Diet Wars – Is There Any Hope?

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Butter is back.” “Butter is not back.” “The dietary guidelines are killing us.” “The dietary guidelines are good for us.

Confused? You’re in good company, even academic Professors don’t know which way to turn (this example is possibly the quickest U-turn I’ve ever seen – 3 weeks!)

In the Diet Wars it’s impossible to know who is winning. One thing is for certain, we know who is losing – you! It’s an impossible task knowing what to believe, with no end of conflicting headlines from often-poor quality studies supported by quotes from nutrition and diet “experts”. The problem with diets is that they’re like ar……….teries, everyone’s got them; and everyone’s got an opinion about theirs.

Over the past few months there seems to have been a ramping up of these sorts of news stories, studies, reports and quotes, some of which we commented on here and here. Well, it is summer time in the northern hemisphere so perhaps no surprises there.

I’ve been getting increasingly agitated by all this, not least because of the bad impression it gives to the general public (it’s not like they need much help in thinking those charged with providing health advice, and the scientists providing the “evidence” for it, haven’t got a clue).

So before I went on my holidays I had a little rant on twitter about all of this. It went like this:

CmwuuHqWAAEEfvp

[link to Ioannidis paper]

I don’t have a problem (actually I do but it’s less of an issue) with people promoting and selling a diet that was a success for them. The problem I have is when attempts to give it scientific credence are backed up by weak evidence for which no concern as to the quality and uncertainty is given.

So is all hope lost? No I don’t think so. There are folk working in the field of diet and nutrition for health, and others who care about bad science masquerading as good, who understand the complexity and uncertainty in this field. I regularly chat with them on twitter, a recent example here.

There’s also a nice piece on the NHS Choices website on how to identify whether a news story is worth its salt (sorry!) or not.

So I’m going on a diet from the ‘Diet Wars’ but will be watching from afar (think Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens only much less sage-like and without the beard). In the meantime, keep an eye out for anything relevant I might miss and let me know about it – I’ll be ‘champing/chomping at the bit’ after this diet!

About David Nunan

Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Oxford and BASES accredited Exercise Physiologist.

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One comment on “Diet Wars – Is There Any Hope?

  1. Hi David,

    I couldn’t read the full Times article but I assume it’s talking about the Laura Pimpton’s PlosOne paper looking at SFA on T2D and heart disease, and the other Imamura’s paper on the meta-analysis of RCTs looking at effect of dietary fats and carbohydrates on measures of glucose homeostasis.
    Just wanted to add that butter having a neutral or only slight detrimental effect on diabetes risk is perfectly compatible with replacement of butter with polyunsaturated oils reducing risk.
    In fairness to Prof Mozafarrian he’s only publishing the results of what he found (which as I say are compatible). The issue is how these nuances (that the replacing food matters) are presented to the public.
    I think we as academics (esp. those of us who work in nutrition) need to consider how our studies get reported in the press. Often we are encouraged by our universities (& sometimes press offices) to “sell” the research. This is a more serious problem now then previously as universities, as private institutions, now need “advertising”. Unfortunately, this is also actively encouraged by research grant bodies who consider press coverage to be “impact” (sigh).
    This issue then gets further compounded by, as you say, publicity-hungry “experts”, and people who have a diet to sell – either a book or hidden behind a paywall. Or investigative journalists obsessed with funding and bias who see conspiracies everywhere.
    I don’t have a solution for this, but good advice is that an alarm bell should be anyone “supporting” (or hash-tagging!) one diet or other. I support sports teams, not foods! There is no single correct way of eating at all, a fact any serious nutritional scientist knows.
    Best wishes,
    Nicola

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