April 16--Why is it so hard to figure out how to eat?
Scientists confuse us with conflicting studies. Dietitians mystify us with
complicated language. Nutritionists bore us with dull choices. We're flooded
with fads and bombarded with mixed messages.
No wonder we struggle to make the right choices.
"It's our responsibility to make our message easy to understand or people are
going to give up," admits Elisabetta Politi at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.
For Practically Nutritious, a series of stories this year on healthful eating,
we started by thinking about why so many of us struggle. We know what we're
supposed to do, but we often ignore the information or reject it completely.
"The way we convey nutrition information is so convoluted," says Nancy
Fey-Yensan, the dean of the College of Health and Human Services at UNC
Charlotte. "People become paralyzed and they do nothing."
Before moving to Charlotte last year, she had lived in Rhode Island for years.
And she had started to dread running into clients in the grocery store.
"I would see people going 'Oh, my God' when they'd see me in the store," she
says, laughing. "When people dodge you in the grocery store, it's embarrassing."
Part of the problem, she says, is that nutrition experts try so hard to
communicate their message, they overload us with information.
"We feel the need to give people the whole nine yards," she says. "A lot of
nice-to-know information and not so much need-to-know. We need to change
behavior, and we need to give enough background for people to understand why
they need to do that. But some of it may not be necessary."
One reason we get confused, of course, is that nutrition news is always
changing. It's like the movie "Sleeper," when Woody Allen's character wakes up
years in the future and discovers that steak has become a health food.
That's how science works: Something as complicated as a human body takes a lot
of time to figure out.
"Nutrition is a moving target," says Fey-Yensan. "It's a very, very young part
of medicine." It really hasn't been long, just since around World War II, when
we started to understand what vitamins do, she says. Now we're into completely
new territory with plant chemicals.
We also need to stop expecting to get one-size-fits-all answers.
Jared Koch, author of "The Clean Plates Cookbook," is a health coach in New York
City. His favorite phrase: Bioindividuality. It simply means that the diet that
makes you feel great may not do it for someone else. We're all different.
"People are so confused," he says. "There's so much conflicting information. And
there's the idea that you have to meet this ideal diet. You really just need to
make progress. Small steps. What can you do to make progress? Start with that."
In her position with Duke University, Politi works with a lot of future doctors.
And they often come to her with no understanding of basics like the difference
between a carbohydrate and a calorie.
"It really boils down to more education in schools," she says. "If we learned
more basic nutrition, if we left schools knowing what healthy eating is like, it
would be easier for everyone."
Fey-Yensan challenges her nutrition students to pay attention to their messages
and how they convey them.
"I'm a practical person," she says. "What I've always said to my students is,
the true test of academic brilliance is the ability to frame something very
complicated in terms that the average person can get."
So what's the best lesson on nutrition? It's the one that makes it simple -- and
lets you enjoy what you eat. Stop worrying so much about what you shouldn't eat
and embrace what you should.
"It's ultimately about how you enjoy your relationship with food," says Koch.
"The perfect relationship is enjoying what you eat and knowing that it's good
for your body."
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