Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Nutrition is a bratty teenager

The study of nutrition is laden with complicated science. When I was in undergrad, and had almost the same amount of science classes as the pre-med majors, I used to get offended when people thought studying nutrition just meant cooking. Out loud I am sure I said something polite most of the time, but in my head I was ranting along the lines of "well, I take chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, microbiology, statistics, accounting....and yeah, cooking and food science too". Nutrition is a science, a fascinating science, that unfortunately is still quite young. It can come with an attitude.

Many of the science disciplines have been figuring things out for hundreds if not thousands of years. The study of nutrition is still kicking off the starter blocks; vitamin A wasn't discovered until 1913 - exactly 100 years ago. It can be frustrating for consumers and nutrition professionals alike that we haven't figured everything out yet. We are learning more about our health and wellness every day and too often, it seems that the new information contradicts what we thought we knew (the world is round??). I liken this to nutrition being in the "bratty teenager" part of development.There are a lot of strong opinions and crazies, but sometime solid conclusions aren't quite developed.

Why is that?

Let's take a trip back to science class way-back-when. Remember learning about the scientific method? Having a hypothesis and setting up an experiment to test it out? A good experiment has one variable - the thing you manipulate - and one outcome - the thing you measure. Easier done in a test tube than in real life. Can you name a person who has eaten the exact same thing, every day, for their entire life? Me neither. 

Our dietary habits change due to personal preferences, changes in lifestyle and economic status, developments in science (eggs are good! eggs are bad!), the popular media (fats make you fat! No, carbs make you fat!) and more. To add to the complexity, our food choices are not the only thing changing. We are decreasing our physical activity, sourcing our food from farther and farther away, adding lots of new stuff to our food (red #40, anyone?) and packaging our food in materials that may not be a good idea - who put the PBA in our can liners, anyway?

And: our food is changing! An apple is not an apple. One factor is the quality of our soil; good food comes from good quality top soil. If the farmers aren't being stewards to the land, the nutritional quality of the food grown on that soil is diminished. An apple today has less nutrition than an apple grown 50 years ago.

Consider further the microbes that live in our foods and our bodies - some scientists believe that we are seeing an increase in Type 1 diabetes because we're too clean! What little critters we have in our gut changes how we digest and absorb nutrients. Toss in a myriad of pesticides and genetically modified foods, your family history and what your mom ate while she was pregnant with you and it is a wonder that we know anything at all!

It is tempting to get frustrated with the state of things. It would be nice to know more things with certainty, but we're not there yet. What is the best diet? I don't think that there is one best diet. Just like there are many ways to be a good parent, there are lots of options for eating well.

Guidelines for healthy living:
  • Variety: a stockbroker would never recommend investing all of your resources in a single stock and you should never count on a single food to meet your nutritional requirements. The more diversity in your diet, the better.
  • Eat your vegetables: whether you're a carnivore or vegetarian, the majority of our plates should be vegetables and then fruits. Even better if they're grown locally and organically.
  • Water is best: dehydration makes you sluggish, increases your risk of constipation and other fun ailments. Sip on water throughout the day and kick soda to the curb.
  • Move it: can you walk or bike to work instead of using the car? How about gardening instead of going to the store? Playing tag instead of watching TV?
  • Use common sense: be wary of folks preaching wild nutrition gospel or peddling a nutrition miracle. There is no single right way to eat, and there is no miracle food. Besides, the science is still young; we're still learning.
  • Patron the Farmacy: it is better to spend money on wholesome, quality foods now than to require a myriad of drugs later. Good food is a good investment know your farmer, know your food.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” ― Hippocrates

It is an exciting time to be in the field of nutrition; research is cranking and the general public's interest is booming. There is a lot to be done - I'm looking at you, obesity epidemic - but we can do it, one step at a time. Just like a bratty teenager, there may be some things said that we regret, and some experiments gone awry. However, we're learning from our triumphs and mistakes and moving forward.


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