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Nutrition noise: what should you trust?
In a landscape of opinions we are often overwhelmed with "eat this, not that" messages. Who and what can you trust? - photo by Erica Hansen MS, RD, CD
Clamorous [klam-er-uh s]: noisily inconsistent vehement expression of desire or dissatisfaction; vigorous demands or complaints.

The fight for your vote in politics, parenting practices, and food choices is best described with the above word clamorous.

Everyone has an opinion and everyone is seeking for their own truth. In these categories politics, parenting and food we each bring our own experiences and observations to the table for discussion.

While each voice matters and each persons experience contributes to our collective knowledge, the loudest voice is not always the most credible and trustworthy.

Nor is the opinion of a group always trustworthy, though there may be power in numbers to convince us otherwise. Media can misrepresent the majority; it may seem that everyone is doing something when in fact only a handful are.

The sources of our information should be put in perspective and weighted appropriately. Websites; books; documentaries with dramatic music, lighting, and passionate testimonials; and professionals (even health professionals) may sound authoritative but a background check is still required. What has the authority specifically studied about nutrition and food and what were their sources?

In terms of food, nutrition is a science. It is the process by which we consume food and use it to sustain our life, growth and health.

Excepting religious codes of consumption conduct, nutrition is not based on belief, but fact. As a dietitian I often see science and belief intertwined. Sometimes an idea sounds good and is presented attractively in part-truths, but is not founded in scientific principles.

As far as studies of science go, nutrition is a young science. The first vitamin was discovered in the early 1900s when it was learned that a diet lacking specific vitamins caused disease. Before the discovery of vitamin deficiencies, toxins and infectious microorganisms were blamed for illnesses.

Because nutrition science is young, todays public has been along for much of the ride as knowledge is gained through research. To a passenger this ride can seem very bumpy, often with backtracking and roundabouts.

Nutrition research is difficult because humans dont live in laboratories. In a lab scientists can isolate nutrients and living conditions in gold-standard randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled studies. Pivotal and important findings have been made in these conditions and should not be disregarded.

Outside of the lab, our health is influenced by lifestyle practices, genetics, and our environment and so to add to clinical research findings, scientists have contributed to the pool of knowledge by looking at epidemiological evidence, or the study of health patterns and trends in specific populations. But these studies too, are not without their limitations.

Because of the challenges inherent in studying complex organisms like we humans, it is best to take a slow and steady approach to nutrition news and dietary fads and trends. We often read headlines that new research has just discovered old research was wrong. But one study is just one study and it must be examined in the context of other scholarly, accurate, and valid findings. One study doesnt overturn 100 years of knowledge without serious examination and repetition of the study to confirm the results.

Bumps in nutrition research dont illegetimize the science of nutrition. To discard an entire field of study and body of knowledge because of a loud tangent would be a grave error in minimization.

New findings may be news, but that doesnt mean its ready to be consumed.

What this means is that you need trusted guides (people and maps!) on this nutrition science road trip. A guide who knows the route; where weve been and where we are going. Who understands how a bump in the road, or a detour, contributes to the big picture of human health and science.

Excepting diets specific for diagnosed allergies, medical conditions and intolerances, the principles of good nutrition are timeless and well founded:

Eat a diet rich in plant foods. This includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils. Be it veganism, vegetarianism, pescetarianism, or good ol omnivorous eating with a heavy side of plants, there is no debate about the benefit of plant-powered eating.

Eat a variety of whole foods. Variety is said to be the spice of life, but it is also the best way to eat to make sure youre meeting all of your nutrient needs. Each food has a unique combination of nutrients and though there are superfoods or very nutrient-dense foods, you dont have to subsist off of kale and blueberries to eat healthily (In fact, you can even avoid them entirely and still be healthy!).

Reduce highly processed foods with added sugar and fat. These substances are not inherently evil. Naturally occurring sugars and fats provide us with much-needed energy and flavor. However, isolated from their original nutrient-rich sources, modified and added into foods, they do more damage than good. See how it adds up here.

The next time you start the feel your chest start to tighten in panic that food fear-mongers often pitch, take a breath and step back. Get back to timeless truths. Prepare whole foods, with people you love, and eat mindfully.
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