If I asked you, “Who do you trust?” you would probably name a friend or family member — unless the topic is nutrition. Odds are your nearest and dearest are not your most trusted sources for nutrition information, even though there’s an excellent chance that you rely on them to decide what to eat.
Maybe that’s why Americans are getting a failing grade in nutrition literacy, according to findings from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 12th annual Food and Health Survey.
We don’t consume just food, we consume information about food, and the information buffet is more loaded than ever. To varying degrees, we listen to advice from not just experienced nutrition professionals, but also from health coaches, personal trainers, social media, bloggers, television, government agencies and food companies. Is our inability to determine the best, most reliable sources of information getting in the way of the improved health we almost universally seek?
Friends and family trailed only personal health-care professionals as sources of information about what foods to eat or avoid. Yet respondents ranked friends and family as low on the trustworthiness scale (health providers rated high) for information on what foods to eat and avoid. Your immediate circle is also probably the biggest influence on your decision to follow a specific eating pattern or diet — with health-care providers and registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) lagging behind.
Confused about nutrition? You’re not alone. Roughly 8 in 10 respondents of the IFIC survey feel that there’s a lot of conflicting advice about what foods they should eat or not eat, and many find that this conflicting information makes them doubt their food choices. That doubt is likely magnified when we turn to our besties and Aunt Betties, who are just as confused as we are when they pass along information that they “read somewhere.”
A potential beacon of hope is the finding that scientific studies ranked high as a source of trustworthy information, especially among millennials (ages 18-34). Along those lines, respondents also put a fair amount of trust in news articles and headlines, which often report on new scientific studies. The trouble is, isolated research studies don’t tell the full story, and many articles — and almost zero headlines — provide the context of the overall body of research on a nutrition or health topic.
So where does this leave us? We want our food to help us be healthier, but we can’t quite get to a place where we feel confident about connecting the dots between desired health benefits and the foods that can actually help us achieve them. The benefits we yearn for most are weight management, cardiovascular health, increased energy and digestive health, but fewer than half of respondents could name a single food or nutrient that would help them reach those goals. (Hint: non-starchy vegetables, omega-3s from fatty fish, caffeine and yogurt.)
Survey respondents even had trouble determining what “healthful” means. For example, when provided with identical nutrition information for two products, respondents deemed higher price, brand name, a short ingredient list and place of purchase (natural foods store vs. a convenience store) as measures of healthfulness. They also felt that fresh food products are more healthful than their frozen or canned counterparts, and said that bagged baby carrots are more processed than organic bagged baby carrots. Trouble is, none of these characteristics is inherently associated with better nutrition and better health. For example, frozen or canned vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh — or even more nutritious if that fresh produce has traveled the globe and spent time in storage before becoming sad and limp in a fridge.
Eating healthfully doesn’t have to be hard. Eat more vegetables (of all sorts). Cook at home more. Choose foods that are in their original or less-refined states. When you choose to enjoy sugar, eat it, don’t drink it. Be careful with nutrition “hearsay,” especially if it involves a “secret” or dramatic revelation that “changes everything we thought we knew.” Nutrition science does evolve, but it doesn’t turn on a dime. Oh, and if you have a health issue that may be related to nutrition, see a doctor or dietitian.
More findings from the survey:
• Weight loss is the most desired health benefit from ages 18 to 49, but preventing cardiovascular disease becomes more important after age 50.
• Opinions about added sugars and artificial sweeteners have grown more polarized over the past year, with many people choosing one to specifically avoid the other. Friends and family are a big influence on this topic.
•Almost 3 in 4 respondents seek non-GMO labels because they believe these foods are more healthful, safer or better for the environment.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.