How to cut through the chaos of dietary advice

Published on Feb 12, 2016

Confusion abounds on the nutrition front. It’s no wonder when you consider that reputable scientists appear to be at opposite ends of dietary strategies. Vegans and vegetarians extol the health benefits and virtues of eschewing meat while paleo followers shun grains and fill their plates with meat. If the experts can’t agree, how is an individual supposed to sort the science from the science fiction?

The nutritional landscape is rife with advice and suggestions from people with dubious qualifications. Every week a new study slams one food or hoists another on a pedestal. Oldways, a Boston-based non-profit food and nutrition education organization, sought to correct this by bringing together scientists and experts in a two-day conference.

How did we get to this state of nutritional chaos? For one, many people, especially the boomers, are seeking the fountain of youth. Combined with lax regulations for supplements, there’s now a free-for-all in terms of dietary claims (many of which don't stand up to scrutiny).

Sensational reporting by the media adds to the confusion. Whenever a single study comes out that differs from the bounty of evidence, it makes headlines - even if it’s a poorly designed investigation.

Past errors in judgement by the authorities in telling the public what to eat have also contributed to the mayhem. For example, when the consensus for blood cholesterol management was to eat less saturated fat, nutrition experts thought the public wouldn't understand the concept so the recommendation became "eat less fat." Now they've had to eat their words because we know that including healthy fats is key and that not all saturated fats are equal in their effects on cholesterol.

Then there’s the rise of amateur nutritionists — individuals with little science background but with a tremendous following, partially due to their reputation of going against the grain.

It was in this environment of dietary discord that Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, held Finding Common Ground.  

“To get at the heart of what is a healthy and sustainable way of eating, we’ve brought together the experts and asked them to listen to one another, talk to one another and find common ground,” Baer-Sinnott says.

Oldways invited the world’s top nutrition scientists to meet in November to find areas of agreement, despite their divergent philosophies. This team of 21 nutrition scientists debated each other with firm convictions. Dr. Neal Barnard, president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, T. Colin Campbell, PhD, the author of The China Study, and Dr. Dean Ornish, of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, were among those presenting data supporting vegetarian and vegan diets. At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. S. Boyd Eaton, of Emory University and the founder of the paleo diet movement, defended the caveman diet that continues to gather followers. Dr. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto, the co-creator of the glycemic index (a tool used globally for healthy eating), as well as top experts on the Mediterranean diet and a group of Harvard researchers also participated.

The scientific co-chairs — Dr. Walter Willett, nutrition chair of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center — guided the group in a two-day debate evaluating a variety of issues including scientific studies and comparing diets to work towards a consensus.

The meeting to draw up a consensus did not start on a good note: during the first 45 minutes the scientists could not even agree on the definition of a vegetable. For example, potatoes were a point of contention — too often they’re eaten as french fries instead of their potassium-rich natural state. Instead the scientists turned to areas where they did find common ground – the components of a healthy diet: abundant fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes and minimal amounts of refined starch, sugar and red meat, especially keeping processed meat intake low. The need for consumers to move away from processed foods with long lists of additives was another shared goal.

While these declarations may seem less than momentous, they mark a newfound consensus. For vegetarian advocates to agree that if individuals so desire, they can choose to eat minimal amounts of meat while Paleo followers can incorporate both whole grains and legumes is a huge step – one that might help to dispel the confusion that arises from dietary fads.

The 11-point Oldways Common Ground Consensus Statement on Healthy Eating certainly provides a solid foundation for nutrition recommendations across the board. It represents the sum of research and thinking about dietary decisions — not just the headline from the latest study.

Here are some key highlights from the agreement:

  • One diet does not fit all, allowing for individual dietary preferences and cultural traditions; it’s not necessary to eliminate food groups for a healthy diet.
  • The participants agreed that knowledge of and respect for the cultural context of food—health through heritage—could be a powerful motivator for better eating.
  • They point out inattention to “sustainability is willful disregard for the quality and quantity of food available to the next generation, our own children.”
  • Good food should be beneficial to both human and planetary health and be delicious at the same time.
  • Responsible reporting by both scientists and the media is essential to good health.
  • Widespread food literacy— understanding the origins of food, the conditions under which it is produced, and its impact on health—is important.
  • When recommendations for dietary changes are made, the scientists strongly endorse the general principle of specifying practical dietary substitutions – a “compared to what” approach — rather than blanket removal of foods.  

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide. She was a signatory to the Common Ground Consensus Statement.

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