Nutrition and Society: How Scientific Illiteracy is Affecting a Nation’s Choices

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Information accessibility today is so far advanced from where we were even ten or twenty years ago. Anyone who can read has all kinds of information right at their fingertips, ranging from medical journals to popular science articles to celebrity news articles, so you’d think that our society would be able to arm themselves with the facts for how to make healthy choices in life. Unfortunately, for many people, science seems completely inaccessible; even though they could technically find anything they’re looking for, they some the ability understand the material, or to sort through what is true and what is not.

HEALTH LITERACY

The US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

According to the this same entity, the ODPHP, only around 12% of Americans are considered proficient in health literacy. This means that the other 88% of the nation can be given all of the information they need to be able to make the healthy choices in life and avoid many preventable illnesses, but they may not fully understand what this information means to them or how to apply it. This creates an enormous barrier for healthcare professionals, particularly those of us working in public health.

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US Adults’ Health Literacy Level: 2003

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE 

Pseudoscience is a term that describes beliefs or principles that are mistakenly believed to be based on scientific method. Unfortunately, the internet is inundated with information that is widely regarded as being factual evidence that supports the belief of many people, when in reality, it is nothing more than pseudoscience. this has posed a problem for the scientific community and has contributed to such enormous public health problems such as the anti-vaccination movement. 

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Just take Snake Oil with your gluten-free diet!

The field of nutrition has not escaped the waves of popular pseudoscience; many people have read testimonials about drinking your coffee with special butter in it to lose weight and “stay energized, without the midday crash!” and become immediately convinced that they need to drink their coffee with a stick of butter.  The gluten-free diet is another of these phenomena that has huge populations of people converted to the gluten-free lifestyle. But, as Jimmy Kimmel found out, some people who follow a gluten-free diet don’t even know what gluten is, let alone whether or not they should actually be eating it.

WHO ARE THE EXPERTS?

To further confuse the issue, the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian is not well understood among the general population. In the U.S., the title”nutritionist” is not federally regulated. It’s up to the states to decide whether they want to regulate the title of nutritionist, while “registered dietitian” is; one has to earn the title of RD with a B.S. from an accredited institution, then complete an accredited (usually unpaid) internship, and then pass your RD exams. So in some states, anyone can legally call themselves a nutritionist. This further confuses the plethora of information that people have to sort through to get actual, science-based health information.

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“I’m totally a nutritionist..”

HOW THIS ALL AFFECTS THE MARKET

Unfortunately for uniformed consumers, misinformation can be a big selling point. People can become convinced that they need to buy all kinds of things to be living the most healthy possible life. All natural foods! Dietary supplements! DHA added! Many industries take advantage of people who may not have a scientific or healthcare background. If you’re at all unsure of what you should or should not be adding to or removing from your diet, try to arm yourself with the facts (actual facts, not alternative ones).

Huge corporations have a history of hijacking our popular beliefs or mob mentality: some of you may be old enough to remember when it was still legal to smoke in restaurants and public buildings, even planes. Tobacco corporations were aggressively marketing at the general public, who was being led to believe that it was harmless. Thanks to the valiant efforts of our nation’s public health heroes, smoking among adults went from 42.4% in 1965 to 24.7% in 1997. In my first blog post, I discussed the incredible difference public health can make when teamed with other entities for a common goal, and this considerable decrease in tobacco use during the late 20th century is no exception.

Today, many giants in the food and nutritional supplement industry are hopping on that train once again; prebiotics can be found in granola bars and juice, the words “all natural” are plastered on everything from shampoo to laundry detergent, all in the hopes that people who think this sounds good will but it!

HOW SHOULD WE KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE?

Until we make some serious changes in public health and our educational system, scientific and health literacy will continue to plague our society. Many determined public healthcare professionals are crusading to help people become advocates for their own health, and although this is an uphill battle, it can be done.

The most simple pieces of advice I can give to those who are uncertain about their healthcare or nutritional choices are these:

  1. Find a doctor and/or registered dietitian that you trust to go to with your concerns
  2. If you’re into doing your own research, skip the documentaries and find peer-reviewed nutrition or medical journals.
  3. Always check an article’s sources; Wikipedia is not a source.

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Addiction and Epidemiology

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Consider the epidemic. Most of us think of SARS, smallpox or whooping cough-things that are completely out of our control and capable of debilitating or destroying entire populations. But what about such things as alcoholism, obesity or eating disorders? These issues are often behavior-related, and many people will argue that these issues are completely a matter or personal choice. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on epidemiology in terms of society and one of the behavior-based plagues of our time: addiction.

In light of the recent death of well-known and respected actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think it’s safe to say that we can see addiction as an issue that does not discriminate. It does not select individuals solely from poverty-stricken homes or broken families. Addicts and alcoholics are found across the social spectrum, from all walks of life.

Although there has been much debate about whether or not addiction can be considered a disease, it is without a doubt an enormous public health concern. According to recent studies by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and and Alcohol Addiction, around 85,000 alcohol-implicated deaths occur every year. That’s more deaths caused by alcohol than by diabetes. Even more astonishing, it is estimated that Americans consume 80% of the prescription pain killers in the world. Although some of these drugs are consumed under the direction of a doctor, many of them are not, and are contributing to the millions of Americans suffering through addiction. These numbers are quite clearly of epidemic proportions.

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You may wonder what this topic has to do with nutrition.  While the problem of addiction and substance abuse prevention is a battle on an entirely other front, nutritionists have been faced with different stage of this issue: recovery.

More and more, doctors and scientists are finding the beneficial effects of introducing proper nutrition as a component in the treatment of addiction.  For the fortunate addict or alcoholic who makes it out of the throws of this affliction, access to an educated nutrition professional may prove to be invaluable in their road to recovery.

When someone has been repeatedly exposing their body to excessive toxins, naturally a period of healing often follows, that can sometimes take up to 2 years. Cessation and recovery from addiction involves many bodily upsets, including changes in metabolism, organ function and mental health. Addiction and alcoholism have also been shown to result in hypoglycemia with surprising prevalence.

Picture in your mind an active alcoholic or drug addict. Most of us think of someone who is emaciated and quite unhealthy-looking. The  stages of this illness range in severity, but most of the folks addicted to substances don’t put their nutrition at the top of their list of priorities. Many patients checking into rehab centers have gone months or years without proper nutritional health, and are quite out of touch with the most optimal fuels to be feeding their bodies.

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Many treatment centers for addiction are now incorporating a nutritional facet to their programs, some with in-house dietitians or community nutritionists to plan meal programs or work with the patients directly. It has become abundantly clear that while the “Just Say No” drug campaign did little to combat the actual use and distribution of drugs in our society, there is much to be done in the recovery front, and members of the health, scientific and mental health communities will likely all play a role, nutritionist professionals are certainly already being seen playing a vital role in the treatment of this modern epidemic.