WIN Wyoming and WIN the Rockies
Nutrition Guidance - Why is it always
changing? And why canít we agree?
A few years ago, I went to a workshop on campus designed to assist
instructors in helping students develop an "inquiring mind." The
presenter was convinced forcing students to regurgitate information on a written
test was not the answer. I agree. During one of the small group discussions for
the workshop, I was paired with a professor from the engineering college. I made
some mention that he must have fascinating topics to teach. He surprised me when
he said the basic concepts of his engineering course had not changed in 30
years, and frankly, he was becoming bored. I responded with a comment that
little in nutrition had stayed the same over the last 30 years. He gave me a wake-up
call when he commented on how exciting it must be to practice in a field of
study where the science was still emerging, and where new discoveries were being
made every year. I have to admit, I had never viewed nutrition in quite that
light before. Over the last few years, Iíve often reflected on that brief
discussion and tried to renew my enthusiasm for this field of study we call
nutrition. Instead of becoming frustrated with ever changing nutrition
guidelines, I keep reminding myself how fun it is not to be bored! For this
monthís thought bullets, Iíve tried to capture some ideas why nutrition
guidance seems to be ever changing, and why there often seems to be conflicting
points of view.
- Reporting of science findings is plagued by the fact that reporters must
take a tremendous amount of very complex data and boil it down to its most
basic and easy-to-understand components. After that is accomplished, the
reporter must then blow up the facts to make an interesting story. The end
result is that the scientists who did the study often donít recognize
their own work when they see it in the newspaper or on a TV news broadcast.
When a 15-year study is condensed to a 15-second sound bite, a lot is lost
in the translation.1
- Complex nutrition concepts are difficult to communicate with people not
trained in nutrition terminology. The Institute of Medicine recently
released a study estimating 90 million Americans have "limited health
literacy." Patients fear embarrassment of doctors thinking theyíre
dumb, so they often donít ask questions. Examples of problems with limited
health literacy account for why a mother poured an oral antibiotic into her
childís infected ear because the label did not say to swallow the liquid.
Another man thought his doctor considered him hyper (not able to sit still)
because he received a diagnosis of hypertension (high blood pressure).2
- Bettyís side note: When nutrition experts try to condense
complex ideas such as trans fatty acids into simple to understand terms,
they donít always agree how to do it. Sometimes either accuracy or
understandability must be compromised, and the experts donít always agree
on which to compromise. This dilemma explains some of the controversies over
- People want science to be definitive, but by its very nature, science is
an evolving process.3
- Competing interests often collide when it comes to nutrition advice.
Consumers demand simple, decisive advice. Journalists donít like shades of
gray so often report findings in terms of black and white. Researchers often
over-promote the importance of their own work.3
- In todayís world, the pace of disseminating research findings is now at
a faster rate than ever known by the scientific community. In the past,
peer-reviewed findings would take months and sometimes even years to be
published. Electronic scientific journals can now publish peer-reviewed
findings immediately. As a result, nutrition advice and other health-related
advice is now changing at a faster rate than ever before. 3
- Final side note from Betty: Itís easy to get lost in the
complexity of nutrition. Several years ago, I decided to personally
concentrate on a very few basic nutrition principles like eat more fresh
fruits and vegetables, eat smaller portion sizes, avoid rushed and chaotic
eating, drink more low-fat milk, and eat less high sugared foods. I wonít
make millions of dollars selling my eating plan to others and Iím not
always successful, but amazingly, as I read more and more about the new
discoveries in nutrition, I havenít had to make changes to my strategy.
1 Causey M. Media skews image of Feds. Federal
Employees News Digest 2004;53(36).
2 Neergaard L. U.S. adults face "health literacy"
crisis. Associated Press; Washington Post, April 8, 2004.
3 Squires S. The flip-flop files. Washington Post,
March 16, 2004.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
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