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Why There's So Much Confusion Over Nutrition and Health, by Alan Henry of Lifehacker

Stashed in: #health, Fitspo, Nutrition, Weight Loss, Science Studies, Cognitive Bias

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Alan Henry explains:

If you believed the internet, you'd think there's huge debate over whether eggs, coffee, or salt are good or bad for you. In reality, there's significant agreement on diet and health issues among experts, but the general public is conflicted. So why are we so confused when experts agree? Let's clear the air.

If you asked most people about foods that are "good" or "bad" for you, you'd get a dozen different answers. You'd find people who vehemently argue that eggs are both good or bad for you, that sodium does and doesn't contribute to hypertension, or that carbs do or don't make you sick. In general, you'll find a lot of laypeople with opinions that may or may not be based in real science. Researchers however, generally have some pretty solid opinions on these issues, and are quick to note where their own shortcomings are.

So where's the disconnect? In this post, we'll look at where the breakdown happens, who's to blame, and what you can do about it all. We sat down with a number of our own experts to get their input. It's going to be a bumpy ride, so let's get started.

The "Health and Diet" Industry Carries Much of the Blame

Americans spend billions on health and diet products every year. From books and meal plans to prepackaged foods and DVDs, we eat the stuff up (pun intended). It's natural to be attracted to any path that promises big results for little effort, but there's more to it. People who would otherwise consider themselves rational are often duped by marketing and half-truth statements made in the name of science. 

This is where the diet industry flourishes. By taking advantage of the public's desire for practical health information, so-called "experts" sell us everything from juicers to supplements, convincing us the whole time we'll live forever thanks to their advice. It shouldn't work, but it does. Beth Skwarecki, a science writer and educator, explains why: 

We respond strongly to warnings about danger, and promises of really awesome stuff (like health, or weight loss)—but only if those warnings or promises are actionable. And with food, that really applies: We can act on a warning to avoid gluten or eat superfoods (or whatever) at our next meal or our next trip to the grocery store. It makes us feel good to have control over ourselves. I'm not a psychologist and this is just my personal opinion, but I'm sure there is researchthat backs this up

Why this causes confusion: Truth and falsehoods are both presented this way. “Vitamins are magical substances that will make you more healthy if you are deficient!” Well, yeah. That's actually true. “Vitamins are magical substances that will make you more healthy!” Sounds similar, but it's not the same, and it's not true in most cases. Then you can substitute various other chemicals or superfoods for the word "vitamins" in that sentence. True claims and misleading ones sound very similar. 

People selling diets or exercise programs will latch on to true things that help them sell their product; they'll also latch onto false ones. Just look at Dr. Oz: plenty of what he's pushing is true, but lots of it isn't, or is misleading. Which is which? I don't know that he cares. He just needs a steady stream of things to endorse.

We don't meant to single out Dr. Oz here. There are a number of physicians and other medical professionals who are highly educated, but have made the decision to "sell health." They may believe they're doing good, or just want to make a living. In all of those cases, the message is similar: "Living healthy doesn't have to be hard, just do this thing/eat this food/buy my book." 

Selling health is only half of the job. The other half is undermining public trust in science-based medicine and traditional authorities (although they carry blame too—we'll get to that in a moment) so they can swoop in to the rescue. Andy Bellatti, registered dietitian and frequent Lifehacker contributor, explains:

The food industry thrives on confusion, and it loves to propagate the notion that "Gee whiz, one day you're told coffee is good for you, the next day you're told it's unhealthy!" By making nutrition advice seem "confusing," they attempt to gain the public's trust.

It also doesn't help that, increasingly, food companies are setting up "institutes" (i.e.: Coca-Cola's Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, General Mills' Bell Institute) that are essentially PR efforts that oh-so-coincidentally frame these companies' products as healthful (or, in the case of soda, in no way problematic from a health standpoint). To make matters more confusing, these institutes have doctors, cardiologists, and dietitians on their payroll—as well as key media contacts—resulting in a health professional talking to media about, say, how soda is "unfairly vilified." Most times, the general public isn't aware that this isn't an objective health professional choosing to say that.

When we debunked stubborn exercise myths, we ran headlong into one of these groups. The "Gatorade Sports Science Institute" has papers explaining why Gatorade is better than water for exercise—papers we saw copied word-for-word on other sites. In reality, depending on the exercise you do there's either no difference between water or sports drinks, and for most people (and for moderate exercise) there's clear evidence that water is the better option unless you're doing for bouts of prolonged exercise. 

All of these tactics may seem underhanded, but they're just part of the marketing game. By playing on the public's confusion and presenting their own products as quick fixes they convince us to buy their books, follow their diet plans, and perhaps most dangerously, ignore legitimate advice and real research. 

It's not just companies that do this though. Individuals with a message to sell also do it. Skwarecki's article, Why It's So Easy to Believe Our Food is Toxic, is an exceptional case study in this. She explains how "experts" take good premises—like the need to take your health in your own hands and be critical of the things you eat and buy—and go off the rails when the sales pitch gets involved. She calls out nutrition gurus and health "experts" you've likely seen reposted on Facebook, like Vani Hari (aka The Food Babe,) and Joseph Mercola, among others, who thrive on obfuscating nutrition so much that the only clear thing they do suggest is that you should buy their books, sponsored foods, and DVDs. 

Also to blame besides the health and diet industry:

2. Corporate-influenced governments

3. Lazy media reporting

4. Scientists who suck at communicating

It's a miracle any good information gets through at all.

Read more:

Son recently cajoling his lamebrain mom:

<Here's my rule of thumb for weeding out 90% of health bunk and misinformation:

    Is the author selling a book?

If so, it is most likely rubbish and not worth your time. Not only that, but red flag #1: it is an opinion piece in the WSJ.

Science Mag and the journal Nature do a pretty good job of disseminating health and science news through their companion websites and podcasts.

For instance:  >

That's a good rule of thumb, Geege.