Dutch researchers found that oversimplified or conflicting studies only serve to cause confusion.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 21, 2017
nutritional science
Credit: vgajic / Getty Images

Eating healthy is confusing. Just last month, we ran an article with that headline after reviewing the findings in the 12th annual International Food Information Council’s 2017 Food and Health Survey. That report contained a lot of eye-opening numbers: Over half of those surveyed said they doubt their choices about what to eat, in part because 78 percent of respondents said they encounter a lot of conflicting information. Now, even those involved in the field of nutrition science are admitting there’s a problem. In an editorial published this month in the European Journal of Nutrition, a 14-person a Dutch collective of nutritionists, medical doctors, philosophers and sociologists of science write that “nutrition science appears to be in crisis and is currently confronted with a public reluctance to trust nutritional insights.”

The collective admits that the lack of trust in the science isn’t limited to their discipline. They write that “deflating trust is a general phenomenon surrounding the scientific community” – think of issues like climate change, vaccinations or even whether or not the Earth is flat – however, the lack of trust in their field “is particularly strong because of the crucial role of nutrition in everyone’s daily life.” Everyone makes choices on what to eat and drink every day whether they want to or not. The group suggests two major problems. First, the information provided “does not match the major societal challenges of the twenty-first century.” But second, when this information is absorbed by the public, it often already lacks credibility because too much of that information is “often oversimplified statements about what is or is not healthy.” And even when these claims are later debunked, they still result “in confusion among lay persons about what they can and cannot ‘believe.’”

All of this leads to what the editorial considers a “vicious circle.” Nutrition scientists don’t feel like they’re engaging the public, so they look for easily digestible answers, which then get oversimplified and debunked, which instills doubt in the public, which, in turn, leads to people not being engaged with nutrition science. So how do they suggest we break the circle? Counterintuitively enough, these scientists believe the best way to engage the public is actually to act less scientific, getting away from the rigidity of most studies and working more within the confines of real life. “We propose to focus on real eating practices, explicate health values of participants, and engage participants in articulating their values as well as common health outcomes,” the authors’ write. “Capability and credibility, drawn from the pursuit of reciprocity, inclusiveness and a humble rhetoric in research practice and research translation alike will allow us to tell compelling narratives about how nutrition science helps to gain a better understanding of the interaction of dietary habits, foods, quality of life, and health.”

To put it in even less scientific language, another stat from the IFIC’s Food and Health Survey showed that friends and family were the number one source consumers turned to for nutritional information. If nutrition scientists want to reach more people, maybe they'll spend less time acting like scientists and more time acting like your friend.