Shadow Surpasses Substance

Where Does the Blame Lie for Nutrition Myths?

Nutrition myths are a pesky plague, difficult to dispel. One of them – skipping breakfast will make you fat – might well be on the way out. In two different articles this year (here and here), the New York Times has made its status as a myth completely clear. On the other hand, WebMD is still advising readers that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

Apart from the peskiness of these myths is the problem of self-awareness by the people who perpetuate them. Both health reporters and nutrition professionals uncritically promote the results of observational studies as if they prove cause and effect. In 2008, the Times did just that in reporting that “skipping cereal and eggs” leads to “packing on pounds.” Presumably, they sold more papers with both sides of this story. The evidence never did support the claim.

More disturbing is how reporters and even some nutrition professionals justify the misreporting: Big Food made us do it. The New York Times opens one of its current reports on the breakfast myth by saying “the food industry has been promoting this claim for decades to sell breakfast cereal.”

Nutrition professionals and health reporters should be filters for factual information. Blaming Big Food is a lame excuse. The real problem is a lack of critical thinking. Making things worse, we sometimes see critical thinking dismissed as nihilism. “This is the best data we’ve got” is a rationalization we often hear. If you think this doesn’t happen just read a defense of using flawed self reports of energy intake.

Seeing just one of these myths fade into the twilight is cause for celebration. But make no mistake, plenty of them remain. For starters, consider the disproven assertions that artificial sweeteners cause weight gain or breastfeeding prevents obesity. Despite all evidence to the contrary, many nutrition professionals repeat them and many journalists report them as facts.

Unless we all stick with the facts, we have no one to blame but ourselves for persistent nutrition myths.

Click here and here for more about scientific rigor and nutrition myths.

Shadow Surpasses Substance, photograph © Leonard J Matthews / flickr

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July 8, 2016

4 Responses to “Where Does the Blame Lie for Nutrition Myths?”

  1. July 08, 2016 at 9:19 am, Charles Baker said:

    Ted, This is a very timely critique of how linear thinking fails to acknowledge whether nutrition data has or lacks clinical relevance. How the physiologic significance of glycemic carbohydrates is an appropriate example. Which is myth and which is fact – are “individual glycemic starches and sugars are physiologically equivalent” or is “glycemic index a clinically relevant model?” Or does the reality lie somewhere between the extremes? Charlie

    • July 08, 2016 at 9:59 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Charlie!

  2. July 08, 2016 at 10:00 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious” Mark Twain

    Nutrition science, like all science, depends and statistics ,,,central tendencies ….people are not statistics …but very unique one of a kind individuals….
    Media nutrition advice, like my advice, is best taken with a “grain of salt”
    Some use salt in abundance, some moderately and some not at all

    Stephen Phillips
    American Association of Bariatric Counselors

    • July 08, 2016 at 10:16 am, Ted said:

      Fabulous quote from Twain, Stephen. Thank you!!!!!