What am I to believe?
Are you confused about nutrition and health? If you are, you’re not alone. We’re flooded nutritional information these days. Websites, articles in the newspapers, new books being published, scientific studies on the benefits or harm caused by one ingredient or another – it’s hard to keep up with it all, and so much of it seems contradictory or just doesn’t make sense. Many of us wonder just what to believe! So we’d like to share with you some pointers to help you sift through the minefield.
Every day, it seems that a nutritional study comes out to counter common sense. One day we hear that eggs don’t increase your cholesterol, and the next day it’s that fiber doesn’t help prevent colon cancer. So it’s natural that the public and even some medical doctors get confused.
The first thing you should know is that the media scours the medical journals for results that are the opposite of what’s expected. The old saying is that “dog bites man” is not news but “man bites dog” is.
That’s what most of these reports are. They are “man bites dog” stories. Consider cigarette smoking. Every once in a while, we’ll hear a story about some fellow who made it to the age of 90, smoking two packs a day. That’s a “man bites dog” story. However, a trip to the cancer ward of your local hospital will tell a very different and much more common story.
It’s like that with stories about nutrition. Every once in a while, you’ll hear about some guy who ate fast-food bacon cheeseburgers every day of his life and lived to be 90 years old. The media loves this kind of story because it’s attention-getting, and getting your attention is what sells newspapers. However, a trip to the cardiac floor of your local hospital tells a very different story. There you will find awaiting coronary bypass surgery patient after patient who ate a saturated-fat- and cholesterol-rich diet. A heart attack that was caused by arteries clogged with cholesterol is the most common way we die, and it’s also the most preventable.
Sometimes a medical study has too few people in it to reveal a meaningful pattern. Let’s say you ask both your next-door neighbors who they plan to vote for in the town’s mayoral race and both neighbors say they are voting for Mr. Smith. Would you then conclude that Smith was a shoe-in for mayor after just asking only two people? When you hear about a medical study, be sure to check how many people were involved before jumping to a conclusion. The more people involved in the study, the more likely it is that the results quoted are statistically significant.
Then every so often, there are studies that are rigged in some clever way. For instance, a few years back, an egg study was rigged by including additional eggs in the diet, but at the same time removing any meat, fish, poultry, and dairy from the patients’ diets, thereby reducing other sources of cholesterol. The study found, what a surprise, that adding eggs to this diet didn’t raise cholesterol levels, and so the headline then read “Eggs don’t raise cholesterol!” and egg sales went up, after people had believed for years that eggs were bad for cholesterol levels.
Here’s another one. A big study on nurses compared two diets, one with 40 percent of the calories from fat and the other 35 percent of the calories from fat. Now 35 percent of calories from fat is still too high to get the desired health results. But the newspapers will often leave that little detail out. The headline read “No advantage to low-fat diet!”
Always remember, “man bites dog” stories are the stories that sell newspapers. Unfortunately, they are also the stories that needlessly confuse the public. The thing to remember is that although it might sometime happen that a man does bite a dog, it is much, much more common for a dog to bite a man.
In addition to the “man bites dog” stories, popular magazines and newspapers can often be more motivated by what their advertisers want them to say, than by finding out the truth about some nutritional information. This is especially true of the free magazines you might find available at the local health food stores, which often say anything to please their advertisers…Which brings us to the meat and dairy industry.
Much of the nutritional information being put out today is produced by the meat and dairy industry, and so much of it is inaccurate. School teachers are provided lesson materials on nutrition, supplied by the dairy industry. You can be sure that the materials prominently featured milk and cheese, implying that they’re essential for health, which is not at all the truth. In another example, the fishing industry has tried to convince the public that fish oils are some kind of miracle food, preventing all kinds of diseases such as clogged arteries in the heart and psychological depression. But scientific investigations have now shown that fish oils are actually quite useless in preventing both these diseases.
Sometimes these industries use front organizations to hide their involvement. One example is how the meat industry uses the Weston Price Foundation, which supposedly cares about natural and organic foods, as a front for its message. As part of the push back against the growing popularity of vegetarian meat substitutes, a lot of totally unfounded accusations against soy products have been promoted by this organization. But when scientists took a detailed look at these claims, they found that not only is soy totally safe, but it has a number of health advantages, such as substantially reducing the risk of diseases such breast and prostate cancer.
So we recommend that when you come across surprising or questionable nutritional information, take a look at the style in which it is written, look at who has written it and where it was published, and look for references published in recognized journals to back up the claims they make. These can easily be googled to check their validity. If you can’t find the evidence you need to reassure yourself, keep an open mind and await further information before taking questionable information as fact.
If you’re looking for a reliable source of easy-to-understand information, our own book, Say No to Meat, is a great starting point. In this book you’ll find a friendly and supportive tone that explains scientific evidence in everyday language. And most importantly, the information contained in the book is backed up with many quotations from respected doctors and nutritionists.
The evidence is in. And that evidence has proved itself time and again. A healthy vegetarian diet greatly reduces the chances of contracting many diseases. The same thing goes for protecting the environment and improving the welfare of our animal friends. So next time you hear a story that doesn’t make sense to you, try to read behind the lines, do some more research into the validity of the claims, and retain an open mind. The man-bites-dog stories are really better left for the talk shows.