Alternative Medicine: Nutrition trends are not your friends (part three in a series)

Nutrition trends can be just as frustrating as they are fun. Try to ignore them.

click to enlarge Grocery shopping - Airman 1st Class Ryan Conroy, via U.S. Air Force photos
Airman 1st Class Ryan Conroy, via U.S. Air Force photos
Grocery shopping

This is part three in a series; read part two and part one.

It’s hard to filter the trendy from the tried-and-true. We all know we should eat more vegetables, but we’re secretly hoping there’s an easier and tastier way to eat healthy and lose weight. Like giving up bread so we can eat more bacon... or substituting coconut oil for butter. Unfortunately, it’s never that easy.

click to enlarge This is so not what I remember the food pyramid looking like, but one can dream, right? - Jena Fuller, via Flickr
Jena Fuller, via Flickr
This is so not what I remember the food pyramid looking like, but one can dream, right?

In the past, Americans have gotten most of their nutrition advice from their parents, elementary school teachers and the USDA. Remember the “historical” food pyramid created by the USDA in 1992? Now we’re in the age of MyPlate, where half your plate consists of fruits and vegetables, and the other half is a combination of protein and grains. This is what I would call conventional nutrition advice.

While the USDA has been doling out nutrition advice since 1894, it’s not as common for doctors to do so. When I asked Dr. Edward Leonard, CEO of Tampa-based Florida Wellness Medical Group, which of his practices might be considered alternative, he answers, "Nutrition."

“Sadly, it is alternative, when we advise patients on it," he says. "That is something that is not in mainstream health care.”

In the absence of good nutrition advice, people are more susceptible to the ebb and flow of nutrition trends. If you get on that roller coaster, you’ll be eating all grapefruit one week and cabbage soup the next.

“Now we’re in the coconut oil phase,” says Dr. Margaret Amanti, a local family practice physician, “which is just full of fat. I mean, coconut’s got a lot of protein, but let’s not go crazy people.”

Is coconut oil even good for you? The scientific community appears divided on the issue. First of all, coconut oil is high in saturated fat. In case you forgot, that’s the bad fat thought to raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and increase your risk of a heart attack. That’s why the American Heart Association recommends against it. However, coconut oil also contains medium-chain triglycerides, known to help people lose weight. A 2016 review of 21 coconut oil studies cites poor evidence and methodological flaws on both sides of the debate. In other words, there is no convincing evidence that coconut oil is either good for you or bad for you.

The problem is that nutrition studies are notoriously difficult to conduct, so it takes a really long time to figure out if something is good for people or not. Let’s say you want to determine the long-term effects of the cabbage soup diet. First you’ll need to enlist some volunteers. You’ll need to find 1,000 people that are willing to eat only cabbage soup for the next 20 years. Good luck.

It’s no wonder we’re still debating the merits of including coconut oil in our diet. Based on what we know thus far, maybe it’s better than butter, but not as good as olive oil, but again, who really knows?

In the next installment of Alternative Medicine, we discuss how people conduct nutrition studies in the real world, and what we’ve learned from some of the best nutrition studies out there. This time we tackled the trendy. Next time we tackle the tried-and-true.

Jen Ring discovered her love of writing through the lens of a brand new camera. When she’s not taking photographs, she’s writing about taking photographs and other fun things to do in the Tampa Bay area. Check out her Photographer’s Notebook for photography tips, tricks, and pics, and subscribe to her newsletter to follow her other adventures. 

About The Author

Jennifer Ring

Jennifer studied biology for six years, planning for a career in science, but the Universe had other plans. In 2011, Jen was diagnosed with a rare lung disease that sidelined her from scientific research. Her immune system, plagued by Scleroderma, had attacked her lungs to the point of no return. She now required...
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