Much like the majority of the fitness industry, the people who speak the loudest and most confidently about nutrition are generally the ones who know the least..
This article is part 1 of a 2 part series. The aim of part 1 is to reframe the way in which you think about food so that part 2 will make more sense.
If up to this point you have been basing your ideas about healthy eating from what mainstream media has told you, then there is a very good chance that you have been entirely mislead. A large percentage of the 'experts' that are brought onto TV and radio programmes have no interest in telling you the truth, because the truth is quite boring and not very marketable. Instead they would rather create problems that aren't there, so that they can sell you the solution (often in the form of a 'detox' or 'fat burning' supplement of some kind). These people are experts in sales, not nutrition.
One example is 'Dr.' Gillian McKeith, the host of popular mid-2000s TV show 'You Are What You Eat'. In the show, Gillian was presented as a nutrition professional and an expert in the field. At face value this may have seemed like reasonable justification for some of the highly questionable things she did in the show (see: poking around in people's stool samples and scolding them about the odours and textures within). Many bogus claims and diet advice have been given by this woman, including a fixation on chlorophyll (the stuff that plants use to create oxygen from sunlight - no, that doesn't work with humans).
The reality? Her 'PhD' and other qualifications turned out to be complete fraud. See below an excerpt about this from the book 'Bad Science' by Ben Goldacre:
"If you contact the Australasian College of Health Sciences (Portland, US) where McKeith has a “pending diploma in herbal medicine”, they say they can’t tell you anything about their students. When you contact Clayton College of Natural Health to ask where you can read her PhD, they say you can’t. What kind of organisations are these? If I said I had a PhD from Cambridge, US or UK (I have neither), it would only take you a day to find it."
Read the full article in all its marvellous detail here.
Another highly popular 'expert', this time in the United Stated is Dr. Oz. Surely a doctor with his own TV show must be a reputable source for health information? Dr. Oz was actually recently questioned by the US congress about a number of supplements he was promoting on his show, that were described as 'miracle diet pills'. The interesting part: there was no evidence to support these pills. He later admitted that his show should not be taken as medical advice, and is instead about living 'the good life'.
So why this preamble about a couple of TV presenters who turned out to be quacks? Because this is just one example of the many people with massive amounts of influence who are presented as 'experts' to an unsuspecting public, and who then abuse this position to scam people.
The problem is that most of the real experts in nutrition are 1) having to contend with quacks selling quick fixes and 2) not necessarily good at / interested in putting themselves in the public eye.
So in an industry that is poorly regulated, it's not hard to see how a few non-experts with questionable morals, and a talent for talking confidently about quick fixes, have secured themselves positions of major media influence.
Who to listen to?
When it comes to any field of science (and nutrition IS a science), it is generally a good rule of thumb to seek knowledge from people with formal education in the subject. Given that nutrition (like training) is also what could be termed a practical science, it is also a good idea to find people that have actually managed to successfully apply the research to either themselves or other people.
Here is a check list of things you should ask yourself before taking advice from someone (this is by no means exhaustive, just helpful):
Do they have a formal qualification in the area? (Degree in a related science or a registered dietitian)
Do they have a track record of achieving results with themselves or others?
Do they take an individualised approach to prescribing diets?
Do they emphasise making gradual and sustainable habit changes over quick fix diets/supplements?
If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then there's a good chance that the person you are talking to knows what they're doing and you should listen to them. *
* Note that I do not check out when you apply all of these rules to me. However any of the info that I apply to myself or my clients comes from experts that I apply this standard to. Additionally I do not make nutrition plans for people as that is not my area of expertise, I simply aim to educate my clients as I know that nutrition is a huge part of training success.
Here is a few links to people that I believe to be reputable sources of information. Interestingly, most of them agree on the basics of what good nutrition is:
There are no 'good' or 'bad' foods
The first thing to understand about nutrition is that 'good' and 'bad' foods do not exist. While it's certainly true that some foods are more nutrient dense than others, it is not factual to assert that any single serving of a food can have a negative or positive effect on our health.
Good nutrition is dictated by the entire sum of what you consume over days, weeks, and months. Your health will be a product of what the average day looks like for you. Just like you can't give yourself lung cancer with a single cigarette, you don't get fat from a single meal, and you certainly can't lose that fat by doing a 1 week 'juice cleanse'. Your results are the product of your daily habits, so if you want to make a change then you need to accept that it is going to come down to consistently making better decisions over a long period of time.
To simplify what I'm saying here: it is not unhealthy to eat a slice of pizza at the end of a day where 90% of your other meals has consisted of nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, etc. By the same token, eating a stem of broccoli in an attempt to counteract a day of eating takeaways is not going to have any kind of reversal effect.
The whacky diets that the likes of Oz and McKeith promote may work for a few weeks, but almost lead to lasting permanent changes, because they are not SUSTAINABLE. What is the point in doing a diet that you won't be able to maintain? Have you ever heard someone say "Oh yeah I've been on this juice-only diet for the past 5 years" ?
The science shows that most people who fail at extreme diets end up putting on MORE weight when they revert back to old ways. Because your body was so starved for calories during the diet, it's now much more sensitive to food and you will put weight on easier than before. This is essentially a survival mechanism of your body to ward off starvation. This may be annoying nowadays, but it was a handy adaptation for when we were living in caves and hunting with sticks!
So a quick recap on what we've covered in this intro to nutrition:
There are plenty of fake experts out there who do not have your best interests at heart
Competent nutrition professionals can be identified with reasonable confidence by looking for red flags
Good and bad foods aren't real
The focus should be on creating habits that allow your diet to meet nutrition requirements
Quick fixes don't work