Why it matters for journalists

Nutrition is one of the most important and well-read topics in health and lifestyle media, and quality reporting in this area is of enormous importance both to inform individual food choices as well as broader public policy. Misreporting of nutritional facts makes it harder for readers to make good decisions about what to eat, while also rendering ineffective the nutritional guidance which is being provided by credible public institutions around the world. Journalists can play a valuable role in the fight against obesity and malnutrition epidemics by accurately reporting nutrition facts.

Who are the experts?

There is no shortage of nutritional experts offering guidance to the general public. Unfortunately, not all of this advice is backed up by scientific evidence, and false dietary or nutritional claims can lead to widespread confusion among the general public.
One recurring problem in this area is the uncertainty that exists about who the relevant experts are in this area: and in particular, the confusion which exists about the difference between dietitians and nutritionists.

Dietitians are qualified professionals who have studied nutrition at accredited universities. This profession is generally regulated by law, and those who have completed their qualifications and become registered are employed in a range of settings throughout the healthcare system and further afield.

Nutritionists, like dietitians, focus on issues to do with food and nutrition. However, this profession is not regulated in the same way. While legislation varies from country to country, the lack of clear legal guidelines about how academic qualifications and how practitioners operate represents a clear difference between nutritionists and dietitians: this difference should be borne in mind when assessing nutritional guidance from members of each profession.

Food myths in the media

Given how topical the issue of nutrition is, it is not surprising that stories about the impressive benefits – or serious dangers – associated with certain foods frequently appear in the mass media. Often, such stories are marked by extreme hyperbole, as demonstrated by many stories in the British media:

‘Can turmeric really cure cancer,’ The Independent, January 8th, 2018

Yes bacon is really killing us,’ The Guardian, March 1st, 2018

Eat lots of onions, leeks and garlic to slash your chance of getting deadly bowel cancer, doctors say,’ The Daily Mail, February 21st, 2019

With so many members of the public seeking nutritional advice, the publication of exaggerated or tenuously linked facts, stories based on half-truths and the propagation of outright myths, in print, online and amplified on social media, has made it even harder for consumers to decide which foods they should consume and which they need to avoid.

This ongoing problem is part of the reason why articles aimed at exposing food myths often appear in the media. In July 2018, for example, Business Insider published an article entitled ’29 common claims about bogus ‘facts’ about food that are false or very misleading.’ In it, the author provided a wide range of examples of health claims about food which are routinely made in media, but which are either false or the products of serious exaggeration, including:

  • The claim that coffee stunts growth.
  • The widely-held perception that organic agriculture does not involve the use of any pesticides.
  • The claim that sugar consumption causes ADHD in children.
  • The belief that natural sugar like honey is better for people than processed sugar.

Some of the world’s leading health bodies have also taken time to attempt to debunk untrue claims about food and nutrition. For example, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) published a short report entitled ‘Miracle foods: myths and the media’ in response to  certain food studies in the media,

One of the key problems which the authors of this NHS report identified was the fact that media reports in the UK had, at different times in the recent past, identified a large number of products as being both beneficial and detrimental to human health. Products which fell into this category included eggs, bacon, tea, caffeine and fish oils.

Clearly, not all of these reports could be fully accurate, and there a number of pitfalls that journalists should be aware of when reporting food research:

  1. Confounding factors: something other than the main factor being examined (the regular consumption of bacon, for instance) could be responsible for the effects which people are found to experience, be they positive or negative.
  2. Inaccurate memories: many studies rely on the information that people can recall about what they have been eating or drinking. However, these memories are often inaccurate.
  3. Animal and laboratory studies: often, research about the effects of food consumption is based on testing of animals, not people.
  4. Funding and independence: food studies are often funded by groups which have specific agendas.

The related issue of ‘superfoods’ was also discussed in this report. This term frequently appears in media coverage of foods that are said to have particularly beneficial effects on those who consume them. However, there is no official definition of what a ‘superfood’ is, and the EU has actually banned the use of the word on product packaging unless such a claim can be backed up by convincing research.

What do people need to consume in order to have a nutritious diet?

In order to ensure proper nutrition, dietitians, medical experts and respected food authorities provide guidance to the general public about what types of food they should choose, and in what quantities they should consume it. Good general guidelines are to consume the right amount of calories for your level of activity (on average, men are recommended to consume around 2,500 calories per day, while the recommendation for women is 2,000 calories per day) and to eat a wide range of foods.

Conventional guidelines recommend that range of foods should contain lots of starchy carbohydrates (such as potatoes, bread, pasta and cereals), plenty of fruit and vegetables, some dairy or dairy alternatives as well as a sufficient quantity of meat, fish, eggs, beans and other protein-rich foods. Foods which are high in sugar, fat or salt should be consumed less often and in small amounts.

That said, conventional guidelines are continuously challenged with new research and get updated – for example in 2015 the FDA removed the assertion that dietary cholesterol was a cause of cardiovascular disease. So it may well be worth checking debates on conventional wisdom if you have the time and resources.

What is malnutrition?

Having a nutritious diet is one of the most important steps in maintaining good health and physical fitness at any stage of life. Malnutrition exists when a person is not consuming a sufficient amount of the nutrients needed to maintain good health.

Across large swathes of the world, serious poverty and the resulting shortage of food means that a large segment of the population is malnourished. However, even in societies where the vast majority of the population has enough food to eat, many people fail to consume a sufficiently nutritious diet.

Some of the most serious consequences of malnutrition are:

  • Growth issues and diminished IQ among children
  • Weight loss
  • Weakened immune systems and sometimes death
  • Muscle weakness and decreased bone mass
  • Decreased mobility and stamina
  • Greater susceptibility to a range of illnesses
  • Fertility problems

Specific nutrition deficiencies

All vitamins and minerals contain their own particular nutritional benefits, without which the human body would become nutritionally deficient in certain areas. Some well-known vitamins and minerals are listed below, along with a description of some of the adverse consequences of consuming an inadequate quantity of this vitamin or mineral:

 

Vitamin A – Vitamin A deficiency can lead to poorer eyesight.

Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) – Without enough thiamine, people can suffer from a loss of appetite and fatigue.

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) – Cracks and sores at the corner of mouths and lips are just one of the consequences of not consuming enough riboflavin.

Vitamin B3 (Niacin) – Symptoms of severe niacin deficiency include vomiting and diarrhoea.

Vitamin B9 (Folic acid) – Folic acid is a vitamin that helps the body to produce red blood cells. An adequate supply of folic acid is especially vital during pregnancy.

Vitamin B12 –  Vitamin B12 is needed by all cells in the body in order to allow them to multiply, and this can lead to anaemia. Common symptoms of that condition include tiredness, shortness of breath and palpitations.

Vitamin C – An insufficient intake of this vitamin can lead to bruising, lethargy, dry hair and skin and a range of other problems. Severe cases of vitamin C deficiency can even lead to scurvy.

Vitamin D – Vitamin D is vital for bone health, and deficiency can result in rickets among children.

Calcium – Calcium helps to maintain healthy bones, and an inadequate supply of it can lead to problems such as rickets and osteoporosis.

Iron – Iron deficiency is associated with a large number of health problems including fatigue, weakness, brittle nails and pale skin.

Magnesium – Health problems associated with magnesium deficiency include diabetes, poor absorption, diarrhoea and hungry bone syndrome.

Zinc – Zinc deficiency can lead to growth retardation, a loss of appetite and impaired immune functions.

 

Sources on nutrition

www.who.int/topics/nutrition/en/
www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/160774.php
www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/the-facts-about-nutrition#1
www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-vitamins-minerals
www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/eight-tips-for-healthy-eating/
www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition#deficiencies
www.nursingtimes.net/malnutrition/5001811.article
www.nhs.uk/news/2011/02February/Documents/BTH_Miracle_%20foods_report.pdf

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