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Conventional Wisdom Vs. New Information – What Dictates A Healthy Diet?

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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File photo of fresh vegetables. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

File photo of fresh vegetables. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS (CBS St. Louis) - Every so often, a series of studies is released to the public that essentially negates what most Americans and people in general had previously thought to be truths about food and nutrition.

A wildly controversial and widely discussed study recently conducted at Stanford University asserted that organic foods, often marked up in price and extolled for their reportedly beneficial qualities, are allegedly not healthier than their non-organic counterparts after all.

Another study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association asserted that fish oil, previously thought to play a role in decreasing heart disease due to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, does not possess such powers.

Several days later, news broke that researchers at the British Nutrition Foundation said they found white bread to be an integral source of vitamins and minerals, despite its negative comparisons to whole wheat bread over the years.

It’s all simply the latest in a stream of studies, experts’ testimonials and medical experiments that have left many questioning every bite they eat take or sip they drink.

Are eggs healthy, or too high in cholesterol for frequent consumption? And should the yolks be included or omitted while cooking? How much milk should the average person drink, or how many glasses of water should we be having per day?

The conflicting lessons inherent in the countless studies, news articles and reports found online result in an extremely confused society left frustrated by the lack of trust in how best to nourish their bodies.

How can people figure out the truth of what’s truly best to eat when they are so frequently told something new that deviates entirely from what they had thought to be the facts on food?

Some prefer to avoid these studies altogether, opting instead to simplify their food philosophies by subscribing to the mantra popularized by writer and food activist Michael Pollan dictating that people should “eat food, not too much, [and] mostly plants.”

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta offers advice in the same vein of simplicity – promoting the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables while encouraging the integration of concepts such as moderation, portion control and implementing healthier cooking ingredients as part of a balanced diet.

Many others though are often swayed to puzzlement by the glut of new information disseminated by both national and international news media – which, according to physician and author Dr. Michael Greger, is at least partially the intent.

“It traces back to that famous tobacco industry memo … that said ‘doubt is our product,'” he explained to CBS St. Louis. “The fact that the populace is confused about nutrition is a consequence of the powers that be that want to keep everyone confused.”

He added, “More studies come out … which leave people saying, ‘I’m just going to eat whatever the heck I want,’ which is exactly how the multi-million dollar processed food industry and various hawkers of unhealthy foods want everyone to be.”

Christina Wright, a registered health coach trained at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, agreed.

“Unfortunately so much of our food industry is influenced by money – who’s giving it to which ‘studies’ and why,” she noted to CBS St. Louis. “It is difficult to navigate these studies and pull truth from advertisement.”

On the other hand, St. Louis-based registered dietitian Kari Hartel, who also does work for Operation Food Search, noted to CBS St. Louis that the science behind a given study’s findings could still be valid, despite the seemingly frequent metamorphosis of food facts, and that professionals in the diet industry still know their stuff.

“Science is an ever-changing field and nutrition is a science-based field, so we must take all study results with a grain of salt – [but people] should still trust what a dietitian tells them because we’ve studied the biology, chemistry, etc. involved with every process of digestion [and] absorption and everything related to those processes,” she observed, while adding that common sense could – and should – play a role in a healthy diet as well. “We don’t expect people to sit around eating raw vegetables all day long but we also know that eating fast-food every day does have detrimental effects.”

She added, “Additionally, it’s very important to look at the entire body of research rather than one new study, as one study’s results shouldn’t negate decades of research providing otherwise. “

In regards to finding the truth about healthy dieting, experts agreed that classicality and a back-to-basics approach will positively impact one’s health in a big way.

“If we take a step back and focus on the really obvious things – and not commercial influences – it’s all really kind of simple,” Greger observed. “There are rules reached by consensus and accepted by the community that we can use to guide how we feed ourselves and our families, to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.”

“The best we can do is eat food – real food,” Wright added. “Whole foods, foods that are just that – one complete entity. Foods that spoil if left out on the counter, foods that are fresh, [and] foods that make us feel good.”

Wright also noted the importance of individuality in figuring out the best diet for a person to follow.

“Every person is different – clearly this is not something newly discovered, [but] everybody … reacts differently to different food,” she observed. “So one person’s poison could be another person’s cure. No one diet works for everyone, [and] you can’t label one food or one supplement to cure-all for life’s ailments.”

“[W]e dietitians tend to avoid absolutes or rules as this kind of rigidity with eating habits often leads to failure,” Hartel agreed. “People are more successful at whatever their wellness goal is … if they take a more whole-body approach and listen to scientifically backed information and then adjust it to accommodate their lifestyle.”

Still, the practice of scientifically studying assorted foods and the role they play in the biological, medical, and social wellness of a human’s life will persevere, as researchers continue the hunt for answers, and people continue in their endeavors to slake curiosity about the realm of possibilities for that which nourishes us.

“Functional foods and molecular nutrition represent novel scientific paradigms that challenge traditional nutrition approaches. The risk of adhering rigidly to current paradigms is that health benefits from a broader approach to diet and nutrition will be slow to arrive on our plates,” representatives at the Institute of Food Technologists wrote in an article published on their website. “Speeding the arrival of these health benefits requires innovative and paradigm-shifting approaches to nutrients and their role in health, and funding to expand the knowledge base of molecular nutrition.”

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