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The Problem With Nutritional Science

October 27th, 2009
who-to-trust-with-your-health

In my pre-giving-birth state of trying to rest more I’ve fallen into a somewhat embarrassing habit. I’ve been watching the evening current affairs shows. If you’ve ever been guilty of the same you’ll know that they’re worryingly addictive. Although, truth be told, not entirely rubbish. But what I saw mid last-week was nothing short of ridiculous – a story claiming that (according to most doctors and health experts) what an expectant mother eats during pregnancy has no or little impact on the development of the baby.

Um, hello? Surely I’m not being over-reactive in thinking that these so-called experts (and who are they I’d like to know, as none of them were named) are, well, INSANE. And sure, they had the obligatory rebuttal by a couple of health-inclined mothers, but there were two huge problems with this attempted counter-argument.

1. The diets recommended by the mothers were not, in my opinion, remotely healthy (lots of grains, fruit, some veg and little protein – and they included lots of juice!)

2. The show didn’t even make a cursory effort to demonstrate the multitude of studies linking essential fats and proteins to neural and physical development of the fetus.

But, really, it doesn’t matter what the studies say, does it? Because unless you’re a) an expert at knowing how to read a study and assess whether it’s been properly carried out, and b) have the time or inclination to do so in the first place, then nutritional science simply has to be something you follow your gut on. When it comes to pregnancy, many women simply trust that as long as they take their folic acid and avoid sushi and the salad bar, they’ll be fine. Surely the fact that typical pregnant-patient care (even at the top end of the private health spectrum) does not even touch on nutrition should be of some warning. But the truth is that – for the most part – they will be fine, And so will their baby. Which is how it should be, of course, but why is ‘fine’ enough? You don’t need more than a dash of common sense to realize that the typical diet is grossly inadequate in essential nutrients, and that even if you are eating well 100% of the time, the quality of our soils coupled with the depleting effects of stress and the modern lifestyle will always serve to rob you of nutrients. Long story short – if you’re not supplementing AND eating extremely well, you’re selling yourself short.

And I’m not just talking about that small percentage of you who may be pregnant or contemplating pregnancy. Over the weekend I received a comment on one of my guest posts for Dumb Little Man stating that my perpetuation of organic food as superior to conventional was based on ‘junk science’. Here’s a copy of my response:

“For every study out there you can easily find 20 or more to say the opposite thing. So, to a certain extent, it just has to come down to instinct. However, I’ve read many studies both for and against organic (interestingly, several of the ‘organic food isn’t better studies’ have been shown to use organic food that is several days older than the conventionally tested food, or has been trucked across the country before being tested), and I am 100% convinced that organic is better.

The most recent study I read showed conclusively that in order to obtain the same amount of iron from conventional spinach as opposed to organic, one would need to eat approximately 59 bowls of the stuff. And that’s just one example of countless. Virtually every nutrient, vitamin and mineral is higher in (properly farmed) organic food. It’s not as though organic food is a magic superfood, of course, it’s just food as it should be. I know I prefer my produce without the myriad of toxins that constitute pesticides, herbicides, and heavens knows what else. These toxins deplete nutrients in the food, the soil, and then they do it again in our bodies. And that’s not even touching on the GM issue, which is extremely prevalent in non-organic food!”

And sure, I could have searched through my files to find the appropriate links to the studies, but you know what? I couldn’t be bothered this time. Because the most obvious of all problems with nutritional science is that, for most of us, it has to come back to trust. Do you trust the nutritionist with the Kellogs or Gatorade funded degree? The recent research mysteriously funded by who-knows-which food company telling you that a processed grain (however ‘whole’ it may be) should be the basis of a healthy diet rather than foods that nature has always provided for us? The newspaper report ‘proving conclusively’ that conventional food is just as nutrient-filled as organic? Do you trust me? Your friends and family? The detailed information in a great book you picked up? An alternative health journal? Sorry if I’m bursting your bubble here, but the truth is that trying to rely entirely on the facts or the research is, for the average busy person, not the correct approach to understanding ideal nutrition.

So what to do?

I guess you’re just going to have to listen to your gut. To think about what makes sense. Would nature have intended us to eat the egg without the yolk? The beef or lamb without the fat? To obliterate acres and acres and even entire states of wild animals in order to farm grains? To add toxins to our food? You don’t need a study to answer these questions. When it comes down to it you’re going to have to trust your own logic over science. At least some of the time.

Life is Now. Press Play.

Kat

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5 people have commented
  1. NotAPundit says:

    I just kind of shrug at modern “nutritional science”. It’s spot on about as often as it’s completely wrong (no matter what you think is right or wrong this is true, because of the amount of contradiction), and there is so little self-policing going on in the area that separating the wheat from the chaff requires far more time and energy than I currently have to invest. This isn’t to say that there’s no way to tell what is a valid conclusion and what isn’t — only that there’s so much garbage out there that you cannot take anything at face value.

    I do know that there is a huge difference in the health and longevity of people growing up on a small farm like I did, and people I know from nearby cities. I do know that I feel very different depending on how I’ve been eating. I’m also pretty sure that our species hasn’t evolved over the millennia to eat anything that didn’t exist a few generations ago.

  2. Jane says:

    Here here Kat. We are socialised to intrinsically trust that if a “fact” is based on “science” then it must be true… nowhere throughout this socialisation process are we taught to THINK about the source, motivation, funding or quality of the process that lead to the scientific conclusions. Poor science has somehow outwitted our (not all of our!) very own common sense. Great blog.

  3. Kat Eden says:

    “I’m also pretty sure that our species hasn’t evolved over the millennia to eat anything that didn’t exist a few generations ago.” – spot on 🙂

  4. Kerrie says:

    I agree! I haven’t paid much attention to what barrow load of branding the traditional ‘experts’ push since I looked into studying dietics over 3 decades ago. The 1970s dietary guidelines seemed stuck in 1950s when processed foods, along with brand advertising, came into their own … not a lot has changed!
    Nevertheless, thanks to people like yourself, nutritional wisdom is slowly changing the social palate. I think more people are turning to organic produce instead of tasteless inedible sadly depleted dead foods. Although, I’d be a lot happier if we could stop the supermarket giants from squashing organic farmers, wholesalers and retailers into their own mould and label.

  5. Fish Eyed Dave says:

    Go Kat!