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, many people lack 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 beliefs 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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But is it gluten-free?

The field of nutrition has not escaped the waves of popular pseudoscience; many people have read testimonials about drinking your coffee with MCT oils 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 internship, and then pass your RD exams. So in some states, anyone can legally call themselves a nutritionist. This further complicates 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 illiteracy 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 for general health issues, and a registered dietitian that you trust to go to with your nutrition concerns. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion!
  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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While the medical field is always expanding and recommendations can change, it’s important to stay informed in this age of information. Being informed and educated by reliable sources can help you from being confused about which information is real and which isn’t. Remember that any regular person with a computer can write an article and make it seem trustworthy, so don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

 

 

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Tomatoes and the Adventures of Congressional Vegetable Rulings

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What’s in a Name?

What is a vegetable, really? While the true meaning of the word has been argued for some time now, and culinary professionals define their foods a little differently than botanists or even customs officials, we all know the tomato has long been a candidate up for semantic debate.

 In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a customs case that the tomato is considered a vegetable, despite the knowledgeable conclusion of numerous botanists that a tomato (as well as corn, cucumber and bell pepper) is actually a fruit. This all stems (get it?!)  from the scientific taxonomy of biological classification, but my point is that it has definitively been decided by the USDA how many servings of vegetables Americans should be getting a day, and what these vegetables are is also, apparently, up the United States Government. 

But First, a Little History

The National School Lunch Program was signed by President Truman and established in 1946. The program came into effect because it became evident that malnourished children grew up to be very poor soldiers; this federally imposed meal program was imposed as a “matter of national security”.

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In 1966 the program went even further by passing the Child Nutrition Act to provide breakfast, milk, and special equipment for the school kitchens. The success experienced as a result of the National School Lunch Program inspired officials as they began to recognize the role of proper nutrition for brain development in our nations’s children.

However, this crusade seemed to lose momentum in the early 1980’s when the Federal School Lunch Program withstood a staggering  budget cut of 25%. This led to a number of decreases in quality and quantity, including substitutions and portion reductions. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service under the Reagan Administration actually encouraged states to explore such audacious options such as pickle relish as vegetable substitutions. Not surprisingly, this campaign, and Reagan himself were publicly smeared with the critique that condiments are not vegetables.

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So… Can Pizza Actually Be a Vegetable?

This brings me to more current regulations. Many people probably remember the public outrage in 2011 when the agricultural spending bill passed that failed to honor the attempts to enhance the nutritional content of school lunches.  The proposed changes included several things like limiting sodium and potato use on the lunch lines, and not counting 1/8th of a cup of tomato paste as a 1/2 a cup of vegetables. In other words, in order to get their full cup of veggies, kids will have to consume however much cheese and bread comes along with that tomato paste in the sauce. This lead to slew of headlines claiming that “Congress Declared Pizza a Vegetable”. 

Perhaps unfortunately for the general public, policies that are made in the name of nutrition are not always done so solely with the objective consideration and input of trained professionals. Things like cost and subsidies come into account when making these decisions, too. Dairy, meat and salt industries have a say in how much of these things we “should” actually eat. For instance, knowledge about the dangers of excessive sodium consumption have been abound for 30 or more years, but it’s been difficult to get the reduction many health professionals have been asking for, as salt is an efficient and cost-effective way to make food taste good, so the salt industry actually has a powerful sway. 

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Back to the Tomato and Our School Lunches

Fresh fruits and veggies are pretty easily recognized by most anyone over the age of 4. However, some regulations and public policies make it a little more ambiguous as to how to count your servings. In light of these facts, the position of public policy for someone passionately interested in good food seems daunting and disheartening.

While there are community nutrition positions in government, it seems that fierce politicians rarely graduate from the nation’s dietetics and nutrition programs to go on a fight for nutritional legislature. Many big industries and companies seek out professionals who will lobby for their product, without giving an objective look at the nutritional value of their goods. However, without the nutritional advocacy of educated, unbiased professionals, our children would be very much at the mercy of budget cuts and the food industries, who quite frankly, don’t always have the nutritional content of our school lunches in mind. Without them, the future’s children may be scraping their “vegetables” from the inside of a salty can…

My gratitude goes out to those who fight for our nutritional standards, with our most healthy best interests at heart.