What’s actually healthy to eat?

Over the years there has been much debate over which foods are actually good for you.

Over the years there has been much debate over which foods are actually good for you.

I don’t know about you but this never-ending debate has made me confused and even skeptical every time I hear about a new nutrition study.

According to British newspaper The Telegraph, February 2015 was the month when everything we thought we knew about eating and drinking healthily was turned on its head.

The month started with a study published in the British Medical Journal suggesting that saturated fat is good for you. According to the study, most people who eat butter, milk, cream and full-fat yogurts generally have better heart health, less risk of type-two diabetes and are even slimmer than those who eat fat-free. Later in the month, more research was published in the same journal suggesting that despite what we have always thought, the benefits of drinking wine have been overstated.

Last month, an international panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization concluded that eating processed meat such as hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well, according to The New York Times. But the increase in risk is so slight that experts said most people should not be overly worried about it (not confusing at all, you see?).

But why do nutrition studies often appear to be inconsistent to us non-scientists?

Carolyn Denton, a nutritionist who also teaches functional nutrition at the University of Minnesota, says media coverage might have contributed to the confusion over what’s healthy or not (Oops…). She says the media and the scientific community sometimes communicate poorly, which leads to media publicizing the latest study without thoroughly investigating the limitations of the research or explaining the complexity of the findings. Research studies are often designed to tackle a specific angle to a much larger problem.

In addition, results of nutrition research can be flawed or misunderstood. And here’s why.

Denton points out that we can’t isolate a nutrient’s effect. Until recently, nutrition research emphasized the effect of single nutrients on our health. However, over the past few years, research has uncovered the concept of food synergy – the additive influence of multiple nutrients or food patterns. In other words, it is not the effect of one nutrient that leads to health, but a person’s overall diet.

Denton also points out that data collection for nutrition studies can sometimes be flawed because people simply don’t report what they eat accurately.

“People often underestimate what they eat and sometimes don’t remember what they ate to report it back,” she said. “And if they eat any meals out, they don’t know what all the ingredients in the food were; finally, people don’t have accurate data about the actual nutrient content of their food, which can vary depending on freshness and where it was grown or raised.”

Another confounding variable in nutritional research is the genetic difference among the people studied. Denton says these differences can impact how individuals digest and use nutrients in food.

So what should we take into account in the midst of conflicting reports on nutrition studies?

According to Australian nutritionist and award-winning author Catherine Saxelby, even though nutrition changes at the edges, the basics still remain: eat plenty of vegetables and fruit; cut back on sugar and sugary drinks; go easy on salt; choose whole grains and high fibre breads and cereals; steer clear of overly-processed and refined foods; eat more fresh and home-prepared meals; and be moderate with alcohol.

Not surprisingly, these are all things that your grandmother would have told you.