When it comes to nutrition, people can become emotionally invested in what they believe to be true, whether it's that gluten is terrible or that dairy isn't fit for human consumption. It can be a touchy subject, especially if changes in diet have coincided with improved energy levels, weight loss, or decreased digestive symptoms. And when someone becomes passionate about changes in their own nutrition, they often don't hesitate to spread the message. When nutrition celebrities such as the Food Babe, sans credentials, plant pseudosience-filled information into people's brains, and confirm it over and over again using sciencey jargin, it can easily become nutritional gospel for many.
Yesterday's Gawker.com featured a post written by Yvette d'Entremont, an analytical chemist with a background in forensic science and toxicology, about Vani Hari (AKA The Food Babe), and it has gone wildly viral. D'Entremont revealed the fact that Vani is, in fact, not the health and nutrition "expert" she claims to be, and that she has used her massive social media platform to spread pseudoscience-filled messages about the harmful effects of the toxins in our food supply (and our environment) to millions of her loyal followers.
Although Vani is not the only "expert" to spread misleading and - in most cases completely false - messages about food, she has more power than most because she's managed to build an entire empire and gain hundreds of thousands (if not more) loyal followers (the "Food Babe Army") who have joined in her crusade against the food industry. She has even written a best-selling book called "The Food Babe Way" wherein she coaches on how to "break free from the hidden toxins in your food."
As d'Entremont explains in her Gawker post, Hari's Superhero status stemmed from a personal health experience (which it often does with self-proclaimed "experts") where she experienced appendicitis, but wasn't happy with the explanation that "appendicitis just happens sometimes." "So she quit her job as a consultant, attended Google University and transformed herself into an uncredentialed expert in everything she admittedly can't pronounce. Slap the catchy moniker "Food Babe" on top, throw in a couple of trend stories and some appearances on the Dr. Oz show, and we have the new organic media darling", D'Entremont writes.
As a Registered Dietitian, I've found that it can be nearly impossible to change someone's opinions on diet and nutrition, even with ample scientific evidence to prove otherwise, because they become passionate about what they know to be true. Although science is ever-changing and we don't know everything (and probably never will), we still know a lot, and basing your food choices on claims made by Food Babe (or insert any uncredentialled "expert" who spreads nutrition quackery) is not your best bet.
But there are actual nutrition experts who make it a priority to stay on top of scientific literature and provide evidence-based advice and messages. As a Registered Dietitian, I took a four-year bachelors degree in human nutrition and food science, and then a year-long dietetic internship, and then a national exam to obtain my RD license. As a Dietitian, I'm accountable to my provincial regulatory body for professional conduct and am required to stay committed to an ethical practice. Registered Dietitians are a trusted source of nutrition information, but there are other nutrition experts who can also be trusted, such as Medical Doctors with a background in nutrition, or people with University degrees in nutrition and food science. On the other hand, having a science degree, or even having multiple letters behind a name, doesn't necessarily qualify someone as a "nutrition expert" or trusted source of nutritional information.
Four red flags to watch for when reading about nutrition or receiving advice from an "expert" are:
Be wary of credentials such as "Nutritionist," "Nutrition Coach," "Holistic Nutritionist," or the like. Although there are many Nutritionists out there who are well-educated and qualified to give sound nutrition advice, "Nutritionist" it's not a regulated term. In other words, anyone can claim the label. Dig deeper to find out what their background is, where they studied and whether or not they have post-secondary education in the field of nutritional sciences. Regulated terms for qualified nutrition professionals in Canada are "Registered Dietitian," "Registered Dietitian Nutritionist," "Dietitian," or "Professional Dietitian" which are all protected by law. Look for the letters R.D., RDN., P.Dt. or D.Pt. after their name, indicating that the person is a registered member of the dietetic profession.
This tends to be the case when special supplements, detoxes or cleanses are are part of a regime. There are no miracle cures, and no quick-fix diets that work sustainably over the long term. A change in lifestyle takes time, a degree of commitment, and needs to be realistic for the individual in order to be sustainable and long-lasting.
Just because one study claims saturated fat isn't as bad as we once thought, it doesn't mean that we can gorge on fast food and dowse everything in butter. The media tends to create a frenzy around studies like this and people translate research findings into new diet mantras. It's best to take glorified claims and "new findings" with a grain of salt, learn how to read and understand research (here's a great post on how to do this) before giving your diet an over-haul based on just one study.
People crave definitive direction when it comes to eating. They want to know which foods are "good" (to fill up on), and which ones are "bad" (to avoid) and want a specific plan of action. That's why diets that eliminate complete foods groups like the Paleo Diet or the Gluten-free Diet are appealing. Unless you have a diagnosed allergy, intolerance or condition (such as a dairy allergy or Celiac Disease), there is no reason to eliminate an entire food group or avoid certain foods at all costs. In reality, there are no "good" or "bad" foods. There are "healthy" and "not-so-healthy" foods, but what matters is what you consume overall during an entire day or week. Restrictive diets may work short-term, but very rarely work long-term and can make it even harder to achieve sustainable weight loss results in the future.
For evidence-based nutrition information and resources (and where to find a Registered Dietitian in your area), check out the Dietitians of Canada website as well as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (US).
Feel free to check out my Facebook page, where I post daily nutrition tips, resources and recipes for parents and kids.