The Danger of Nutritional Pseudoscience
By Maeve Hanan
Maeve Hanan is a Specialist Dietitian who runs a blog called “DieteticallySpeaking.com” which promotes evidence-based nutrition messages and dispels nutritional nonsense and fad diets.
Pseudoscience is a claim, theory or practice that uses scientific sounding words and processes to hide behind but which does not follow to the scientific method; for example homeopathy or the flat earth movement (i.e. the belief that earth is still flat… the mind boggles!).
Pseudoscience is a misleading imposter who can cause real harm. Similar to a con artist who can talk the talk and can convince people that they have specific skills or knowledge but if you question them too deeply you would discover that it’s all a show and there is little truth behind their claims. The perpetrators of pseudoscience can understand elements of the subjects they discuss and may have no malicious intentions. But sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing when used incorrectly as the effect can be damaging nonetheless.
The world of nutrition is particularly susceptible to pseudoscience and non-evidence based claims for a number of reasons:
Nutrition is a popular subject
There is a large public interest in nutrition as it is essential for survival but also has important emotional and social functions. Hence there is a big demand for nutritional information and a lot of money to be made; which ‘health gurus’ and the media are well aware of. This increases the overall volume of nutritional claims which are made and can result in more sensationalized statements to spark interest levels even further.
‘Everyone is a Nutrition Expert’
Linked to the importance that most people associate with food is the high number of people who claim to be an expert in nutrition despite having no recognised qualifications in nutritional science, which can lead to very misinformed claims around nutrition. This is something that you don’t see in other areas of science; I can’t remember the last time anybody took advice on nuclear fusion or aircraft engineering from Gwyneth Paltrow! ;P Adding to this confusion is the fact that ‘Nutritionist’ isn’t a legally protected term. So it can be misused as a guise of authority. In most countries the titles of ‘Dietitian’ and ‘Registered Nutritionist’ can be trusted, as those using these titles must have recognised qualifications and a good standard of competence and professional practice in the area of nutrition.
Poorly reported nutritional information
By its very nature science is a constantly evolving area, so there will always be new research and findings. The danger comes when science is misreported in order to boast an attention grabbing headline; again because of our natural interest in nutrition this often happens with research related to food, diets and weight. This misreporting can include: preliminary studies being reported too early; misreporting the actual results of studies either by the media or the researchers themselves; or not taking into account the type of study or the strength of evidence presented. There are also specific limitations associated with nutritional research to be aware of such as: self-reported intake; confounding lifestyle factors; or the use of markers for disease rather than the actual disease itself as an end point (e.g. high blood pressure rather than heart disease).
Magic bullet solutions
In the western world due to our emotional connection with food, rising levels of overweight and obesity, fast paced lifestyles and social pressures to comply with current standards of ‘attractiveness’. We are under pressure to find quick fix solutions, specifically in the realm of weight loss. This can lead to confirmation bias such as believing some of the extraordinary claims out there related to nutrition. Simply because we may want to believe that there is one quick solution. But our long term weight and health is a marathon rather than a sprint. So we need to make long term sustainable healthy changes, rather than resorting to unrealistic short term fad diets.
I’m the first one to hold up my hands and admit that it can be really easy to be taken in by nutritional pseudoscience. Part of the reason that I am so passionate about spreading evidence based nutrition messages is because before I became a registered Dietitian I was previously drawn in by aspects of nutritional pseudoscience which I now realise are misleading and false such as: dairy free diets promoted for bone health and a cocktail of specific multivitamins promoted for ‘optimum health’ for the general public.
It is important to fight nonsense nutritional claims as they can have numerous harmful consequences such as:
- Promoting the use of specific diets in place of evidence based medical treatments such as chemotherapy, which can result in irreversible damage to health.
- Promoting an unhealthy and obsessive relationship with food which can impact on a person’s mental health and ability to socialize normally.
- Causing nutritional deficiencies or nutritional excesses due to unbalanced dietary advice.
- Interfering with specific medical treatments; for example a fasting diet can be very dangerous for a person with Diabetes who uses insulin.
- Causing confusion about which nutritional advice should be followed.
- Taking advantage of people in vulnerable situations from a financial point of view. Or by providing false hope or misleading information.
- Extremely restrictive diets can alter our metabolism and lead to greater weight gain in future.
So how do we avoid nutritional pseudoscience?
We should approach nutritional claims from a skeptical point of view; think about who is spreading the information and whether they are a reliable authority on nutrition? What is the strength of evidence that is being reported? Does the claim seem rational or is it too good to be true?
For more information on how to weed out nutritional pseudoscience you can check out my Nonsense Nutrition Detection Kit (link: http://dieteticallyspeaking.com/nutritional-nonsense-detection-kit/) or if you want to look at the evidence behind specific headlines ‘For the Record’ from Sense About Science (link: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/for_the_record.php) and ‘Behind the Headlines’ from NHS Choices (link: http://www.nhs.uk/news/pages/newsarticles.aspx?TopicId=Food%2Fdiet) are great resources.
For evidence based nutritional advice you can also check out ‘Food Facts’ from the British Dietetic Association (link: https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/home).
The more awareness that we have of nutritional pseudoscience and the more equipped that we are to question and reject it, the easier it becomes to form a healthy relationship with food. Free from fad diets and nutritional nonsense!