Why is it so hard to figure out how to eat?
Scientists confuse us with conflicting studies. Dietitians mystify us with complicated language. Nutritionists bore us with dull choices. We’re flooded with fads and bombarded with mixed messages.
No wonder we struggle to make the right choices.
“It’s our responsibility to make our message easy to understand or people are going to give up,” admits Elisabetta Politi at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.
For Practically Nutritious, a series of stories this year on healthful eating, we started by thinking about why so many of us struggle. We know what we’re supposed to do, but we often ignore the information or reject it completely.
“The way we convey nutrition information is so convoluted,” says Nancy Fey-Yensan, the dean of the College of Health and Human Services at UNC Charlotte. “People become paralyzed and they do nothing.”
Before moving to Charlotte last year, she had lived in Rhode Island for years. And she had started to dread running into clients in the grocery store.
“I would see people going ‘Oh, my God’ when they’d see me in the store,” she says, laughing. “When people dodge you in the grocery store, it’s embarrassing.”
Part of the problem, she says, is that nutrition experts try so hard to communicate their message, they overload us with information.
“We feel the need to give people the whole nine yards,” she says. “A lot of nice-to-know information and not so much need-to-know. We need to change behavior, and we need to give enough background for people to understand why they need to do that. But some of it may not be necessary.”
One reason we get confused, of course, is that nutrition news is always changing. It’s like the movie “Sleeper,” when Woody Allen’s character wakes up years in the future and discovers that steak has become a health food.
That’s how science works: Something as complicated as a human body takes a lot of time to figure out.
“Nutrition is a moving target,” says Fey-Yensan. “It’s a very, very young part of medicine.” It really hasn’t been long, just since around World War II, when we started to understand what vitamins do, she says. Now we’re into completely new territory with plant chemicals.
We also need to stop expecting to get one-size-fits-all answers.
Jared Koch, author of “The Clean Plates Cookbook,” is a health coach in New York City. His favorite phrase: Bioindividuality. It simply means that the diet that makes you feel great may not do it for someone else. We’re all different.
“People are so confused,” he says. “There’s so much conflicting information. And there’s the idea that you have to meet this ideal diet. You really just need to make progress. Small steps. What can you do to make progress? Start with that.”
In her position with Duke University, Politi works with a lot of future doctors. And they often come to her with no understanding of basics like the difference between a carbohydrate and a calorie.
“It really boils down to more education in schools,” she says. “If we learned more basic nutrition, if we left schools knowing what healthy eating is like, it would be easier for everyone.”
Fey-Yensan challenges her nutrition students to pay attention to their messages and how they convey them.
“I’m a practical person,” she says. “What I’ve always said to my students is, the true test of academic brilliance is the ability to frame something very complicated in terms that the average person can get.”
So what’s the best lesson on nutrition? It’s the one that makes it simple – and lets you enjoy what you eat. Stop worrying so much about what you shouldn’t eat and embrace what you should.
“It’s ultimately about how you enjoy your relationship with food,” says Koch. “The perfect relationship is enjoying what you eat and knowing that it’s good for your body.”
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