The fields of wellness and nutrition science have exploded in the last decades
The following is a guest post by Melanie Wisniewski, a person I’ve had the privilege of knowing for many years. Your wellness vendor would have you believe there is a perfect formula for health, weight control, etc. Such notions are factually incorrect. Every person in has an abundance of “lurking variables” which in the end confounds perfect formulas. Melanie understands lurking variables. Her article below shows how there is not perfect agreement in science about many wellness “truths”:
The fields of wellness and nutrition science have exploded in the last decades. If that sounds like old news, you didn’t pay enough attention to the words ‘science’ or ‘exploded’. Some of the most provocative findings have been around how the processes of consumption, physical exertion and weight management are more complicated than what we’ve long been taught.
Along the way, widely held beliefs—repeated with conviction for over half a century—have not only been criticized as scientifically under-supported, but also possibly unsupportable. Tom touched on one of these ‘hot topic’ areas recently when he posted on the counter-intuitive results of the recent obesity research. But that study is just one of many that have sparked controversy. Think you’ve kept up? See how familiar are you with these ideas:
- Calories in do NOT equal calories out. Its opposite, of course, is the foundation of countless diets, but this science writer claims it’s not true. If you’ve ever counted calories, points or pretty much anything else and been frustrated—or criticized—that you’re not losing the pounds ‘you should’, it’s because the human body’s design is much more complicated and individuated than that simple equation implies. And adding to the complexity is that everyone’s body chemistry changes over the course of their lives. You wouldn’t expect a gallon of gasoline in each of ten cars to achieve the same mileage, would you? But we’ve given credence to a theory that would have our biochemical bodies process our ‘fuel’ more precisely and consistently than mechanical ones?
- Exercise will NOT make you lose weight. Really. Exercise may do wonderful things for you and your health. Losing weight is not likely to be one of them. Yes, I know you’ve never seen a fat marathoner. But this theory not only says that appearances have been deceiving. It says we’ve put the cart before the horse. Folks don’t run to stay lean. They run because they are lean.
- Food fat does not equal body fat. You’ve heard someone sit down in front of a fatty meal and say “I should just put it right onto my hips.” We all laugh because we’ve been saturated (pun intended) with recommendations for low-fat everything and we’ve come to think it’s the truth. We picture food fat directly padding our frames and clogging our cells, our veins and our heart.
But because our bodies convert and store both carbohydrates and dietary fat in our fat cells, and then in theory release them when our body ‘needs’ them, this claim says we get fat when our body gets its signals wrong. How do the cells know when our body needs them? When our insulin level drops. What causes the insulin level to drop? Decreased carbohydrates in the blood stream.
In other words, if the carbohydrates we consume keep insulin levels high, the fat cells—whatever their original food source—stay locked away as body fat. Insulin does not respond to food fat or protein in the same way it does to carbohydrates. So it’s too many carbs, not too much fat—saturated or unsaturated—that triggers the fat retention.
Unless you have kidney disease, salt is your friend, not your enemy. You know you’ve heard it over and over. Consume too much salt and you risk high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Except not only is there virtually no science to support it, there have also been numerous studies showing no relationship, or even a negative one. Still, you might ask, how can lowering your salt consumption hurt you? If we don’t know for sure, isn’t it the better approach? Or is there, as with fat, carbohydrates and insulin, a more complicated process that actually causes decreased salt to backfire on you? Yes. Call it our taste buds.
There’s a reason salt was the original seasoning, highly valued in early societies. Salt does a much more important job than make food taste salty. A relatively small amount transforms the taste of food. It enhances the natural flavor of almost everything. Try two plates of plain pasta, one cooked in properly salted water, one with the salt left out. The salted pasta will be surprisingly edible. The unsalted one is not. We have to sauce it to make it edible. We effectively do this every time we leave the salt out of anything when we cook. We have to add something else to make it palatable and thus often end up eating more—and eating more things that are worse for us than salt.
Gary Taubes, a Harvard-trained scientist has written extensively—and not without much criticism—on all these subjects. (But, if I have misrepresented his opinions in any way, the fault is mine.) Other individuals and organizations have also written on some of these topics (e.g., see the Cochrane Collaboration’s recent salt & fat summaries or this Scientific American article), sometimes, overtly supportive of these theses, sometimes less so. (I should add that I can’t source the ‘taste bud effect’ to anyone but every chef I know. And since the observations of chefs who feed dieters for a living are generally considered part of the problem rather than part of the solution, you may want to treat them with the appropriate ‘grain of salt.’) [Note: Cochrane Collaboration findings and reports are held in highest esteem in the scientific community.]
I recommend Taubes as the most complete and accessible introduction to these ideas. He, himself, is not a researcher. A science writer for both Discover magazine and the New York Times, he has championed these theories for over a decade. His most recent book, Why We Get Fat covers the first three subjects in great detail. Further, because ‘proof’ on either side of these issues is illusive, he has helped to spearhead the launch of The Nutrition Science Initiative, (NuSI), dedicated to rigorously examining the scientific merit of competing theories.
Where does this leave those of us who are not researchers, but are instead trying to implement any kind of scientifically-based wellness program? (Besides frustrated!) It leaves us where emerging science always leaves us, whether it is searching for a cure for cancer or for the perfect diet. Study, and then give it your best shot. And as in all of life—keep an open mind and course correct along the way.
Melanie Wisniewski has spent her career in the food & restaurant industry. For the last decade, she has led a new food incubator focused on developing foods for the 21st century that will change the way America eats.