& Shit

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As an associate nutritionist I’ll be tackling the ‘& shit’ section of this blog – talking all things food, healthy and sustainable living and, sure, there’ll probably be some bodily functions thrown in for good measure! I feel very strongly about ensuring that I represent nutrition in a way that is factual and evidence-based, but also relatable and easy to fit into everyday life.

Evidence is our friend!

On finding out that I was a nutritionist the other day, someone asked me quite bluntly and earnestly “what’s your absolute best tip for healthy eating?” The answer I gave (something to do with looking at food labels more I think…) was not what I would say upon pausing for reflection. This is because I know how complex food, our bodies and inter-relationships with health are. What I really wanted to say is “IT’S JUST NOT THAT SIMPLE” – there is no one answer to this.

What I want more than anything to be able to do on this blog is cut through some of the ridiculous amount of nutribollocks that we’re bombarded with day after day. Nutrition is a science but for some reason people seem to forget that (unlike with Quantum Physics say) the research and dissemination of information should best be left to those who are trained to critically analyse evidence in the area.

Now this is easy to forgive, as unlike complex maths or mind-boggling equations, everyone has an intimate relationship with food. Necessarily we interact with and (although I know some people who claim never too?!) think about food and drink on a daily basis. It is fundamental to our existence. And more than that through our culture, relationships, personal and social interactions with food we come to associate emotions with food. This naturally leads people to believe that since they eat, they understand the complexities of food and therefore how it impacts our bodies and our health.

This just isn’t true though. And I know because before I dipped my toe into nutrition science I thought the same. I know how to shop for food, cook and prepare food and I’m aware of the physical way it effects my body…therefore I must know how to advise others on what’s good for them? How wrong I was. There are so many interactions with our complicated physiology and the overwhelmingly diverse components that make up the food we eat. There is not one person (dead or alive) who truly understands it all. So, it makes me particularly mad when nutrition science is reported, and claims made based off tiny, tiny sections of this vast area. Especially when this is done for commercial gain.

When looking at anything related to our health it’s vital to assess the strength of the evidence base currently available – this is how science works. And in the field of nutrition this means that – contrary to what the papers would lead you to believe –  we cannot make rash recommendations and judgements about our diets based on the results of one, or even a handful of studies. A recent example being for a nationwide ban on asparagus consumption as it contains an amino acid it lent its name to (asparagine) which has been linked to breast cancer in one study in mice.

There is also a huge difference between scientific evidence and anecdotal evidence. Anecdotes being the basis of recommendations made by many so-called ‘nutrition experts’ and individuals advocating certain diets and lifestyles. Again, disregarding variations in individuals and clinging to the “it works for me, so it must work for you” concept.

Healthy eating is never as two-tone as it’s often made out to be. It’s a common cry to be heard from fatigued nutritionists and scientists that (like many other areas of human physiology and science) there is NO black and white, real and fake, clean and dirty or right and wrong when it comes to food! This is frustrating also because it can lead to potentially dangerous food fads, creates confusion amongst the public when contradictory recommendations are made and therefore leads to apathy towards nutrition scientists carrying out legitimate research and forming evidence-based advice.

There are so many decent, thoughtful, evidence-based advocates in nutrition but unfortunately, they do seem to get drowned out by shiny people backed by marketing teams, offering exactly what the vast majority of people are after: straightforward, ‘tied up with a little red bow’ answers to become faster, fitter, thinner, stronger and shinier versions of themselves.

BUT this doesn’t mean how to eat well has to be complex – with practice and a little bit of dedication you can get so many rewards…. health, enjoyment, shared experience with family and loved ones, sense of achievement, as well as money and resource saving!

(By the way, if you’d like to know what I would answer next time someone asks me my one top tip for healthy living, having given this some thought since, it would be: try to cook from scratch more!)

Science and everyday life should never be separated” – Rosalind Franklin

For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:

Evening Standard (7th February 2018). Asparagus link to breast cancer is discovered by scientists by Robin de Peyer. Available at: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/asparagus-link-to-breast-cancer-is-discovered-by-scientists-a3761046.html

Knott et al. (2018). Asparagine bioavailability governs metastasis in a model of breast cancer. doi: 10.1038/nature25465

British Nutrition Foundation (2018). Research Spotlight 2018 – Issue 2 – Asparagine (not Asparagus!) and breast cancer. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/researchspotlight/2018issue2.html

Ask for Evidence