Most people are aware that nutrition plays a key role in maintaining good health. But the age-old question remains: what constitutes ‘good nutrition’ and what should we be eating?
There is no doubt that many people are confused about what to eat. Statistics support this:
- Around 75% of people rely on family and friends for nutrition information – but interestingly only 29% trust them as information sources.
- 78% of people encounter conflicting information about nutrition, and 56% say that this has made them doubt their food choices.
- 96% of people eat for health benefits such as weight loss, heart health or energy, but only 45% could identify a food or nutrient that conferred those benefits.
- Around a third of people are confused about what makes a healthy diet .
Confusion – science and the media
Much research has been published based on the health impact of different diets, macro and micronutrients, food intake timing and other nutrition and health related aspects. Studies based on similar parameters often lead researchers to draw different conclusions from one another, or to identify differing cause/effect relationships.
However, few ordinary people read scientific papers or reviews in technical journals. The masses become aware of this type of information via the media, whether formal or social. Information that attracts most media attention tends to be either radical in nature, different, or of popular interest and is filtered for their specific audiences. This can lead to deletions and distortions and an emphasis that may only partially reflect the relevant study.
The media tends to offer information in bite-sized chunks, with headlines designed to attract attention. This lends itself to over-simplification and speculation. It can also follow or create fads and trends (for example, today focusing on the ‘evils’ of sugar, tomorrow on the benefit of dark chocolate).
Who – and what – influences us?
Apart from the media, one of the biggest influencers on the average person is their friends and family. More people cite their friends and family as an influence on food choices than their healthcare practitioner. That means that we’re more likely to believe someone with no nutritional education than a qualified expert in the field.
People tend to believe that more expensive food options are healthier, even when the nutritional content of comparable foods is identical. Similarly, fresh foods are generally considered healthier than their canned or frozen counterparts.
It’s clear that many people are confused about how to eat a generally healthy diet .
What to eat?
In an ideal world, an individual’s food intake should be tailored to meet their specific needs, taking into account their life stage, lifestyle and preferences. Older adults, as an example, have a greater need for calcium and vitamin D for bone health. They also need to consume sufficient energy and protein to maintain optimal health.
But no matter what an individual’s needs, some things are generally accepted by dietitians and nutritionists as promoting good health:
- High quality protein for maintaining muscle mass.
- Fruit for its fibre and antioxidants.
- Plenty of fresh vegetables.
- Limit salt intake to reduce risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
- Limit added sugars.
- Limit unsaturated fats and avoid trans-fats.
As regards what constitutes a ‘best diet’, it is interesting to note the observation from the World Health Organization that any diet approach that works for one person will not necessarily work for someone else .
When all is said and done, it’s easy to understand why consumers are so confused about nutrition and what constitutes a healthy, or balanced, diet. There is no ‘one size fits all’ definition and the plethora of information and diversity of opinion (often ill-informed) makes it challenging for most people to know what to believe and how to act. There is most definitely a role here for better consumer education but the question remains: by whom and how?
- “Survey: Nutrition Information Abounds, But Many Doubt Food Choices”. 2017. Foodinsight.Org. http://www.foodinsight.org/press-releases/survey-nutrition-information-abounds-many-doubt-food-choices.
- Taubes, Gary. 2014. “Opinion | Why Nutrition Is So Confusing”. Nytimes.Com. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/why-nutrition-is-so-confusing.html?mcubz=3.
- “Healthy Diet”. 2015. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs394/en/.