Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Nutritional catchphrases are stupid and unscientific.

Want to sound smart when discussing nutrition? Try throwing around semi-meaningless terms like “processed,” “balanced,” “artificial,” “whole foods,” and “calorie dense.” They can be interpreted to be just about anything. You get to shoot down every bit of dietary advice you personally deem unsatisfactory without the trouble of finding evidence to support your claims. Doing research is hard, but spouting catchphrases and simplistic guidelines that make you seem reasonable is easy.

Ice Cream Container
“Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.” Done and done!

Is coconut oil healthy? Most people would say yes, but by my definition, coconut oil is a processed food and it’s certainly calorie dense. Even olive oil (another calorie dense food dieticians rave about) requires processing. If cold pressing olives isn’t considered “processing,” then neither should extracting the juice from any other fruit and consuming it. If apples are healthy, why isn’t apple juice healthy? Is it because it contains a lot of sugar or is it bad simply because the apples were “processed?” Why are processing apples bad, but processing olives good? I assume an apple is considered a whole food, while apple juice is not. If I don’t want the skin of the apple and peel it off, is it still a whole food? Probably not. An orange is a whole food, too, I guess. Why is it okay to discard the skin of an orange, but not an apple? Maybe it’s not okay? If I don’t eat orange peels, am I allow to complain when my diet fails or is this just an example of me not being compliant enough? And what about the apple cores? Do I have to eat those, too? What about the seeds?

Food isn’t a black box. Things like macro-nutrients, vitamins, minerals, etc. and their effects have been studied and are understood. Let’s stop pretending they’re not. Let’s not treat food as some kind of irreducibly complex enigma. It’s okay to make a statement like, “Olive oil has a net positive nutritional benefit, but apple juice does not.” We can argue this is true because we can dissect each food item and discover its types of fats, carbohydrates, and other components and deduce the effects they have on the human body. We may not have all the answers, but it’s at least an educated guess grounded in evidence. Throwing around loosely defined terms to categorize foods we intuitively deem healthy or unhealthy is a hand-wave, not science.

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