Why is Nutrition Information So Confusing?

Piles-of-booksThere’s nutritional information everywhere.  Some of it seems to contradict something you heard last week.  All of it is confusing.  There are hundreds of diet books claiming that theirs is the best way to lose weight.  Most of them tell you to stop eating some major food item.  The Atkin’s Diet asks you to stop eating carbohydrates (which I don’t think is healthy).  The Sugar Buster’s Diet asks you to stop eating sugar, but fat is okay (which I don’t think is healthy, either).  And on and on it goes.  My personal advice… throw out all the diet books!

Losing weight is a function of math.  If you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight.  If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight.  Simple, right?

Well, the reality isn’t that simple.  (Yeah, you already knew that!)  The easy answer is that in order to lose weight, you need to eat a “proper” diet and exercise.  (Yeah, you already knew that, too!)  So, where does all this nutrition information come from anyway?

The field of nutrition is very interesting.  Researchers spend considerable time trying to figure out exactly what our bodies need in terms of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, phytochemicals and water.   (By the way, if you don’t know what some of those terms mean, stick with me, I’ll explain them all in future posts.)  However, that’s easier said than done.

It’s difficult to isolate any of the nutrients listed above for experimental purposes.  You can’t do an experiment with people that eliminates all protein to see what would happen to someone without it.  That would be unethical, because it could cause serious and/or permanent damage to a person.  Unless experiment participants are locked in a building and given the exact same foods in the exact same quantities against a control group for a long period of time (which rarely, if ever, happens for obvious reasons), scientists are at best trying to extrapolate trends from their experiments.

As an example, let’s say a researcher wants to evaluate the effects of a low fat, high protein diet.  There are all kinds of different foods that a person could eat and still meet the experimental criteria.  Even if two completely separate research groups perform the exact same experiment, the results could be different since individual people within these studies will eat different foods.  Additionally, most research studies rely on the participants to keep track of what they eat.  People can accidentally forget to write something down or feel embarrassed about recording the truth and fudge a little.  So, is it any wonder that two similar studies could have completely different results?

Nutritional information is so complex, yet so seriously necessary for human health, that the U.S. Government has gotten involved.  Regardless of how you feel about our current, dysfunctional Congress, some things the government does right.  Two of these positive contributions are the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate.  These are the official government documents that help to eliminate some of the confusion regarding what you should be eating and drinking.  They’ve also added daily requirements for exercise.

Dietary GuidelinesLet’s start with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.  Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reviews all the research out there on nutrition and updates the nutritional guidelines, RDAs, etc…  It’s a massive undertaking involving not just the government, but other organizations such as the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM).  The Dietary Guidelines were written with policymakers and health professionals in mind, not necessarily for consumers.  However, that doesn’t mean the site isn’t useful for lay people.  The Executive Summary (there’s a link on the right side of the page) is very useful.

myplate_greenWhat is intended for consumers (i.e., you) is MyPlate.  This is an incredible site!  For starters, this replaced MyPyramid, if you remember that.  Some people thought the pyramid was too simplistic and some thought it was too confusing.  I think MyPlate is superior because you can see exactly how much food to put on a plate and in what ratios.  Half the plate should be fruits and vegetables.  The other half should have protein and grains.  Dairy foods are represented by a glass off to the right side.  What you can’t tell by the website is that the actual size of the plate is a little smaller than a normal-sized dinner plate.  I only know because I’ve seen the government-issued paper plate with the logo printed on it.

Your assignment for the weekend is to play around with the MyPlate site and watch some the videos.  Read a little of the information on there.  The really cool thing I want you to look at is the SuperTracker.  Have you ever thought about buying software that tracks the foods that you eat and drink and tells you how many calories a day you’ve been eating and drinking?  Look no further.  It’s right there.  And it’s free!  All you have to do is register.  You can also track how many calories you burn every day through the Physical Activity Tracker.

Remember at the beginning of this article that I said that losing weight is a function of math?  Well, if you take the calories that you eat (from the Food Tracker) and subtract the calories that you burn (from the Physical Activity Tracker), you’ll understand in black and white whether you’re gaining or losing weight.  The software does that all for you so you don’t even need to do the math.  Pretty nifty, ha?

So, that’s it for this week.  You play around on MyPlate, see if any of the information is confusing or useful, and I’ll be back on Monday with more information on fitness, nutrition and health!

Have a great weekend and remember… there are no excuses when it comes to your health!

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One thought on “Why is Nutrition Information So Confusing?

  1. Pingback: Some Nutrition Truths «

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