Beware the nutrition expert

When it comes to food and health, we are all our own experts on eating. This is as it should be. Being an expert on one’s own eating preferences though does not make one a nutrition expert writes Tim Crowe.

You wouldn’t fly on a plane that was piloted by someone who got all their flying experience from their computer flying simulator. You wouldn’t cross a bridge over a deep chasm that was built by someone whose engineering experience was from playing with their Lego blocks. You wouldn’t allow yourself to be operated on by someone who read the Wikipedia entry on gallbladder removal and watched all the episodes of ER.

Yet move to the field of nutrition, and it is the wild west of ‘anything goes’. A world where expertise is measured by the ability of someone to repeat blog opinions and quote a few sentences from scientific papers that agree with their point of view. Where authority is directly proportional to the number of one’s Facebook and Twitter followers.

When a meteorologist gets the weather forecast wrong, you don’t then turn to a clairvoyant for your daily weather. When an economist gets a view on the future of interest rates wrong, you don’t then seek out a loan shark for financial advice.

Yet because nutrition is not a perfect science, and research and recommendations change over time, why do people then turn to chefs, lawyers and journalists as the speakers of true nutrition knowledge and take health advice from them?

The Dietary Guideline myth

In what would have to be the most pervasive piece of misinformation spread by the new wave of nutrition experts, promotion of a particular new way of eating is based on the premise that the Australian Dietary Guidelines are responsible for all our health ills and weight problems. Such new nutrition insights are typically anti-sugar, anti-grains, anti-dairy, and anti-science.

In what is the biggest smack down possible to the demonisation of the Dietary Guidelines, and shows why you should always be cautious of anyone proclaiming black-and-white insight into the world of nutrition science (especially when said people have never studied it), this US study shows just how few people actually follow such guidelines.

Warning: real scientific paper following that you may just have to look beyond the title at, but all you need do is take in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2 shows what percentage of people do NOT meet the recommended amount of vegetables, fruits, starchy vegetables, and legumes – and it’s greater than 90% for almost all age categories.

Then look at Table 3 which is the percentage of people who EXCEED the maximum amount of discretionary foods (sugary drinks, cakes, take away food and so on) and the number is well above 95% for most age categories.

And the case in Australia is no different.

The just-released Australian Health Survey shows we’re eating less fruit and vegetables and over one-third of our daily kilojoules come from foods high in saturated fat and sugar such as cake, biscuits, alcohol, soft drink and chips – none of these foods are core recommendations in the Guidelines and appear as ‘Eat in small amounts’ in the Food Pyramid.

Only 6.8% of people are eating the recommended amount of servings of vegetables each day.

We’re ‘fat and sick’ as a population because we eat too much crap and not enough healthy food and almost no one follows the Guidelines.

Sure, they could be sexed up a bit and the promoters of them certainly could learn a thing or two from those promoting fad diets such as Paleo and products such as coconut oil, but anyone maintaining that it is the Guidelines fault for our weight and health problems is ignorant at best, and making the health of the population worse, not better, with the counter advice they give.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines were developed based on the best available scientific evidence, not opinions and blog articles. Over 55,000 scientific journal articles assessed by a team of nutrition and medical experts went into informing the recommendations. Members of the public were involved to ensure representation of consumer issues and choices. There were also two public consultation periods which allowed for further consumer input and comment.

Any call to replace these Guidelines with a person’s own particular views on nutrition, no matter how well meaning, is the same as replacing the pilot with the PS4 game freak. The engineer with the Lego builder. The meteorologist with the clairvoyant.

And what is lost in any activist campaign to change general advice on eating to the public is that these are Guidelines. They are not the 10 commandments. There is considerable flexibility in how they can be applied, as it should be. We all are experts in our food preferences and tastes.

Learning from the people who have nailed it

We can learn much from the world’s healthiest and longest live people, spread through different regions all around the world. People in these long-lived ‘hot spots’ have some very clear and consistent patterns. They nurture strong social networks, consume a mostly plant-based diet, and incorporate daily, natural physical activity into their lives. They also do not overeat, learning to stop eating before they feel full.

Long-lived people don’t avoid dairy foods or gluten. They don’t calculate the glycaemic index of their meals. They don’t ruminate on if the grains they are eating are stopping the absorption of other nutrients. They don’t live in a fantasy world and think that they’re eating and living like their Palaeolithic ancestors. They don’t take supplements. They eat. They move. They enjoy. They socially engage with their community in person. They live.

Yet even between the different long-lived communities, there is diversity in the foods they eat showing there is no one single ‘right’ way to eat, only flexible guidelines. Choosing mostly seasonal fruits and vegetables, and a variety of beans, nuts, seeds and grains is the cornerstone of their dietary pattern.

You could happily layer the Dietary Guidelines over any of these eating patterns and come out a winner.

Get the basics right and you can hit the snooze button on needing to ever again pay attention to anything you ever read or hear in the media or from populist diet book gurus.


About Dr Tim Crowe

Dr Tim Crowe is a career research scientist and educator with most of this spent in the absolutely fascinating, yet always controversial, area of nutrition. He is a credentialed Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian with the Dietitians Association of Australia.

This article was originally published on Thinking Nutrition and is republished here under Creative Commons.

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Alana Lowes
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