Dispelling Nutrition Myths
Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE
What is it about nutrition that makes everyone think they’re an expert? Perhaps it’s the fact that we all eat, so in some way, we are all an authority on certain aspects of food. But nutrition is one of those fields that is notoriously rife with misinformation, and the internet has certainly contributed to the proliferation of food-based propaganda.
Of course not everything you read on the internet can be trusted, and in nutrition, almost all of it can’t!
Nutrition: A Newish Field
One of the challenges of teaching nutrition is that it is a relatively new science. Whereas the tenets of chemistry and biology have been worked on for millennia, nutrition is a different, and much newer story. In fact, the first vitamin wasn’t identified until 1897 and it was only in the mid 1940s when the first protein structure was fully described. Consumers and students often become frustrated with the flux of nutrition information, and in particular, information described in the lay news media: one week egg yolks are good for you, the next they’re too full of fat. Carbs are in, or are carbs out? Butter’s good, butter’s bad.
It can be downright maddening to stay abreast of the trends in food and nutrition. But as an emerging science, it’s also exciting to see new research unfold that replaces our previously held thoughts and beliefs about certain foods and nutrients. When students enter an introductory nutrition course, they are most likely coming in with minimal scientific foundation in nutrition and are more likely to be experts of what they read on the internet. What they know about food, nutrients, diets and supplements comes from the web or similarly under-informed friends or colleagues. When broaching the sensitive topic of dispelling nutrition myths, I always find it most helpful to start with the benefits of the scientific method.
The Scientific Method Solution
We all learned about the scientific method in elementary school science class. But when was the last time you applied it to your interpretation of a food or nutrition study? To start, all advances made in nutrition science are done so using the scientific method, an unbiased approach to examining the interaction between food, nutrients and health.
Here’s a simple example I use in class to help students apply the importance of the scientific method to interpreting nutrition research. Let’s say that I, as an instructor, have noticed over the years that students who report eating breakfast tend to get better grades in my nutrition course. Could I prove this? And how would I use the scientific method to do so? It starts with the observation:
- Observation and question: I notice that students in my class who report in their self-diet analysis projects that they eat breakfast seem to have higher grades than those who skip breakfast. Is there a link between eating breakfast and academic performance in class?
- Hypothesis and prediction: I hypothesize that students who eat breakfast have better academic performance in my nutrition classes.
- Experiment: I can design a study whereby I randomly assign students to an eat-breakfast or a skip-breakfast group and then subject them to the same graded assessments in class. We discuss the various types of research study designs, the importance of placebo-control and the benefits of double-blinding.
- Results & interpretation: I would then summarize, analyze and interpret the data, in this example: quiz, assignment and test scores of students in the eat-breakfast compared to the skip-breakfast groups.
If my hypothesis is supported and students who eat breakfast do perform better academically, I can develop a theory about breakfast intake and academic performance and generate new observations and questions and restart the cycle to test the validity of my theory. If my hypothesis is not supported and students who eat breakfast do not perform any differently than students who skip breakfast, I would then circle back and reformulate my observations and questions and start another cycle to test a new hypothesis.
Domain Directed Searches
Another useful in-class exercise for dispelling nutrition myths or identifying reliable nutrition information is to teach students how to do domain-directed searches. Of course not everything you read on the internet can be trusted, and in nutrition, almost all of it can’t! After a discussion about the difference between a .com, .gov, org, or .edu domain, I have students search for a common term in nutrition such as “celiac disease”. First I have them do this in a general search engine. This yields thousands of hits of .com websites, most of which are selling gluten free junk foods that are worthless for both the healthy population as well as people with celiac disease. Then I have them enter into the search engine:
Using the “site.gov” ending on the search after the term yields only results from .gov websites which contains peer-reviewed published articles on the topic and unbiased information about diet and disease. In class we talk about how information from .gov and/or .edu websites is generally quite trustworthy. We then discuss the pros and cons of a .org website, explaining that not all non-profit organizations are scrupulous in nature and that my students and I could easily create a non-profit organization tomorrow that is really a sham cover for a shady supplement or diet product.
A Pub Med Primer
Students in an introductory nutrition course are likely unaware of the importance of the peer review process. Most have heard of a peer review journal like the Journal of the American Medical Association, but they don’t have the skill set to really interpret a full-blown published article. I still find it important to introduce them to PubMed, a free database maintained by the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We look at PubMed references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics to talk about how a body of research shapes our understanding of a particular topic, and not just one cherry picked study that the media may be focusing on this week.
With a brief introduction to the scientific method, the difference in information garnered from various internet domain websites and the basics of the peer-review process, students start to formulate a knack for interpreting reliable nutrition information. They are more readily equipped to dispel nutrition myths and to critically evaluate things they read on the internet or hear from friends about food, nutrients, diets and supplements. In this way, we are helping to create more well-informed consumers, which accomplishes one of the primary learning objectives of most introductory nutrition courses.