Understanding Nutrition: Why it is Difficult
I have likely learned about nutrition the same way most people did. I’m sure I had a few health classes in primary school. I vaguely remember one in middle school, and of all of the topics I learned in biology when I was in high school, I’m sure we touched on health in some capacity.
I am also an internet user, meaning I have been bombarded by all of the “dietary knowledge” available that may or may not be accurate. I have even had the pleasure to be in the presence of individuals who seem to make a hobby out of judging other people’s food choices.
This post is an overview my opinion on why learning and understanding nutrition can be a challenge.
What I know about Nutrition
First, I thought it would be a good idea to sum up what I have learned about healthy eating and diets from all of these sources over the years. I’m already looking forward to coming back to this post later on once I’ve gotten further into my degree.
Let’s start with the basics:
- There are simple and complex carbs (also called refined and whole I believe).
- Refined carbs are not the good kind of carbs because they don’t give anything nutritionally, mostly just a sugar spike.
- Complex carbs are good because they take longer to break down.
- Carbs are not just bread and pasta.
- Eating larger amounts of vegetables are fine, but breads and pasta should be in smaller portions.
Foods I think of as examples:
- Good carbs: wheat bread and vegetables.
- Bad carbs: sugary things like candy or juices in large quantities.
- There is saturated fat. This is the bad fat.
- There is also unsaturated fat. I guess it’s not as bad but I would be lying if I said I understood it in depth. There is a blurry image of the way fats bond in the recesses of my mind from a high school biology class.
- Healthy fat exists.
- Fats are dense in calories, so I should eat smaller amounts.
- Fat is necessary for the body.
Foods I think of as examples:
Good fat: avocado, salmon, olive oil and nuts.
Bad fat: soda, fried foods, candy and other processed foods.
- There is lean and non-lean protein.
- The body can only handle so much lean protein. Fun fact: here is a form of malnutrition called “rabbit starvation” that comes from having no other nutrients than lean protein (I can’t remember why I know that).
Foods I think of as examples:
Meat, poultry, nuts, eggs, and lentils.
- Eat something from each category and focus on protein and fat first, then carbs.
- Food groups shouldn’t be excluded even though a lot of fad diets and fad lifestyles claim it’s ok.
- Moderation is important.
After 28 years of eating daily, this is the sum of my knowledge and I wouldn’t put it any higher than a surface-level understanding. As for applying this knowledge, I try to balance my eating, have the right nutrients in a day, but there is still a lot of guessing. And a lot of people probably feel the same way.
Why is it so hard to understand nutrition?
I actually saw a post on Instagram the other day myth-busting the idea that people need to cut fat out of their diets.This got me thinking about why people are resistant to fat in their diet and I think it is because whenever one thinks of fat, it’s commonly associated with saturated fat and images of fried chicken, soda, and other processed food pop up. I certainly make that immediate association.
But we know that there are healthy fats, so why don’t people just “get it”? Probably for the same reason that we can know something but struggle to apply it. There are quite a number of factors that haven’t made it easy for people to just “eat healthy” and understand it.
Looking back through history, we are now in an era where people have the security, the resources and the knowledge to understand their dietary needs as individuals. People have historically eaten what was available based on their geographical location.
The concept of being “healthy” has evolved from being free of serious illnesses and injuries over the course of one’s life to the day-to-day choices they make. Working out and eating healthy hadn’t been conscious acts in most people’s lives until quite recently in history. Sure sports have been around for awhile, but for how many years have people been planning that workout before work unless they were an athlete?
It isn’t that people have wanted to be unhealthy, but we now have the luxury of having the security and stability globally, especially in developed countries, to prioritize our health and diets.
Healthy diets don’t seem to rank high on the priority list if you look at the education system in some countries. As an American who went through public school, I wouldn’t claim we have a robust curriculum on the topic of health. Health is a complex topic and is taught between PE class, health classes (if any) and biology. If I remember correctly, most of the explicit content on food was covered when I was in primary and middle school.
Students learn about the food pyramid and why we need fruits and vegetables, but knowledge can be difficult to absorb if there is no application and the information isn’t adapted to the environment someone lives in. Dietary knowledge students gain is not always reinforced by their environment.
Healthy eating is more than just avoiding “bad foods”, it’s about learning to eat in moderation, what moderation means, appropriate protein/carb/fat intake, and distinguishing between what we associate as healthy and what actually is healthy. The example I always think of is yogurt. Yogurt is deemed healthy, but that’s not true when a single-serve container is packed with 9 grams of sugar.
Developing healthy eating habits are a burden that parents generally need to bear and that is a huge responsibility for just one or two people to handle when the food industry, education, and the economy haven’t supported this effort.
If presented the choice to feed a child sugary cereals for breakfast knowing that it would give a child diabetes, I doubt any parent would make that choice. But we have years upon years of experience seeing people eat what is now considered an unhealthy diet and being “just fine”. Health problems that came from poor diets aren’t usually seen until someone is much older. So the generations that came before us experience those issues, and as the current generation, we have the luxury of seeing this occur in time for us to make adjustments. If as 20-30 year olds, we can be educated about healthy diets, that benefits us as well as any children we may have. Eventually, that will spark change on a larger scale as social habits take time to shift.
Education isn’t the only issue that needs be addressed.The current economy supports confusion around nutrition because it encourages consumerism and consumerism is what our modern economy is based on. Awhile ago I read an article that detailed how there is money to be made in confusion and there was a lot of truth in it. Health has become a profitable industry and many are riding the wave.
Personally, I believe cooperations and people profiting from this confusion is not moral, but it is a reality of the way our economy is set up. That being said, I also don’t think that it’s only the wrong people benefiting from this confusion. Sure all the fad diets, supplements, and 30 day subscription plans make money off of people who are confused and looking for something that “works”, but so do gyms, health professionals, and local farming.
Where there is a market, there is a product or service to be made.
Social media gives a platform to just about anyone. If you have a phone or a computer, access to the internet, you have a voice. This is important in our society because it gives individuals more presence instead of all information coming from large corporations, the mainstream media and government institutions. Social media is also a way for people to connect with others in ways they may not be able to in their community.
But, social media giving everyone a voice means a lot of people are getting loud metaphorically. There is a lot of misinformation, misrepresentation of information or self-serving ideas that go around social media in relation to diets and health. And the idea of “it works for me, it should work for you” is also out there.
The great battle over the carbs is the first thing that comes to mind. Carbs are good, carbs are bad; there are so many personal accounts for each side that be cited as “evidence”, so how can someone really know what to think?
There is an overwhelming about of information on diets online and on social media that it makes most people distrustful of any information they hear about nutrition in my opinion. And when in doubt, most people default to what worked for them before because they got this far doing that.
There is a lot of barriers to overcome to realistically expect people to understand nutrition in our current society. A person’s knowledge comes from their education, their upbringing and the economy has found a way to capitalize on the shift in priorities people are experiencing now. I anticipate that nutrition will likely continue to be a topic of confusion for some time and the burden to sift through this confusion is unfortunately on the individual.