I once had a client who subscribed to a ton of health-nutrition-wellness email newsletters. She often found that her mornings would slip, slip, slip away as she fell down the newsletter rabbit hole. She told me that she was constantly searching for that one “secret” to better health that her friends didn’t know so SHE could be the one to bestow this newfound knowledge. Unfortunately, spending most mornings searching for this holy grail got in the way of her actually doing things that would support her health and wellbeing, like going for a walk, doing yoga or meditating.
(After discussing how if something “secret” truly worked, it wouldn’t be a secret, we also agreed that she would unsubscribe from some of those emails.)
I have a master’s degree in nutrition science, and I am clearheaded on the strengths and weaknesses of this science. For example, one unfortunate fact about nutrition science that gets ignored by media coverage of new studies is that it’s not often groundbreaking. It’s common for the importance of research findings to be exaggerated, not just in press releases put out by the universities or other research institutions, but often in the actual study abstracts. (The abstract is the summary of the study, the tl;dr, if you will.)
This is why I rarely (VERY rarely) cite a study if I can’t get my hands on the full text of the research paper and evaluate it for myself. At least one research study has assessed how often abstracts and press releases failed to accurately represent the full research article. What the authors found was pretty pathetic. Part of the problem is that researchers need to justify their funding, and if they need to make their findings sound more important than they are, then they might do just that.
Looking beyond the headlines
I read articles in the mainstream media every single day that misrepresent the true findings of scientific research. (This happens more in newspapers and websites, not so much in magazines, largely because they have longer lead times and so are more carefully edited.) When you get to blogs and email blasts, it can be even worse.
Sometimes, it’s the headline that’s misleading, while the article or post is actually fairly balanced. However, since many people just skim headlines, this is still a problem. (Raise your hand if you sometimes never make it past the headline or maybe the first paragraph.) This is one reason why people are so confused about how to eat! I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the fallout of this misinformation among my clients.
Often, that fallout leads not just to confusion, but to eating from a place of fear and judgment rather than from a place of nurturing and self-care. It results in making food choices based on beliefs and self-critical thoughts about what and how much to eat. It further erodes the ability to trust our bodies to tell us what, and how much, to eat on a particular day, or at a particular meal. As I often say to my clients, why and how you eat is often more important than what you eat.
Spoiler alert: there’s no magic bullet
If you like to read nutrition news, be careful about any story that claims that a single study changes everything we thought we knew about nutrition. If a study totally contradicts all previous research on a topic, it’s possible that:
- The new study is flawed
- The findings were uneventful but got exaggerated in the press release
- The researchers are on to something, but that we’ll need more research with similar findings to confirm it
That’s one rule about scientific research — other researchers must be able to replicate those findings. What we know about nutrition does change over time. That’s the nature of the scientific process, as we ask questions, seek answers through research, then use those answers to ask new questions. However, this is a slow, gradual process. Nutrition science does not turn on a dime.
The unsexy truth about nutrition is that:
- There’s no one right way to eat for every single person.
- Cultivating a healthy relationship with food may be just as important (in some cases more important) than the food itself.
Healing a fraught, rules-based relationship with food allows you to trust your body’s wisdom and find a balance of “nutritious” food and “fun” food that is right for you. And like any relationship, it takes work.
There no magic food, no magic number of calories, no magic macronutrient ratio. So why do we keep wasting our time searching for a holy grail instead of investing that time in learning about ourselves and what we really need to feel well?
There’s a special place in hell for weight loss research
Oh, don’t even get me started. Oops…too late. If abstracts and institutional press releases are dodgy on many studies that have nothing to do with weight loss, they get positively rotten when weight loss is the topic. Find me a weight loss study that doesn’t start out with gloom-and-doom statements about the “ob*sity epidemic” and I’ll eat my hat.
In many cases, these statements don’t have a citation to back it up (because we all KNOW that being fat is the worst thing to ever happen to health [insert eye roll]), but when they do it’s to some other study that is also making assumptions. Or, at best, talking about ASSOCIATIONS between weight and health (and, remember, association cannot prove cause and effect).
It’s a research house of cards.
Fatphobia in healthcare…and health science
Fatphobia in healthcare is a very real thing, and it also gets super real in nutrition and health research. I read a lot of research on weight and health as well as on weight stigma, and a few things are clear:
- Researchers have not found a way to lose weight and keep it off for the long term.
- Studies that claim they’ve produced “successful” weight loss stop following up with participants right around the point where people who lose weight intentionally start regaining it. (Some of this is logistical, due to study funding running out, but I wonder if sometimes it’s also strategic.)
- Almost no studies on weight and health consider the independent adverse health effects of weight stigma and yo-yo dieting.
- No studies have shown that formerly fat people have the same health — and the same risk of death due to disease — as a relatively equivalent group of always-thin people. (This may partly be because of #1.)
- Studies that claim to show health improvements with a small amount of weight loss (anywhere from 3-10% of starting weight), gloss over the notion that things like increased physical activity and better food may have in fact been responsible for observed health improvements, not the weight loss itself. (The research on the Diabetes Prevention Program, where most participants were able to sustain increases in physical activity and didn’t lose much weight, is a classic example.)
(Don’t just take my word for it, read Ragen Chastain’s article “Who Says Dieting Fails Most Of The Time?” and “The “I Could Find 15 Studies” Fallacy.” Oh, and “Myths About the Failure Rate of Dieting.” And peruse the rest of the archives of her “Weight and Healthcare” Substack newsletter. But don’t do it when you would otherwise be taking care of yourself in tangible ways….like going for a walk, doing yoga, or meditating!
Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.