An unbelievably weird news hit the headlines in America last month. The Innovation Center of US Dairy commissioned a nationally representative online survey and came up with the results that 7% of American adults believed that chocolate milk came from brown cows. Though it sounds more like a story cooked up to spice up the newspapers and news channels, it is the truth! A similar response from little children can be passed away with the justification that they are basking in innocent ignorance, but on what premise can adults be excused for being so uninformed?
When it comes to food, nutrition, and healthy eating, there is often a cloud of confusion hovering over our minds about what to eat and what to avoid. Nutrition advice changes by the day. There was a time when fats were believed to be the devil’s children. Now the focus is on carbohydrates, the axiom being that we need to limit intake of them. There are also a whole lot of myths we believe in. These are periodically busted with new research. Chocolate milk lovers, for example, can rejoice over the fact that contrary to popular belief, it does not lead to weight gain or hyperactivity in children.
I remember my child in elementary school learning about the food pyramid which detailed the optimal number of servings one had to eat daily from each of the basic food groups. Bread, cereal, and pasta, or more explicitly carbohydrates, took the giant share on the bottom-most shelf with a recommended 6-11 servings per day. Being a pasta fan, he was perhaps thrilled! Even before he moved to middle school, there was a makeover in 2005. No food group was prioritized; they were arranged as rays ending at the top of the pyramid. Grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat, and beans were labelled, and there was a minuscule unlabeled ray that represented oils. One of the goals the new pyramid envisaged was to discourage consumption of trans fatty acids.
The iconic food pyramid crumbled down in 2011, with the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) replacing it with “MyPlate” as the nutrition guide. Divided into 4 parts, the red section stands for an approximately 10% share of fruits, the green for 40% of vegetables, the orange for 30% of grains, and the purple for 20% of protein. A much smaller blue circle representing dairy stands on the side.
The MyPlate model has also come under fire, and experts at the Harvard School of Public Health have come up with their own version to address its flaws. In their plate, a choice between water, tea, or coffee replaces milk. Whole grains are advocated over refined grains, and fish, poultry and beans are advised over bacon, cold cuts, and processed meats.
Where do consumers stand when one research contradicts the other, and new nutritional advice keeps propping up all the time? In an article in US News aptly titled “Why is Nutrition Advice Always Changing?”, K. Aleisha Fetters outlines the reasons for that. First of all, compared to other branches of science, nutrition research is at its infancy stage with researchers studying only some nutrients like fatty acids and artificial sweeteners for several decades. Second, any study that is done is also hyped out by the media. To make it interesting, the news is blown out of proportion with a conclusive statement about the nutrient being good or bad! The third reason cited in the article centers on the economic angle. Like any other industry, the people in the nutrition industry also want to make money, so “everyone is selling something”.
How do we know who to believe? The wiser route is to always look at new research with some degree of skepticism and to not just accept it blindly. Check out the credibility of the news source. It’s always good to compare and see how one piece of nutrition advice fits into the scheme of other information around it. No single nutrition study can be your health gospel. As they say, think smart and don’t be fooled into believing that any nutrient alone has the Midas touch to give you 100% robust health. It all boils down to using one’s judgement and common sense in picking food, for the dietary requirements of each individual are different. You don’t have to be a genius to know that at the end of the day, a combination of balanced diet and exercise promotes good health. So the call is yours to decide what to eat or what not to!