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Eating Well Isn't a Mystery

Most anyone that tells you otherwise just wants to make a buck.

by Michael Byrne
Jul 7 2016, 9:00am

Image: DenisFilm/Shutterstock

Here is a chart published Tuesday in the New York Times.

It's meant to compare the opinions of nutrition professionals against those of regular ass Americans on whether or not various food items are "healthy," where the term is not really defined in any specific way.

The accompanying headline is about how nutritionists and non-nutritionists disagree, but the actually interesting thing isn't in the outliers (granola, frozen yogurt), but in the fact that these two groups mostly agree on what food is healthy. The foods that most nutritionists think are healthy are the same foods that most non-nutritionists think are healthy. This is likewise the case for unhealthy foods (pizza, ice cream).

As for the outliers, there just aren't many. Speaking as a compulsive nutrition quantifier, I would say the actually interesting differences are granola and Slim Fast, where there are actually pretty large gaps in opinion. Nearly half of regular folk think SlimFast is healthy, but 20 percent of nutritionists have the same opinion. Granola bars are even more extreme. If I'd paid a bunch of money to have these surveys done I'd try and talk up these differences, but I didn't, so I get to say that these results don't say much of anything beyond a few thousand Americans having similar opinions about food.

But since we're here, a few more points:

1) What is "healthy"?

Low-calorie foods might be assumed by most people to be more healthy given that we routinely consume extremely calorie-rich foods, but the truth is probably much more that this is just what's sold to us unrelentingly along with the associated body images. But foods can also be healthy because they supply other stuff we need, like vitamins and fatty acids.

Slim Fast is a tricky one. Why is Slim Fast considered to be unhealthy? It's not the nutrition content, because that's not bad, really. Per calorie, Slim Fast offers about what you'd hope for in terms of at least vitamins and fiber. Is it because the crash dieting suggested by the Slim Fast plan is unsustainable? Or that any diet premised on dramatic/extreme diet changes is almost certain to fail? The sugar content isn't great, but Slim Fast at least does better than other popular meal replacements like Ensure.

Nutritionism has fought hard to become a legit field and the American Society of Nutrition, whose members were polled for the NYT study, seems to be among the more rigorous—at least requiring a doctoral degree of its members—but there's still an army of bullishitters out there calling themselves nutritionists and these bullshitters can very often be found bullshitting for the media. Generally, I don't feel all that awesome about the assumption that the opinions of a bunch of nutritionists are science-based, but I feel like that's exactly what we're supposed to assume with this.

For an excellent screed on the topic, I'll refer you to Ben Goldacre's column in the British Medical Journal, "Tell Us the Truth About Nutritionists." The gist is sketched out in the point below, but the basic argument is that eating well is not a complex endeavour requiring the guidance of experts whose existence rests on convincing you that it is in fact a very complex endeavor.

2) Generally, healthy eating is obvious

The founding myth of nutritionism is the inverse of the above statement. Food consumption needs to be micromanaged; eating well requires experts; you, in particular, are doing food all wrong. Let me, a nutritionist holding a doctoral degree, help.

But food is obvious, or it can be. Give people basic and uncomplicated information about eating well, and you will wind up with healthy people. I wish I had a great study saying that exact thing, but we can just look at Harvard Medical School's non-corporate version of the USDA food plate guide-thing called the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate. Follow it and you will get what you need barring any special health conditions. It's easy!

You might even take the NYT study represented above as evidence for this very thing. We are aggressively sold the idea that food is to be obsessed over, but it's really pretty simple and we've been doing it for a very long time.

3) Healthy does not equal not unhealthy

You might have noticed popcorn hanging out there next to wine, with more than 60 percent of nutritionists saying that it is healthy. I'll note, however, that popcorn has virtually no nutrition content. Sans butter, it has almost no calories and provides just the tiniest bit of fiber and iron per serving. At the same time, it's not really bad for you either. Is that healthy? I'm leaning towards no.

In fairness, the Times piece links back to a post from MD and health blogger Aaron E Carroll, who offers "Simple Rules for Healthy Eating." Carroll's written quite a bit for the NYT about the bullshit that is so many nutritional recommendations of the "____ is bad!/____is good!" format and about the power of just doing things in moderation. As for what is good and bad to eat, the numbers suggest that you mostly already know. The rest is just looking for nutritional silver bullets and convenient villains.