Does having access to unlimited information make it easier for consumers to be informed or does it lead to more confusion?
There’s persuasive evidence that it leads to confusion. In the IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, three out of four consumers reported that changes in nutritional guidance make it hard for them to know what to believe. That’s the issue that nutrition communicators are struggling to address as we move into 2015. Last week, I stumbled on to the ConscienHealth.org list of Nutrition, Health and Fitness Trends for 2015, and I found two of the predicted trends to shed some light on this important question:
- Cherry-picked statistics will continue to float out of nutrition and epidemiology studies and continue to confuse the public. University press offices and health media will continue to prosper by inflating the significance of exploratory studies and then debunking the myths they create.
- Outcomes will get increasing attention, perhaps because of fatigue with the aforementioned cherry-picked statistics. As folks get increasingly frustrated by half-baked nutrition claims, they get more savvy about demanding evidence of an end benefit.
The more I thought about these predicted trends, the more I thought that these issues relate heavily to the confusion that pervades nutrition communications.
Increasingly, cherry-picked statistics have been used by talk show hosts and public figures who want to capture the public’s attention with sensational stories that lack common sense. Perhaps the public knows that these TV shows are merely entertainment, but it’s getting harder and harder for the public to distinguish between scientific evidence and the beliefs of public figures. Eventually, I predict the public will hone their ability to separate out these claims and determine who should be trusted. In fact, many consumers already say that they are the most likely to trust health professionals, as opposed to media outlets, for nutrition information (check out the infographic below). Until that time, it can feel like the wild west of nutrition information. Thankfully, in the meantime, organizations like ours do their best to present facts that can help consumers with science-based food information.
Focusing on Outcomes
Unlike cherry-picked statistics, a focus on health outcomes will be a welcome change in 2015. For many years, regulators have had to depend on short-term measurements to infer long-term health outcomes of diet choices.
This challenge is evident from discussions between members of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). The DGAC often used observational results that don’t measure cause and effect. For instance, the committee used their best judgment to make recommendations about the effect of foods eaten outside the home or in the absence of a family setting, without having long-term causal evidence of either. The committee also had difficulty suggesting how some items, like caffeine or meat, affect American’s health, since there are many influences that simultaneously impact our health, making it tough to separate. Policies that base outcome predictions on theoretical intermediate biomarkers, like blood levels of nutrients, are unreliable when applied to individual health. Hopefully, with continually improving technology and more attention on proving outcomes, more conclusive information will drive the nutrition conversation and overtake the role of sensationalism and cherry-picked stats.
The best guide to good health is to follow the advice that registered dietitians have offered since the beginning of the profession in 1917: Include some variety, along with balance and moderation (what we like to call BAM!) in all that you eat. That’s a trend I hope we’ll see in 2015!