Navigating the Nutrition Noise: Which Sources Should You Trust?

Weight Loss & Nutrition
By Dan

About Dan

I’m one of our resident Exercise Physiologists, and also an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach, Personal Trainer and Level 1 Weightlifting Instructor. Outside of the gym, I tend to go in search of good food and great coffee. And yes, Dan’s Shoulder Stretch is mine.
Nutrition, at a scientific level, is anything but simple. Nothing is quite as black and white as influencers would like to have you believe. To make things harder, when we couple pseudoscience with financial incentives – that is, someone stands to make money off bad science, we run into more problems.
With social media playing such a strong part in our education (rightly or wrongly), how are we to judge which sources of information are credible? How do we navigate this “excess” of information, and find trustworthy sources of nutritional wisdom?
Ask Yourself…
Firstly, when you come across any information (or “claims”) on nutrition, ask yourself:
  • Does it even make sense? Is the claim in any way logical?
  • Is there a physiological mechanism for how it works? Things don’t just “happen” in the human body – there’s always a mechanism of action.
  • Can you measure any changes that are supposed to occur? If it makes you feel better, but nothing actually changes, then it’s a placebo (and usually an expensive one).
Scientific Literature
How often have you heard the line on the news “new research suggests…” or “researchers have discovered…”? To put this into context, we produce around 2.5 million new research articles a year, and have access to over 60 million articles, past and present.
Basically, there’s new research to suggest anything you want it to.
I don’t expect that many of you delve into the depths of PubMed, but if you do, here are a couple of quick tips to help navigate your way through it:
  • Start with meta-analyses. These are summaries of the research on a particular topic, and are invaluable to nutrition. They give you a broad sense of what the literature suggests – as it’s common for small (or short) studies in nutrition to produce conflicting results.
  • Look for bigger trials – more subjects and more data. This eliminates the effect of any “outliers.”
  • Randomised control trials are good for helping establish cause and effect.
  • Observational and epidemiological studies identify patterns and trends, but nothing can be concluded from these.
  • Check who are funding the study, or who stands to benefit from the study. There’s often a conflict of interest there.
Instagram, Websites and Facebook
Never forget the saying “opinions are like…” – well, you know the rest of that one. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has an opinion on the best nutrition practices.
Some of those opinions, though, are incredibly smart, valid opinions from some very wise people. To help you work out whom those people (or websites) are:
  • What is their background? Do they actually study or have qualifications in nutrition?
  • Have they produced reliable, measurable and consistent results with their methods/claims?
  • Have they based their ideas on a nice blend of scientific literature, HUMAN physiology, real-world practice and logical thinking?
  • Do they claim their ideas “worked for them”? Possibly the most dangerous influencer, because they also tend to be very fervent believers in their ideas (juice didn’t cure your cancer, and it won’t cure others’ cancer either).
Having abs is not a qualification. You can get abs with very little exercise and a cocaine habit (yep, there are influencers out there like this).
Television, Magazines and Newspapers
Don’t bother. It’s garbage, sensationalist, or just plain wrong.
Marketed Products (Especially Supplements)
Almost worth ignoring entirely – they’re trying to make you purchase something. You better believe that (if the claim isn’t an outright lie to begin with) the positive effect of such a product is going to be very, very small at best. There are a few exceptions, but you’ll need to consult the scientific literature to find them.
What you need to know about marketed products is this:
  • Detoxes aren’t a thing.
  • The vast majority of supplements don’t work.
  • Superfoods don’t exist.
  • The health star rating is bogus.
  • If money is involved, you better believe there’s a conflict of interest.
Take Home Message
Be smart about where you get your information. Don’t just accept things at face value, but be willing to dig a little deeper to make an informed decision.
[Disclaimer: This is my opinion.]
[Second disclaimer: this was spurred by a conversation vilifying potatoes in favour of sweet potatoes. There’s almost no difference between the two in terms of nutrients and calories. Leave the poor potato alone – it’s done nothing wrong.]