Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘nutrition

Some problems with information on nutrition

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Over recent years, I have been looking into a healthier life style, seeing that I am on the wrong side of forty and have a family history with several cases of heart attacks, diabetes, and whatnot.

Eating healthy is tricky for a number of reasons, including that what is considered healthy and unhealthy changes over time* and that most even slightly processed** foods have been unnecessarily altered beyond even what follows from the processing, e.g. through addition of salt or other additives*** better left to the discretion of the consumer—restaurant food is usually even worse.

*For example, eggs were once considered a super-food, had an extremely bad reputation through most of my life, and are now increasingly being reconsidered as probably not that bad after all.

**Unprocessed foods are widely considered better than processed in a blanket manner, but factoring in time and effort to do this-and-that… I suspect that most of the benefits from unprocessed food can be achieved merely through preferring whole grain. Even refined sugar, often named as a great evil, is a lesser evil than (too much) sugar in general. Processing is simply a lesser problem than too much this and too little of that—by a considerable distance.

***Including such extremes as a jar of pre-sliced carrots having added salt or canned fruits (or even frozen berries) having been artificially sugared.

The complication that bothers me the most, however, is poor transfer of information to consumers by alleged specialists, being destructive, incompetent, and/or intellectually dishonest—and it falls most heavily on the less bright who would benefit the most from an unobstructed information flow. Four examples that I find particularly annoying:

  1. The obsession with “good” and “bad” ingredients, fats, cholesterol, …

    By and large there is no such thing as good and bad ingredients*, etc. As I gather from actually reading up and thinking on a deeper level than the simplistic “lying to students” practiced in this area, it is rather quantities and/or proportions that are good or bad. That X is “good” and Y is “bad” usually only amounts to “most current diets have less of X and more of Y than would be optimal”. Drink too much water and you die; drink too little water and you die…

    *Conceivably combinations of ingredients could still turn out to be bad in a more blanket manner; however, even a McDonald’s meal could well have been manna from heaven at many points in human history.

    This type of miscommunication makes it unnecessarily hard to make informed choices and brings a risk that people will over do the “healthy” thing. Yes, too much sodium is unhealthy and most people have an intake currently considered excessive; no, attempting to eat no sodium at all is not a good idea. Too little sodium is also unhealthy. (In extreme cases probably even lethal, but I have not done the leg work.)

  2. The (especially U.S.) idiocy of making recommendations/giving information in “servings”: Eat at least x servings of fruit a day. One serving of meat contains y grams of protein. Etc.

    These “servings” only make it harder to get the information. The size of a serving is basically never* defined, it varies from food stuff to food stuff (making comparisons harder), and does not necessarily have anything to do with what actually lands on the plate (i.e. a literal serving). Notably, the people who benefit the most from eating healthier are the once most likely to have servings considerably above the average.

    *In the few cases, where I have seen an actual definition, it has either been using some obscure or ambiguous term (notably, “cup”) which requires a separate investigation or through some construct that makes the use of “serving” entirely unnecessary, e.g. “a 100 gram serving”—just say “a 100 gram”! As for cup: A cup is a measure of volume. This might work well for fluids, but when it is used for e.g. fruits and berries, it becomes extremely vague, because factors like compression, shape of the cup, shape of the fruit, …, can have a major impact on the actual contents.

    It would be much, much better to make statements in terms of grams/ounces of fruit, meat, whatnot—and even then a criticism for wishy-washy misinformation should be raised, because it implies comparing apples and oranges in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.

    As an aside, at least in Germany, the serving (“portion”) is often abused by the food industry to obfuscate the unhealthiness of certain foods. Potato chips regularly have their fat and whatnot contents listed in 20 gram “servings”—how often does someone actually eat 20 grams (~ 2/3 of an ounce) of potato chips? If 20 gram is the intended serving, why do the bags usually contain ten times as much?

  3. The incessant use of the out-dated and highly problematic calorie/Calorie.

    Firstly, the standard unit for energy is Joule, not calorie.

    Secondly, the differentiation into the “real” calorie and the alleged* “dietary” Calorie causes unnecessary confusion, and the distinction is often not made properly.

    *I am unaware of the exact usage history, but I very, very strongly suspect that some group of nit-wits kept saying “calorie” out of sheer ignorance, while actually meaning “kilo-calorie”—and then invented the “Calorie” for the single purpose of not having to admit their error and ignorance.

    Thirdly, Calorie is often used in contexts where a dimension, not a unit, is appropriate. (As in “sugar is high in Calories” instead of “sugar is high in energy”; like saying “an elephants weighs many kilos” instead of “an elephant is heavy”.) Apparently, there are even some people who interpret Calorie as some form of stuff or particle, analogous to carbohydrate. This leads to a reduced ability to judge the effects of carbohydrates and fats, as well as such brain-dead ideas like (literally) filtering the Calories out from foods.

  4. Speaking in terms of weight/weight-loss/weight-gain instead of fat/fat-loss/fat-gain*. What most people actually want to do is get rid of fat—not weight. Weight can be lost through reductions in muscle mass or bone density, dehydration, or, in a pinch, amputation—even when the amount of fat is not actually reduced. To boot someone who tries to reduce fat through exercise might actually grow heavier (!), because the reduction in fat can be outweighed by an increase in muscle mass. This is healthy and beneficial, but can still cause a misinformed teenage girl to see herself as a failure.

    Say what you mean and mean what you say!

    *With an honorable mention for over-focusing on weight issues: Good nutrition has many other components…

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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