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The Complexities of Nutrition: Why Nutrition Scientists Are Having a Hard Time Figuring It Out

The world of nutrition is full of complexities. It’s difficult to determine if a particular food item is indeed good or bad for our health. To be fair, proving scientific theories in the medical field is difficult. But since there has been a growing interest in looking for ways to boost health through diets, the science of nutrition is having a harder time because the problems are magnified.

The World is Changing

Although the field of nutrition science is still murky, there have been significant victories like finding out that vitamin C helps fight scurvy. Past research has also found out that thiamine deficiency can cause beriberi and that a deficiency in vitamin D can cause rickets.

All of these have a thing in common: they link a specific compound and a specific condition. However, findings may not be so clear especially if there are underlying conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

Conditions related to nutrition have also changed over time. Before, the most common threats were deficiencies. Now, Western countries are pinning overeating as their primary concern. It’s important to understand the role of food in our health. However, these things tend to make nutrition research difficult, confusing, and indecisive.

Health conditions related to nutrition have evolved over time

What Makes a Perfect Nutritional Study?

In a perfect world, this is the ideal formula for the perfect nutritional study:

Scientists recruit 10,000 male and female participants who have different nationalities and ethnicities. They then have to house their respondents in their laboratory for 10 years. Participants should also be fed the same diet, be allowed the same amount of exercise, and be prohibited from consuming alcohol and tobacco.

Half of the respondents should not be aware that they’re consuming the food item that they are studying. Researchers and participants also shouldn’t know who’s eating the food unknowingly. 

Aside from it requiring a decade to complete, this study would also involve regular medical imaging and regular blood tests and high costs. Also, this may be deemed impossible for ethics and good sensitivity.

Impossible? Here’s What Researchers Do to Compromise

In lieu of the perfect (and impossible) study method, researchers turn to other systems to compromise. They find observational studies to be extremely useful. This method involves linking people’s consumption in a certain period with their current or future health. By using this method, it was proven that exercise is good for us and that tobacco can put you at risk of lung cancer.

Another issue is that scientists rely too much on self-reporting or self-reported food intake. The downside of this method is that the respondents may omit certain details or that they won’t remember the exact meal and proportions they had.

Nutrition researchers tend to rely on self-reporting for observational studies on nutrition and diet

The Impact of Industries on Nutrition Studies

The findings of nutrition studies funded by industry stakeholders are still valid. However, it should get us thinking about what the funder gained from the research.

Industries tend to fund studies that can prove benefits for their product or service. For instance, the California Walnut Commission funds research about the benefits of walnuts. According to the authors of a study published in the PLOS Medicine journal, industry funding may put bias into the conclusion in their favor.

It’s Much More Complex Than That

Yet another issue is the complexity of food. Studies that focus on a specific food item are slightly more manageable compared to those who investigate an entire diet. The Mediterranean diet of one may not be the same for another.

Food replacements and the origins of ingredients can also play a factor. Sometimes, the health benefits you’ve been getting may not be due to the absence of meat from your diet. It may be because of the additional food items you added.

Investigating the health benefits of a specific diet may be more complex because people have different versions of it


Although we can be sure that fruits and veggies are good for our health and that foods high in fat, salt, and sugar are not, there are still a lot of gray areas that need to be explored.

Scientists should strive to improve their study methods and add more knowledge to what we already know. In turn, the general public should be more critical about the information we consume.

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