We are inundated with messages about how to achieve a healthy diet and lifestyle. So how do we sift through all the claims and information to determine what is genuine, sound and useful?

As we age, we are bombarded with advertising for anti-ageing skin care, foods, and supplements. A Google search will give you lots of ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ of ageing, promoting everything from ‘superfoods’ and supplements to special dietary regimes. The internet is a great source of information, but the trick is being able to determine what is reputable. With so-called ‘scientific evidence’ being the gold standard, it is crucial to be able to recognise whether it is up to date, has been properly tested and validated, peer-reviewed and published in a reputable journal. ‘Scientifically proven’ is a common catch-cry, and we should consider this carefully.

To help people sort out the junk from honest nutrition, a recent Tufts University Nutrition magazine reported a list of ‘10 Red Flags of Junk Science’ published by the American Food and Nutrition Alliance. Here they are:

Red flag #1: Recommendations that promise a quick fix

Watch out for supplements or novel foods guaranteeing a quick weight loss. Watch out for medical jargon. Don’t be won over by official-sounding science terminology. Who sponsored the ‘science’? Was it the manufacturer?

Red flag #2: Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regimen

Examples include: ‘fat makes you fat’; ‘carbohydrates are toxic’; ‘sugar is white death’. Eliminating complete food groups based on these dire warnings means you are also eliminating other nutrients associated with that food group. A rational approach is strongly recommended.

Red flag #3: Claims that sound too good to be true

They usually are! The promise of rapid weight loss by following a specific and unusual regimen is fraught with disappointment.

Red flag #4: Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study

Many studies cannot be boiled down to a headline, so it is important to investigate more deeply. Results from studies using animals cannot reliably be extrapolated to humans – this is a common issue in junk science.

Red flag #5: Recommendations based on a single study

A study published this time last year in the American College of Physicians Annals of Internal Medicine failed to find a link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Within two weeks, a leading columnist for The New York Times was declaring ‘Butter is back!’ The key message here is that this study needed to be looked at in context of the full body of evidence, rather than just looking at individual papers.

Red flag #6: Statements refuted by reputable scientific organisations

We have many of these organisations – the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation, Dietitians New Zealand, the Ministry of Health, the Heart Foundation, the Cancer Society, and so on. Recent issues in New Zealand have been fluoridation of water supplies and the safety of the artificial sweetener, aspartame. Reputable organisations strongly support the fluoridation of water supplies, while the anti-fluoridation lobby bases its arguments on poor science; aspartame has been proven internationally to be safe for use in usual quantities. However, there are still many to be convinced that the science is honest.

Red flag #7: Lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods

Foods are not independently good or bad. Diets with a set of rules such as the Paleo diet or a raw foods diet may appeal when people want a definitive direction on what or what not to eat, but these diets tend to be self-limiting. There are foods we should eat less often, and others we should include every day, and it can be difficult to figure out balance and moderation in our diets when there is so much food advertising on one hand and frightening obesity statistics on the other.

Red flag #8: Recommendations made to help sell a product

Alarm bells should ring when you find that an article you are reading ends up with a sales pitch for a particular supplement, or if all the studies referenced were written by the author. Do you have a problem with a dermatologist promoting a specific brand of skin care? There is obviously bias at work here, and it’s important to be able to recognise the purpose of the argument. Registered health professionals are bound by codes of ethics not to advertise products for pecuniary gain, nor to promote one brand over another similar item, unless they can substantiate their reasoning. Advertising of supplements is rampant and focuses on the ‘worried well’, and the supplement industry is worth millions. But for the most part, well people who are eating a varied diet do not need additional supplements, and the money would be better spent on everyday normal foods.

Red flag #9: Recommendations based on studies that have not been peer reviewed

The basic nutrition messages are not very exciting – eat more vegetables and fruit and keep active. “Nutrition science is not a science of breakthroughs; it’s evolution, not revolution,” says Professor Jeanne Goldberg of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science for Communications Professionals programme. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the message being promoted does come from a peer-reviewed study that verifies that the research is well-conducted, the results credible and the findings significant.

Red flag #10: Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals and groups.

Studies carried out on one group cannot be extrapolated to another because the different life stages have different needs and problems. Extrapolating findings from healthy young males to a group of seniors is inappropriate. Similarly, extrapolating results from animal studies to human subjects is equally unsuitable. General recommendations developed from specific studies may be unsafe for some consumer groups.

In conclusion, most of us are aware of the Ministry of Health‘s New Zealand Food and Nutrition Guidelines. There are many ways in which we can interpret the guidelines to suit our individual culture – the things we like and our living situations. Enjoying a healthy diet and lifestyle is not rocket science; keep it at a simple stage and don’t be taken in by ‘junk science’.

Adapted with permission from the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Ageing Bulletin, March 2015.

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