the lion’s share of providing food for our family. We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to provide the healthiest possible menu and/or lay guilt on ourselves when we think we don’t. As a mom with a Masters of Nutrition Science, let me help relieve some of your angst by letting you in on a little secret that the “nutrition establishment” may not want you to know.
Nutrition is more of a philosophy than a science.
Don’t believe me? Ask two graduates of the exact same program their opinion on high fructose corn syrup and you’re likely to get two (or more!) different answers.
Start a discussion on Facebook about what “healthy” means and you will get responses that vary considerably.
Is meat good or should I be a vegetarian?
Should I take a multivitamin or only get my nutrition from foods?
Are fruits and vegetables good for me? Or only vegetables?
Should I eat whole grains or is all wheat (gluten) bad for me?
I could go on and on and on and on… because everyone has their own philosophy.
Why is nutrition so tricky? Why, after having studied nutrition for 6 years (B.S. and M.S. Nutrition Science), do I know that we have more questions than answers? Here’s a bit of the inside scoop on why nutrition is so confusing and controversial.
1. Most nutrition research is based on observational, rather than intervention studies.
There are several different types of research studies. Each type offers a different level of “certainty” that can be stated from the conclusions. For example, a researcher performs a clinical trial investigating the effects of a new pharmaceutical drug that may lower blood pressures. They recruit 50 participants suffering from high blood pressure into the study and they divide them into two groups. One group is given the intervention (the pharmaceutical drug); The other group is given a placebo (a sugar pill, essentially, that looks similar to the intervention but has no actual medicine in it). The results are that the intervention group see a reduction in their blood pressure over the duration of the study. This is the “gold standard” of research – a clinical trial that can (for the most part, but still with a few caveats) prove causation of an action. Participant has high blood pressure- takes pill- reduces blood pressure.
VERY FEW-almost NO nutrition knowledge is based on straightforward clinical trial research studies. Instead, most nutrition knowledge is based on observational studies or epidemiological studies. In this type of study, a group of people (usually in the tens of thousands (20,000; 40,000; 50,000 etc) ) are recruited to participate in research via filling out a survey every ten years OR data is mined from large databases or other studies such as the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). These data can be used to draw correlations, but not causation. For example, this group of 3,000 participants consumed more whole grains and experienced lower rates of cardiovascular disease. That is interesting, perhaps whole grains lower the risk of heart disease.
There are many great reasons why most nutrition knowledge is gathered this way, but that is another whole topic! Suffice it to say for now, that it is difficult to make “for sure” statements in the world of nutrition research.
2. Nutrition is intricate.
Oh yes, I’m going to go there– let’s look at High Fructose Corn Syrup for a minute. Do a web search for HFCS and you will find everything from “5 reasons HFCS will kill you” to “High-Fructose Corn Syrup Is Bad For Everything: It Might Be Killing The Bees.”
Let’s get detailed.
What is the difference between sugar (sucrose) and High Fructose Corn Syrup?
One chemical bond.
Both sugar and HFCS are made up of roughly the same ratio of two molecules- glucose and fructose. Sugar is a perfect 50:50 mix and the glucose and fructose molecules are bonded together through one carbon linkage. HFCS is usually a 55% fructose and 42% glucose mix in foods like soft drinks or about 42% fructose and 53% glucose in foods like baked goods. (You can see the name HIGH Fructose Corn Syrup can be slightly misleading. Fructose may be higher or glucose may be higher.) But a major difference lies in the fact that the fructose and glucose molecules are NOT linked together.
So, how do we determine whether or not HFCS is as evil as activists would like us to believe? We feed it to rats. We feed it to humans. We watch and try to draw conclusions. The problem here is that HFCS has only been around since the 1950’s and we’ve only been doing research on it for even less time. This means that the body of evidence (all of the research related to HFCS consumption and health) is extremely young, inconclusive, and changing every day. This article is a good example of the contradictory nature of research because of variations in study design and other factors: Sucrose, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and Fructose, Their Metabolism and Potential Health Effects: What Do We Really Know? This article demonstrates why it is important to use logic and common sense in the short-term while science tries to piece together answers. Logically, it is more likely that any added sugar (HFCS or sugar) will contribute to negative health impacts, rather than HFCS being an evil, manmade death bullet. And the better approach to staying healthy is to try to reduce added sugars whenever possible.
But the jury is still out? …
3. Food is more than Nutrition.
Lastly, why do we eat? We eat to nourish our bodies, yes, but we also
eat for enjoyment.
We eat for celebration.
We eat because we’re bored.
We eat a certain way to identify with a certain crowd.
We eat to fit in.
We eat to define our status.
We eat what is available.
We eat what is popular in our culture.
We eat what we grow.
We eat because someone offered us food.
We eat to remember.
We eat to forget.
There are a million, bijillion different reasons that we eat, which is why I can have all of the nutrition knowledge in the world, and still choose to eat cake. When it comes to nutrition, our knowledge frequently outweighs our practice.
But I hope this blog has helped to alleviate the idea that one nutrition philosophy is superior to all. I hope you trust yourself more and question the experts more. I hope you doubt yourself less and take the latest research fad with a grain of salt (:pun intended!). It is important as we raise our families not to make our children afraid of food, but to celebrate food for all of the things that it is in our lives. Food is tradition. Food is a blessing! Food makes us stronger. Trust your judgement when it comes to your family’s nutrition and enjoy. your. food!
If you STILL don’t believe me that nutrition is a matter of interpretation and philosophy, just ask Bill Cosby…