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That Latest Food Claim- Should I Ignore It Or Make Changes In My Diet?

Guest Post by Joan Davis, RN, MS

There’s no end of individuals or agencies out there making dubious or downright bogus nutrition claims- from Dr. Oz to food manufactures to marketing campaigns. Go on the internet, open your newspaper, or even watch tv and it’s clear that we are being bombarded by nutritional news -much of it misleading and often downright false. 

So what? Well let me give you an example of how easy it can be to fall victim to such false claims, confusing us and leading us to make bad food decisions. Let’s just consider breakfast; say tomorrow you are contentedly munching on your oatmeal, reading a magazine and your eyes fall on this headline: “Gluten-containing foods, including oatmeal, can be a serious health problem leading to severe gastrointestinal problems.” Now that’s not true (unless you’re one of those rare folks who are have celiac disease). However, you don’t read the whole story, just the headline, and based on that, you decide you’d better stop eating oatmeal. You have now stopped a healthy nutritional habit due to a false claim.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen. Let’s say your spouse has been avoiding bacon, correctly thinking it is unhealthy. But then he reads a misleading headline proclaiming, “Fat is back! Research says bacon is good for you!” Your partner happily grabs for bacon and starts frying, promptly resuming an unhealthy habit.  False news got you both! You both listened to food fallacies and changed your nutrition for the worse. 

How did that happen? Ever since the 60’s we’ve had multiple well-designed and replicated research studies demonstrating a strong correlation between heart disease and saturated fat, yet in the past few years we’ve seen those “Fat is Back” headlines. It turns out the many of these studies:

  • are poorly designed or interpreted, not clarifying what kind of fat is healthy or harmful.
  • don’t involve new research, but are selected reviews of earlier studies (meta-analysis) which is prone to skewed results if study authors include or drop studies that support a particular goal.
  • are funded by big food industries with huge budgets to churn out persuasive, but flawed, studies.
  • are popular with media because they are controversial and grab your attention, whether true or not.

In fact these claims were so misleading that the American Heart Association issued a rare Presidential Advisory in 2017 (https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510), warning the public that many “Fat Is Back” studies were misleading and causing unnecessary confusion

It’s clear that fake nutritional “news”, especially when well-funded and cloaked in “pseudo-science”, can be quite effective, which is why you, the unsuspecting eater, needs to be wary!  But don’t to go overboard and ignore ALL new nutritional claims or recommendations. Like any field of study, there are credible new discoveries in nutritional science, and we don’t want to become ostriches, burying our heads in the sand and refusing to accept factual new information.

As a wise philosopher said, there are two ways to be fooled: to believe what isn’t true or to refuse to believe what has been proven to be factual. This rings so true in nutrition! I hear it all the time when people say “Ah, they keep changing their minds, so I just don’t believe anything.“ That results in folks merrily munching on whatever unhealthy foods they like, feeling justified in ignoring solid, proven scientific findings.

We need to learn how to analyze food claims, fake and legitimate, clarifying if the claim is grounded on evidence-based research. With a healthy dose of skepticism, yet an openness to legitimate research, you can become better at deciphering food claims, determining if that claim is worth paying attention to or just a gross exaggeration on the part of media so you’ll read a headline or click a link, or worse, a deceptive lure on the part of marketers so you’ll buy a product.

Ask questions. Look for the credentials of the author or researcher and see if there are any commercial interests. (Is the person/agency selling something?) Never act based on headlines. Read further and dig deeper. Look for follow- up research backed by other studies appearing in credible medical journals.    

Yes, it takes a little effort and detective work to carefully evaluate food claims. However since nutrition is crucial for good health, it’s worth the investment, so you can confidently evaluate food claims, knowing when to ignore and when to implement changes based on those claims. Your life depends on it!

Want other ideas on how to be a smarter food consumer? There are good books, internet articles and classes with tips and tools on how to evaluate nutritional claims. Since nutrition is one of the most important components to good health, it’s worth the investment so you can confidently evaluate food claims, knowing when to ignore and when to implement changes based on those claims.

Joan Davis, RN, MS is an experienced Nurse/Educator with over 20 years of experience developing and presenting programs for corporate, community and cruise audiences. Known for her enthusiastic and interactive approach, Davis is excited to be teaching classes, including Fake News: Nutrition Edition and The Blue Zone, at Harper College’s Lifelong Learning Institute.

Don’t miss her talk, featured in our online Premiere Speaker Series course: Salt, Oil and Sugar; Hooked by the Food Giants.


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